Once a Jolly Welshman: Welsh Emigrants in Australia

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By Dr Sulien Morgan.

When the green and gold of Australia and the Kiwi black of New Zealand colour the Twickenham stands this weekend as the Rugby World Cup comes to a climax, Welsh rugby aficionados will no doubt be watching, eager to see the best of Antipodean rugby.  Wales may be out of the cup, and consequently the Welsh may adopt a neutral attitude when it comes to choosing who to support. However there is no doubt that some will get behind one side or the other based on personal reasons like a favourite player or having holidayed in either country and other such logic. Very few I’m sure will come to a decision of who to support based on history. I’m sure no one will explore the historical links between Wales and the two countries in question as a way of choosing a side to support. Should this be done then it is the green and the gold that the Welsh must cheer on.

As remote as Australia may seem to most Welsh people, Wales, through its rich tapestry of emigration history to the ‘Land Down Under’, will forever be a part of the Australian nation’s past. Whilst New Zealand may have also been a destination for Welsh émigrés, the Welsh footprint on the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ is hardly noticeable.

Forget ‘New South Wales’ and forget that Kylie Minogue’s mother is from Maesteg – two common facts, often wheeled out to link Wales with Australia – Wales’s relationship with that giant land mass between the Indian and South Pacific Oceans runs far deeper and weaves a plethora of tales: stories of Welsh-Australian emigration.

In recent times much has been made in the Welsh media of former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s Welsh roots: she was born in Barry, south Wales. Having emigrated as a child to Australia she has always appeared eager to pay homage to the land of her birth.  However being born in Wales and becoming the Prime Minister of Australia is not necessarily a novelty. From 1915 -1923 the Australian premier was William Morris Hughes, better known as Billy Hughes, a Welsh-speaker who had emigrated to Australia at twenty-two years of age. Born in London to Welsh parents he had lived in Wales during part of his childhood. Hughes, on arrival in Australia, had worked at menial jobs such as labouring, bush-working.  He was also a chef for a while. It’s not often that Prime Ministers can claim such work experience.

Other Welsh-Australian experiences are not necessarily individual ones, as was the case of Billy Hughes, but rather offer a communal Welsh experience. Welsh communities sprang up in the state of Victoria as a result of immigration from Wales spurred on by the gold rush of 1851. Gradually over the next decade, from 1851 onwards, goldfield towns such as Ballarat and Castlemaine became common place-names associated with centres of Welsh activity.

Wherever the Welsh went there had to be celebrations of Welsh culture. The Eisteddfod was one such event, celebrated in the Victoria State goldfields by Welsh miners and other Welsh émigrés. The Eisteddfod, which they established on Australian soil, continues today.  It is now known as the Australian National Eisteddfod which, although not specifically a Welsh event today, has its roots in the early Eisteddfodau of the Victoria Welsh.

Another expression of their culture was their use of the Welsh language, as the existence of two newspapers, both through the medium of Welsh, testifies. Their communities supported these publications which appeared at different times during the 1860s and 1870s, namely Yr Australydd (The Australian) 1866-1872 and Yr Ymdeithydd (The Traveller) 1874-1864.

Whilst Australia may have become the permanent home of many Welsh émigrés who had sought a better life not all of those who emigrated during the latter half of the nineteenth century remained in Australia. One such character was Joseph Jenkins, a swagman, who travelled from farm to farm working for a while before moving on. In 1869 at the age of 51 he had left his tenant farm in Tregaron, only to return to Wales in 1894, aged 76.  A prolific diary-writer, accounts of his time in Australia are housed at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. Although he returned to Wales he is possibly Australia’s most famous swagman due to his detailed diary accounts, chronicling 25 years working in rural Victoria. In addition to working in agriculture he was also a man of letters, and can lay claim to having won the same poetry competition at the St. David’s Day Ballarat Eisteddfod on thirteen consecutive occasions.

Not all the Welsh who arrived in Australia did so by choice. The offshore Australian island of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was called at the time, became the new home of numerous Welsh political prisoners.  Chartist action in industrial Wales during the 1830s and 1840s saw prominent leaders of that movement, notably John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones, carted on prison ships to the New World.  These urban agitators were also joined by their rural counterparts, the Rebecca Rioters.  These protestors famous for blackening their faces and dressing as women were, during the same period and active in rural south-west Wales, destroying toll-gates – erected to charge poor farmers for their use of the roads. Consequently prominent Rebeccaites also found themselves on course for Van Diemen’s Land, notably David Davies aka Dai’r Cantwr, John Jones aka Shoni Sgubor Fawr and John Hughes aka Jac Tŷ-Isha.

So when the green and the gold of Australia take to the field this weekend keep in mind that many a Welsh person has played a part in the history of the Australian nation. The footprints they left behind may not be as obvious as they once were, they may have faded in the old towns of Victoria and they may only be a faint trace in the Tasmanian dust, but look hard enough and they’ll appear, forever binding Wales and Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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