Unveiled: statues for the twenty-first century

Professor Angela V. John introduces the Monumental Welsh Women project to commemorate five ‘hidden heroines’ chosen by popular vote

Statues make statements. They become symbolic, not only for the time when they are erected but also for the future. The toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020 and the publicity this generated speaks about current anger and attitudes and the need to recognise how Back Lives Matter rather more than it addresses the values of those who had endorsed the statue’s erection in the 1890s.

The statue of Betty Campbell. Photo courtesy of Ruth Cayford, MMW. Click for larger image

Four years earlier in 2016, aware that not a single statue of a real woman existed in any outdoor space in Wales, a group of women came together to attempt to remedy the situation. In the centre of Cardiff, a grand new Central Square was being developed, a large, pedestrianised piazza in front of the railway station replacing the dilapidated bus station. It would house ultra-modern high-rise buildings and businesses, including the new BBC Wales headquarters. The square’s developer, along with Welsh Government and Cardiff City Council agreed to support a public artwork in this space: a statue of a historical woman who had made a major contribution to Welsh society.

Calling ourselves Monumental Welsh Women, and working with the Wales Women’s Equality Network, we whittled down a list of 50 women to a shortlist of 5. We were keen that the final choice be made by as many people as possible. So, BBC Wales ran a Hidden Heroines poll in January 2019, preceded by a week in which radio and television in English and Welsh, the press and social media bombarded the public with information about the shortlisted women. The singer Cerys Matthews presented daily short films of their stories on BBC television’s news programme, Wales Today. A public online ballot followed and the result was announced on television from Central Square.

The people’s choice, by a clear margin, was Betty Campbell (1934-2017). She was Wales’ first black headteacher and a champion of equality and diversity. The daughter of a Jamaican father and Irish/Welsh/Barbadian mother, Betty was born and lived her entire life in Butetown, Cardiff’s multi-racial docklands community. 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 teach, she was told that her problems would be insurmountable. Determined to overcome the barriers she faced in terms of race, class and gender, she became part of her training college’s first female cohort and its sole black student. By 1973 she was the head teacher at Butetown’s Mount Stuart Primary School which she made a beacon of multiculturalism. She was also a Cardiff City Councillor, a member of the Race Relations Board and sat on the Commission for Racial Equality. Betty was an especially fitting choice for a statue in her own city and for the twenty-first century.

Raising the many thousands of pounds needed for a statue was quite a challenge. In addition to the Welsh government gift of £20,000, local authority support and that of the developer, many different businesses, organisations, foundations and individuals generously supported our fund-raising campaign. Working with imaginative art consultants, Studio Response, we selected the sculptor Eve Shepherd from an impressive field of internationally recognised sculptors. The result is a majestic figurative monument. Betty’s family were involved with the project from the outset and one of her children declared: ‘It’s my mum’ as soon as he saw the maquette. The statue is also symbolic: Betty emerges out of an oak tree, resolute and rooted. At the unveiling ceremony Eve explained that she was drawing on the saying that out of tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow. Betty’s head and shoulders form the canopy of the tree. She protects the schoolchildren and community depicted at her feet.

Betty Campbell’s statue is the first outdoor statue of a named woman in Wales and its first statue of a named black person. Covid delayed the unveiling but on 29 September 2021, on a remarkably sunny day, it finally happened. Betty’s family spoke. Pupils from her school sang her favourite Labi Siffre song. Siffre, the Prince of Wales (who had visited Betty’s school) and actors Michael Sheen and Rakie Ayola sent messages projected on to a giant screen. The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales read out her poem celebrating Betty’s ‘Life of Determinations’ and Professor of the History of Slavery, Olivette Otele of Bristol University made a powerful speech. A BBC Wales documentary about Betty and her statue was shown on television that evening. The critic Gary Raymond wrote that ‘It is great art, but perhaps more importantly, it is great public art’.

We always saw this winning statue as the start of a much longer process. Spurred on by the Welsh government generously deciding to support the four runners-up to the tune of £20,000 apiece, we have continued our campaign. Six months on from the unveiling, the second statue will be revealed on 18 March 2022 in front of a new doctors’ surgery at Mountain Ash in the Cynon Valley. It will honour the lifelong socialist Elaine Morgan (1920-2013), the first woman from South Wales to receive a mining scholarship to Oxford University. She was a highly talented television dramatist with a prodigious list of programmes, including popular drama adaptations such as Testament of Youth and How Green Was My Valley.

