A Fascinating Welsh Swagman

My latest charity shop discovery is Diary of a Welsh Swagman 1869-1894. I expected it to be a straightforward account about a life of hardship in early Australia, but it is so much more than that, as the author Joseph Jenkins was such an extraordinary man, who wrote a daily journal for most of his life.   He provides a unique insight into life of the new colony of Victoria in the aftermath of the Gold Rush, but also fascinating and detailed information on agriculture and scientific advances of the period. Lying beneath the narrative is also the mystery of why he left his family and friends and the safety of his home for a life of insecurity, though there are hints that he did not get on with his wife, or that he had a problem with drink, possibly the result of this. He states enigmatically that his departure was not his choosing.


Though he was often on the move, he kept in touch with his home and received newspapers, so there is a wealth of information on both Britain and the wider world. Jenkins states several times he was 3 months 3 days older than Queen Victoria, so there is a sense he was very much a man of his age. AS the journal covers such a long period, and he was well into middle age when he arrived, it is also an account of the man coping with growing old, and the many problems this presented for his mental stamina and in particular his physical ability to stay employed and maintain himself. Towards the end he complains that his knees were causing him considerable trouble; he could still work hard but he could not walk far.


In many ways Jenkins reminded me of a latter-day William Cobbett: passionate and deeply knowledgeable about good land management and outraged at the poor practices he sees destroying the productivity of the land, and the failure by landowners to treat their workers fairly. When newly cleared the land produced barley 4 1/2 foot high, and wheat 6 foot with an 18 inch head, but most farmers refused to manure their crops so in summer the soil dried out and blown away. Instead of ploughing the remaining stalks into the soil, stubble was often burnt and also blown away. He complained of the overstocking with sheep but failure to grow crops to feed them in the winter, so in summer there was no grass or water, so huge numbers of cows and sheep died in agony. These same practices meant that few men were needed on the farms so he estimated 1/3 of them were only able to find work during harvest time, so were mostly starving. Farmers were so mean they often refused to provide water for swagmen, which led to retaliation by setting fires, which Jenkins claimed was the most common source of the dangerous and costly fires,. but which were often put out with the help of these same itinerants.


By the time Jenkins arrived, the gold rushes had petered out leaving a few still dreaming of their fortunes, whilst struggling to pay for their claims and to feed themselves. He noted the huge number of unemployed men in Victoria, whilst New South Wales was in desperate need of them. Yet he remained in Victoria; it is unclear why, though there seems to have been a substantial Welsh population and he seems to have made many friends who helped him out when in need, but he also leant a lot of money which was never repaid and was often defrauded of his wages.


Jenkins also is at odds with the image of a traveller with all his belongings in a kerchief on the end of a stick. He was skilled in a wide range of farming skills: ploughing, harvesting, repair of tools. He claimed his swag was 60 to 90 pounds in weight, as he carried a wide range of tools including axe, scythe, hammer etc, but also cooking equipment and bedding. He also made and repaired most of his clothes and made his own clogs. He should have been in constant employment, but though he seems to have done better than most, he was still an itinerant, and when he sued for owed wages, he never won. He also carried books and of course his many journals, many of which were damaged by mice, while his clothes were often ruined by moths. Modern outdoors people limit the weight of their packs to 1/3 of their own bodyweight. it seems Jenkins far exceeded this ratio, but still managed to travel 20 miles per day with his heavy pack.


In his journal he often mentions his living expenses, and though he commends the fine crops of Chinese gardeners, and though many farms grow fruit for market and one has a huge jam making operation, he makes no mention of ever eating any fruit and the only vegetables are what he grows, ie potatoes, carrots and onions, the latter of which he was particularly fond. But they were huge: carrots were 16 inches in circumference and onions 30. His diet was mostly bread, milk, cheese, meat and eggs. In his later years he suffered from bad teeth and many other ailments so his diet became more liquid based, with mutton broth and bread soaked in milk or sometimes porridge being usual. Sugar was a huge component, with him consuming a massive 3 pounds per week. Toward the end of his life he got some new teeth, and later claimed to have only 1 tooth left.


His diary was full of poetry, from short Welsh pieces known as englyns to more extended pieces. He occasionally mentions going to the local Eisteddford, but fails to mention he won the top prize 17 years running. His run was finally broken by the topic in praise of a Methodist preacher, deliberately excluding him as he famously disliked this group. He often had letters published in the weekly press, so seems to have been seen as an expert on farming matters. He often went to agricultural shows, and goes full Cobbett in his complaints that he never saw a dung cart on show, but this reinforces his claims that farming was in a poor state. He claimed that of all the national groups, the Welsh were the best integrated as they chose to be part of the wider society in order to improve their English. He claimed also that his English had not improved since his arrival, yet his published work contradicts this.


In his final years Jenkins managed to get contract work in the town of Maldon, then had full time work clearing the town’s drains. Again, he complained that the large quantities of organic matter he collected should have been used to fertilise crops, but he dumped it down abandoned mine shafts. He complained of the culture of drinking and gambling, of the state’s soaring debts and local corruption. He saw productive land neglected and increasingly crops were so full of weeds they were not worth harvesting. In many years the state was unable to feed itself so was forced to import wheat from the USA and Russia, but this former had additional problems, as weeds were often imported and added to farmers’ problems. Farmers even neglected their horses; he described one who refused to feed these hard working beasts, and if they became exhausted he withdrew their food in the mistaken belief this would help; instead they often died of starvation.

Jenkins mostly lived alone; several times he built his own hut, with proper stone chimney and glazed windows. Even when he rented a house towards the end of his life he carried out improvements. As he grew old, his ability to travel meant he had to live close to his place of work. But his property was often stolen; his waistcoat pockets were picked hanging on a fence while he worked; his hut was broken into during the day, and local boys threw rocks at his window. His diaries and papers were often damaged or destroyed.

Jenkins can at times sound like a grumpy old man, but he read Pope’s translation of Homer and wished he could read it in its original Greek. He commends Henry A. Dobson’s book “Paradox of Time” which sounds like a heavy read. He travelled to the Melbourne Exhibition which was bigger than that of Crystal Palace. After the English expedition to Egypt he claimed that John Bull’s time was nearly up, so he was well informed on international news. He found comfort in reading parts of the Bible and poetry, and had a deep love of the countryside, and is one of the first to have felt this. On one occasion he walked 10 miles to a hill top to view the landscape after a hard day’s work. “there I found Nature glorifying its author with both hands” suggests why he stayed there so long despite all the hardships. He invented a drill to plant mangold seeds. He was frequently aware of his own mortality, and wrote of the approach of death. At the age of 61, he wrote: “I feel the earth attracting my legs”. He often worked with musical colleagues, he particularly liked the Jew’s Harp and predicted that soon it would be possible to record music.

Jenkins also made efforts to do his duty as a member of the local community and despite his poverty often gave to those less well off. On several occasions he bought a ticket for a charity event then gave it to someone more in need. He leant hundreds of pounds to people which he battled to reclaim but mostly failed.

Yet in all his writing there is no mention of why he went to Victoria, but there is a hole in his narrative which seems to tell us much. He corresponds with his relatives and at times he notes how he misses them and how he wishes to see his grandchildren before he dies. But he never mentions his wife, so this seems to have been his reason for leaving Wales.

In my book on wife selling, I noted the many ways in which people dealt with unhappy marriages, from adultery to suicide, but this story confirms my theory that many men were driven to go to sea, to join the navy or to emigrate in order to escape their unhappy home. Jenkins seems to have been one of the most successful and fascinating of them.

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