Mary Barbour and the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike

Mary Barbour Statue - Glasgow 1915 Rent Strike
Mary Barbour Statue – Glasgow 1915 Rent Strike

 

Mary Barbour and the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike

Introduction

A sculpture commemorating the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike and one of its female leaders, Mary Barbour, was unveiled on International Women’s Day, March 8th 2018. It can be found in the square in front of Govan Subway Station on Govan Road, Glasgow. It’s the work of sculptor Andrew Brown who won in a competition of five shortlisted entries.

There are many examples of Socialist Realist Art posted on this blog, mainly from Albania but also some from Georgia and the erstwhile Soviet Union. There are, in various parts of the UK, statues and monuments that seek to commemorate working class struggles of the past. There’s not that many but there are a few.

One of the finest is the monument next to the Pierhead in Liverpool. It was originally commissioned to commemorate those men in the engine room of the Titanic who kept the generators running to the very last minute – although they were sealed in and had no chance whatsoever of escape. However, before it was completed the First World War (when workers and peasants fought each other for the benefit of their masters and their respective country’s imperialist ambitions) intervened and so the monument was re-titled ‘To the Heroes of the Engine Room’, meaning all those below decks engineers who died in Naval and Commercial shipping between 1914 and 1918 – as well as those engineers from the Titanic.oo

But Socialist Realist Art needs the workers to be actually involved in the struggle to make a new society if it is to merit such a description. Art that represents workers’ struggles in capitalist societies merely do that, represent a moment, even in the past. It has little more to say. And sometimes instead of actually commemorating the past they just go to demonstrate how matters have not changed.

That’s one of the problems (but not the only ones) with the Mary Barbour statue in Govan. It was inaugurated more than a hundred years after the event it commemorates yet in Glasgow, as in the rest of the UK, the dire situation of housing for millions of people is only slightly (but not much) better than it was in 1915. The workers of Glasgow were facing exploitative landlords who were making even more money due to the very fact that the country was involved in what was to become the first really global conflict. Speculation in housing in early 21st century Britain is rife and its the workers who have to face the consequences.

Profiteering during wartime is not new – and the war of 1914-1919 wasn’t the first where that had happened. And we only have to look at the almost unimaginable amounts of money that have been made out of the disastrous conflicts of the last 20 years – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen – to see that it goes on to this day.

One of the important aspects of Socialist Realist sculpture is the relationship that those depicted have with each other. What is the power relationship, what is the hierarchy, where is the unity and equality of the efforts of those being celebrated?

And it is this relationship in the statue in Govan that is the most disturbing.

The statue

I would be one of the first to argue for leaders, both as individuals as well as organisations and parties. But what is the relationship here?

Brown has depicted Mary Barbour as at the head of a group of people taking part in one of the many marches that occurred at the end of 1915. However, I have not seen any photo were Barbour is physically at the head of the column of marchers. In fact, most photos seem to depict more of a melee rather than an organised march. Brown has interpreted Barbour’s leadership role in the struggle as being at the front.

Now we have to assume that the idea that is represented by the figures getting smaller as the sculpture moves further away from the woman at the front is to give the impression of the large amount of people who would have been on the streets at the time of the biggest mass gatherings outside local government and court buildings – the idea that parallel train lines ‘merge’ the further they are away from the viewer.

However, by using this device he has also introduced a change in attitude of his subjects.

At the front Barbour is ‘respectably’ dressed in a fitting overcoat – as befits a leader. She wears a smart hat and her hair is immaculate – what we can see of it. She is depicted striding forcefully ahead, hand raised in confrontation with the authorities. She knows were she is going, knows what she wants and is determined to get it. But as we move to the back of the statue the characters become more downtrodden, they hang their heads in despair, the looks on their faces is one of desperation and not determination.

Immediately behind her are two women, both also similarly ‘respectably’ dressed, slightly smaller, and probably supposed to be a helpers, lieutenants, of the real leader. (Or they could also be supposed to represent some of the other women in the leadership of the struggle, but not as important as Mary Barbour.)

The first, who is not looking in the direction of ‘march’ but to her right, wears a long overcoat over a fashionable dress (the decoration showing through the open coat just below her neck). The dress extends below the overcoat. On her head she wears a fashionable floppy hat with a wide brim and embroidered decoration. On her feet she has very smart, pointed shoes or boots. She shows her determination in a couple of ways. Her mouth is open as if she is shouting her opposition to the police, sheriffs and bailiffs and her left hand is clenched into a fist.

