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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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