The youngest of three children, she was born in Chesterfield to Frank and Annie Betts, and was brought up in Pontefract and Bradford. Castle was first introduced to socialist politics and beliefs from a young age, growing up in a politically active home. Her older sister, Marjorie, later became a pioneer of the Inner London Education Authority, while her brother Jimmie engaged in field work with Oxfam in Nigeria. She joined the Labour Party as a teenager.
Her father was a tax inspector, exempt from military service in the First World War due to his high rank in a reserved occupation. It was because of the nature of the tax-collecting profession, and the different promotions he received, that the family moved around the country on different occasions. Having moved to Bradford in 1922, the Betts family swiftly became involved with the Independent Labour Party. Although her father was prohibited from formal political activity because of his role as a civil servant, he became editor of the Bradford Pioneer, the city's socialist newspaper, after William Leach was elected to Parliament in 1935. Castle's mother ran the family home, while also operating a soup-kitchen for the town's miners. After Barbara had left home, Annie was elected as a Labour Councillor in Bradford, a role which she kept quite secret from even her close family.
Castle attended Love Lane Elementary School, later going to Pontefract and District Girls High School. After moving to Bradford at the age of twelve, she then attended Bradford Girls' Grammar School. She became involved in dramatics at the school, and it was there that she first developed oratory skills. She excelled academically, winning numerous awards for performance from the school. She organised mock elections at the school, in which she stood as the Labour candidate. There were some elements of the school which she did not like, notably her perception that many of the girls were from rich families. Despite this, in her last year at the school she was appointed Head Girl.
Her further education continued at St Hugh's College, Oxford, from which she graduated with a Third-Class BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Castle began serious political activity at Oxford, serving as the Treasurer of the Oxford University Labour Club, the highest position a woman could hold in the club at the time. Finding her time at university difficult in many respects, she struggled to accept the atmosphere of an institution which had only recently begun to challenge sexist attitudes. She was scornful of the elitist nature of some elements of the institution, branding the Oxford Union "that cadet class of the establishment".
She was elected to St Pancras Borough Council in 1937, and in 1943 she spoke at the annual Labour Party Conference for the first time. She was a senior administrative officer at the Ministry of Food and an ARP warden during the Blitz.
She became a reporter on Tribune, where she had a romantic relationship with William Mellor, who was to become editor of Tribune, until his death in 1942. Following her marriage to Ted Castle in 1944, Castle became the housing correspondent at the Daily Mirror.
In the 1945 general election, which Labour won by a landslide, she was elected as the Member of Parliament for Blackburn and became the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade and then to George Isaacs, Minister of Labour and National Service. She soon achieved a reputation as a left-winger and a rousing speaker. During the 1950s she was a high-profile Bevanite and made a name for herself as a vocal advocate of decolonisation and the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
In the Wilson Government of 1964–1970, she held a succession of ministerial posts. She entered the Cabinet as the first Minister for Overseas Development, becoming the fourth woman in British history ever to hold position in a Cabinet, after Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson and Florence Horsbrugh.
As Minister of Transport (23 December 1965 – 6 April 1968), she introduced the breathalyser to combat the then recently acknowledged crisis of drink-driving, and also made permanent the 70 mph speed limit. She presided over the closure of approximately 2,050 miles of railways as she enacted her part of the Beeching cuts—a betrayal of pre-election commitments by the Labour party to halt the proposals. Nevertheless, she refused closure of several lines, one example being the Looe Valley Line in Cornwall, and introduced the first Government rail subsidies for socially necessary but unprofitable railways in the Transport Act 1968.
One of her most memorable achievements as Transport minister was to pass legislation decreeing that all new cars had to be fitted with seat-belts. Despite being appointed to the Ministry of Transport, a role which she was originally unenthusiastic about, Castle could not actually drive herself, and was chauffeured to functions. (The Labour politician Hazel Blears recalled driving Castle at one time as a young Labour Party activist in the 1980s.) Despite her lack of a driving licence, she attracted controversy when she told local government leaders to give added emphasis to motor vehicle access in urban areas, as "most pedestrians are walking to or from their cars."
As Secretary of State for Employment, she was also appointed First Secretary of State by Wilson, bringing her firmly into the heart of government. She was never far from controversy which reached a fever pitch when the trade unions rebelled against her proposals to reduce their powers in her 1969 white paper, 'In Place of Strife'. This also involved a major cabinet split, with threatened resignations, hot tempers and her future nemesis James Callaghan breaking ranks to publicly try to undermine the bill. The whole episode alienated her from many of her friends on the left, with the Tribune newspaper railing very hard against the bill, which they held to be attacking the workers without attacking the bosses. The split is often said to be partly responsible for Labour's defeat at the 1970 general election. The eventual deal with the unions dropped most of the contentious clauses.
Castle also helped make history when she intervened in the Ford sewing machinists' strike of 1968, in which the women of the Dagenham Ford Plant demanded to be paid the same as their male counterparts. She helped resolve the strike, which resulted in a pay rise for Ford's female workers bringing them to 92% of what the men received. Most significantly, as a consequence of this strike, Castle put through the Equal Pay Act 1970. A 2010 British film, Made in Dagenham, was based on the Ford strike. She was portrayed by Miranda Richardson.
In the early days of the incoming Conservative government in 1970, despite failing to be elected to the shadow cabinet, Castle remained as the Labour shadow spokesperson on Employment. The new Government introduced many of her policy suggestions as part of their Industrial Relations Act. When she was attacking the Conservative bill, the government simply pointed to her own white paper, following which Wilson reshuffled her first to the health portfolio and then out of the shadow cabinet.
