Mobility, migration, multiculturalism, and me

Multicutural London, 2011

Part One of Three
in which the author ponders the ways that changing technologies, geographies, and economies created circumstances in which he could be born in South Africa of Greek-Welsh-English heritage. Along the way, he discovers that his forebears came from some really interesting places.

London April 2011


When I first visited London 35 years ago the city was very English, as I had expected it to be. Bus drivers, hotel receptionists, waiters, and immigration officials were English, and I heard English spoken on the Underground (actually, the English seemed to prefer not to speak on the Underground, but if they had spoken, they would have spoken English.)

Today’s London is a completely different place. When I visited the city at the end of April 2011, the immigration official who stamped my passport was a Sikh, the hotel receptionist who checked me in was from Russia, the waiter who took my meal order was Indian, and the bus driver who drove me to the airport was of Pakistani ancestry.  My very full Underground carriage was a cosmopolitan place, a mixture of people of Asian, African, and European ancestry. Many were not at all reticent about speaking, some in languages I didn’t recognize.This all got me thinking about the great stirring of the Europe’s – and the world’s – demographic and cultural pot that has taken place with increasing rapidity over the past century and a half. I am a product of that mixing, a blend of Greek, Welsh, English and a dash of Scots ancestry that would have been culturally unthinkable and geographically impossible in my great-grandparents day.

This is the first of three blog posts on this topic.  In this, the first, I reflect on the 19th century explosion of mobility that took my maternal ancestors from England and Wales to South Africa. In the next blog, I speculate about the reasons for my ancestor’s emigration, and examine the ways in which they, and others like them, reinvented themselves in their new land. In the final blog in this series, I offer my observations (from my vantage point in Hyde Park and outside Buckingham Palace) on the 2011 Royal Wedding, and on the role of royalty the multicultural United Kingdom of the 21st century.

Mobility, Migration and Me

Today, for people like me who live in countries populated mainly by recent immigrants and their descendants (places like the United States, Canada, Australia, and Singapore,) multiculturalism, migration, and mobility are facts of life. Americans, in particular, are a mobile lot. We change homes every seven-year on average, about 40 million Americans are (like me) foreign-born, and one in four Americans under 18 is a second generation immigrant. “Where are you from?” is a common conversation opener, and some online banks even use “Where were you born?” as a security question.

These would have seemed like really stupid questions to my 19th century English and Welsh ancestors, few of whom ever ventured far from home. In the 1841 English census, 136 males with the name Widdicombe – my maternal grandfather’s family name – are listed; all but seven of them lived in the county of Devon, and most in and around the town of Totnes. By 1861, a quarter of all Widdicombes in England lived outside of Devon. By the 1870s, they had reached South Africa.

The Worlds of the Widdicombes and Lewises

My grandmother was a Lewis, one of most common of all Welsh names, and members of the clan were to be found all of Wales by the mid 19th century. Marriage records, though, show that they were at least as homebound as the Widdicombes. The vast majority of marriages in Pontypridd, the coalmining town that was my grandmother’s birthplace, were among people who lived in or near the town. My grandmother grew up just 15 km from the farming village where her great-great-grandfather was born in more than a century earlier. In the 19th century, most Lewises probably never traveled further from home in a lifetime than most Americans do in their journey to work today.

(There was one group of Lewises who did move very far from home: 321 of them were among the involuntary passengers transported to the penal colonies in Australia between 1792 and 1856. No Widdicombes made this particular journey.)

Around the end of the 18th century, powerful forces unleashed by technology began to change the geography of the Lewises, the Widdicombes and the world.. These forces were a consequence of steam, colonialism, and telecommunications, woven together on the loom of modern capitalism.

The Coming of Industrialization

Without steam, I wouldn’t exist.

The Industrial Revolution comes to Pontypridd. Brown, Lenox and Co. arrived in 1818.

Well, perhaps not steam per se, but rather the steam engine. This machine, perfected by Scottish inventor James Watt in the late 18th century, was first used to power cotton mills in and around the city of Manchester, and soon afterwards to propel ships over the oceans and trains overland at speeds that would previously have been unimaginable.

The economic needs of the Industrial Revolution, together with the transportation technologies it created, made possible (and indeed necessitated) the explosion of European colonialism of the 19th century. Colonialism, in turn, gave Europeans in general, and residents of the British Isles in particular, the means, motive and opportunity to migrate to distant lands. Once there, they could reimagine their pasts, reinvent themselves, and reproduce. I am a product of these three processes.

Land of my Mothers. Two views of Pontypridd (Taff Street, undated, and the Great Western Colliery in 1910.)

