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Joseph Jenkins was the most famous Welsh swagman in Australia who recorded each day in his diary since he was 22

Tijana Radeska
The three Australian faces of Joseph Jenkins: Swagman, rural labourer and man of letters. He had the photos taken in March 1871 to post home to Wales in explanation of the life he was leading. Each role was amplified by an accompanying descriptive poem of over 20 lines. Photo credit

Joseph Jenkins was a farmer from Tregaron, mid-Wales who lived during the 19-th century. When he turned 51, Jenkins left his wife and children and traveled to Australia to seek fortune.

He worked as a “swagman” and stayed for 25 years on the road, keeping a diary for each day. He didn’t only record his days in Australia, but he was a consistent diarist since he was at the age of 22. The Australian Dictionary of Biography says that: “Jenkins’ noteworthiness stemmed from the rich documentation of his experiences and thoughts that have survived.”

The three Australian faces of Joseph Jenkins: Swagman, rural labourer and man of letters. He had the photos taken in March 1871 to post home to Wales in explanation of the life he was leading. Each role was amplified by an accompanying descriptive poem of over 20 lines. Photo credit

The three Australian faces of Joseph Jenkins: Swagman, rural laborer, and a man of letters. He had the photos taken in March 1871 to post home to Wales in explanation of the life he was leading. Each role was amplified by an accompanying descriptive poem of over 20 lines. Photo credit

Joseph Jenkins was born at Blaenplwyf near Talsarn, Cardiganshire in 1818. In his childhood, Jenkins gained his education under a disciplinarian private tutor and later attended a small Unitarian church school. He was always thirsty for more education and knowledge. He was a passionate reader and writer of poetry specialized in englynion, a Welsh verse form.

Each year, Jenkins competed at a poetry competition in Ballarat Eisteddfod and quite often ended up as the winner. He had eleven siblings and lived together with his family until he got married at 28. He then began farming at Trecefel, Tregaron and became a respected figure in the society. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, when he turned 51, Jenkins traveled to Australia.

Whatever the reasons were for such a decision has never been certain. There is only a speculation that he might had an unhappy marriage or the possible worsened conditions might have pushed him into such a decision.

24 November 1878 diary entry written by Joseph Jenkins while in Castlemaine Hospital. Photo credit

24th November 1878 diary entry written by Joseph Jenkins while in Castlemaine Hospital. Photo credit

But the life of a swagman couldn’t be any easier than that of a poor farmer. However, in 1869, Jenkins arrived in Port Melbourne and joined a group of itinerant agricultural laborers becoming one himself.

Joseph Jenkins–photo taken in Wales around 1896–97

Joseph Jenkins – A photo taken in Wales around 1896–97

In his diaries, Jenkins described his experiences, giving a unique account of life in colonial Australia. For most of his time there, he lived in central Victoria.

He reported and gave his opinions on farming practice, job opportunities, food costs, hut building, health and dental care, and everything else that was part of his life at the time.

Besides, the diaries also contain poetry as well as social and political thoughts and opinions.

Jenkins returned to Wales in 1894. On his return, he entrusted the diaries (a remarkable collection of 25 volumes) to his daughter Elinor (Nell) who stored them in the attic of her home.

Centenary plaque at Maldon railway station

Centenary plaque at Maldon railway station

The diaries were discovered 70 years after Jenkins’ death when his great-granddaughter, Frances Evans, discovered and protected them, permitting her uncle, Dr. William Evans to read and edit the content.

Read another story from us: The Mabinogion: the Welsh stories which are the earliest prose literature from Britain

In 1975 Jenkins’ writings were published as “Diary of a Welsh Swagman” and they’ve become a popular Australian history text.