The second wears a smart fitting jacket with a tailored skirt and although she is bare-headed she wears a long woollen scarf around her neck to keep her warm from the winter cold (things came to a head in November). She also walks in a more elegant manner, her hands away from her body and her fingers apart.

But as we go further back the state of dress becomes more shabby, more neglected. The women wear threadbare caps or scarves tied under their chin. Some have no hats or head coverings at all – the really poor. The same goes for the footwear. These aren’t leaders as they don’t dress the part.

Next comes a group of three, a old man (we must remember this was at a time of conscription and if not in one of the ‘protected trades’ all young men would have been in the slaughter fields of the Western Front or some other hell hole in more far flung locations) and two young boys. He has his right hand on the shoulder (also touching the placard) of the boy on the left, the younger of the two. The other child is leaning against the left side of the man, presumably their grandfather. The depiction of children in these marches, demonstrations is accurate as can be seen by photos of the time. Both these boys are carrying placards, the one on the right saying ‘The will of the people is law’ and the one on the left ‘We want justice’.

Next is a group of three, but this time female. On the right is an old women who seems to be bearing the woes of the world on her shoulders as well as the babe in arms she carries in her left arm, wrapped in a large shawl. Her clothes are makeshift, wearing whatever (possibly all) she had to combat the cold of a Glasgow winter’s day. She also wears a wide-brimmed hat but it’s a not a fashionable copy of the one worn by lieutenant number one, being without decoration.

Next to her is a young teenage girl. She’s wearing what would have ben quite fashionable for a young working class girl at the time – a short cropped jacket. This is worn over a long dress, the standard of the time. She has a scarf on her head, tied under the chin in a rather large bow, presumably also the fashion for young girls of her age. But however fashionable, or not, these two women show their roots by their footwear. They are both wearing functional but not very fashionable heavy and durable shoes – compare with the three ‘leaders’ (whose footwear, incidentally – to again show them different from the hoi polio – have high heels).

Next in line, and as has been the case so far, slightly smaller in size, is a group of four – an old man (again above conscription age and probably the grandfather) with two young boys on his left and a young girl (probably just pre-teen) on his right. The two boys seem to be stuck to him like glue as they are pressed right up against him.

The boy who is the youngest of the children is carrying a placard with the slogan ‘Justice for all’. His older brother, who is pressed against his back as well as the thigh of the grandfather, seems to be more interested with what is happening behind the group than where they are going. The girl on the old man’s right is the oldest of the siblings and she is depicted in a charming manner as her left hand rests on the right sleeve of her grandfather, too old to be holding hands but too young to be totally separated from him.

They are all reasonably dressed, especially the young girl as she wears a very long overcoat, with large buttons on the front and a high necked shirt, the collar of which we can see behind the turned back collar of her overcoat. She has her long hair tied back in a bun and wears nothing on her head, as do her two brothers. The old man wears a flat cap.

Bringing up the rear is the most desperate of the whole procession, this is a group of four – a women (who really looks like she has suffered all her life) with her three children. The two on her left are in a strange combination. The oldest boy is holding his baby brother/sister in his arms but the two of them are then wrapped in the same large shawl that passes around their mother – sharing body warmth as well as the protection provided by the shawl.

They look the poorest of the statue as although they are all wearing decent clothes and shoes they don’t have enough to pay for an overcoat that is necessary in a Glasgow winter. The only one that has anything on their head is the mother who has a large scarf over her head tied with a large bow under the chin – as did the teenage girl earlier in the procession. The final figure of the ensemble is a young boy who is slightly away from his mother but also more interested in what is happening behind the group than the direction it is moving.

The Plinth

The group, which is made of bronze, is standing on a sand coloured concrete plinth which gets higher as it curves at the back as the characters get smaller, extenuating the idea of distance between the ones at the front and those at the back.

On the very front of the plinth, under her feet, is the name Mary Barbour and the dates 1875-1958.

We are not removing

We are not removing

History and staues

But that’s the only information provided. And that’s one of the problems when statues are erected in many capitalist countries – most people don’t know why. Statues do become a point of focus in certain circumstances but if everything is without conflict then any new statue might cause a short amount of discussion (e.g., the Mary Wollstonencraft statue in London) but it is soon forgotten.

Obviously there are times when statues become the centre of focus of a particular event or political situation. Presently there’s controversy of the statues of those who were related to the African slave trade, both in America (where a number of Confederate statues and monuments are being taken down) or in the UK when the statue of Edward Colston was pulled off its plinth in Bristol and dumped in the docks.

