Ceri Shaw



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user image 2024-02-14
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: New Titles


This week sees the extraordinary book  Pity the Swagman: The Australian Odyssey of a Victorian Diarist  by Bethan Phillips republished. Described by the late Jan Morris as “a truly fascinating book”,  Pity the Swagman  is a classic that has been out of print for over twenty years. 

The book is the biography of Joseph Jenkins (1818-98) who was a successful farmer in Tregaron in west Wales. Without warning, aged 50, he left his farm and family to travel Australia and live as an itinerant farm labourer. His diaries returned to Wales with him and were kept by one of his daughters for over 70 years, until a chance encounter between the author and Joseph Jenkins’ great-grand-daughter. 

In his Preface to the book, Dr R. Brinley Jones, then President of the National Library of Wales, describes it as “a very moving human story” and Bethan Phillips’ work as both “readable and scholarly”.

The diary illustrates both the state of Welsh rural society at the time – with social and financial inequality between the poor and the gentry - and the corruption in parliamentary elections. The hardships endured by early migrants to Australia and the travails of the Aborigines are described, as well as the fate of the Kelly Gang. 

In her Foreword, written in 2002, Bethan Phillips says:

“The diaries reveal him as a man seeking to exorcise his own demons by attempting to escape from them, but they also reveal him as an astute observer of the people and occurrences impacting on his own eventful life. His dogged determination in keeping a daily journal, often under the most difficult of circumstances and in the most unpropitious surroundings, has given us a uniquely valuable historical record of life in the nineteenth century.” 

Bethan Phillips’ spent 15 years studying the original diaries, which covered a period of 58 years, skilfully choosing extracts from them. She also spoke to Joseph Jenkins’ descendants, still living in Ceredigion, hearing family stories, and reading further writings, including his poetry, which won prizes. She also followed Joseph Jenkins’ footsteps in Australia, which was filmed for a documentary for the BBC. 

Joseph Jenkins’ diary spanned 58 years and is celebrated as one of the richest sources of information about life in rural Australia.  Pity the Swagman  is an in-depth, authoritative study of rural life in the nineteenth century and is studied on the school curriculum in Australia. 

Pity the Swagman 
by Bethan Phillips (£16.99, Y Lolfa) is available now.