ONE of the great things about working with archives is learning the stories of people’s lives from the records. Looking through family history and other sources, it is very clear why Mary Barbour is so admired.

She was a key figure of Glasgow’s Red Clydeside period, pushing for social change at a time when women were not expected to engage in politics.

Mary was born in Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire in 1875, one of seven children to James (a hand loom weaver) and Jean Rough. When Mary married David Barbour in 1896, her occupation was recorded as a carpet printer and the groom’s as a journeyman.

Like many other working class families, the couple moved to Govan in the 1900s, close to the area’s massive shipbuilding industry.

The 1911 census records that they lived at Ure Street (now Uist Street) with their two sons John and William. The couple had lost their first son David to meningitis, an event that may have ignited Mary’s interest in health and housing conditions.

Mary was a member of the Kinning Park branch of the Scottish Co-operative Women’s Guild. Its records are held here at the City Archives. Established in 1890 to teach women cookery, the guild developed into a forum where women could discuss politics with one another. By 1923 there were around 300 Scottish women’s guilds, providing support and encouragement for women to enter the traditionally male-dominated sphere of local government.

Mary is most remembered for her pivotal role in the Glasgow 1915 Rent Strikes.

As more workers moved to the city during the First World War, suitable housing became scarce. Landlords saw an opportunity and put up rents, sparking a large-scale dispute and rent strike. Mary rallied her working-class community to challenge the increases, organising committees and demonstrations against evictions and court cases.

Cards were placed in tenement windows proclaiming, ‘We are not removing’. Nicknamed ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’ around 20,000 tenants went on strike. Fearing the unrest was spreading elsewhere, the government responded by passing the Rent Restriction Act (the first of its kind in Europe).

Mary’s involvement in politics continued after the war, and she was one of the first women elected to Glasgow Town Council in 1920 (alongside four others). In the image she is (end left) in her ceremonial robes with (second left to right) Mary Bell, Mary Snodgrass and Mary Robertson. In 1924 she achieved another breakthrough for women in public office when she became a magistrate and bailie of the burgh, serving on several committees, up until 1931. Her story still inspires today, as the recent unveiling of her statue in Govan proved 60 years after her death.