WHEN the statue of Mary Barbour was unveiled in Govan on International Women’s day, a wrong was righted. The woman who led the First World War Clydeside rent strikes and who became a leading light in many areas of progress for working-class people was finally given the recognition that was long overdue.

For the next three weeks, The National will attempt to put right another wrong – the mistake of Scotland being in danger of forgetting the men and women who together fought the British Government and their capitalist allies for years over so many issues with radical campaigns and political agitation that led to Glasgow and West Central Scotland becoming known as Red Clydeside.

It was an extraordinary period in the history of early 20th-century Scotland, yet young people in particular know so little about Red Clydeside because they are not taught the history. Yes, plenty myths have grown up about the Clydesiders, which is why this mini-series will concentrate on the facts, and we will right the wrong by looking at three people in particular over the three weeks – Mary Barbour, John Maclean and Davie Kirkwood.

Though I have long admired former Labour MP Maria Fyfe, I have not always agreed with her politically – except for her principled opposition to the Iraq War, which was exemplary. Fyfe is the chairwoman of the committee set up to campaign for the statue, and on the day it was unveiled she said something quite telling – that it was ridiculous that Mary Barbour’s story did not appear in the history books.

Do you know what? Apart from a few footnotes and the odd chapter in tales of the Red Clydesiders, Barbour is largely ignored, or dismissed as a one-off campaigner who did the rents strikes and little else. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we shall see.

As Fyfe said of those who raised £110,000 for the statue: “They were all keen that the statue was in Govan because Mary Barbour lived here, she was a councillor of a ward here, and they just felt she belonged here.

“Women haven’t been given a proper place in history books, and it’s not just social history, it’s science and other areas too.

“There are only three statues of women in the whole of Glasgow (Queen Victoria, philanthropist Isabella Elder and Spanish Civil War Republican hero Dolores Ibarruri, known as La Pasionara),” said Fyfe. “We thought it was high time to have another one and who better than Mary Barbour.”

That is so true, and congratulations to Fyfe and all who helped get the statue erected. It really is a thing of beauty and power and I’m happy to predict it will become a place of pilgrimage in years to come.

Now to our task: to understand the concept of Red Clydeside, you have to comprehend that Barbour was an exemplar of the phenomenon of ordinary people coming to the fore to lead genuine revolt around the Clyde that inspired reforms for which we should all be grateful but rarely are.

The rise of socialism and the advent of the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s had helped to create the conditions that would see Red Clydeside flourish. James Keir Hardie, who we have looked at in the past, was the principal mover in the radicalisation of working people in and around Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and the other mining and industrial areas around the country.

The emphasis on educating working people, the demand for rights for women, the organisation of trades unions, the detestation by many of the Boer War and even a growing agitation for Home Rule – all of these meant that the first decade of the 20th century was a time of momentous developments for the working classes – and in those days, there was indeed a clear divide between the classes, with workers condemned to live in overcrowded houses with poor sanitation.

Glasgow and Clydeside in general was well into its heyday as the industrial heartland of Scotland and the British Empire – local dignitaries really did take the “Second City” title seriously, and with a population of 784,000 in the city itself in 1911, it was indeed the second most populous city in the UK.

Politically things were changing, albeit slowly. Most workers, especially those defined as skilled, ie they had a trade after completing an apprenticeship, remained supportive of the Liberal Party and the Conservatives, more correctly known as Conservative and Liberal Unionists, had won a clear majority in the 1900 general election. But in that election something different happened. The Labour Representation Committee, forerunner of the Labour Party, won two seats, neither of them in Scotland, while the Scottish Workers Representation Committee was at least able to stand a candidate – they would never win a seat in general or by-elections and merged into the Labour Party in 1909.

Yet they had stood, putting up the journalist AE Fletcher in Glasgow Camlachie. The Scottish trades union movement – the STUC had been founded in 1897 – was now a political force as well, though it should be remembered that the STUC has never actually been formally linked to any party.

At a time when industrialists on Clydeside and its hinterland – shipyard owners, railway companies, mine owners and steel manufacturers – fiercely resisted any form of trade unionism, men and women risked their livelihoods to say that workers had to organise to better their lives.

Agitation and propaganda have always been the tools of the organised workers, and on Clydeside the trades unions and socialist leaders found willing ears. It should be noted that trade union leaders and socialists did not always see eye to eye, yet when they did the effect was mighty.

