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."

[see more]

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."

[see more]

 
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."

[see more]

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."

[see more]

 
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."

[see more]

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."

[see more]

 
<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."

[see more]

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."

[see more]

 
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."

[see more]

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."

[see more]

 
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."

[see more]

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."

[see more]

 
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."

[see more]

 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."

[see more]

 
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."

[see more]

Comments(9)

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.



Sara Huws Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff
25 July 2018, 10:10

Hi there Jacquie - thanks for your enquiry. I will ask one of our curators to take a look, and get back to you.

Many thanks


Sara
Digital Team

Jacquie Jones
21 July 2018, 21:16
My grandfather Lewis Jones emigrated to Canada in or around 1880. One census lists the year as 1880 and another one lists the year as 1888. I can not find anything in the ship's records. How might I ascertain the correct date?
Marc Haynes Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff
3 November 2017, 16:09

Hi Don,

Our Principal Curator of Industry has contacted you using the email address you provided.

Thank you for your query,

Marc
Digital Team

Don Finlayson
2 November 2017, 12:02
Hello from Canada,
I am researching the history of the Daniel Lewis John family who came to Canada from Wales around 1930. They settled in Hamilton, Ontario and Daniel found work in the new steel industries in the city. My question concerns some trips John made in the 1920's to India and Australia. In 1925 there is a record of him travelling from Sydney to London. He is listed on the records as a "tinsmith". In 1926 there is a record of him travelling from London to Yokahama with the note, "contracted to land at Bombay". He is listed as a "tin plater". He travelled on the Peninsula and Orient Steam Navigation Company ship, the "Mantua". He 1928 he went from Calcutta to London on board the "Morvada", a ship operated by the British India Steam Navigation Company. He was listed as a "tin plater".
Why would he be making these trips? Did the company he worked for in Wales send men out to the far reaches of the Empire to help start up some new industries? Any information you could give me would be a big help.
Thank you.
Don Finlayson

Leave a comment