Early in the war, industrial centres across Britain burst into action to feed an insatiable war machine. Scotland’s coal mines, shipyards, forges and factories went into full production mode and, especially in Glasgow, jobs were plentiful and workers in high demand. At the same time, rising numbers of men were joining up and many women took jobs that would normally have been held by men – although enlistment and later conscription were closed to skilled workers.
As people flooded to Glasgow to take up jobs, tenements became overcrowded and poorly maintained. Private landlords took advantage of the economic buoyancy to push up rents, often by as much as 25%. Those who could not afford increased rents were easy targets for eviction, as landlords knew they could easily find new tenants willing to pay inflated rents. The rent increases hit women particularly hard because by this time they were often their families’ sole earners, already struggling to afford the rising cost of food.
In the spring of 1915, they began hitting back. It started in Govan, where many tenants – mainly women – refused to pay more than their normal rents. Resistance was organised by the South Govan Women’s Housing Association under the formidable leadership of Mary Barbour, Helen Crawfurd, Agnes Dollan and Jessie Stephens. They supported tenants threatened with eviction by physically blocking bailiffs’ entry to flats. They accused profiteering landlords of being anti-patriotic, and earned the support of factories and shipyards who feared production levels would be affected by the unrest. While it was women who initiated the movement, male workers at Fairfields shipyards and Beardmore’s forge supported it with wildcat strike action.
The rent strikes spread to other working class neighbourhoods in Glasgow and also to Aberdeen and Dundee. They drew wide public support, as well as political backing from the Independent Labour Party. In November 1915, the unrest swelled into a demonstration against the attempted eviction of 18 tenants, of whom 15 were munitions workers. Up to 20,000 people gathered at Glasgow Sheriff Court – many of them women (nicknamed ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’), along with shipyard and engineering workers.
As a result of the rent strikes, the Government hastily passed the Rent Restriction Act in 1915. This froze rents at pre-war levels and ensured that a landlord could only increase rent on a property if he had improved it. The Act signalled a considerable improvement in the legal position of working class tenants in relation to private landlords.
The Glasgow rent strikes demonstrated that collective action could bring about tangible change. They also strengthened support for political parties like the ILP, who were paying more attention than the ruling Liberal party to the war’s effects on citizens’ lives. The precedents set in 1915 continue to ripple through society today, for example in the 2016 rent strikes by university students in London.
Words by Mel Reeve