Betty Campbell – headteacher, activist and pioneer – was once a huge presence in her native Butetown. Now a unique 4m-high statue created in her image will welcome visitors to the capital, a focal point between the city’s central train station and the new headquarters of BBC Wales.

Born in 1934 to a Welsh-Barbadian mother and Jamaican father, Betty Campbell overcame what one of her own teachers once told her were ‘insurmountable’ barriers to become Wales’ first black headteacher. She taught at Mount Stuart Primary School in Butetown for 28 years, inspiring generations of children in the area and pioneering lessons on Black history long before it was on any national curriculum. 

In her own words, Betty Campbell was “determined that I was going to become one of those people and enhance the black spirit, black culture as much as I could”.

Helen Molyneux, who chairs Monumental Welsh Women, the organisation behind the new statue, explains the origins of the project lie in a newspaper column written for the Western Mail by Carolyn Hitt – who pointed out the absence of real Welsh women in public art – and a night out at The Dead Canary cocktail bar in Cardiff, where a group of influential women decided something must be done to correct this.

The National Wales: The new statue of Betty Campbell in Cardiff. Picture: Dylan MooreThe new statue of Betty Campbell in Cardiff. Picture: Dylan Moore 

“There were about 10 of us all together,” Molyneux recalls, “an amazing group of women, and after a couple of cocktails we decided we should do a statue.”

Molyneux’s partner is Paul McCarthy, CEO of Rightacres, the property company responsible for the redevelopment of Cardiff’s Central Square, and she explains that within any such large-scale development there is always a pot of money for public art. Molyneux said that while it was easy to persuade McCarthy to part with cash and delegate responsibility, there were now two big hurdles: raising further funds to ensure the statue would do its subject justice – and deciding who to commemorate. 

“We wanted a piece of art, not just a woman on a plinth – a monument that would be eye-catching, and talked about.” She reminds me of two relatively recently erected statues in Betty Campbell’s own Cardiff Bay back yard. “There’s Gandhi, and there’s Ivor Novello, but do people even notice them or know they’re there?” 

The centenary of women’s suffrage in 2018 gave rise to a number of initiatives that dovetailed nicely with the group’s ambition. Helen Molyneux recalls: “The Women’s Equality Network had produced a list of 100 inspirational Welsh women, and so we worked with them, using their choices of 50 deceased Welsh women as a longlist and then bringing in a panel of other people to whittle the list to five.”

The National Wales: A crowd of people turned out for the unveiling ceremony. Picture: Dylan MooreA crowd of people turned out for the unveiling ceremony. Picture: Dylan Moore

Monumental Welsh Women also worked with the BBC to produce a series of programmes, fronted by Cerys Matthews, to publicise a vote. The final five ‘Hidden Heroines’ were television writer and evolutionary theorist Elaine Morgan; poet, journalist and master mariner ‘Cranogwen’; political activist Elizabeth Andrews; and editor, businesswoman and suffragette Lady Rhondda – as well as Betty Campbell.

Molyneux is not at liberty to discuss exact numbers, but was pleased with the ‘huge’ response from the public – and a landslide victory for Campbell.

“The whole Cardiff community got behind Betty – which was exactly what we hoped would happen: that the people of Wales would support these amazing women.” 

If there were a number of fortuitous twists in the story of how a statue got from a newspaper column and a night out to a television series and expensive public art commission, the monument’s sculptor Eve Shepherd also suggests there was an element of fate in the way her ideas developed.

“As soon as I found out [the winner] was Betty,” she remembers, “I kept getting a song going over and over in my head while I was driving – that old Labi Siffre song, Something Inside So Strong.”

Shepherd associated the song with the unveiling of another monument, by her friend Ian Walters, a bronze bust of Nelson Mandela that stands outside Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. “I remember a choir singing that song, and it was just so, so powerful.”

With that soundtrack and the powerful image of Mandela in her head, Shepherd went to meet Betty’s family. “I like to build a playlist to get in the right headspace when I’m working,” she explains. “And when I interviewed them, Betty’s kids, grandkids and friends all said that that was her favourite song: Something Inside So Strong. I thought: that’s an omen.”

The National Wales: Prince Charles addressed the crowd before the statue was unveiled.Prince Charles addressed the crowd before the statue was unveiled.

Shepherd found herself admiring the absolute centrality of education in Betty’s life, and says: “I wanted to throw everything at [the project] because I wanted it to count. I won’t make work that’s just basically a perch for pigeon. There needs to be an educational aspect: that’s what public culture should be about.”

She made it her mission to “embed into the life and culture” of Butetown. “I’m not black and I’m not Welsh,” says Shepherd, who lives in Brighton, “and so I did lots of workshops with kids and parents that helped me understand a bit more about what it’s like to be from Tiger Bay, what it’s like to be from an ethnic minority background. What I don’t want to do as a sculptor is imprint white principles on a project.”

She says Betty’s family were “incredibly generous with their time”, as were former pupils and colleagues in the wider community, all of whom gave the sculptor insight into Betty’s character. “I was interested in everything: what was she like as a mum, a grandma, a colleague, a boss, a teacher, a friend?”

These conversations revealed things even Betty’s family had not known. Her daughter Elaine Clarke, who now lives in London, says she was humbled to discover her mother had “helped many people quietly – financially, or through support like writing letters”. Many in Butetown told her: “If it wasn’t for your mother, I would never have done X, Y or Z.”

These aspects of Betty’s character led Shepherd to her central metaphor: a tree. She enthuses: “Trees are not inanimate objects. Every now and again you’ll get an old, established tree that is deeply connected to others. They send out nutrients if other trees need nurturing – they’re called hub trees, or mother trees, and if you chop them down the forest will severely suffer.”

Shepherd explains: “The mother tree shades the saplings to retard their growth. It’s like a street kid – if you grow up too quickly, you become vulnerable.” And so in the monument to her legacy, Betty Campbell has become a tree. In her sculptor’s words: “A canopy you can sit under, an umbrella to shelter you.”

And while sitting in the shade of Betty’s powerful visage, there is much else to look for in the monument: a map of Cardiff Bay within its footprint; iconic edifices like the Pierhead Building, Wales Millennium Centre, Coal Exchange and St Mary’s Church; and references to the black history curriculum that Betty Campbell pioneered. Rosa Parks is there, as is Nelson Mandela, the global icon who sought out Betty’s company on his only visit to Wales in 1998. 

Although she recognises the international significance of her sculpture of a working class, non-white woman – “it’s about time, an exciting time, and a massive honour to do” – Eve Shepherd also admits to being nervous about its unveiling. “When you’re putting a piece of work in somebody’s city centre, it’s like putting it in their back garden.” 

She hopes it will connect emotionally with the people of Cardiff, and Wales. “It’s a good piece of work if you get it to touch the hearts of people.”

If the reaction so far is anything to go by, the statue will soon take its place in the hearts of our nation. 

Helen Molyneux says that when the mock-up maquette of the monument was revealed during the commissioning process, “the hairs on the back of my neck quite literally stood up. Betty’s family were there and they had tears in their eyes. It was so different – and so beautiful”.

Elaine Clarke concurs. “We were all quite emotional because it more or less captured my mum. It really represented her. If you met my mum, you’d always remember her.”

Now thanks to this statue, many more people – in Cardiff, across Wales, and around the world – are about to meet with Betty Campbell and engage with her legacy, for perhaps the first time. 

What does her daughter think that legacy is? “To be determined, to have hope and inspiration to succeed. To follow your dreams.”

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