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London housing protests echo Glasgow rent strikes of 100 years ago

Protesters prevent sheriff officers entering the tenements of rent refusers. Wikimedia

Anger over government housing policy is undoubtedly one of the running themes of the 2010s. Most recently we have seen anti-gentrification protests in east London over people being pushed out due to huge increases in private rent costs and a lack of social housing, which made headlines for targeting the hipster Cereal Killer Cafe in Brick Lane.

Before the storm: cereal owners. Matt Crossick/PA Wire

This is an era of severe shortages in social housing, aggravated by Tory plans to extend the right to buy scheme to housing associations. We have seen staggering increases in the costs of private renting, dwindling owner occupation and of course the bedroom tax. The London protests were a reaction to the effective social cleansing of working-class residents by Tory/Lib Dem coaliton policy. Local tenants’ organisations and protest groups have also been formed to co-ordinate discontent. Meanwhile, Corbyn’s Labour is proposing the biggest social-housing programme since the 1970s.

This is all exactly 100 years after the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915, another period that lacked affordable and decent rental accommodation and squeezed those who could least afford it. World War I saw numerous rent strikes in different towns and cities around the UK including Leeds, Sheffield and Wolverhampton in 1913-14, but the Glasgow protests were the ones that transformed the country and ultimately brought forth state policies for working-class housing.

Glasgow at war

It is vital to appreciate the context of Clydeside at that time. Glasgow was an industrial powerhouse, the “second city of the Empire”. It was an important producer of the armaments of war – and of soldiers for the front line. The city had grown enormously during its Victorian heyday, and this continued in the early 20th century as the huge needs of the war industries boosted migration to the city.

By the mid-1910s, the city was suffering from acute overcrowding problems. In early 1915 private landlords took advantage to announce that rents would increase by up to 25%. They had a virtual monopoly over working-class housing, which put them in a powerful position, and they would not have expected much opposition at a time when so many men were away fighting in France.

Yet the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, established before 1914 to fight for better housing conditions, soon galvanised growing discontent over the increases by calling for a city-wide rent strike (and note the parallels to the current London protests, in which women have been heavily involved). Early support from the areas closest to the shipyards, such as Govan and Partick, where tens of thousands were crammed into poorly maintained tenements, soon spread across much of the city.

By September 1915 around 20,000 households were on rent strike in Glasgow alone, and the protests were spreading to other parts of the west of Scotland and beyond. Street-level organisation by working-class women ensured that when court officials arrived to evict those refusing to pay rent, they were met by strong opposition. Sheriff officers were forcibly prevented from entering tenement closes to carry out evictions. When 18 tenants were prosecuted in November 1915 for not paying their rent, it led to huge demonstrations by the tenants’ movement.

Window poster from the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association 1915.

Fear of a Red Revolt

Led overwhelmingly by women such as Mary Barbour and Helen Crawfurd, this tenants’ movement was instrumental in the fight against the landlords. It led to growing numbers of shipyard and industrial workers agitating for better working conditions and wages, which prompted fears from the government that a Bolshevik-style revolution would break out on what was increasingly viewed as “Red Clydeside”. Barbour and other leaders of the rent strike were active socialists in the Independent Labour Party, which was strong on Clydeside at the time.

Faced with the threat of a class war at a time when the country desperately needed to unite against foreign enemies, the government felt forced to intervene in late 1915 by passing a Rent Restrictions Act that froze rents at pre-war levels. After securing this famous victory, municipal housing provision came to be seen as a right. It paved the way to further tenant demands that led to the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 in which council housing was born.

The campaigns of 1915 also went on to inform opposition to the poll tax in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then more recently the bedroom tax. Bedroom-tax protesters have paid tribute to Barbour by singing about belonging to “Mary’s army”, for instance. We can also thank the Glasgow protests for the growth of tenants organisations and campaigns for more affordable accommodation and council housing. It is all a reminder of the power of people to bring change, just like the Jerermy Corbyn election and the Scottish Yes campaign – another protest currently celebrating its anniversary. So much changes, so much stays the same.

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