Elaine covered science as well as the arts, writing the pioneering study The Descent of Woman (1971) that reached number 7 in The New York Times bestseller list. It gave Darwinism a new, feminist twist. Later publications advocated the Aquatic Ape theory. The depiction of Elaine – pen in hand – by the talented sculptor Emma Rodgers FRSA, will be a fitting testimony to the woman of the valleys who had published her first story in Wales’ Western Mail newspaper aged 11 and, from the age of 82, wrote a weekly column in the same paper.

2023 will see the unveiling of the statue of Sarah Jane Rees (1839-1916), best known by her bardic name of Crangowen. She hailed from the far west of Wales and the small coastal community of Llangrannog in Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion). This versatile, pioneering Victorian became a master mariner, a teacher, the first female winner – for her poetry – at the National Eisteddfod, the first women to edit a Welsh language women’s magazine, a lecturer and a preacher, not just in Wales but also in America.

Cranogwen’s statue and most of the fund-raising for it has been spearheaded by a remarkable community venture from the people of Llangrannog. Even the sculptor, Sebastien Boyeren, lives locally and his designs have evolved through collective discussion in workshops. The plans for this statue are embedded in the village’s natural environment. Its dramatic rocks and their striations will be reflected in how Cranogwen will be represented.

From left to right, Elizabeth Andrews, Betty Campbell, Cranogwen, Elaine Morgan and Lady Rhondda. Photo courtesy of Hidden Heroines.

Next up, and planned for the centre of the city of Newport, will be the statue of Lady Rhondda (1883-1958), born Margaret Haig Thomas and also known as Margaret Mackworth. The daughter of a wealthy Welsh industrialist and Liberal politician, she was the most privileged of the five yet used this privilege to advocate the rights of women. The secretary of Newport’s branch of Mrs Pankhurst’s militant Women’s Social and Political Union for more than five years, she became Wales’ best-known suffragette, was imprisoned and went on hunger strike after setting alight a post box. After important jobs in charge of women’s national service in Wales then London during wartime and surviving the sinking of the Lusitania, she continued her suffrage activism in the 1920s and founded the Six Point Group with its charter advocating equal social and legal rights for women.

She was also a highly prominent businesswoman and in 1926 became the first elected president of the Institute of Directors. For decades she campaigned for women like herself who had been granted peerages in their own right, to be able to take their seats in the House of Lords. Perhaps most significantly, she founded and funded in 1920 the progressive paper, Time & Tide. Lady Rhondda edited it from 1926 and kept this influential paper going for the rest of her life.

The fifth statue will be of Elizabeth Andrews (1882-1960) a seamstress who had left school aged 13. A miner’s wife, she became the first woman elected to the executive of the Rhondda Labour Party, active in women’s suffrage and the Women’s Co-operative Guild, and the first Labour Party Women’s Organiser for Wales in 1919. Her motto was ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’, and she was a leading figure in campaigns for pithead baths, nursery education and maternity rights, as demonstrated in the powerful articles she wrote as editor of the ‘Women’s Page’ in the Colliery Workers’ Magazine. Whereas Lady Rhondda’s statue is at the stage where we are about to interview shortlisted sculptors and have raised about half of the money we require, our need to acquaint the public with the all-important work of Elizabeth Andrews, especially on behalf of working-class women and children, and to raise the funds needed for her statue, is only just beginning.

The memorialisation of these five, very different, figures will help the visibility of women in our public spaces. Hopefully, it will lead to more statues, especially in north Wales. And it should make a statement about the past, present and future. Already Betty Campbell’s statue is becoming one of the must visit sights of Cardiff and, most encouraging, is the way in which it seems to appeal to young people.

Angela V. John is a vice-president of the SSLH, president of Llafur, the Welsh People’s History Society and an honorary professor at Swansea University. She has published a dozen books, including a biography of Lady Rhondda and, most recently, Rocking the Boat. Welsh Women who Championed Equality 1840- 1990 (Parthian, 2018).

If you wish to contribute to the statue funds, please follow the links for Elizabeth Andrews and Lady Rhondda.