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Welsh

by  Terry Hearn

The Welsh are Britain’s ‘stay-at-homes’ – only a few emigrated to New Zealand, mostly to mine for gold or coal. Those who did come soon lost their language, but through the community’s great love of choral singing, poetry and cooking competitions, Welsh culture remains alive.


Welsh immigration

Early arrivals

People born in Wales only ever formed a small proportion of all British immigrants who came to New Zealand. But they were some of the earliest to arrive. Among the sealers and whalers was John Grono, who named a South Island fiord Milford Haven, which was his homeland in Pembrokeshire. It was another Welshman, John Lort Stokes, captain of HMS Acheron and also a native of Milford Haven, who changed the name to Milford Sound. Stokes bestowed other Welsh names on Fiordland, among them the Cleddau River, Pembroke Peak, Benton Peak, Llawrenny Peaks and Dale Point. Welsh men also appeared in the ranks of the early holders of sheep runs, one notable example being William Gilbert Rees, another native of Pembrokeshire.

The two earliest censuses in New Zealand, of New Ulster (the upper two-thirds of the North Island) in 1848 and of New Munster (the South Island and lower third of the North Island) in 1851, revealed that the Welsh formed less than 1% of the British-born population of New Zealand (they made up about 4% of the total population of the United Kingdom). Even in the large immigrant streams which arrived in New Zealand between 1853 and 1870 there were few Welsh. However, the gold rushes attracted more people from Wales, especially to the West Coast where Welsh miners, drawn largely from Australia’s Victorian goldfields, made up nearly 4% of all miners.

Between 1871 and 1890, when large numbers of immigrants assisted by the New Zealand government arrived, the Welsh continued to make up less than 1% of all arrivals from the United Kingdom.

20th-century arrivals

Among those who arrived after 1900 were miners recruited by the Westport Coal Company for its Denniston mine, including several families brought from Aberdare in Glamorganshire. It was not until the period between the world wars that the proportion of Welsh among UK-born immigrants increased to a little more than 2%.

After 1945, Welsh immigrants came in somewhat larger numbers, although they continued to remain an insignificant presence (Australia and the United States also attracted relatively few Welsh). Most who arrived in New Zealand after the Second World War had been born in the urban-industrial counties of South Wales. Population pressure was never acute in Wales, and when the Welsh did move it was to other parts of Wales or to England rather than overseas. Some English-born immigrants to New Zealand had Welsh parents, reflecting Welsh emigration to the coal-mining and industrial regions of England, and to London, from about the middle of the 19th century.

Where the Welsh settled

Into the early 1860s Welsh immigrants settled mostly in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and, especially, Canterbury. During the gold rushes, however, many Welsh miners lived at Cambrians in Central Otago, and on the West Coast. After 1881, Welsh people settled throughout New Zealand. But by 1916 a quite different distribution pattern had emerged, with concentrations in Auckland and Wellington. By 1976 more than half of New Zealand’s Welsh residents lived in Auckland.


Welsh culture in New Zealand

Cultural identity

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 achievements

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.

Miners

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.

Welsh societies

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.


Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Wales.

  • 1858 census: 233
  • 1901 census: 1,765
  • 1951 census: 4,433
  • 1976 census: 8,426
  • 2001 census: 5,784
  • 2006 census: 6,756
  • 2013 census: 6,708

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Welsh: 3,774 (2006); 3,705 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Terry Hearn, 'Welsh', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/welsh/print (accessed 17 September 2019)

Story by Terry Hearn, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015