But that ‘debate’ which has been promised, in pre-revolutionary circumstances, will only go so far. Horatio Nelson was a prominent supporter of the trans-Atlantic slave trade but it’s unlikely he will be deposed from his dominant location in London’s Trafalgar Square. And other statues of British pro-slavers will remain throughout the country because people, in general, don’t know they exist.

It’s a sad fact that British people, at least, have a poor concept and knowledge of history and the placing of this statue is a case in point. When I first saw the Barbour statue it had been in place for over a year yet whilst I was taking photos I was approached by a local woman who asked me who it was and what is was all about. A Sassenach had to explain her history to a local, Govan woman.

So a plaque somewhere in the vicinity would not go amiss.

Brown reproduced the placards from those that were on the streets at the end of 1915 – so are authentic in that sense. However, a placard that also appeared in a number of newspaper pictures was one with the slogan ‘My father is fighting in France and we are fighting the Huns at home’. This just goes to emphasise the climate in which this dispute took place.

(For many the war (that was starting to take a dark turn) was still a patriotic affair – this was the case even though many of the leaders of both the Rent Strike and other industrial disputes in Glasgow at the time were Communists and members of the various groupings that were later (under the instigation of VI Lenin) to form the Communist Party of Great Britain in the early 1920s. Many of these activists were against the war as an imperialist war where the workers were fighting and dying for the imperialist interests of their own ruling class – but this was not necessarily the case with a majority of the working class.

Although attitudes to the war changed in the next couple of years when Lloyd George’s promise of ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ became, very quickly, just mere words and the whole of the UK was plunged into the deprivation of the 1920s, there was still a reluctance on the part of the workers to ditch the ‘patriotic’ stance and make previous promises a reality.

More than a hundred years later that’s still the case – as is shown by the chronic situation of housing and the impossibility of the problem being resolved under capitalism.)

But if there was a reason for including the derogative ‘Hun’ in the placards of the strikers in 1915 there’s also a reason, in the climate in the second decade of the 21st century, NOT to make reference to the word on a public statue – a change in sensitivities.

Glasgow Rent Strikers 1915

Glasgow Rent Strikers 1915

History and background of the 1915 Glasgow Rent strike

For more information on the history and background to the strike you’ll get some reasonably good information on the links below. Unfortunately, some of the sites are Trotskyite but as they had no presence at all in 1915 Glasgow all they can quote are Labourites or Communists who were either in the leadership of the rent strike or were shop stewards and union representatives in the Clyde shipyards.

Some of these articles contain interesting archive photos of the struggle.

1915 Glasgow Rent Strike: how workers fought and won over housing – a reprint (published on the centenary of the strike) of an article produced on the occasion of the Fiftieth anniversary in 1955.

Mary Barbour & Rent Strike 1915

1915: Glasgow Rent Strike

Trish Caird looks at the life of Mary Barbour, leader of the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike – a movement that was principally led, organised and executed by women

Our Housing Heritage: How Glasgow tenants ‘fought the huns at home’ during World War One

as well as an article that seeks to find inspiration from the past struggle to address the current crisis in housing in Glasgow

We need spirit of Mary Barbour to reform rents

Britain and poverty – a case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

More on covid pandemic 2020-2?

Britain and poverty – a case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

The covid pandemic didn’t cause poverty in Britain – though it didn’t help. However, many thousands of people would have been pushed over the established line and many thousands of others would have been forced into debt which makes their future prospects looking rather bleak.

What the pandemic has certainly done is to expose what had been previously hidden, by government intention and a general reluctance in Britain for too many of the population to accept that poverty exists – as they would then have to face the moral dilemma about what to do about it.

Anecdotal evidence shows that donations to food banks have increased in the last 18 months or so and it will be interesting to see how those levels are maintained now that there is a general sense that Britain is returning to ‘normal’ with those who can returning to work. But the changes that are taking place at the beginning of October 2021 also have a sting. The furlough scheme is coming to an end and in a few days the extra £20 given to those on Universal Credit will also be withdrawn.

(An interesting statistic from the past year is that under the furlough scheme people could claim up to £2,500 per month. Those on Universal Credit are now set to lose £1,040 PER YEAR. Even in the worst days of the pandemic, when millions were not able to work, it was the most wealthy in the population who were getting the greatest percentage of government assistance.)

Much has been said, by many, that once the country is out of the pandemic that it should ‘build back better’. If we take this (which I think is a meaningless sound bite) at face value what will it mean when it comes to poverty in Britain, with all that goes with it such as homelessness/expensive and poor rental accommodation? What track record do any of the parties that seek power in Westminster have to make us think that there will be anything radical that will seek to eliminate poverty?

