The Hwyl and the Hiraeth: St David’s Day in London

This St David’s Day, Welsh men and women throughout Wales and across the world will be celebrating our unique culture and identity.

Like so many proud Welshmen who have made London their home, I will experience that inevitable sense of hiraeth (or longing) this St David’s Day.

Whilst no city in the world can rival London for its cultural diversity, one of its oldest communities –the London Welsh – is perhaps one of the least understood or celebrated.

London is home to the oldest and largest Welsh community outside Wales. The middle of the 19th century saw an exodus of Welsh dairymen to London. By 1900 it is estimated half of all dairies in the capital were Welsh.

Another calling of the London Welsh was the drapery trade. Several Welsh drapers were successful enough to be among the first owners of large department stores, the most famous being Peter Jones on the King’s Road, who left for London with just £14 in savings. Upon hearing of Jones’s death in 1905, his great rival – John Lewis – personally walked across the city to purchase the store, with £21,000 in cash hurriedly collected from his own tills.

Whilst the Welsh may have been quicker and easier to assimilate than other communities, the London Welsh Centre on Gray’s Inn Road continues to thrive as a cultural enclave. It will be the focal point of the “Wales Week in London” festivities, the annual series of events to celebrate Welsh culture.

This year’s line-up is bigger and better, including an exhibition of Welsh art, the ever-popular Welsh Food Emporium and the Prime Minister’s St David’s day reception in Downing Street later this afternoon.

Unbeknown to most Londoners, there are “nods” to Wales and the Welsh across our capital city.

Tucked behind the brutalist Barbican Estate sits Capel Jewin (Jewin Chapel), first established in around 1774 to serve the burgeoning Welsh Christian congregation.  Whilst Welsh congregations may have dwindled in the intervening years, there remain thriving Welsh churches throughout London – from Clapham Junction to Leytonstone, from Cockfoster’s to Ealing.

Across the road from St Paul’s Cathedral stands Eglwys Bened Sant (St Benet’s Church), the Welsh church in the City of London. A church has stood on this site since 1111, whilst services have been held here in Welsh since 1879 when Queen Victoria granted the Welsh community the right to worship here in their own language. It is the only undamaged and unaltered church in the City designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Welshman have left their mark in other ways on our capital too. It was an enterprising Welshman, Hugh Myddleton, who first created a fresh water supply for central London in the 17th century, improving health and hygiene in the capital and saving thousands of lives.

Meanwhile in Whitehall, it was the celebrated Welsh designer, Inigo Jones, who designed the magnificent Banqueting House – the only remaining component of the Palace of Westminster.

In the twenty-first century, Welsh men and women continue to leave an impression on London in other ways.

The Crossrail project, which is doing so much to transform connectivity across our capital, can also lay claim to strong Welsh credentials. Led by Welshman Sir Terry Morgan, the project is being built with 50,000 tonnes of steel from South Wales. Crucially, Crossrail will significantly cut journey times between south Wales and the City of London, making it possible to commute from Cardiff to Canary Wharf in as little as two hours.

Whilst it may come as a surprise, the Welsh have influenced all walks of London life for close to five centuries. As those strains of “Gwlad, Gwlad” ring out today, let us celebrate the contribution of the Welsh diaspora and raise a glass to a Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus (Happy St David’s Day).

 

Tomos Davies is an Associate Partner at Newgate Communications and a former Wales Office Special Adviser. He is a Trustee of the London Welsh Centre  https://walesweek.london

 

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