WELSH CULTURE IN AUSTRALIA

The Welsh experience in Australia tends to confirm the view that the Welsh language is a salient feature of Welsh ethnicity. A high proportion of nineteenth century Welsh immigrants spoke Welsh as their first language, including some who spoke only Welsh. As late as 1886, when the Brisbane Cambrian Society successfully requested that the Queensland agent-general in London appoint a Welsh-speaking lecturer, more than half of the Welsh population still spoke Welsh. Immigrants from Wales brought to Australia a popular culture that was expressed through the Welsh language and was rooted in Nonconformism. In this sense, language and religion were inextricably bound together.

In Australia as in Wales, the leaders and patrons of the Welsh communities were also drawn largely from the ranks of chapel ministers or deacons. They were the ones who organised the Cymanfaoedd Canu, the great hymn-singing festivals that are so closely linked with the idea of Wales. In the 1860s and 1870s, the heyday of Welsh settlement in Victoria, it was not unusual for a Cymanfa Canu in Ballarat to last for several days and to draw crowds of 800 or more.

These grand assemblies and many other lesser occasions were invariably organised by the churches. Bewildering in their variety, these occasions are recorded in meticulous detail in the Australydd and other Welsh journals ofthe day- Cyfarfod Te (Tea Meeting), Gobeithlu (Band of Hope), Seiat (Fellowhip Meeting), Cyfarfod Pregethu (Preaching Assembly) and Cymdeithas Lenyddol (Literary Society). To these weekday obligations must be added the rigours of the Nonconformist Welsh Sunday-the prayer meeting for the young in the morning, the morning sermon to follow, Sunday School in the afternoon, the singing meeting at 5 pm and the evening sermon to conclude the day. They were attended in the main by men exhausted from long hours of labour on the diggings or down in the mines.

Of the cultural institutions brought by the Welsh to Australia, it is the Eisteddfod, and the choral singing tradition with which it is associated, that has proved to be the most enduring. A legacy of the late eighteenth century Welsh cultural regeneration, the modern Eisteddfod takes the institutional form of a festival of literary and musical competition. In Australia it had its beginnings in the literary societies that were an early feature of the Welsh cultural scene in Ballarat in the mid-1850s. The first recorded literary gathering (Cyfarfod Llenyddol) took place in that city on Christmas Day, 1855, and by 1857 a Ballarat Welsh Literary Society had been founded. Its activities, of which some record survives, were conducted entirely in Welsh.

By 1863 these proceedings had evolved into a fully fledged Eisteddfod to which, the Australydd tells us, the Welsh of Victoria flocked. Such was its popularity that it quickly gained the status of a 'national' Eisteddfod and, like its counterpart in Wales, rotated annually between several of the larger Victorian towns, including Castlemaine and Melbourne. Yet, like the Welsh periodicals that assiduously reported its program, the Victorian national Eisteddfod was to be short-lived. The last of these events was celebrated in Ballarat in 1869; thereafter, the Eisteddfod in Victoria was principally a local affair. By the 1870s, however, Welsh communities elsewhere in Australia were also holding Eisteddfod activities, although the anglicisation of their proceedings was already in evidence. Yet acculturation was not entirely one-directional, for the modern Australiawide Eisteddfod movement derives from these Welsh beginnings. The Ballarat South Street festivities and the City of Sydney Eisteddfod have, over the years, developed into well-recognised breeding-grounds for talent in music and the arts.

Inevitably perhaps, the assimilation of a geographically dispersed and numerically small Welsh population proceeded apace, with the ageing of a Welsh-speaking first generation who were unable, in the absence of institutional support outside the home, to transmit its values to the second generation. Clearly these values, in Australia as in Wales, were held together by the bond of the Welsh language. As early as 1877 Joseph Jenkins, the Welsh swagman, spurned the Ballarat Eisteddfod because of the predominantly English content of its programs. Similarly, the Welsh-language journals of Victoria -- Yr Australydd and its successor Yr Ymwelydd -- repeatedly bemoaned the rapid assimilation and secularisation of the Welsh in the Australian colonies but themselves fell victims to these forces by the end of the 1870s.

The trend was also visible in the churches. The Welsh Baptists in Australia disappeared as an independent denomination at a very early stage, and well before the end of the century the other denominations had introduced English into their services (English sermons often alternated with Welsh). As in Wales, there were those who sought to stem the English tide by calling for the establishment of a Welsh 'colony", in the belief that Welsh cultural integrity hinged on the possession of a territorial base. Editorials in the Australydd encouraged its readers to found a colony on the Patagonian model and several correspondents suggested suitable localities in Australia and New Zealand. Although approaches were made to the Lands Office, these plans were eventually aborted as the general response from the Welsh community was unenthusiastic.

At the root of this cultural erosion was the desertion of the younger generation indifferent to older values and drawn by peer-group pressures to mainstream culture. In the assimilationist climate of the day, only a steady flow of immigrants from Wales could have compensated for this. But between 1891 and 1947 the number of Welsh-born in Australia stagnated. By the time planned post-War immigration was under way, the threads of continuity with nineteenth century Welsh life had been largely broken. By that time too the proportion of Welsh-speakers amongst the migrant intake from Wales had been greatly reduced.

Go back to The Welsh in the Australian States on to The Welsh in Australia in the Twentieth Century or back to the WelshAustralian Culture page

by A. Ffestin Hughes