The Welsh in South Australia

With the discovery of copper at Kapunda in 1843 and at Burra in 1845, the newly founded colony of South Australia attracted substantial numbers of Welsh miners and smeltermen, increasing the Welsh-born population from about 300 in 1846 to 900 by 1851. By the late 1840s Burra had its own Welsh quarter named Llwchwr, with street names such as Llanelly, Llysnewydd and Penclawdd. By 1859 there were two Welsh chapels in the town, one Baptist and the other Independent (Congregationalist)-early symbols of the denominational diversity that marked Welsh religious life. Later discoveries of copper at Moonta and Wallaroo greatly swelled the numbers of Welsh miners and their families, and it is possible to recognise the outline of a Welsh community in these northern South Australian towns in the 1860s and 1870s.

One of the Welshmen working in the Burra Burra copper-mines by 1849 was 21-year-old William Meirion Evans (1826-83) of Llanfrothen in Merionethshire. Although not an ordained minister at this stage, he is credited with being the first person to hold religious services in the Welsh language on the Australian continent when he preached to his compatriots in Burra in 1849. In later years he became the prime mover in establishing the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Connexion in Victoria. Under its auspices, he was also the founder and editor of two Welsh-language periodicals-Yr Australydd (the Australian) in 1866-72, and Yr Ymwelydd (the Visitor) in 1874-76. Published in Victoria, these two monthly journals, which were circulated throughout the Australian colonies and New Zealand, acted as a focus for the widely dispersed Welsh population and kept them in touch with developments in Wales. Victims eventually of what the editorials ceaselessly condemned as the apathy of the Welsh community, they nevertheless served for a number of years as the voices of a Welsh network in the colonies. Replete with detailed accounts of the numerous events in the Welsh religious calendar, especially the numerous Eisteddfodau (musical and literary festivals) and Cymanfaoedd Canu (hymn-singing assemblies), they provide an invaluable insight into the cultural and social milieu of Welsh Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Welsh in Victoria

It was the discovery of gold in 1851 that first brought the Welsh to Australia in significant numbers. The Welsh-born population of Victoria consisted of only 377 people in 1851; in 1854 it stood at 2326, and by 1861 it had reached 6055. Over the next decade it rose slowly to a peak of 6614 in 1871. Thereafter, the number of the Welsh-born declined in Victoria but increased in the other colonies, totalling 12 000 throughout Australia by the turn of the century.

The sharp increase in the Welsh-born population was due largely to emigration directly from Wales. Motives for emigration were of course varied-some came looking for adventure, while others were enticed by utopian descriptions of colonial life that were periodically placed in the Welsh press by the emigrant agencies. Occasionally, private correspondence reveals the attraction of the Australian climate, especially to the many miners and quarrymen who suffered from respiratory disease. Overriding all other factors, however, was the need to escape the hardships of upland farming or the degradations of industrial life. The promise of the goldfields was, of course, doubly attractive, since sudden wealth could also mean the prospect of a quick return home. Many of those who came to look for gold were single men or men who had left their wives and families in Wales. As late as 1881 the proportion of males amongst the Welsh of Victoria was still much higher than for other national groups from Britain.

By the late 1850s there were clusters of Welsh settlers throughout the gold-mining districts of western Victoria, with the heaviest concentration in the Ballarat-Sebastopol area. Invariably, the main cohesive influence was the Nonconformist chapel. The earliest of these were often canvas constructions which served the needs of a transitory population. Later, more permanent stone or brick structures (exact replicas of the innumerable 'Zions' and 'Bethels' of Wales) were built. Their foundation dates are useful markers of the Welsh arrival in various areas-Forest Creek, 1853; Ballarat, 1854; Sebastopol, 1856; Tarangower (Maldon), 1857; Pleasant Creek (Stawell), 1857; Sandy Creek (Dunolly), 1858; Bendigo, 1858; Golden Point, 1859; Snake Valley, 1860; Dry Diggings, 1861; Yandoit, 1862; Daylesford, 1863; Ross Creek, 1864; Cambrian Hill, 1865. By 1865 at least 21 Welsh chapels were active in Victoria. Five of these were in the Ballarat-Sebastopol region, clear evidence of the relatively large number of Welsh settlers in this area by the early 1860s. From their ranks came many of the political leaders, business managers and shopkeepers of Ballarat in the second half of the century. The Criterion store, advertised in 1865 as 'the largest and oldest drapery establishment in the Western District', was owned by David Jones, formerly of Barmouth. His namesake reached even greater heights in the drapery business in Sydney. Many of the political figures in Ballarat's heyday were also Welsh, the most eminent probably being John Basson Humffray (1824-91), the secretary of the Ballarat Reform League at the time of the Eureka rebellion. Shunning the violent methods favoured by the miners, as member for Ballarat in the new Legislative Council he won for them many of the rights they demanded.

As elsewhere in Australia, many of the Welsh churches on the goldfields were, in the first instance, interdenominational. In later years each of the three main denominations - Calvinistic Methodist, Independent and Baptist-strove to found its own place of worship. The separatist tendencies in Welsh Nonconformity were frequently as evident in the Australian bush as in the hamlets of Wales. By 1863 both the Independents and the Methodists had established their own Gymanfa (Synodical Assembly) in Victoria.

