Working Abroad - Welsh Emigration

Welsh industrial emigration: The legacy

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, millions of people across the world moved to different countries looking for work. They wanted to improve their lives, try new working practices, or have adventures in different lands.

Many people left Wales and took traditional Welsh industrial skills with them. Some helped create continuing economic success in the countries they moved to. Some made huge fortunes, finding fame. Others led more quietly successful lives, settling down and raising families. Some returned to Wales after time abroad, others were never to see this country again.

Here we look at the various industries from Wales that supplied workers and expertise around the world. What were those industries and skills? Where did the workers go? What values and traditions did they take with them? What impact did their leaving have on the country they left behind?

Welsh coal mine, Kentucky


"Wales experienced a spectacular boom in coal mining in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The world looked to the Welsh mining industry for expertise and advice."

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Burra Burra copper mine, 1874.


"The world of copper smelting was led by Wales in the 19th century. The works around Swansea and Holywell supplied over 50% of the world's copper."

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John Davies of Talsarnau, Gwynedd, with his brother and friend. They are seeking gold in Queensland, Australia in the 1880s


"Gold has been mined intermittently in Wales for thousands of years, but the industry never employed huge numbers of workers. Despite this, many Welsh emigrants joined the famous 'Gold Rushes' of the 19th century."

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Welsh workers in the ironworks at Hughesovka, John Hughes is second from the right in the front row


"Wales was at the forefront of the development of the iron industry in Britain and it is therefore not surprising to find Welsh people leading the industry across the world in the nineteenth century."

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Bangor, Pennsylvania


"Slate was used in Europe as a roofing material. Welsh slate was exported across the world for prestigious building projects. The discovery of slate deposits in different countries became one of a number of economic factors that influenced Welsh workers to move to those areas."

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Lithgow Steelworks, New South Wales, Australia, 1920s


"Iron working centres often adapted themselves to the creation of steel, a stronger, more versatile material. Unsurprisingly Welsh workers played an important part in this change."

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built for William Thomas in 1887


"Wales has a 1,200km (750 mile) coastline and a long tradition of seafaring. Welsh sailors travelled around the world, exporting Welsh goods and importing raw materials for industry. Welsh shipping lines were among the best-known in maritime trade and the company owners were amongst the richest."

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Quarrying stone, Randolph, Wisconsin

Metal Mining

"Wales has a 1,200km (750 mile) coastline and a long tradition of seafaring. Welsh sailors travelled around the world, exporting Welsh goods and importing raw materials for industry. Welsh shipping lines were among the best-known in maritime trade and the company owners were amongst the richest."

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John Williams


"The manufacture of tinplate was another area where Wales held a virtual monopoly in the world. South Wales accounted for over 80% of world production in the early 1890s."

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Morgan C. Jones, (on the right), nephew of Morgan Jones and working for the same company

Other Industries

"Not all Welsh people worked in the 'traditional' heavy industries of Wales of course. Many worked in other industries and many transferred the skills they learnt in mines, foundries and works to other places of work."

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Cartoon from the Western Mail, 1928

Migration Patterns

"Not everyone who left Wales for a new life abroad stayed away. Many people returned home for various reasons. This is called back migration."

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Breaker boys in Pennsylvania. Many Welsh boys in the USA began work in this way at an early age.


"Welsh industrial workers came from areas that had well organised unions. They had a reputation for standing up for their rights, safe working conditions and decent pay."

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Old Saron Church, the first Welsh church in Minnesota, 1856

Welsh Culture

"Like many emigrants, Welsh people took their culture with them to the new countries. In a strange, new place, keeping the songs, stories, languages and traditions of home alive helped emigrants to deal with the unfamiliarity."

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Preparing food for a Gymanfa Ganu (singing festival), Peniel Church, Pickett, Wisconsin,1946.


"The majority of industrial workers were men but women of course formed an important part of migrant communities."

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California, USA

Place names

"It was common for emigrants of all nationalities to name their new settlements after places in their home countries. This provided a sense of identity and a link with home."