The Lewises in Wales probably felt the impact of the Industrial Revolution before the Widdicombes did in Devon. Pontypridd, and much of surrounding Glamorganshire County, sat atop significant deposits of coal, the fuel of the Industrial Revolution.  Two more of its essential ingredients, iron ore and limestone (for making steel), were to be found at nearby Merthyr Tydfil. (In fact the region was known as an iron-making center even before its economy came to depend primarily on coal.)  In 1794, a canal opened between the town and Cardiff to transport the iron and coal of valleys of South Wales to the world. Life for the county’s residents must have changed dramatically in the first half of the 19th century as mining, manufacturing, and newcomers  invaded their previously remote and bucolic environment. (An example: between 1841 and 1851, the population increased by about a third to 62,000 people. Two thirds of this increase was a result of migration.*)

Pontypridd 2011

With industrialization came prosperity for some in my ancestors’ home region. An 1859 Commercial Directory for the Pontypridd area lists the names of 359 businesspeople, clergy, and artisans (professions run the gamut from ‘clergy’ and ‘coal owner’ to ‘butcher’ and ‘stone mason.’) Seventeen of those listed are members of the ‘gentry,’ and fifteen businesses and individuals are listed as ‘coal owners.’  These made up the town’s elite.

The Lewises were not among this group. Of the more than 4,000 Lewises in the area, only five made it into the 1859 Directory: a boot maker, a cabinet maker, a grocer, and two proprietors of taverns or public houses. Numerous Lewises, however, listed solidly working class occupations such as ‘labourer,’  ‘collier,’ and ‘coal hauler – underground.’

Life for the miners was tough and often short. More than 6,000 miners lost their lives in the mines  during the 19th and early 20th centuries; countless more died of work-related injuries and ailments at home. A list of mine disasters claiming five or more lives reads like an index to a Welsh atlas: Aberdan, Blaenclydach, Cymmer, Dinas, and so on, all the way to Ynysdavid.

Life in the valleys [of mid Glamorganshire] has always been hard, During the winter, a collier never saw the sun except on Sunday, going down into the pits before daybreak and emerging after dark. Boys followed their fathers down in their early teens. With little cash and no modern conveniences, women made home and hearth for large families in two-room-up, two-room-down stone row houses without garden or lawn. The mines yielded a death, on average, every six hours, and a serious injury every twelve minutes.

Dana Huntley. ‘When Coal was King.’ British Heritage, September 2004. (Huntley is describing life in the 1920s; it was even harsher half a century earlier.)

The mining industry also brought outsiders to Wales, most of them English. Britain’s oldest language, Welsh, found itself under siege as English became the language of progress and the means by which news reached the region (it had long been the official language of government, despite its minority status.) By 1911, about the time my grandmother moved away, Welsh had become a minority language in Wales for the first time in 2,000 years.

My maternal grandfather’s family came from a very different kind of place. Tourism and popular history websites on Totnes stress the town’s long history (dating back at least to the 10th century,) and its longtime function as a market center. But they are remarkably sparse in their coverage of recent times (Wikipedia begins its five sentence ‘modern history’ of Totnes in 1523, and a local website’s ‘potted history’ of the town ends in the mid 17th century.)  The Totnes area did enjoy a brief period as a wool producer, but this ended in part due to the Industrial Revolution (when the reduced cost of cotton textiles from Lancashire’s mills put much of the wool industry out of business.)

In the second half of the 19th century, Totnes was still a small market center, as it had been a few centuries earlier. Together with its surrounding areas it supported more than 400 traders and professionals, listed in an 1870 directory.  None of the 159 members of the Widdicombe clan in the town makes it onto the list. For most of the 1800s census records show that they had occupations like “labourer” and “tailor (journeyman)” (i.e. working for someone else.) The family name also shows up criminal records, with an impressive number of Widdicombes imprisoned for offences like larceny and receiving stolen goods.

Ancestors on the move

The Widdicombes and the Lewises had for centuries, it seems, subsisted at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectra of their respective regions. But until the 19th century, the idea of moving away probably never occurred to them; it would have been impractical, expensive, probably unprecedented and, besides, they did not know much at all about other places. Going even to Cardiff, might have seemed to a young man from Pontypridd like a reckless adventure, and heading to London would have been an expensive journey to an alien land.  But by 1850, this was changing, thanks largely to steam-driven transportation.

In the early 1800s, steam power went mobile as first paddle driven steam ships, then steam rail locomotives, then propeller driven ocean steamers came into being. By 1850, goods and people were being hauled over land and sea in numbers and at speeds and costs that would have seemed fantastical only a few years earlier.

1866 Timetable for the Merthyr to Cardiff rail service

For the likes of the Lewises, the 20 km journey southeast to Cardiff in the early 1800s would have been a difficult one, probably on foot. Heading out of Pontypridd in the opposite direction, up into the hills and toward Merthyr Tydfil, would have been even more arduous. But when the railroad came, geographies of mobility changed dramatically. In 1866, it was possible to travel the 50 km from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff in a train pulled by a steam locomotive and powered by coal from the local Middle Duffryn Colliery. The journey took 85 minutes and cost 2 shillings. This would have been about half a day’s wages for a coalminer: not an inconsiderable sum, but presumably manageable at least once in a while. This marked a radical change in mobility for the working class of Pontypridd for whom a journey out of Glamorganshire and even out of Wales became a realistic possibility.

