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
Welsh coal mine, Kentucky

Coal

"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.
Burra Burra copper mine, 1874.

Copper

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

Gold

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

Iron

"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
Bangor, Pennsylvania

Slate

"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
Lithgow Steelworks, New South Wales, Australia, 1920s

Steel

"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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<em>Metropolis</em> built for William Thomas in 1887
Metropolis built for William Thomas in 1887

Shipping

"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
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
John Williams

Tinplate

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

Radicalism

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

Women

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

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California, USA
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(14)

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 – National 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 (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C3070 ). 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 (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C7911 ).

* Local newspapers often reported on the migration abroad of local residents; a useful selection of Welsh newspapers has been digitised by Welsh Newspapers Online (https://newspapers.library.wales ). A complete list of all Welsh newspapers with details of where runs may be consulted was made by the Newsplan Wales project (https://www.newsplanwales.info/s002.php ).


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

Lane
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 – National 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,
Nia
(Digital team)

Ron
21 December 2019, 19:35
Is there a list of Welsh teachers sent to Russia in 19th century?
Marc Haynes Amgueddfa Cymru – National 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,

Marc
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 – National 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,

Marc
Digital Team

Lena Williams
16 December 2018, 22:48
Hi,
I've been researching my husband's N. Welsh family history, and have come across his nain's grandfather Jonathan Hughes, who was born in Holywell, Flintshire in ca 1822. He lived in the local area and was married and had at least four children. He was a smeltwork clerk. In 1861 he 'went to Spain to the Silver mines and never returned.' I presume that he died there, but are there any records from old smelting companies in Flintshire that could shed further light on this as I assume that he would have travelled as an employee of one of these. Or, would there be some other way of finding more information on this?
Regards,
Lena Williams
Roger Lewis
3 November 2018, 12:27
I am researching my family history and in particular my grandfather David George Lewis who went to Russia to assist in the development of tinplaring iron. He left Llanelli in 1906, his family joined him in 1909 and they all returned in 1912 due to the growing political unrest. The family lived in a plush apartment overlooking Red Square where they had servant and a governess for their children. In fact one child was born in Russia. I am particularly interested in ascertaining who organised their stay in Russia and how their family were sustained during the absence of the menfolk. All and any information will be greatly appreciated.



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