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Comments (16)

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Lily Mazurek
4 March 2022, 01:37
are there any known migrations of Welsh, perhaps a single miner even, to the Transylvanian (Hu variant) part of Romania, in ancient times? I mean between , say, 700-1500 or so?
Helen Varney
10 January 2021, 12:37
I am researching my mum's Welsh family and I have been told by the family that my great grandfather Enoch Davies travelled to South Africa to work in the gold mines. This would have been in the early 1900s. He returned after a few years. I have looked for him in the passenger lists on Ancestry but the only record that could be him is a returning passenger to Southampton in 1909 occupation 'smelter'. I have been unable to find any earlier record of his travel to South Africa. Do you have any recommendations on where to look to research this further?

Helen Varney
Barry Dougan
3 October 2020, 15:00
Does anyone know of any research into Welsh emigration to Ayrshire and other parts of Lowland Scotland, in the 19th century?
Jennifer Protheroe-Jones Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
20 April 2020, 16:12

Dear Marilyn Lane,

Thank you for your enquiry.

The most promising UK sources to trace emigrants abroad are:

* Outgoing passenger lists of people leaving the UK exist from 1890 to 1960 and are held by The National Archives in class BT 27 ( ). Systematic records of emigrants were not kept by the UK prior to 1890.

* Passports were not formally required to travel abroad until 1914 but some people did apply for them in earlier periods; a register of passport applications and of passports issued from 1794 to 1948 are held by The National Archives in class FO 610 ( ).

* Local newspapers often reported on the migration abroad of local residents; a useful selection of Welsh newspapers has been digitised by Welsh Newspapers Online ( ). A complete list of all Welsh newspapers with details of where runs may be consulted was made by the Newsplan Wales project ( ).

Much will depend upon when your ancestor emigrated because as you can see from the sources I listed above, records of emigrants are very in complete prior to the late 19th century.

It was not uncommon for relatives who received letters from emigrants to make extracts from them available for publication in local newspapers (see above).

I have no direct knowledge of Australian sourves but am aware that it had extensive systems to record emigrants arriving and carried out regular censuses, and these record systems improved over time. You would need to enquire with Australian archives to find out what is available and how it can be accessed.

I believe that many of the useful Australian collections are online through major family history websites (most of these charge fees for access).

The most important facts to confirm will be when he emigrated to Australia and which part of the country he initially lived in. This information will greatly help you in further research, as you will be able to focus on relevant records in various collections.

I am sorry that Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales does not hold collections relevant to your enquiry and hope that these suggestions may be useful to you.

Yours sincerely,

Jennifer Protheroe-Jones
Prif Guradur - Diwydiant / Principal Curator - Industry

18 April 2020, 05:58
Who was the first lane to come over on a ship his name was Arthur Charles lane in 1800s who was his parents lm trying to find my husband's family they moved to Newcastle Australia 1800s
Nia Meleri Evans Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
23 December 2019, 15:56

Hi Ron,
Thank you very much for your enquiry. I've asked our Principal Curator of Industry to take a look at your question. We will get in touch with an answer using the email address you provided.
Kind regards,
(Digital team)

21 December 2019, 19:35
Is there a list of Welsh teachers sent to Russia in 19th century?
Marc Haynes Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
29 May 2019, 14:58

Dear Abigail Jones,

Thank you very much for your enquiry. Our Principal Curator of Industry will contact you using the email address you have provided.

Best wishes,

Digital Team

abigail jones
22 May 2019, 16:00
Dear Sir/Madam,
I have tried in vain to find anything about a great aunt of mine( Anne Lewis born 1868 in possibly Ynysmardy street/ Regent Street/ Briton ferry. Glamorgan. Wales. u.k) she emigrated to South Africa around the 1900 and I know she was alive about 1970 living in Johannesburg with her family sadly we have lost touch with her family. I have tried to locate passenger lists ect but it has not giver me much hope i would very much appreciate any or all the information you can supply I remain most sincerely Mrs Abigail Jones
Marc Haynes Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
17 December 2018, 11:25

Hi Lena,

Thank you very much for your enquiry. Our Principal Curator of Industry has contacted you using the email address you provided.

Best wishes,

Digital Team