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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jenkins, Joseph (1818–1898)

by Bill Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Joseph Jenkins, 1871

Joseph Jenkins, 1871

Joseph Jenkins (1818-1898), labourer, swagman and diarist, was born on 27 February 1818 at Blaenplwyf farm, Llanfihangel Ystrad parish, Cardiganshire, Wales, son of Jenkin Jenkins, farmer, and his wife Elinor. Joseph was educated locally and from an early age took an interest in poetry (which he wrote in Welsh and English), literature, philosophy and current affairs. His marriage to Elizabeth (Betty) Evans, daughter of a relatively wealthy farm owner, on 31 July 1846 at the parish church, Aberayron, enabled him to move away from his parents and acquire the tenancy of Trecefel farm near Tregaron; there were nine children of the marriage. During the next twenty-two years he became an innovative and successful farmer and an influential figure, involved in local politics and in the building of the Manchester and Milford railway (opened 1867) through the area. He was a Unitarian but with no such place of worship nearby was warden at St Caron's parish church.

On 8 December 1868 Jenkins impulsively departed for Victoria, reaching Melbourne in March 1869. A man of appreciable intellect and learning, he was a tormented figure and suffered from profound mood swings, believing he had been cursed from birth. It seems he had left home to escape deteriorating personal circumstances, notably worsening relations with his wife as a result of his excessive drinking and neglect of the farm. Loss of local standing, following an injudicious political stance during the 1868 general election also contributed. He travelled the colony as an itinerant agricultural labourer, mainly in the Ballarat, Castlemaine, Maldon and Inglewood areas. From 1884 onwards he lived at Maldon, working as a drain cleaner under contract to the local council. He continued to write poetry, winning numerous prizes at the Ballarat Eisteddfod.

Jenkins's noteworthiness stemmed from the rich documentation of his experiences and thoughts that has survived. In 1839 he had begun to keep a journal in order to improve his English, maintaining it daily until his death. The diaries (complete from 1845) and the acute observations, poetry and commentary they contained, have become justifiably celebrated. Those he kept in Australia provided a unique and memorable primary source for the social, cultural and labour history of colonial Victoria. Notably, he discussed farming practices and the plight of agricultural labourers, a cause for which he campaigned in local newspapers. He also included much material on his fellow Welsh in the colony, other nationalities and indigenous people.

In November 1894, with his health failing, Jenkins decided to return home, arriving at Trecefel in March 1895. He died there on 26 September 1898, survived by his wife and seven children. Jenkins's Australian diaries are held in the State Library of Victoria; extracts were published as the Diary of a Welsh Swagman 1869-1894 (Melbourne, 1975). In 1994 a fountain in his honour was erected at Maldon in recognition of 'his monumental contribution to the life of a rural worker in Victoria as recorded in his diaries'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Lloyd, Australians from Wales (Caernarfon, Wales, 1988)
  • B. Phillips, Rhwng Dau Fyd: Y Swagman O Geredigion (Aberystwyth, Wales, 1998)
  • B. Phillips, Pity the Swagman (Aberystwyth, Wales, 2002)
  • Planet (Wales), no 61, 1987, p 72.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bill Jones, 'Jenkins, Joseph (1818–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Joseph Jenkins, 1871

Joseph Jenkins, 1871