Glasgow Rent Strike 1915

rent-strike-crowdIn 1915, while the world was at war, the owners of Glasgow’s tenement buildings put up the rents. They were taking advantage of the fact that the man in many of these tenant families now had a steady income because he had joined up. He may have been away at the front, but the family could collect his earnings at the post office. It was the first time they had a steady income and the landlords saw that their tenants could afford to pay more.

The women of Glasgow held a rent strike – one of the first examples of women organising to fight injustice – and they were supported by the local politicians from the Independent Labour Party. One of these was John Wheatley. If, as I have been told, my grandmother, Mary Ireland, was active politically in Glasgow at this time she would have helped organise the strike.

The following is a scene from my novel No Mean Affair in which John Wheatley and my mother are thrown together in the fight for justice.

Wheatley had chosen the McHugh’s as an example but it could as well have been any soldier’s family in Shettleston, Tollcross, Parkhead, St Rollox, the infamous Garngad – anywhere in East Glasgow. But, that day, it was to Mrs McHugh’s house that Danny limped alongside the twenty or so members of the Independent Labour Party. They could see something special was happening. Men drifted in to join them like tributaries feeding a river. It was if they were building a crowd for the football at Celtic Park. The men’s boots sparked on the flags as they hurried down the Shettleston Road.

The top of William Street was a sight to behold. Danny had never seen so many women collected together in one place. From their bonnets and shawls they were from the tenements. From the lowest ‘hairy’ to the highest ‘doilie’ they had marched down behind Mary.

Her shriek went up. ‘That’s him! Mr Wheatley!’ And a high-pitched holler such as would be heard in hell came from them. The men, more used to being massed in a crowd, stood to one side watching, as the women shook their fists and elbowed each other, all the time keeping up a flocking, mocking screech.

Wheatley put his hands up to silence them. ‘It’s good so many of you have come out in support of your sister, Mrs McHugh,’ he shouted. ‘If you will let me through to the front of the house, I can address the crowd and we shall make sure we send the landlords and their factors packing.’

They greeted this with another yell and the group parted. Mary took Wheatley by the arm and led him through to the front. Danny followed and felt the women’s slaps on his back. There was steam coming off the huddle of them trailing a strange mixed smell of the Parkhead Forge, tobacco and sour whisky. It was good to get through them and to the small area where Wheatley stood in front of the cottage.

Mrs McHugh looked old enough to be Wheatley’s mother but was probably fifteen years his junior. She had the look in her eyes as if Wheatley were a statue of Christ on the cross, tears streamed down her cheeks. She grasped his hand. ‘It’s wonderful what you are doing, Mr Wheatley.’ Mary elbowed her aside and stood rigid alongside Wheatley as they turned to face the crowd. Her face was flushed and her eyes sparked with excitement.

Extract from No Mean Affair (Foxwell Press 2012)

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Robert Ronsson

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01 2017

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