Red Clydeside: A history of the labour movement in Glasgow 1910-1932

Key political figures of the Red Clydeside period

Mary Barbour (1875-1958)

Michael Byers 2002 Glasgow Digital Library

Mary Barbour

Mary Barbour was born on 22 February 1875 in Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire, the third of seven children born to carpet weaver James Rough and his wife Jane Gavin. After the family moved to Elderslie in 1887, Mary began work as a thread twister, later becoming a carpet printer. In 1896 she married David Barbour from Johnstone and they settled in the burgh of Govan near Glasgow, where Mary became active in the Kinning Park Co-operative Guild, at the time the first co-operative guild in Scotland. Mary's political education continued throughout this period; she joined the Independent Labour Party and became active in the Socialist Sunday School movement. However, Mary's political activism did not begin in earnest until the Glasgow rent strike of 1915.

In early 1914, as a result of steep increases by landlords, ILP councillor Andrew McBride and Women's Labour League president Mary Laird formed the Glasgow Women's Housing Association. But it was in Govan in June 1915 that the first signs of active resistance arose, with the non-payment of rental increases by tenants, mainly housewives, and the formation of the South Govan Women's Housing Association, under the strong and imaginative leadership of Mary Barbour. As a working-class housewife, with two sons and a husband working in Fairfields shipyards in Govan, Mary was actively involved in organising tenant committees and in organising local women to drive out sheriff's officers and resist evictions.

The rent strike quickly spread to other munitions districts throughout Glasgow, in the process attracting political support from the ILP as well as widespread public support, and culminating in one of the largest demonstrations ever seen in Glasgow on 17 November 1915. Thousands of women, nicknamed 'Mrs Barbour's Army' by Willie Gallacher, accompanied by shipyard and engineering workers, converged on the sheriff's courts in the centre of Glasgow. This show of solidarity by rent striking housewives and Glasgow workers, allied to the political exploitation of the situation by the ILP, resulted in Lloyd-George's government quickly pushing through the Rent Restrictions Act of 1915. This act, at a stroke, significantly improved the legal position of working-class tenants throughout Britain in their dealings with private landlords.

Combined election address of Mary Barbour, Emanuel Shinwell and Tom Kerr, three Labour candidates for Fairfield ward, Glasgow, 1921

Mary Barbour's contribution in the 1915 rent strikes seems only to have whetted her appetite for further involvement in the municipal politics of Glasgow. In 1920 she put herself forward for election as the Labour candidate in the municipal elections for Fairfield ward in Govan. She gained 4,701 votes and was duly elected to Glasgow Town Council as their first Labour woman councillor. As Labour representative of Fairfield ward, Mary campaigned on and supported numerous issues including the introduction of municipal banks, wash-houses, laundries and baths; a pure milk supply free to schoolchildren, child welfare centres and play areas, home helps, and pensions for mothers. From 1924 until 1927 Mary served as the first woman bailie on Glasgow Corporation and was appointed one of Glasgow's first women magistrates, gaining distinction with her work on children's panels. As a supporter of birth control for married women, Mary pioneered the city's first family planning centre, the Women's Welfare and Advisory Clinic in 1925, and also chaired its first committee, raising sufficient funds to maintain its staff of women doctors and nurses.

During her career as a councillor, between 1920 and 1931, Mary worked tirelessly on behalf of her constituency, namely the working class of Fairfields in Govan. She served in eight committees covering the provision of health and welfare services for Glasgow's working classes, all the time developing her life-long commitment to women and children's welfare. After retiring from council work in 1931, Mary still continued her activities on a range of housing, welfare and co-operative committees, and in later years was also instrumental in setting up organised seaside outings for the children of poor families in Glasgow. In 1953 she was guest speaker in Glasgow at the inaugural meeting of the Scottish National Assembly of Women.

In appearance Mary was a woman of medium build with dark hair and a pleasant determined expression, conveying strength of character. She admitted to having 'high ideals' but this was allied to a practical nature and a forthright, honest approach which earned her the respect of colleagues. As one of the pioneering labour leaders on Clydeside she was held in high esteem and affection by her local community, and worked tirelessly to see many of her objectives achieved, to the benefit of countless Scots women and their families.

Mary Barbour died on 2 April 1958 aged 83, and her funeral was held at Craigton crematorium in Govan.