THE WELSH IN AUSTRALIA

by A. Ffestin Hughes
(An abridged version of his article in The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins , edited by James Jupp, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988. A second edition was due to be published in 2001)

The Welsh have been involved in the development of Australia from the earliest days of European settlement. Their impact has been notable in a number of key areas of Australian life --especially in the mining industry--but has always been limited by their relatively small numbers. It has also been obscured by the long-held but misleading view that, with the exception of the Irish, all British people who have settled in Australia have been culturally homogeneous. Although overwhelmingly Protestant and, since the sixteenth century, politically and economically integrated with England, the Welsh have brought to Australia a distinctive cultural identity.

Background to Nineteenth Century Emigration

The forms of Welsh cultural and social life that were brought to Australia were crystallised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus the Eisteddfod-now a familiar cultural institution in most Australian States-is a product of the Welsh literary and antiquarian revival of the late eighteenth century. Subsequently, the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales and its many local counterparts have channelled much of the creative energies of the Welsh into musical and literary composition.

At the same time, the growth of Methodism, allied to the older Dissent, was to turn Wales into a stronghold of Nonconformity. Nineteenth century and early twentieth century Welsh culture was essentially a chapel-centred culture, sustained by a puritan ethos and expressed in the Welsh language. In Australia, too, the Nonconformist chapel was to herald the Welsh presence and to serve as the focal point of the Welsh community.

The advance of Welsh Nonconformity coincided with a process of massive industrialisation-arguably the most vital element in the histon of modern Wales. The growth of an iron industry in South Wales in the last two decades of the eighteenth century was accompanied later by coal-mining in the valleys of the south-east on a scale that, by 1913, had made Cardiff the biggest coal-exporting port in the world. Industrialisation inevitably produced urbanisation. By the end of the nineteenth century Wales was to be the first country in the world with a predominantly urban population. Initially, the industrial labour force was drawn largely from the rural north and west, so that, unlike the Irish example, Welsh population movement in the nineteenth century was for the most part internal. Paradoxically, therefore, industrialisation sened to perpetuate a unified Welsh culture. In the process, the Welsh language was given a new lease of life, sustained by a vigorous press and an impressive array of political and denominational journals. In the 1860s there were 8 weeklies, 25 monthlies and 5 quarterlies published in the Welsh language. Ultimately, however, industrial growth was divisive. In the two decades before the First World War a large influx of English and Irish immigrants hastened the anglicisation of the southern valleys, thus producing the two images of Wales that are still familiar-a rural, Welsh-speaking north and an industrial, anglicised south.

The pattern of Welsh emigration to Australia in the nineteenth century and the character of the culture that the emigrants sought to nurture in the colonies needs to be seen against this complex background of a society transformed by religious Nonconformity and industrial change yet acutely aware of its distinctive historical inheritance.

Nineteenth Century Arrivals in Australia

The Welsh have always been reluctant emigrants. Much nineteenth century Welsh migration was internal, or was directed across Offa's Dyke into England by the prospect of employment. The total Welsh population has always been small, with no more than 0.5 million before the late eighteenth century and a little over 1.5 million by 1881. Even in relative terms, Welsh migration movement overseas has been small. It has been estimated that, in proportion to population, Irish emigrants to the United States of America (also the most favoured destination of the Welsh in the nineteenth century) were 26 times more numerous than those from Wales.

Most emigration from Wales has been on an individual basis, but the nineteenth century witnessed several attempts to establish 'colonies' overseas, where Welsh emigrants could live in semi-autonomous communities retaining their language, culture and religion. Morgan John Rhys, a Baptist minister from Glamorganshire, was the first to envisage a Welsh utopia in foreign parts. As a result of his efforts, a Welsh settlement called Cambria was established in Western Pennsylvania at the end of the eighteenth century . Another minister, Rev. Samuel Roberts (S. R.) of Llanbrynmair, acquired land for a Welsh colony in Tennessee in the 1850s. Both of these efforts were unsuccessful. The most remarkable and enduring venture of this sort was the Welsh colony in Patagonia (Y Wladfa), which was the idea of Rev. Michael D. Jones. He had discovered that the second-generation Welsh in the United States of America became quickly indifferent to their ethnic background. The 153 emigrants who arrived in Argentina aboard the Mimosa in July 1865 formed the core of a Welsh settlement which has survived to this day.

There was no sizeable Welsh emigration to Australia before the gold-rush departures of the 1850s, although reliable figures on free settlement are blurred by the umbrella category 'England and Wales' used in official records. Birthplace statistics in Australia are more helpful, but here, too, some colonies combined the figures. Statistics on convict transportation are reasonably accurate as the place of trial of each convict is known.

There were Welshmen amongst Cook's crew on his early voyages. Francis Wilkinson of Bangor in Caernarfon was master's mate on the Endeavour, and, although there is no evidence that he came to Australia, David Samwell (poet and physician with the bardic name of Dafydd Ddu Feddyg- Black David the Doctor) was the medical officer aboard the Discovery who witnessed Cook's death in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) in 1779. Of the convicts who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, four had been tried in Wales. Man Watkins, aged 19 years, on the transport Friendship had been tried for burglary at Glamorgan Quarter Sessions and sentenced to seven years. Frances Williams, age not recorded, on the transport Prince of Wales had been tried at Mold at the Great Sessions of the county of Flint, also for burglary, and had also been sentenced to transportation for seven years. William Davis, age not recorded, on the transport Alexander had been tried at the Brecon Quarter Sessions and sentenced to transportation for life. William Edmunds, age not recorded, on the transport Alexander had been tried at Monmouth Lent Assizes 'for stealing one Heifer'. He was first sentenced to death but was later reprieved and transported for seven years. These were the first Welsh settlers, albeit unwillingly, in Australia. Between 1788 and 1852 some 1800 of the convict arrivals, of whom 283 were women, were tried in Wales, representing 1.2 per cent of the total. The majority were from the industrialised and densely populated counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, areas with great social problems at that time. Many of those transported spoke only Welsh, so that the pain of enforced exile was often exacerbated by communication difficulties.

Among the Welsh convict arrivals of the 1830s were leaders of the emerging trade union movement in South Wales. Lewis Lewis, known as Lewsyn yr Heliwr (Lewsyn the Haulier), and his accomplice Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) were sentenced to death for their roles as leaders of the Merthyr Riots of 1831. The latter went to the gallows, but Lewsyn was reprieved and transported to New South Wales with several of the other ringleaders. Later arrivals included the Chartist leaders John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones, who were transported to Van Diemen's Land for instigating the assault on Newport in 1839. Frost was eventually pardoned in old age and returned to Newport in triumph, while Williams ended his career as a highly regarded industrial magnate in Launceston.

The number of free Welsh settlers in Australia before the goldrushes of the 1850s is difficult to assess, but it was undoubtedly small. One source refers to 14 of the young members of Bethlehem Chapel, Blaenavon, Monmouthshire, leaving for Australia during the ministry of Morgan Morgans, sometime between 1828 and 1836. Reliable evidence is scanty, but group departures of this nature must have been rare. Early census records indicate that there were about 1800 Welshborn in the colonies by 1851. These would have included a number of free settlers.

Go on to The Welsh in the Australian States or back to the WelshAustralian History page.