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9 November 2011

1915 - How strikes and rent strikes won gains for Scottish tenants

In this article Sinead Daly from Socialist Party Scotland shows how working class families resisted rent rises and appalling housing conditions in Glasgow nearly 100 years ago.

"It is a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike - this is a Bolshevist uprising," claimed Robert Munro, Secretary of State for Scotland in 1919. This 'situation' became known as Red Clydeside and included the powerful movement of rent strikes.

Living conditions in Glasgow were appalling with mass overcrowding of families in small flats. Thousands slept rough every night. Cholera, typhoid, smallpox and TB were rife. In 1871 almost one in five did not survive infancy. Mass industrialisation in Glasgow and Clydeside in the 19th and 20th century resulted in huge population growth. Glasgow alone grew from 112,000 in 1801 to over a million people in 1871.

Outbreak of war

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw tens of thousands of working class men joining the army leaving the women to struggle on lower wages, to feed and clothe their children and pay the bills and rent.

Thousands of other families were drawn into the city to provide the workforce for the munitions industry that was expanding rapidly due to the British army's demands. With housing demand outstripping supply landlords, hungry for more profits, set about increasing rents.

Families, unable to meet these rent rises, were threatened with evictions. By 1915 the stage was set for a social explosion against the rent increases and threatened evictions. The rent strikes began in Govan, in the heart of Glasgow's shipbuilding industry and quickly spread.

Key organisers of this campaign included John MacLean, Willie Gallacher, Andrew McBride of the Independent Labour Party (ILP - a workers' political formation which came out of 'new unionism' in the late 1880s) and John Wheatley who later became an ILP MP in Glasgow.

However, it was Mary Barbour of the Women's Housing Association, whose name became synonymous with the rent strikes and working class resistance. In May 1915 a joint meeting of Glasgow Labour Housing Committee and the Women's Housing Association called the first rent strike.

The aim was not to withhold the entire rent, but only the increased rent. Meetings were held in the backcourts, in the streets and wherever people could be brought together. Apart from the local meetings, city-wide demonstrations were organised including one in George Square in October 1915 where an estimated 25,000 people gathered to support the rent strikers' cause.

The women of the housing schemes were to the forefront of this movement. Whenever landlords' agents and sheriff officers came to carry out evictions, word quickly spread. Pots and pans were banged together, flour bombs, bricks and anything else that came to hand were used and the invaders were driven out.

No quarter or compromise was given by the women and the agents had to very quickly conclude that their days of evicting non-payers were over.

Rent strikes were not unique to Glasgow. Significant movements took place in other major Scottish cities including Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. John MacLean then put out the call for a complete rent strike in Glasgow and posters went up on windows and lamp-posts declaring: "We are not paying increased rent!"

Faced with this new tactic landlords were forced to pursue those in work through the courts, not for eviction warrants, but for arrestment of wages. They thought this would break the strike - how wrong they were!

Debt court

18 working men were due to appear in the small debt court on 18 November 1915 to have a wage arrestment order made against them. Mrs Barbour and other leaders within the Women's Housing Association mobilised the women from all the working class areas to march to the sheriff court.

One man summoned was an engineer, James Reid, from the Dalmuir shipyard. This spurred workers from Dalmuir, Fairfield, Stephens and other shipyards and factories in the city to down tools and march with the women.

The streets around the court house were jammed and all traffic stopped as upwards of 10,000 people protested. The mood was electric. John MacLean demanded that the prime minister, HH Asquith, introduce legislation preventing any increase in rents for the duration of the war. MacLean warned that a failure to do so would result in a general strike on Monday 22 November.

Against the backdrop of these movements, home secretary David Lloyd George was forced to agree to immediately introduce a "Rent Restrictions Act". This victory boosted the confidence of Scotland's working class for future struggles.

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