Australian outback, with Table Mountain

The Welsh in Australia

Last updated: 15 August 2008

Although the first Welsh emigrants to Australia may have wished that they could find a better life than the one they had experienced in Wales, they were probably just as keen to escape the land to which they had now been sent.

They were not really emigrants at all, but convicts - four men and two women, who arrived with the First Fleet at Botany Bay, Australia, in 1788.

By 1852, a total of about 1,800 of the convicts in Australia had been tried in Wales - about 1.2% of the total number of convicts transported to Australia by that time. Of these, only around 300 were women.

Many who were transported could speak only Welsh, so they were doubly damned - forced into exile in a strange land, they were often unable to communicate with the majority of convicts who spoke only English.

Welsh transportees in the first half of the 19th century include some familiar figures from the history of the trade union movement in Wales. Lewis Lewis and Richard Lewis (aka Dic Penderyn) were sentenced to death for their part in the Merthyr Riots in 1831.

Dic Penderyn, widely considered today to have been Lewis' 'fall-guy', was subsequently hanged, but Lewis himself had his sentence commuted to transportation and was sent to New South Wales.

The Chartist leaders John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones joined Lewis in Australia after bringing about the siege of the Westgate Hotel in Newport in 1839. Frost was later pardoned and returned to Newport a hero.

The numbers of true Welsh emigrants to Australia throughout the early stages of the colony's development were relatively small. But the number of 'free' Welsh settlers before the gold-rushes of the 1850s can't be accurately assessed. There is a lack of reliable official evidence since Wales was swallowed up in the category of 'England and Wales' used in official documentation and procedures at the time.

However, other sources can provide reasonably reliable information. For instance, 14 young members of Bethlehem Chapel in Blaenavon, Monmouthshire, are recorded as leaving for Australia during the ministry of Morgan Morgans, between 1828 and 1836.

Australian census records indicate that there were about 1,800 Welsh-born settlers in Australia by 1851, a very small number of whom were 'free' settlers.

It was mining that brought significant numbers of Welsh settlers to Australia in the mid 19th century. Initially the discovery of copper in South Australia at Kapunda in 1843 and Burra in 1845 drew people from Wales, but it was the discovery of gold in the Ballarat-Sebastapol area of Victoria in the early 1850s which caused the Welsh population of the province to rise dramatically.

In 1851, about 400 of the settlers were Welsh-born, and by 1871 there were almost 7,000 in Victoria. Although the population declined later, in the other provinces of Australia it continued to increase and, by the turn of the century there were 12,000 settlers of Welsh descent spread throughout the colony.

Not all settlers came from the industrialised areas of south Wales to find work in the mines. Joseph Jenkins, a Cardiganshire farmer, fled to Australia in 1868 at the age of 51 to escape a nagging wife! His larger than life exploits as a swagman in rural Victoria were recorded in a series of diaries.

New South Wales is, predictably, the province which most conspicuously bears the mark of its old world namesake, with place names like Cardiff, Swansea, Neath and Aberdare amongst many others. It was the chapel and the Welsh language which provided a sense of cohesion and identity to these emerging Welsh communities at this time, not only in New South Wales, but in all the provinces of Australia.

Many of the chapels were interdenominational at first, but gradually split into Methodist, Independent and Baptist denominations, just as they had in Wales. The leaders of these chapels were also the leaders of these new communities. They organised Cymanfa Ganu which, in the boomtown years of the 1860s and 1870s, attracted crowds of 800 or more and lasted for several days in Victoria.

The leading Welsh-Australian journal of the day, Yr Australydd (The Australian), records weekday meetings and occasions such as Tea Meetings, Band of Hope, Literary Society, Fellowship Meeting and Preaching Assembly, as well as details of the typical Welsh nonconformist Sunday worship.

But it was the other great legacy of the late 18th century Welsh revival, the Eisteddfod, which formed the cornerstone of Welsh cultural traditions in Australia. Its roots in Australia lie in the weekly Literary Society meetings, where proceedings were conducted solely in Welsh.

In 1863, the first true Welsh-Australian Eisteddfod was held in Victoria. It proved so popular that it was given the status of a National Eisteddfod and it was rotated annually through some of the larger towns in Victoria.

Welsh communities in the other provinces also held Eisteddfodau in the 1870s, although they came under increasing pressure to 'anglicise' proceedings. But the Eisteddfod was in decline by the end of the decade: once again, a relatively small Welsh population dispersed across a new land into an alien society was unable to resist the pressures of assimilation on its second generation.

This decline was also visible in the chapels. By the end of the century all denominations had introduced English into their services. Yr Australydd promoted the establishment of a Welsh colony based on the Patagonia model, but there was an unenthusiastic response from the Welsh community.

The truth was that the rot had set in Patagonia as well, and in 1910 an exodus began from its Welsh colony to Australia. These immigrants were anxious to escape conscription into the Argentine army, increasing pressure from the government to assume Argentine nationality by ensuring all teaching was in Spanish, and a shortage of suitable farming land in the Chubut Valley.

Despite these pressures, the Welsh language and culture has survived in Australia. The modern countrywide Eisteddfod movement has its origins in the early cultural traditions maintained and brought to life by the early Welsh settlers.

In particular, the City of Sydney Eisteddfod and the Ballarat South Street Festival have provided a breeding ground for excellence in music, literature and the arts.

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