The answer to that question is none.

Poverty is a direct consequence of capitalism. Capitalism needs poverty in order to be able to frighten, manipulate and control the working masses.

As this is the ‘Conference Season’ (when all the major political parties have their annual get-togethers) many promises will be made to be conveniently forgotten at the first opportunity or when ‘reality’ kicks in.

The very recent publication of the millions of leaked papers about how the ‘super-rich’ are able to maintain their wealth (and the political control that goes with it) in the so-called Pandora Papers (which, amazingly, have seemed to dropped out of the news very quickly) only goes to show what has been obvious for years (if not decades) and that is that the rich and powerful are becoming more so. With that increase in wealth comes an ‘entitlement’ for them to control so much wealth they could never really spend it. Some of the comments that were made by those exposed by the investigation over the last two years demonstrate that none of the respondents think they had done anything wrong.

And, legally they probably haven’t. They come from and create the sort of society which forces the vast majority to pay their ‘fair share’ of the tax burden but which provides ‘loopholes’ so that if you have enough to buy an accountant/lawyer or other form of shyster what you pay is vastly disproportionate to the amounts involved. This all comes after a number of years where major companies have been shifting addresses around the world so that they pay the minimum to stay ‘within the law’.

None of these individuals or companies will ever be prosecuted and they won’t even feel any shame of being caught out.

However, ordinary people have to wake up to the facts and realise that they are as much part of the problem as they are of the solution.

One of the first posts on this blog, when Left side of the road was started in the summer of 2012, was about food banks. That post was prompted by an article in which the Trussell Trust, the charity which runs the biggest number of food banks in the UK, stated that it wanted to see food banks in every city and town in the country. That, to me, was a ludicrous goal to set. Surely the aim is to see no food banks as society is sufficiently developed and cultured to have abolished poverty and the need for such charity.

Within Britain, and the same goes for much of the rest of the world, there seems to be an acceptance of the existence of poverty (dire and extreme as it is in some countries) and that the rich and the powerful have the right to accumulate vast fortunes and live an obscenely wasteful lifestyle – right next to people who never know where the next meal is coming from.

The only reason I can see for this acceptance of such an unjust system is that people who have the ability to change the situation somehow get a kick out of the existence of poverty, can make themselves fell good if they are in the fortunate position of having a bit of slack they can give in the form of charity and continue to look up to the celebrities, whether they be ‘royalty’ or just some pop singer.

This is akin to the mental disease, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

Vaccination programme in Britain …..

Freshers’ week drive to give covid jabs to students in England.

Compulsory vaccination: what does human rights law say?

Covid vaccine effects wane over time but still prevent death and severe illness.

Covid vaccine boosters – who will receive them and why are they being given?

Trials begin on Covid booster jab hoped to protect against new variants – but will these new ‘super’ vaccines be given to those who have already been vaccinated or to those still to receive the first dose?

….. and in the rest of the world (or not)

Covax misses its 2021 delivery target – what’s gone wrong in the fight against vaccine nationalism?

In hindsight there was no foresight: how Australia bungled its Pfizer Covid deal.

England’s Covid travel rules spark outrage around the world. Refusal to recognise vaccines given across Latin America, Africa and south Asia has been denounced as ‘discriminatory’.

Vaccine Apartheid’: Africans tell UN they need vaccines.

Hospital admissions – September 2021

‘A bit of a mystery’: why hospital admissions for covid in England are going down.

The wearing of masks

Evidence shows that, yes, masks prevent covid-19 – and surgical masks are the way to go [although these researchers have obviously never observed the manner that people, in all countries, don’t wear the masks as they ‘are supposed to’. If they don’t follow correct practice does not mask wearing cause a potential threat rather than a preventative in transmission?

The future of covid

Coronavirus unlikely to become more deadly because it’s run out of ‘places to go’.

Following the science?

No 10 [Downing Street – the office of the Buffoon] accused of side-lining behaviour experts on latest Covid measures.

‘Long covid’

Technical article: Updated estimates of the prevalence of post-acute symptoms among people with coronavirus (COVID-19) in the UK: 26 April 2020 to 1 August 2021.

Double vaccination halves risk of developing long-lasting symptoms’

‘Collateral damage’

Britain’s covid-era university students may suffer ‘impostor syndrome’.

NHS backlog disproportionately affecting England’s most deprived.

Resolution Foundation warns of cost of living crisis.

Who is benefiting from the pandemic?

Private hospitals profit from NHS waiting lists as people without insurance pay out.