In 1974, after Harold Wilson's defeat of Edward Heath, Castle became Secretary of State for Health and Social Services. While serving in this position, Castle introduced a wide range of innovative welfare reforms, including the introduction of the mobility allowance, the Invalid Care Allowance (July 1976) for single women and others who give up their jobs to care for severely disabled relatives, the introduction of a non-contributory invalidity pension for disabled persons who had not qualified for invalidity pension, reforms in child allowances, and the linking of most social security benefits to earnings rather than prices.
In the 1975 referendum debate she took a Eurosceptic stance. During a debate with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe he asked her whether, if the vote would be yes, she would stay on as a minister. To this she replied "If the vote is yes my country will need me to save it." Despite her views she later became a Member of the European Parliament (1979–1989).
Castle remained in cabinet until Wilson's resignation in April 1976. The head of the Downing Street policy unit, Bernard Donoughue, records in his diary that he warned Wilson that Castle's dogged pursuit of personal policy stances on public health would "wreck the NHS". Donoughue claims that Wilson agreed, but admitted he would leave it to his successor to resolve. Castle lost her place as a cabinet minister when her bitter political enemy James Callaghan took over from Wilson as prime minister in 1976 and dismissed her almost immediately upon taking office. In an interview many years later, discussing her removal from office by Callaghan, she claimed that the Prime Minister had told her he wanted "somebody younger" in the Cabinet, to which she famously remarked that perhaps the most restrained thing she had ever achieved in her life was not to reply with "Then why not start with yourself, Jim?" (Callaghan was four years older than Wilson, the man he was replacing).
Despite her Eurosceptic stance, less than a month after leaving Westminster at the 1979 general election she stood for and was elected to the European Parliament, writing in the Tribune that "politics is not just about policies: it is about fighting for them in every available forum and at every opportunity." In 1982 she wrote in the New Statesman that Labour should abandon its opposition to British membership of the EEC, saying that Britain should fight its corner inside it. This led her former ally Ian Mikardo to say to her: "Your name is mud".
She represented Greater Manchester North from 1979–1984, and was then elected for another five years to represent Greater Manchester West from 1984–1989. She was, at that time, the only British MEP to have held a cabinet position.
In the European Parliament Castle led Labour's delegation, serving as vice-chair of the Socialist Group and as a member of the Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development and also the Delegation for relations with Malta.
Barbara Castle was the recipient of "The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Silver", a South African award to foreign nationals for friendship with that country. In a statement the South African government recognised Castle's "outstanding contribution to the struggle against apartheid and the establishment of a non-sexist, non-racial and democratic South Africa". This can be seen throughout Castle's career with her active support for the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in Britain from the very start of its existence and her continued interest and devotion to colonial issues within Parliament.
In 2002 Castle was posthumously awarded an honorary degree from the Open University. The award, Doctor of the University, was presented for Public Services for works in areas of special educational concern to the OU.
Castle also received a Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990, for services to European democracy.
In 2008, Barbara Castle was named by The Guardian as one of four of "Labour's greatest heroes".
In September 2008 Northern Rail, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and PTEG (Passenger transport executive Group) named a train after her. The plaque was unveiled by Barbara's niece, Sonya Hinton, and Ruth Kelly MP (then Secretary of State for Transport). A commemorative brochure of the event was produced by PTEG.
In Blackburn, a dual carriageway that makes up one of the main parts of the ring road has been called Barbara Castle Way.
She was named on the 2016 BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour Power List as one of seven women judged to have had the biggest impact on women's lives over the past 70 years, alongside Margaret Thatcher, Helen Brook, Germaine Greer, Jayaben Desai, Bridget Jones, and Beyoncé.
In 1974, Ted Castle was made a life peer. This meant that Barbara was now formally Lady Castle, but she refused to use this courtesy title. Ted Castle died in 1979. In 1990, she was made a life peer in her own right, as Baroness Castle of Blackburn. She remained active in politics right up until her death, attacking the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, for his refusal to link pensions to earnings at the Labour party conference in 2001.
Barbara Castle died in Chiltern, Buckinghamshire, on 3 May 2002, of pneumonia and chronic lung disease.1910–1944: Miss Barbara Betts1944–1945: Mrs Barbara Castle1945–1964: Mrs Barbara Castle 1964–1974: The Right Honourable Barbara Castle 1974–1979: The Right Honourable The Lady Castle 1979: The Right Honourable The Lady Castle 1979–1989: The Right Honourable The Lady Castle 1989–1990: The Right Honourable The Lady Castle 1990–2002: The Right Honourable The Baroness Castle of Blackburn
The Castle Diaries were published after the 1979 General Election, chronicling her time in office from 1964–1976 and providing an insight into the workings of Cabinet Government. A review in the London Review of Books at the time of their publication claimed, "Barbara Castle's diary shows more about the nature of Cabinet Government than any previous publication. ... It is, I think, better than Crossman", a reference to the published diaries of former Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman. However, when Enoch Powell reviewed her diaries he remarked that the "overpowering impression left on the reader's mind by her diary is that of triviality: the largest decisions and the profoundest issues are effortlessly trivialised."
Castle's autobiography, Fighting All The Way (ISBN 0-330-32886-7), was published in 1993.
A biography by Lisa Martineau, Barbara Castle: Politics and Power (EAN 0233994807), was published in 2000, and Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins (ISBN 0-333-90511-3) in 2003.
She was commemorated on a postage stamp issued as part of the Royal Mail's "Women of Distinction" series issued on 14 October 2008 for piloting the Equal Pay Act through parliament. She appears on the 81p denomination.
Castle was portrayed by British actress Miranda Richardson in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham, dealing with the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham assembly plant and Castle's subsequent involvement in protesting against sexual discrimination.