Helen Robertson Barton

17th Dec 1856 - 30th March 1942

Helen Robertson Barton was born in Hamilton in 1856, left school at 12 and worked as a weaver before moving to Glasgow to work as a domestic servant. Married to an engineer at 20, she was widowed with 6 children at 38. Her husband’s earlier success meant that she had a reasonable inheritance but needed an income.

Helen Barton became a restaurateur, starting with a restaurant in the Gallowgate and later moving to a prime spot in Argyle Street. Deeply religious, this was not enough and, having witnessed the poverty in the East End of Glasgow, she made the move into public life.

In 1897, Helen became the first woman elected on to the Shettleston School Board.

In 1901, Helen was elected as Parish Councillor in Glasgow, serving on the Infant Mortality Board, Borough Distress Committee, Lunacy Board, and the Children's, Medical, Poorhouse & Old Age Pensions Committees.

The Infant Mortality Board set up a scheme to reduce the desperately high death rates among infants. Women were recruited as volunteers to visit mothers at home to advise on hygiene and the feeding and care of babies. Cots were made from packing crates and given or sold to mothers at reduced prices. Soup kitchens provided nutritious meals. In the first year of the scheme, infant mortality reduced from 226 to 196 per thousand in the first year and to 126 per thousand in the next.

The Borough Distress Committee set up an employment scheme designed to offer temporary work to unemployed men. The men were given jobs for 12 weeks draining boggy land and digging peat to prepare it for farming, then working on the farmland to grow crops. Transport and meals were provided and wages given directly to wives to ensure the families were provided for. The wives received 8/ a week plus 2/ a week for each child to a maximum of 14/ per week. The men received 6d. per week pocket money.

Helen achieved an outstanding amount in her lifetime:

  • British Women's Temperance Association (B.W.T.A.) - President 1935-36
  • Independent Order of Good Templars (I.O.G.T.) - member for over 60 years, served as Grand Vice Templar.
  • Women's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) - travelled the world campaigning, including 3 trips to Australia totalling 8 years. Described as "the Queen of Scottish Orators"
  • In 1927, aged 71, Mrs Barton published a book about her Australian travels and two songs.
  • Scottish Women's Liberal Federation - served on a number of committees, including suffrage.
  • Scottish Home Rule Association - a supporter of home rule in Ireland and Scotland.
  • First woman elected an elder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1930).
  • Founded the Domestic Servants Friendly Society, providing welfare and pensions for female servants.
  • The Peace Society - attended the opening of the Peace Palace in the Hague in 1913.
  • Member of the National Council of Women.

Helen Barton continued as a popular public speaker into her eighties. Her granddaughter Jean says that, even in old age, Helen Barton could hold an audience in the palm of her hand.

Trisha Small said:

"Largely unknown, I think it's time Helen Barton was recognised for her work tackling poverty and alcoholism in Glasgow and across the world."


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