Three Women

Andrew O’Hagan

It was the evictions that created the Effie Bawn people still remember. She was never political before that. She had never listened to politicians. She had only listened to saints. But the Rent Strikes brought her out to the world with her small fists clenched in a white-knuckle fury.

Fathers were dying in trenches. Children and wives were put out on the street. Effie was sick at her Glasgow windows. And looking down she saw other women, swaying sick at their windows too. Women stood on tenement stairs, covering their mouths, watching the bailiffs at their work below. Effie saw these other women, and they saw her. Their eyes would meet from house to house. Mary Barbour up the road was keen to get them organised. Effie joined her. Together they brought the women of Govan in league with women in other parts. They agreed that no one should pay their rent. Out there was an unknown land, with pain and broken bodies. The thing to do was to hold your ground. The women’s emotion rose up like smoke, and joined the air of political fact, as if somewhere they could hear the guns, and picture their husbands crying for shame.

The Rent Strikes began. Life would not be the same again. Not for those women, nor the babies they held. And not for the country either. The stuff of progress would be bred in the bone, and Scotland would make a legend of change, of socialist leaders and future bliss. A century of hopes would settle in the blood. We’d stir them up, and bleed them away. But Effie Bawn was in at the start. Her family would never leave houses alone.

‘We Are Not Removing’ the placards said. So many of them painted up in Effie’s kitchen at Number 11.

The women who came to the meetings were not of the poorest. They had well-mended dresses and petticoats and boots. Once the strike was going, some of the women travelled to Govan from the groves of Kelvinside, their handbags heavy with pamphlets. A ham hough for the soup. A tin of shortbread.

Hugh inherited those shortbread tins. They stood on a shelf in the spare room at Annick Water. Most of them were decorated with pale scenes from the first Empire Exhibition of 1909. But some were later than that: 1938. Beauties they were: The Palace of Engineering; The Palace of Industry; The Garden Club; The Dominions’ Pavilion. They were stacked on the shelf. Hugh had stuffed them with insurance policies.

Some days the women went down to the Burgh Court Hall with their babes in arms. The municipal buildings. Everything smelled of wood waxing. A nervous succession of tenants would rise before the Baillie.

‘Why do you not pay your rent?’

‘My man’s at the Front. No money. The wean’s sick. A don’t have it.’

‘Three weeks to pay, or eject.’ Sometimes: ‘Pay by Wednesday, or remove all articles.’ The women of Govan and Partick and Wilton Street would hiss over the banister. They would hiss and bawl and shake their children at the magistrate.

Effie started a system of watching. The women would place their placards in the windows of all the tenants up for removal. And in every block they took turns to watch the street. They stood with a bell. First sight of the bailiff’s officer the alarm bell would ring out the strikers’ angelus. And down the women would come from all parts of the building.

‘Some with flour, if baking, wet clothes, if washing,’ wrote Effie’s lieutenant Helen Crawfurd.

And any missile that came to hand. Helen wrote of how the bailiff would run for his life, fiercely pursued by the mob in their aprons, mad for justice, brandishing wooden spoons. The engineers and labourers would sometimes appear from the shipyards with their black faces. Out they came at the sudden behest of Mrs Barbour or Ella Crawfurd or Effie Bawn in their high dudgeon. No bailiff in Glasgow, for all his court decree, would dally on his heels when this pretty rabblement came tramping down the street. The Rent Strike held like a pig-iron gate.

Hugh was just over two years old. But the colours stayed. And the noise. The day of the Rent Strikers’ march on George Square. He was there in the arms of Effie Bawn, and sometimes he walked on his first legs, leaning out from her hand, the big gold band on her finger. The morning was harsh. The Glasgow puddles held every oil and grime of the sky that day. Fog was everywhere. The Clyde had earlier spurned its banks; the Green was all mud. With a coat of frost on their backs, the leaves of autumn span in circles in the public parks, and blethered about the statues. Leaves all rotten and lolling like tongues at the feet of great men in their iron clothes of dignity.

There was silence in all the glasshouses, as the lamps began to swing on their hooks, the great crowd approaching, singing their song. The morning mist had swirled at the stanks, and then disappeared, clearing the streets, and the rumble of feet grew louder and louder. Up on the road they marched to a drum. The fences shook to the beat of them coming. A bad day for statues of Gladstone and St George, but not so bad for the women of Glasgow, who came in a tide.

An anarchy of parasols, or faces free to the open air. They came in a tide. Elbow to elbow in their thousands.

‘I was there,’ said Hugh. ‘And I hear the noise.’

Placards high for all to see, and down among the citadels of St Enoch’s the procession passes, the clamour rises, brushing the fronts of those ornate buildings, and into Buchanan Street, the thousands of women were shouting now, and all the tramcars stopped in their lines, to roar them on, and roar them on, the wind coming in from the Campsie Hills to choke the streets, and drunken men laughed at the roadside, hollering out at the very display of these women.

And the housing managers hung from their high balconies on Royal Exchange Square thinking surely not. And surely not.

The watchmakers and jewellers they pulled down their shutters for fear of a riot.

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in