A year that changed the world – and medical companies’ fortunes.

Evil Doers: The Pharmaceutical Industry and the Pandemic – written about the US context but applicable anywhere in the world.

The world gone mad

If the world was working in concert it would have been a different matter.

Russia slams New York’s vaccine requirement for UN general assembly.

Ministers told to bar European Union from UK trial data in vaccines row.

Poverty in Britain

Who’s paying for the government’s plan to fix social care? A podcast.

Universal credit cut will push 800,000 people into poverty.

Child poverty now costs Britain £38 billion a year.

Social care plan will help just a tenth of UK’s older people in need.

The next three articles are mainly focussed on Scotland – but the figures will be mirrored in the rest of the UK.

Almost 300,000 people missed rent or mortgage payment in last year.

Child Winter Heating Assistance eligibility extended.

Energy crisis and price cap rise ‘could force 150,000 more Scots into fuel poverty’.

Buffoon refuses to say if he could live on basic universal credit pay.

Ending universal credit boost will hit sickest areas the hardest.

How (if) will it all end?

How will the covid pandemic end?

What kind of inquiry do we need to learn the right lessons?

More on covid pandemic 2020-2?

Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

Facade - National Historical Museum - Tirana
Facade – National Historical Museum – Tirana

More on Albania …..

Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

For the second time in less than a decade the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana is obscured by scaffolding and sheeting. As on the previous occasion (in 2012) the reason is, supposedly, for the renovation of the ‘The Albanians’, the huge mosaic that celebrates and commemorates the struggle for independence through the ages, the victory over Fascism and the construction of Socialism.

Under normal circumstances such work would be a cause for celebration. The mosaic is a wonderful example of Socialist Realist Art and captures the spirit of the nation at the time it was created in 1982. However, this Albania in 2021 and nothing is that simple.

The present work in progress also asks a number of questions. If, indeed, there was work done in 2012 to repair the damage caused by time and the weather why was it so badly done that it has to be done again nine years later? Was the ‘restoration’ of 2012 nothing more than an excuse to cover up the revolutionary work of art at the time the country was ‘celebrating’ the hundredth anniversary of Independence from Ottoman rule? Events would have taken place in Skenderbeu Square and for the present capitalist rulers of Albania the image of the mosaic as a backdrop to the sham celebrations would have been an ‘inconvenience’.

What was certainly the case was that chunks of the mosaic seemed to be dropping off at an alarming rate and the more pieces that fell the weaker the the rest of the structure would become. Structural damage was obvious as soon as the scaffolding was removed short after November 2012, adding credence to the ‘conspiracy theory’. This situation was pointed out in a post on this site two years ago in September 2019.

As with many of the monuments that were identified in the Albanian Lapidar Survey (many of which have already been described on this blog) ‘The Albanians’ has suffered from both conscious neglect as well as episodes of political and cultural vandalism.

Then

The Albanians Mosaic - National History Museum, Tirana

The Albanians Mosaic – National History Museum, Tirana

and up to 2020

'The Albanians' - Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

At the beginning of this century one of the five original creators of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) was paid to destroy his own creation. So much for the integrity of the artist. During that act of destruction Nebiu changed three significant aspects of the original design. He removed; the large, gold outlined five pointed star that was behind the head of the central female figure; the small golden star that was situated between the heads of the doubled-headed eagle (that being the official flag of the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania); and the book from the right hand of the central male figure, replacing it with what looks like a sack (the book would have represented both education and the written works of Enver Hoxha). In the process Nebiu created the most amazingly shaped flag.

So the question I’m posing here is ‘What sort of restoration will be carried out this time?’ The chances of the original imagery and intention being re-created is only marginally more likely than that of an ice cream surviving very long in Hell.

But there are further possibilities of ‘re-writing’ history. The War of National Liberation against the invading fascists, first Italian then the German Nazis, was led by and principally carried out by Albanian Communists. This fact is indicated by the images of the red star on the headgear of the figures on the right of the mosaic. As has happened on a number of lapidars these red stars could be made to ‘disappear’ and therefore ‘deny’ the Communists the victory.

There’s obviously a change going on in the official approach to the Socialist Period in Albania. The present (September 2021) ‘Archive’ exhibition of Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures in the National Art Gallery, the covering up of those paintings that have, for years, formed the permanent exhibition in the gallery and the closure of all the rooms and galleries devoted to the National Liberation War in the National Historical Museum itself all seem to indicate that the involvement of the Communists in the war is going to be completely obliterated.

More on Albania …..