Melbourne, being the port of entry to the goldfields, attracted many of the Welsh migrants to Victoria, some of whom were quick to set up businesses or enter the professions. David John Thomas (1813-71) of Carmarthen arrived in the city in 1839, became Melbourne's most eminent surgeon in the 1840s, and later founded the Melbourne Hospital. By 1852 a Welsh 'cause' was under way in the English Baptist chapel in Collins Street East. The first service, conducted by Rev. Zorobabel Davies, was announced in the Melbourne Argus of 11 December 1852: "'Oes y Byd i'r Iaith Cymraeg" (the life of the world to the Welsh language) Baptist Chapel, Collins Street East. Divine Service will be held in the Welsh language at 3 p.m. for the benefit of friends from the Principality.' Five years later, on the first Sunday in February of 1857, the Welsh of Melbourne were able to worship in their own chapel built on an allotment of land granted earlier by Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe. The present Welsh Church in La Trobe Street was erected on the same site in 1871.

The Welsh in New South Wales

As one of the major coal-mining districts on the eastern seaboard by the 1860s, Newcastle was a magnet for migrants from industrial South Wales. It was in fact a Welshman, Sir Edgeworth David, the renowned scientist, who discovered and developed some of the major coal seams of the area. A profusion of place names attests to the pioneering presence of Welsh in this part of New South Wales - Cardiff, Swansea, Neath, Aberdare and others. Again, the chapels were quick to appear; there were seven in Newcastle and its satellite towns of Glebe, Merewether and Lambton by 1872.

The Sydney region had from the earliest days of settlement drawn a substantial proportion of Welsh immigrants. Among those who left a permanent mark on the commercial life of the city was David Jones of Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire (1793-1873), who arrived in 1835. Formerly employed in Wales and later in London as a shop assistant, he was to be the founder of Australia's largest drapery business, now the David Jones department store chain. David Jones's case is exceptional but illustrative of the diverse backgrounds of Welsh migrants to Australia in the nineteenth century. Sydney also had its Welsh religious 'cause' from an early date but, curiously, a permanent centre for religious worship was not established until the present church in Chalmers Street was founded in 1948. Undoubtedly one of the inhibiting factors was the geographic dispersal of the Welsh population over a large metropolitan area, but account must also be taken of the often transient character of settlement. An important feature of Welsh life in Sydney, as in Melbourne, was the frequent arrival of merchant ships crewed or captained by Welshspeaking Welshmen, many in fact sailing directly from Caernarfon or Porthmadoc in North Wales, or from the larger ports of Swansea and Cardiffin the south. One of the motives for the erection of the Welsh church at Williamstown, 7 km west of Melbourne, was to cater for the many Welsh sailors visiting the port.

The Welsh in Queensland

Sydney was also the departure point for Welsh settlers travelling north to Queensland. Some came from the Victorian gold-diggings, attracted by the new finds in Gympie and Charters Towers in the 1860s; others are known to have moved across the Tasman from New Zealand. It was at Gympie that the first Welsh church in Queensland was established in 1868, a step attributed to the religious zeal ofthe Welsh women of the district.

The focal point of Welsh activity in Queensland, however, was southwest of Brisbane, on the Ipswich coalfield. There, centred on the town of Blackstone, Welsh settlers in the last two decades of the nineteenth century established a vigorous Welsh community, arguably the last on the Australian continent. As with everywhere else that the Welsh settled, the operative communal agency was religion, allied closely to the Welsh language. In this instance the hub of cultural and social life was the Blackstone United Welsh Church. Remarkably, the rivalry characteristic of Welsh Nonconformity gave way in this instance to a loftier non-denominational ideal. Three years later a chapel was built on land donated by Lewis Thomas of Talybont, Cardigan, the recognised coal king of the Queensland coalfields, whose palatial home, Brynhyfryd, on Blackstone Hill was for many years a gathering place for the Welsh of the area. They also flocked to the Blackstone United Welsh Church, which, in due course, became a vigorous new cultural outlet for the Welsh community in Australia. Its Sunday School was to be a virtual nursery of the Welsh language in the Ipswich area. It also spawned a St David's Society in Blackstone and in 1887 organised the first Blackstone Eisteddfod, the parent of the Eisteddfod movement in Queensland.

Much of the pattern of Welsh settlement in Australia in the nineteenth century was shaped by employment opportunities in the various mining industries. Certainly any evidence of cluster settlement is to be found only in the mining towns that have been discussed-in the copper-mining area of South Australia in the 1850s and 1860s; on the Victorian goldfields after 1850; and, later still, on the coalfields of New South Wales and Queensland. There were also minor concentrations in the capital cities, invariably supported by Welsh churches or societies.

It must not be overlooked that many of the Welsh were quickly absorbed into mainstream society, retaining little contact with the chapel-centred communities of their countrymen. Among these must be counted the small proportion of Welsh Anglicans and Catholics who, by virtue of their religion, were set apart from the Nonconformist fraternity of their countrymen. Other Welshmen only surfaced once a year at the St David's (the national saint of Wales) Day Dinner on 1 March. This is the tribe of 'lost Welshmen' condemned in the pages of Yr Australydd as carriers to Australia of the Dic Sion Dafydd syndrome, the traditional jibe aimed at Welshmen who affected English ways and habits. Undoubtedly some were in this category, but the majority were either geographically isolated or itinerant workers, as was Joseph Jenkins, the Cardiganshire farmer who came to Australia in 1868 at the ripe age of 51 to escape a nagging wife. His adventures as a swagman are vividly recorded in a series of diaries revealing his impressions of rural Victoria in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Go back to The Welsh in Australia on to Welsh Culture in Australia or back to the WelshAustralian History page

by A. Ffestin Hughes