With the growing housing crisis and campaigns springing up in response, we can expect the working class to take action – and the centenary of the Glasgow Rent Strike needs to be celebrated. And it’s a fantastic story.
One hundred years ago the workers and housewives of Glasgow forced the government to place on the statute book the first-ever Rent Restrictions Act.
At the time, in 1915, there wasn’t a single council house in Britain. Private landlords had complete monopoly of all rented dwellings and they could and they did, raise rents as often as they could get away with it. The tenant had to either pay up or get out.
The first world war – like the second – added to the existing housing shortage, especially in the big industrial cities which became crowded with fresh entrants into the armaments industries. The landlords of those days naturally tried to exploit this situation for their own profit. They raised rents, evicted those that couldn’t pay, and took in new tenants at higher rents.
In Glasgow the landlords informed their tenants in February 1915 that all rents would be raised by 25 per cent. Many families, especially ones where the breadwinner was away at the war, could not possibly pay the increase and angry meetings were held all over the working class districts of Glasgow. The idea of simply refusing to pay soon spread throughout the city and Glasgow’s Labour movement gave the tenants every possible support right from the start.
Glasgow already possessed a “Labour Party Housing Committee” which had been formed in 1913 to fight for the right of the council to build homes for the workers. Glasgow already owned its own tramway system and gas works and the Housing Committee agitated for the profits of these to be used for housing. It was some years for the agitation to bear fruit, but meanwhile the rent increases being forced on the workers of Glasgow gave them other issues to fight on – and fight they did.
Meetings were held all over Glasgow and in Govan a Housewives Housing Association was set up under the chairmanship of an “ordinary housewife”, Mrs Barbour. This Committee did sterling work in bringing the women of Glasgow into the fight against the landlords.
The rent strike started in September 1915 and by November more than 25,000 working class families were refusing to pay rent. The bailiffs who tried to evict the strikers were driven from the doors by Mrs Barbour’s Housewives Committee. Empty houses were picketed and new tenants who had agreed to pay the increased rent were not permitted to enter their new home. One of the actual participants, Willie Reid MP described some of the scenes in the Glasgow Evening Times:
As accommodation in Glasgow was getting scarcer every day, people came from far and wide to see the houses that were supposed to be to let. To meet this situation the tenants, on our advice, adopted a formula that proved remarkably effective. The caller who enquired, “Is this where there’s a house to let?” was politely informed: “There are no houses to let here. There is just a slight difference of opinion between the landlords and the tenants, but no one is thinking of leaving their house.” Anyone who persisted in the face of this broad hint was quietly but firmly warned that an incoming load of furniture would get past no rent striker’s door, and would have very little chance of leaving the district intact. So the landlords completely failed in their efforts to get new tenants to fight their battles for them.
Successful efforts were made to get the support of the workers in the great engineering works and shipyards and a ready response was soon forthcoming from the newly organised Shop Stewards’ Movement.
Mr Willie Reid MP described some of the scenes in the Glasgow Evening Times:
A soldiers wife in Parkhead, had an eviction notice served on her, with a warning that if she failed to vacate her house by 12 noon on a certain day the Sheriff’s Officer would call to enforce it. The strike committee got busy. They instructed every mother in the district with a young child to be there for 11 am on D-Day, complete with perambulator. Long before noon the close and street were packed with prams, and every pram had at least one youngster in it. No raiding party could have got near the house. Moreover the men of Parkhead Forge and other works in the district decided to down tools at 11.30 am and lend a hand if necessary.
By the time the Sheriff’s officers and his clerk arrived there was a crowd of something like 5,000 ready to give them a rousing welcome. It is scarcely surprising that they decided to forget all about the eviction and take their leave.
Perhaps the decisive intervention from the factories came when the late Lord Kirkwood – then plain Dave Kirkwood, the Convenor of Shop Stewards at Parkhead Forge – addressed the following letter to the Town Clerk of Glasgow:
I have been instructed by the Shop Stewards of the Ordinance Department of Parkhead Forge… to draw the attention of the Corporation to the housing conditions in the eastern district of Glasgow… national demands have added thousands to the number of workers in Parkhead Forge with a consequent increase in domestic over-crowding. Property owners taking advantage of this have been increasing rents and the tenants have no means of preventing this unless by organised refusal to pay the increase. As this might lead to the eviction of one or more families the men here wish to make it perfectly clear that they would regard this as an attack on the working class…”
(Quoted from Forward, October 1915)
Who is the Government?
By now the Government itself was thoroughly alarmed and, on 15 October, its representatives, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord Advocate, met the chair and secretary of the Labour Party Housing Committee. The conference lasted over one hour and the case put over by the tenants representatives explained that the agitation against increased rents was universal and that thousands of munitions workers were involved. If the Government did not deal with the situation as requested the tenants would continue the strike and if any tenants were evicted then it was almost certain industrial strikes would follow. It was well that the government should know the facts as they were known by the tenants and act accordingly…
Who decides the law?
On 17 November 17, eighteen rent strikers were taken to Court by the landlords “to show cause why they should not be evicted for refusal to not pay rent.” The Housewives’ Committee immediately organised a mass march of rent strikers to the court and, as they marched – thousands of them – industrial workers left their jobs and joined in!
The great Albion Works were Willie Gallagher was a shop steward stopped work completely and both the day and night shifts joined in the demonstration. The scene in the streets surrounding the Court was described by Forward:
John Maclean was addessing the crowd. Inside the court representatives of the working class were dictating to the authorities the terms of peace. After the court opened, Sheriff Lee was asked by a strike leader to see a deputation before dealing with the cases. He agreed to do so and retired to his chambers with members of the deputation. The first spokesman said he was he was one of the deputation from Dalmuir Shipyard where over 8,000 workers were employed, and when the men were aware that these cases were coming on they were on the point of stopping work. He further said that the nation could do without the factors[managers] but could not do without these workers.
The Act gained
For over two hours the harassed Sheriff listened to the statements of the workers’ deputations – most of them threatened industrial action unless the cases were withdrawn. Eventually the Sheriff gave way and prevailed upon the landlord to withdraw his cases against the rent strikers. It was a great victory for the workers and tenants, not only in Glasgow but all over Great Britain – but an even greater victory was to follow. The Government was soon to curb the landlords’ greed by introducing the first-ever Rent Restrictions Act. Willie Reid MP describes how he received this great news:
I was addressing a meeting at Parkhead Cross one night when I saw, not without some trepidation, a police officer pushing his way through the crowd. “This is it,” I thought, “They’re going to lift me at last, under the Defence of the Realm Act.” But to my astonishment and relief, he was there to deliver a message. It appeared that David Lloyd George (then Minister of Munitions) had come to Glasgow and would like a word with me that very night in the Central Hotel.
What was concerning Lloyd George, of course, was the threatened strike at Parkhead Forge. At our interview he informed me that the Government had decided to intervene on behalf of all the tenants all over the country by passing a Rent Restrictions Act. No time was to be lost in bringing it in. As an earnest of good faith would we not call off our agitation?
This meant that our objective was achieved. The Act became law in November 1915, and since then it must have saved tenants up and down the country countless millions of pounds. I sometimes wonder if they ever spare a thought for the “agitators” who rescued them, so to speak, from their landlord’s clutches.
This article first appeared in the newspaper Socialist Review in 1955.