London Welsh suffering a touch of hiraeth or anyone in need of good cheer may like to visit the London Welsh Centre in the Gray’s Inn Road for the St David’s Festival, 24 February – 1 March. There’s a varied programme – with beer, sport, and song not being neglected.
On 1 March, the anniversary of the death of the Welsh saint, the festival concludes with a choral concert.
The Welsh presence in London is detailed in the scholarly and engaging The Welsh in London: 1500-2000, edited by Emrys Jones. The late Professor Jones and his colleagues show that the Welsh have been coming in numbers to London for over five hundred years. The accession of the Welsh-descended Tudors was a great stimulus to the movement of Welsh men and women to London – the city becoming a centre of Welsh culture. The first Welsh language book was published (in 1546) not in Wales but in London and London remained the primary place of publication of Welsh language books until the nineteenth century.
The Welsh literary revival of the late 18th century was largely the product of the Welsh living in London. Influential (upon Wales) societies founded by the London Welsh in the 18th century include: Honourable & Loyal Society of Antient Britons (1714); Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1751); Gwyneddigion (1770); Cymreigyddion (1794). In 1792 Iolo Morganwg organized his gorsedd (assembly of bards) on Primrose Hill. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many of the prime movers behind the creation of the University College of Wales, the National Library of Wales and the National Museum of Wales were London Welsh. The National Eisteddfod was twice held in Westminster, at the Albert Hall in 1887 and in 1909.
Welsh exiles in London have never settled markedly in particular areas – in contrast to many other national or linguistic emigrant groups who have come to the city – their knowledge (in part or whole) of English allowing them a relatively easier assimilation into English society than most national emigrant groups. While the Welsh have been geographically dispersed, they have gathered together in taverns, clubs, societies and most of all, in the 19th and 20th centuries, in churches and chapels.
One economic niche where the Welsh became predominant was the London dairy trade. A print from a “Cries of London” series of 1804 describes contemporary milk-carriers as
“almost universally Welsh girls, whose uncommon strength and hardiness of constitution peculiarly fit them for an employment of such great labour and constant exposure to the inclemencies of the weather”.
Further evidence of their prevalence is found in the numerous common Welsh surnames appearing as cow-keepers and dairymen in London trade directories. Professor Jones suggests it was Welsh families with farming backgrounds who were prepared to accept the very long hours and small returns offered by small retail dairy outlets.
Another calling of the London Welsh was the drapery trade. The origins of this lie in the traditional Welsh woollen, cloth and hosiery industries. Welsh draper’s assistants were numerous among the clothing and textile shops of Oxford Street, Queensway, and Westbourne Grove. Several Welsh drapers were successful enough to be among the first proprietors of large department stores, most notably DH Evans from Carmarthenshire.
As a young man the Cardiganshire-born writer Caradoc Evans spent some time working at Whiteley’s Paddington store and he offers a dismal view of the lot of the draper’s assistant in his novel Nothing to pay. Evans’ play Taffy produced a near-riot when it was first performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street in 1923: the London Welsh in the audience booed, hissed, and sang ‘Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ to disrupt the play – which they thought vilified their country. The production closed that same evening. Evans, who courted his reputation as the “best-hated man in Wales” might well have enjoyed a more recent but gentler goad by Jan Morris, found in her eloquent The matter of Wales: epic views of a small country:
‘by and large the London Welsh are as devoted to Wales as anyone, except that, in the wisdom of their worldliness, they prefer to live well away from the place.’