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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XIV. Political and social unrest

93. We Are not Paying Increased Rent, 1915

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1William Gallacher (1881-1965) was leader of the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC), an organisation that had been formed to organise Clydeside workers and to resist the 1915 Munitions Act (the Act stated that workers could not leave their jobs without their employers’ agreement). It was because of his function as CWC chairman that Gallacher was imprisoned for sedition in 1916 and again for incitement to riot after the events of 31 January 1919. After attending the Third International in Moscow in 1920 as a CWC delegate, Gallacher converted to communism, and on his return to Britain played an influential role in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He attempted to be elected to the House of Commons several times before eventually winning the seat of West Dunfermline in 1935. The following extract describes the women’s reaction to the rent increases of 1915.

2William Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1936, p. 52-54.

During the whole period of the strike, the campaign against increased rents had been growing in volume. Following the strike, greater forces than ever were thrown into it. In Govan, Mrs Barbour, a typical working-class housewife, became the leader of a movement such as had never been seen before, or since for that matter. Street meetings, back-court meetings, drums, bells, trumpets—every method was used to bring the women out and organize them for the struggle. Notices were printed by the thousand and put up in the windows: wherever you went you could see them. In street after street, scarcely a window without one: “WE ARE NOT PAYING INCREASED RENT.”

These notices represented a spirit amongst the women that could not be overcome. The factors (agents for the property owners) could not collect the rents. They applied to the courts for eviction warrants. Having obtained these, sheriff’s officers were sent to serve them and evict the tenants. But Mrs. Barbour had a team of women who were wonderful. They could smell a sheriff’s officer a mile away. At their summons women left their cooking, washing—or whatever they were doing. Before they got anywhere near their destination, the officer and his men would be met by an army of furious women who drove them back in a hurried scramble for safety.

Attempt after attempt was made to secure evictions, all of which ended in futility. The increased rent could not be collected, the tenants could not be evicted. Then some legal genius had a brainwave. The property owners and factors sat back and laughed as they thought of it. It was so simple and so effective. Why hadn’t they thought of it before? Mrs. Barbour and her army of women were a terror to them no longer. They simply walked over their heads and sued the householder at the “small debt” court. By this means workers were summoned to attend the court and show reason why their wages should not be impounded to liquidate the debt claimed by the factor in the form of rent. In such a case the factor could not only get a decision allowing him to get his rent from the employer out of the wages of the worker, but he could also ask for a judgment placing the costs of the proceedings as an extra burden on the tenants.

After a few such cases, with the workers affected coming home with only half their wages, the others would rapidly have become demoralized and the resistance to increased rent would be finished. This, at any rate, was how the factors reasoned. It was a great idea and it was sure to work. So summonses were sought and issued to a group of tenants employed in the yards. But they had reckoned without Mrs Barbour and the Clyde shop stewards.

“Will we let them get away with this?” was the new war-cry resounding in every street; “Never!” thundered the reply from the women. All day long, in the streets, in the halls, in the houses, meetings were held. Kitchen meetings, street meetings, mass meetings, meetings of every kind. No halt, no rest for anyone, all in preparation for the sitting of the court when the test case came on. As in the streets, so in the factories. “Will we allow the factors to attack our wages?” “Never!”

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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