Because only small numbers of Welsh settled in New Zealand, and because people of Welsh descent often married people of other origins, it has been difficult for the Welsh to maintain or celebrate a distinctive identity.
Once in New Zealand, they never formed large enough groups to sustain their own language. Probably half of all Welsh arrivals from the 1840s to the 1910s came from the industrial, anglicised south of Wales rather than the rural, traditional and Welsh-speaking north. Since the First World War, there were four times more arrivals from the south than from the north.
Individual Welsh men and women attained some prominence in the settlement and development of New Zealand. Among them was the wood carver and sculptor Frederick Gurnsey. Trade unionists Alexander Croskery, George Manning and Arthur Rosser were born in Wales. Manning became a long-serving and popular mayor of Christchurch. Notable Welsh-born women included the social reformer Eveline Cunnington and the brewery manager Mary Innes.
Welsh miners made an important contribution to the development of New Zealand’s mining industry, especially coal mining, between the world wars. In 1936, Welsh working men were four times more likely than those of other descent to be miners or quarrymen.
Despite their small numbers, Welsh immigrants have maintained various customs and traditions. Those who settled in Canterbury formed the first Welsh organisation in New Zealand, the Cambrian Society of Canterbury. Established in 1890, the society set out to encourage immigration from Wales, to assist Welsh immigrants, to uphold Welsh traditions in music and literature, and to celebrate St David’s Day on 1 March. The society made a name for itself performing sacred and traditional Welsh songs. It held its first eisteddfod (choral and poetry competition) in 1926. There are also Welsh societies in Wellington (formed in 1907) and in Auckland (formed in 1925).
Choirs and cakes
The first eisteddfod (choral and poetry competition) was held in Christchurch’s Durham Street Hall in 1926, with competitions in music, poetry, elocution, needlework and cookery. In the music section, the hymn tunes were ‘Moab’ ‘Sancteidd,’ and ‘Aberdovey’. The literary section included a one-act drama on a local or Welsh subject. The recitation was the speech of Welsh-born British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, ‘The world’s debt to the little nations’, while the cooking section included girdle scones and Welsh cakes.
The primary interest of local Welsh societies has been folk dancing, forming choirs to perform ballads, carols, hymns and folk songs, and, especially, holding ‘Welsh weekends’ with a focus on cymanfa ganu – the singing of sacred songs in parts.
The Methodist religion
Methodism and the chapel were distinctive features of life in Wales. But the relatively small number of Welsh in New Zealand meant that although some were involved in the establishment and growth of the Methodist church, Methodism in the country owed relatively little to the Welsh. The stronger roots of the New Zealand church go back to England (especially Yorkshire and Cornwall) and to Ireland rather than to Wales.