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Mary Barbour

Working-class political activist. Leader of the 1915 Govan Rent Strikes. Pioneering local Councillor, Bailie & Magistrate. Campaigned for better housing, healthcare, means-tested benefits & family planning clinics. Founder member of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association & Women’s Peace Crusade during WW1.

Active in

  • Govan
  • Glasgow
  • Scotland

Key Dates

  • Born 1875
  • Died 1958

Leading Women

Mary Barbour was a working-class political activist, local Councillor, Bailie and Magistrate. She is most well known for her role leading the 1915 Govan Rent Strikes, when working people protested against unfair rents.

As a local Councillor she campaigned relentlessly for better housing, healthcare, and means-tested benefits. She was one of the first women to be elected as a Councillor in Glasgow, and was also involved in some of Scotland’s first family planning clinics.

Throughout her life, she worked as part of a network of strong women activists like Helen Crawfurd, Agnes Dollan, and many others whose names and actions are yet to be recovered.

Fun Facts about Mary

  • Working-Class Political Activist
  • Leader Of The 1915 Govan Rent Strikes
  • Founding Member Of The Women’s Peace Crusade & Glasgow Women’s Housing Association
  • A Pioneering Politician In Glasgow Town Council
  • Campaigned For Better Housing, Means-Tested Benefits, Birth Control & Children’s Health Clinics

Background

She was born Mary Rough in Kilbarchan in 1875. Mary’s parents were Jean Gavin and James Rough, a carpet weaver. She was the 3rd of 7 children and she went to school until the age of 14. The family lived at New Street in Kilbarchan, then moved to Elderslie. Mary got work as a thread twister, then a carpet printer.

In 1896 she married David Barbour, an engineer, and by 1901 they were living in Govan’s MacLeod Street. It was in Govan that Mary became politically active. She joined the Kinning Park Co-operative Women’s Guild, which organised campaigns on women’s issues including health and suffrage (voting rights).

In 1915 she led the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association to prevent the eviction of tenants who couldn’t afford unfair rent increases. Their innovative protests led to a new law that prevented landlords from unfairly raising rents, and many subsidised homes were built after WW1.

During the Rent Strikes, Mary worked alongside activists Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan – and together they founded the Women’s Peace Crusade. In June 1916 they helped organise the ‘Great Women’s Peace Conference’, held in Glasgow. Through open air meetings, they campaigned for a peaceful end and negotiated settlement to WW1.

“We want a Glasgow which will be second to no city in the world for happy children and healthy citizens.”

Mary Barbour writing ‘The Woman’s View’ in the Govan Pioneer, Sept 1919

More about Mary

In 1920 Mary stood as Labour Candidate for Govan’s Fairfield Ward. She was successful, becoming one of Glasgow’s first woman councillors alongside Eleanor Stewart, Jessica Baird-Smith, Mary Bell, and Mary Snodgrass.

As Councillor she used her power to campaign for decent family housing and nutritious food – including free school milk. She spoke at council meetings and served on many council committees, like housing, cleansing & health. She also spoke at open meetings throughout Scotland, and took part in Scotland-wide groups, including one designed to reduce maternal deaths.

Her interest in the health of women and families led her to become the Chair of the Glasgow Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic – the first family planning clinic in Scotland. Founded in 1926, it formed in response to a campaign for birth control for Lanarkshire miners. At that time contraception was a way for women to protect their health, as childbearing could cause illness, death, and poverty for families.

After retiring from the Town Council and as a new grandmother, Mary continued to be politically active, chairing meetings and conferences on housing and continuing her interest in women’s health at the Glasgow Women’s Welfare and Advisory Clinic.

She died in 1958 at the Southern General Hospital (now the QEUH).

Further Reading

Mary Barbour’s Wikipedia page (which we’ve helped write).
Remember Mary Barbour – The campaign to create a lasting memorial to a great Govan hero.
The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2007.

“Now that we have political power, we are determined to use it for […] securing healthy homes for ourselves, and our children.”

Mary Barbour writing ‘The Woman’s View’ in the Govan Pioneer, Sept 1919

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We worked for over a year to develop teaching resources on Scotland’s Suffrage History, partnering with preeminent scholars to research suffragettes & suffragists who campaigned in each & every region of the country. These amazing activists are featured in these beautiful, robustly researched resources.

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