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Migration to the South Wales Coalfield

As a result of the expansion in coal industry, the second half of the nineteenth century saw a huge increase in the population in the South Wales Valleys.

Between 1851 and 1911, it is estimated that some 366,000 people moved into the South Wales Coalfield. The peak of this migration occurred between 1901 and 1911 when 129,000 people moved into the area. Such was the rate of growth at this time that South Wales absorbed immigrants at a faster rate than any where in the world except the United States of America.

Up until the 1890s, many of the people who moved into the Coalfield were from other counties in Wales, such as Cardiganshire, Montgomeryshire and Merioneth. After the 1890s, many more immigrants came from England, particularly from Somerset, Gloucestershire and Cornwall. People also came from further afield, such as Ireland, Scotland and even Australia.

In Dowlais and Abercrave, there were communities of Spaniards. In Merthyr, there were small communities of Russians, Poles and French and in many of the Valley towns, Italians opened cafes.

Two statistics tell the story: in 1801 the population of Glamorgan was 70,879 – in 1901 it was 1,130,668. In 1851, the population of the Rhondda was 1,998 – in 1911 it was 152,781.


The decline of the coal industry in South Wales during the period 1919 to 1939 meant that there was mass unemployment.

As a result, almost 500,000 people left the valley communities during the inter-war years to try and find work elsewhere. The Rhondda for example, lost around 36% of its population between 1921 and 1951.

Many people went to towns in England such as Wolverhampton and Slough where new manufacturing industries were developing.

Others went further afield to the United States of America, Canada and Australia.

Wales in the Americas

The history of Welsh emigration to the Americas stretches from the seventeenth century to the present day. The reasons for emigration were varied: some hoped to gain religious freedom, others sought an improvement in their economic situations. America was seen as a land of opportunity where the political and cultural lives of individuals could be freely expressed and built upon.

Welsh people have settled in most areas of the United States. There are also closely-knit communities in Patagonia and Canada.

It was mainly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which saw the greatest movement of Welsh people to the Americas. 89,603 Welsh settled in the US between 1820 & 1950: all but 5,500 did so between 1850 & 1930.



Rees, Teresa. A demographic and socio-economic profile of migrants to and from the South Wales Valleys. (Cardiff, 1976).

Immigration to Wales:

Henriques, U R Q (ed). The Jews of South Wales: historical studies. (University of Wales Press, 1993)

Hughes, Colin. Lemon, Lime and Sarsaparilla: the Italian Community in South Wales 1881-1945. (Seren, 1992).

Masson, Ursula. The development of the Irish and Roman Catholic Communities of Merthyr Tydfil and Dowlais in the nineteenth century. (Dissertation, University of Keele, 1975).

Vuranch, Karen and Barkey, Fred.The Influence of the Welsh Immigrants on the development of the coalfields. (1994).

Migration from Wales:

Bennett, Carol. In search of the Red Dragon: the Welsh in Canada. (Ontario, 1985).

 Chamberlain, M.E. The Welsh In Canada. (Canadian Stiudies in Wales Group, 1986). 

Jones, William D. Wales in America: Scranton and the Welsh, 1860-1920. (Cardiff)

Kneller, Pamela. Welsh Immigrant women as Wage Earners in Utica, New York, 1860-1870. (Llafur, Journal of Welsh Labour History, Vol.5, No.4, 1991 p71-79.)

All items listed in the further reading are available for consultation in either the South Wales Miners’ Library or the Library and Information Centre, University of Wales Swansea. Click here to link to the library catalogue. 


Data Wales  Emigration to America.

Data Wales  The Welsh in Patagonia.

Data Wales The Welsh and the American anthracite industry.



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