Most but not all historians date the start of Red Clydeside to the great Singer strike of 1911. There had already been incidences of general worker unrest, but this was the first time that a large-scale industrial confrontation took place on Clydeside. The giant sewing machine factory at Clydebank employed 11,000 and when the company tried to introduce so-called scientific methods of management – more work for lesser wages – a dozen female cabinet polishers went on strike and one was sacked. The rest of the workforce walked out in sympathy, and Singer reacted by closing the factory and threatening to move production elsewhere.

The Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) was in its infancy but had already recruited as many as 4,000 workers at Singer’s, and the campaigning organisation helped keep the strike going until the management intimidation became overwhelming and the workforce went back to the factory.

All the strike leaders and elected officials of the IWGB were sacked, including Arthur McManus whose name will feature later in this series.

The torch had been lit, however, and in the years 1910 to 1914, working days lost due to industrial action was four times higher than in the years 1900 to 1909.

Then World War One happened, and Red Clydeside’s name was certain to be made. It cannot be seriously argued that the war was unpopular across all the working class – my own grandfather volunteered in a pal’s battalion and went off to be gassed in the trenches, surviving, though crippled, for four decades afterwards.

Yet plenty of people in 1914 opposed the war and especially the threat of conscription, and among those on Clydeside who initially protested against the war were a great many women who were already dealing with the greed of landlords determined to capitalise on the demand for housing from workers arriving on Clydeside to take the places of men who had marched off to war.

The scene was set for a confrontation that would make Mary Barbour famous, credited with her own formidable “army” of women who took on the landlord exploiters – took them on, and won.

Barbour was born Mary Rough in Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire on February 20, 1875. She attended school until she was 14 and was noted as a voracious reader. After working as a carpet printer she met David Barbour, an engineer, and they settled in Govan where she joined the local Kinning Park Co-operative Guild and helped make the South Govan Housing Association a real force in the battle against the landlords.

She became friends with a leading suffragette, Agnes Dollan, and long-time agitator for women’s and workers’ rights Helen Crawfurd.

They were instrumental in establishing and nourishing the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association which was the overall co-ordinating group for the rent strike which began in April and May 1915 as direct action against landlords who increased rents for overcrowded houses in Govan.

The strike soon spread and by the autumn of 1915, some 20,000 households were striking. What’s more they were given protection by women mobilised to fight against eviction and intimidation.

Crawfurd recalled many years later: “The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association took up this issue, and in the working-class districts committees were formed to resist these increases in rents. Cards, oblong in shape, were printed with the words ‘RENT STRIKE. WE ARE NOT REMOVING’ and placed in the windows of the houses where rent increases were demanded.”

In the forefront of the battle against the hated factors who did the landlords’ dirty work was Mary Barbour. Crawfurd explained: “In Govan, on one occasion, where a woman had been persuaded by the house factor to pay the increase, having been told that the other tenants had paid, Mrs Barbour got the men from the shipyards in Govan to come out on to the street where the house factor’s office was, and then went up with the women and demanded a return of the money. On the factor being shown the thousands of black-faced workers crowding the street, he handed it over.”

When landlords took rent strikers to court, Barbour organised a protest. The Govan press reported: “Headed by a band of improvised instruments, including tin whistles, hooters, and a huge drum, the procession aroused a good deal of interest. The majority carried large placards with the words: ‘Rent Strikers. We’re not Removing’.”

Barbour was then involved in organising a huge demonstration in George Square on November 17, 1915. Trade unions from the shipyards and elsewhere joined in, and they made their point spectacularly – the Secretary of State for Scotland, McKinnon Wood, realised the danger to war production and on Christmas Day, 1915, Mary Barbour and her strikers got a present when the Government rushed through an Act freezing rent and mortgage payments at the levels they were at the start of the war. For once, the women and the workers had won.

As we will see over the next two weeks, Mary Barbour would go on to be a leading figure on Red Clydeside, not least because of the Women’s Peace Conference of 1916 which will start the next chapter that will feature the Battle of George Square.

The events surrounding the rent strike have never been better portrayed than in Chris Hannan’s superb play Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, first produced at the Traverse in Edinburgh in 1985. Everyone who wants to know about the strike should see or read this play, and also Mrs Barbour’s Daughters by AJ Taudevin, as well as the various documentaries and factual accounts that had been made over the years.

Yet as Maria Fyfe said, you won’t find Mary Barbour in school history books. And frankly, that is a crying shame.