Biography, Black History, Blog, Blog and News, Event, Women's History

A statue for the Past, Present and Future: making space for Betty Campbell, by Angela V. John

Photo courtesy of Ruth Cayford, MWW.

Wednesday 29th September 2021 was no ordinary day in Cardiff. For a start there was glorious sunshine sandwiched in between days of seemingly relentless rain. And it was the culmination of years of planning, with the statue of Betty Campbell MBE (1934-2017), Wales’ first black headteacher and champion of equality and diversity, unveiled in Cardiff’s new Central Square. This began to put an end to centuries of omission: it’s the first outdoor statue of a named woman in Wales and the first statue of a named black person. Sculptor Eve Shepherd’s glorious monument not only draws attention to how visibility can alter our ways of thinking and acting in the present. It also underscores the importance of what Betty Campbell stood for: educating the young for a better future.

So how did this long overdue statue come about? Back in 2016 a group was formed with the ambition of erecting a permanent statue somewhere in Wales to a specific woman. From a long list of 50 historical figures, 5 names were eventually selected. Calling ourselves Monumental Welsh Women, we felt that the final choice should come from as many people as possible. So, BBC Wales ran a poll in January 2019, preceded by a week of nightly features on television and radio (in English and Welsh) showcasing in turn our five shortlisted women. On 18 January 2019 the result of the Hidden Heroines Poll was declared. The people’s choice, by a clear margin, was Betty Campbell.

Betty Campbell was the daughter of a Jamaican father and Irish/Welsh/ Barbadian mother. She was born and lived her entire life in Cardiff’s multi-racial Butetown and was a passionate defender of her community. A clever girl, she won a scholarship to a prestigious Cardiff grammar school. When she had the temerity to suggest to her headteacher that she would like to become a teacher, she was told that her problems would be insurmountable. It was something she never forgot and helped to make her determined to overcome the barriers she faced in terms of race, class and gender.

By 1960 Betty was part of the first female cohort of girls and the only black student in her Cardiff training college. In 1973 she became a dedicated head teacher at Butetown’s Mount Stuart Primary School. She lost no opportunity to promote a multi-racial society. Betty also became a Cardiff City Councillor, a member of the Race Relations Board and sat on the Commission for Racial Equality. An educational trip to the United States encouraged her to promote Black History Month here. She would have been delighted that the teaching of BAME History is about to become mandatory in the History curriculum in Wales. But less than a week after the unveiling of Betty’s statue, and during Black History month, a powerful mural in Butetown celebrating diversity was daubed with white paint, a reminder of how far we still have to go.

The Welsh government has supported the Betty Campbell statue financially and provided £20,000 per statue for the four runners up so that they too can be memorialised. Cardiff City Council and the new Central Square’s developer provided further generous backing for Betty’s statue as did many different organisations and individuals. Working with talented art consultants Studio Response, interviews with potential sculptors led to Eve Sheppard’s artwork being chosen. The result is a majestic figurative statue, providing such a striking likeness to Betty that her son Simon uttered ‘It’s my mum’ on first seeing the maquette. The statue is also redolent with symbolism: Betty emerges out of an oak tree, firm and rooted. Her head and shoulders are the canopy of the tree. She protects and nurtures the schoolchildren and community depicted below. Eve was drawing on the saying that out of tiny acorns mighty oaks grow.

Covid inevitably delayed the unveiling. But we got there. The event was celebrated by her family and many others. Pupils from Mount Stuart School sang Betty’s favourite Labi Siffre song. He, along with others including Prince Charles and actors Michael Sheen and Rakie Ayola sent video messages that were projected onto a large screen. Taylor Edmonds (Future Generations Commissioner for Wales’ Poet in Residence) read out her poem celebrating Betty’s ‘Life of determinations.’ And Olivette Otele, Professor of the History of Slavery at Bristol University, made a powerful speech

Betty’s statue was, however, always seen as the start of redressing wrongs and not as an end in itself. Next up will be a statue of Elaine Morgan (1920-2013) in Mountain Ash. A highly talented television dramatist whose work graced our small screens in the second half of the 20c – most notably, to my mind, with her dramatisation of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth – she also became famous, even infamous, for her pioneering book The Descent of Woman (1971) that gave Darwinism a whole new twist as well as her espousal of the aquatic ape theory of evolution. Elaine’s statue will be unveiled this December.

Another figure known beyond as well as within Wales is Lady Rhondda (1883-1958), originally called Margaret Haig Thomas, then Margaret Mackworth. She was from a more privileged background than the others but used her privilege to help others. Wales’ best-known suffragette, she was imprisoned for setting a letter box alight in Newport, Monmouthshire. She founded the Six Point Group, a charter for social and legal rights and campaigned for decades for women to take their seats in the House of Lords. Perhaps best known for having founding and editing the immensely influential weekly Time and Tide, she was also a leading industrialist, first female president of the Institute of Directors and survived the sinking of the Lusitania. As her biographer I’m naturally an advocate of this statue which will be erected in Newport in 2023.

Meanwhile in Ceredigion on the west Wales coast, plans are well underway for a statue of a truly remarkable Victorian figure: Sarah Jane Rees (1839-1916). She is known by her bardic name of Cranogwen. A polymath, she was a master mariner, poet, pioneer female national Eisteddfod winner, teacher of navigation, lecturer, preacher, traveller temperance campaigner and the first woman to edit a Welsh-language women’s magazine, Y Frythones. This, inter alia, campaigned for girls’ education.

The final statue will be of Elizabeth Andrews (1882 -1960) who made a huge difference to the lives of women and girls in the south Wales valleys. She had left school aged 13 and become a seamstress. She was a suffragist, a lifelong socialist, secretary of one of the first Welsh branches of the Women’s Cooperative Guild, active in the ILP and in 1916 the first woman elected to the executive of the Rhondda Borough Labour Party. She became the first ‘Woman Organiser’ for Wales for the Labour Party and one of Britain’s first female magistrates. Married to a collier, she was also a key figure in the establishment of pithead baths in South Wales as well as nursery education.

All these women deserve recognition and, of course, there must be statues to women in North Wales. Our original plan was for 5 statues in 5 years. We still, however, need considerably more funding to make even the 5 statues a reality.  We have Gofundme sites and any support, however great or small, for the remaining statues will be invaluable. Please visit our website: https://monumentalwelshwomen.com.

Angela V. John has been a member of WHN since its early days. She was Professor of History at the University of Greenwich and is currently an Honorary Professor at Swansea University. She’s the author/editor of a dozen books, half of which are biographical studies. Her subjects include Elizabeth Robins, Henry Nevinson, Evelyn Sharp and Lady Charlotte Guest. She was on the founding collective of the journal Gender & History and is a vice-president of Llafur, the Welsh People’s History Society. Her most recent book is Rocking the Boat: Welsh Women who Championed Equality 1840-1990 (Parthian, 2018).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.