Barbara Castle, the pioneering British female politician and prominent national figure from the 1950s to the 70s, has been commemorated with a new statue in Blackburn, where she served as a Labour MP for 34 years.
The striding figure, sculpted by Sam Holland, is clutching a bronze copy of the Equal Pay Act 1970. It is the latest in a string of commissioned works slowly redressing the heavy dominance of male statues. Other recent moves to mark the lives of influential British women include London statues of Diana, Princess of Wales and of campaigning writer Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as the 2018 statue of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester.
Ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Conservative prime minister Theresa May donated towards the statue, which has been installed directly into the ground. “She didn’t want to be on a pedestal,” Holland explained. “She talked to people on the ground, so it was important that she was in amongst the people.”
Castle, who died in 2002 aged 91, left her stamp on British life not only in legislation to promote equal pay for women, but also by enforcing the fitting of seat belts in new cars and the introduction of the breathalyser.
She was played by Miranda Richardson in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham, and is to be portrayed on screen again in the first episode of a planned series about the female MPs who came before Margaret Thatcher, written by journalist and broadcaster Helen Lewis.
“Barbara Castle is the best prime minister Britain never had,” Lewis told the Observer this weekend. “Her achievements were substantial – the breathalyser, helping create the Ministry of Overseas Development, equal pay – but what stands out most is that she was a fighter.
“The Equal Pay Act, for example, was born out of the ashes of a humiliating defeat – her attempts to reform the trade unions. In the 1970s, when Jim Callaghan sacked her from the cabinet for being too old – she was only two years older than him – she left British politics and served as an MEP for a decade.”
The official unveiling in Blackburn’s Jubilee Square was attended by Jack Straw, who succeeded Castle as the town’s MP, and by the current MP, Kate Hollern. The deputy leader of the Labour party, Angela Rayner, also joined the ceremony, alongside Blackburn councillors, including Maureen Bateson, who knew Castle and led the drive to put up a statue.
Baroness Castle, a tax inspector’s daughter from West Yorkshire, was the youngest woman elected in Labour’s 1945 landslide victory.
Holland was commissioned to create the sculpture in 2019, but work was delayed by the pandemic. “Barbara should have been celebrated 50 years ago. She was a great advocate for those who aren’t heard.
“At the time, she was a lone woman among men in power,” Holland has said, admitting the hardest part of the process was getting the right pose. “It’s all about capturing her energy and determination.”
The statue is the third attempt at a tribute. In the 80s, the local Labour party raised £19,000 for a community centre named after her and there was a failed bid for a statue in 2004.
Such persistence is fitting for Castle, often quoted as saying: “In politics, guts is all.”