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Rent strikes

Causes

The first world war saw considerable change to the structure of Glasgow's working class. Youth employment was common with boys as young as 11 years of age employed as horse drawn van drivers. Also women being employed in what until then had been all male trades. Ministry of Munitions figures stated that by 1916 there were 18,500 women working in metal trades in the Clydeside area. During the war the standard of living improved considerably with near full employment, endless overtime and restricted pub hours. After the war there was a tremendous rise in unemployment and in poverty.

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Glasgow Women's Housing Association

In pre First World war Glasgow there were a large number of empty houses, by the year 1915 all were occupied by incoming workers to the munitions and allied war industry trades. A shortage of workers and materials saw a lack of maintenance and the housing stock deteriorate rapidly. At the beginning of the war the landlords tried to implement large rent increases, at risk were 7,000 pensioners and families whose men were fighting in France. This brought about the formation of the "Glasgow Women's Housing Association" and many local "Women's Housing Associations" to resist the increases. All manner of peaceful activities were used to prevent evictions and drive out the Sheriff's officers. There were constant meetings in an attempt to be one step ahead of the Sheriff's officers. All manner of communication was used to summon help, everything from drums, bells, trumpets and anything that could be used to create a warning sound to rally the supporters who were mainly women as the men were at work in the yards and factories at these times. They would then indulge in cramming into closes and stairs to prevent the entry of the Sheriff's officers and so prevent them from carrying out their evictions. They also used little paper bags of flour, peasmeal and whiting as missiles directed at the bowler hatted officers. These activities culminated on the 17th of November 1915 with the massive demonstration and march of thousands through the city streets and on to the Glasgow Sheriff's Court. This resulted in the immediate implementation of the "1915 Rent Restriction Act" which benefited tenants across the country. The Rent Act was to run for 6 months after the war. However immediately after the war the Glasgow Property and Factors' Association demanded large rent increases. The City's tenants organised the Scottish Labour Housing Association. John Wheatley through an ILP campaign helped to bring about the 1920 Rent Restriction Act. The intended compromise was that there would be an immediate increase of 15% plus another 25% if essential repairs were done. The tenants, however stated that there had been no repairs since 1914 and precious few before that. On the 23rd of August 1920 a General Strike was called and had a massive support in Glasgow. A large demonstration took place on Glasgow Green and "Notices of Increase" were piled up and set alight. The property owners response was to take out eviction orders in Court against tenants who refused to pay. During the period between the 1920s and the 1930s Glasgow's unemployment never fell below 20% with a population of over 1,250,000. Unemployment in the city climbed to over 25% during the thirties. The Labour Housing Association pointed out that the cases could be continued in the Sheriff Court, who were unlikely to grant thousands of decrees for eviction of unemployed tenants. It appears that the Glasgow Sheriffs were not unsympathetic to the plight of the poor tenants. The "GLASGOW HERALD" , a newspaper not noted for its sympathy towards the ordinary folk of Glasgow, carried an article on, " ...the human consequences of this endless litigation against the poor..."

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Legal confusion

The numerous attempts at peaceful protest to the evictions continued, using the same methods as before. Thousands of windows had notices stating, "We are not paying rent increases" . The situation with regards to tenants under Scots law was that when they signed their original tenancy agreement accepting the rent the agreement was binding on both parties as long as the tenant paid the stated rent. The factor could not alter the rent without first issuing a Notice of Removal", giving the tenant the option of accepting the new rent or vacating the premises. On the 26th of November 1920 the Sheriff-substitute Menzies of Dumbarton Sheriff Court held that the rent increases allowed by the 1920 "Rent Act" are invalid where no "Notice of Removal" had been given. Further, rent increases paid under these circumstances could be reclaimed by the tenants. At the same time, on the same day the Glasgow Sheriff Court gave the opposite ruling on an identical case involving "Emmanuel Shinwell", who was duly evicted. The Factors Association appealed the Dumbarton Court decision all the way through the legal system to the Law Lords and in each appeal the decision was to agree with the Dumbarton Court's findings. The Glasgow "Rent Strike " movement, though still continuing was now weaker than the situation in Clydebank where it remained solid and very militant.

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Assessment

Due to the trouble and chaos of the rent situation the government in January 1925 set up a commission under "Lord Constable" to look at the whole affair of rented accommodation. This more or less brought about the collapse of the "Rent Strike" movement.

The rent strikes were not led by any one person or group. This was a genuine popular struggle involving; women, housewives, the "National Unemployed Workers Movement", militants, organised vigilantes, propagandists and housing associations.

Next: Tom Bell, 1882-1944

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Updated: 09/01/2006 | Site editor | Legal