Before the advent of rail transportation, a journey by stage coach to London from Totnes would have taken at least 30 hours. But the Widdicombes would certainly have been unable to afford the cost of the trip. Rail service arrived in Devon in around 1850, and in Totnes in 1872; this made it possible to travel to the 360 km or so to London, previously probably a journey of several days, in about nine hours. Many rail companies, however, actively discouraged travel by the masses, and only when forced by Parliament to broaden their service did they begin to run so called ‘parliamentary trains.’ Even at one penny a mile, and running in the middle of the night, these trains must have opened new horizons for the Widdicombes, as rail service had done for the Lewises.

On the seas, changes in transportation were just as dramatic as they were on land. In July 1798, Sarah, the first Lewis sentenced to be transported to Australia, set sail from England on what would be a 169 day journey to New South Wales aboard the sail ship Brittania. By the 1880s, about the time my great grandfather emigrated to South Africa, the journey from Southampton to Cape Town took as little as 17 days. In 1906, the cost of this journey (in steerage) was 19 pounds 19 shillings, about 6 months wages for an agricultural worker or 2 months for a skilled craftsman.

Thanks to these remarkable changes in transportation, it became possible for young William Henry Widdicombe to leave his home in Devon in the 1860s, and make his way to Liverpool. Somewhere along the way, he met Margaret Jameson, born in Liverpool of Scots parentage, and together they made the journey to South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where their son was born in 1882.

The White Star Line’s ‘Suevic,’ the liner that carried my grandmother to South Africa in 1923.

Hathaway Lewis, born in 1896, left Glamorgan at about the time the Great War began, and met and married a plumber’s son from Gloucestershire in 1916.  Within a year, he was killed in action in France. In 1918 the young widow met a soldier, newly arrived from the colonies to fight in the War. He was John Widdicombe, son of the emigrants Henry and Margaret. In the early 1920s, Hathaway and their infant son joined her husband in South Africa. There they had two daughters and another son. In the early 1950s, one of those daughters married the son of Greek emigrants who had arrived in Mozambique early in the 20th century, and later made their way to South Africa. That son of immigrants was to become my father.

Details aside, the tale of the Rallis family’s migration from Greece to South Africa was probably not too different from that of the Widdicombes and the Lewises.

But why did the Widdicombe and Rallis families come to South Africa? It is, of course, impossible know but it is relatively easy to take a guess.  My working class ancestors probably saw emigration to the colonies as their best shot at making it into the middle class. For most European immigrants, skin color was sufficient to provide them with the trappings of the middle class lives they might never have had in the Old Country. For English-speaking immigrants, language was an added bonus.

As I have quizzed members of my mother’s generation about our history, what has become very clear is that their parents, the emigrant generation, spoke very little about their past. Their children often didn’t know their grandparents’ names, or why they chose to emigrate. My grandmother never even told her children that their father was her second husband.

Perhaps my ancestors’ reticence in talking about their own past was because they wanted to leave it behind, and to start afresh in a new place.  These working class emigrants were not, however, at all reluctant to bring an imagined cultural past with them as they set up their middle class lives in South Africa, where black South Africans were the miners, laborers, and domestic servants, and where for most English speakers skin color and language were sufficient to elevate them to the middle class.  This is the environment in which I was raised, and without which I would not have been born.


Update (June 15, 2011.) I am now in South Wales my first visit, drawn here by the research that led to this blog. I think I got much of what I wrote here right, but Wales looks different from Wales than it does from behind a computer screen in Cambodia (where I wrote this piece.) A new blog on South Wales is brewing, and I hope to post it soon. During this visit, I had some very interesting and informative conversations with local people. My greatest debt of gratitude goes to Hull Matthews of the Pontypridd Library, who provided me with lots if useful information, insights, and some invaluable sources of information.

Note: I drew on numerous sources in writing this blog. Many came from the copious database of (a pay site, alas,) where I found UK Census and criminal records, ships’ passenger lists, marriage records, and even lists of prisoners transported to Australia. The South African website provided some meager but critical records of my grandfather’s birth. Pictures of Pontypridd come from the Rhondda Cynon Taf Library Service Heritage TrailI have included links in the text above to some of my other sources.

I owe a special word of thanks to Amyas Crump and Pippa Griffiths of the Tiverton Museum of Mid Devon Life for providing me with information about rail and carriage travel between Devon and London. Thanks also to to the citizens of Pontypridd who responded to my online post asking for their suggestions.

Information here about my grandparents and great grandparents is definitely accurate. Further back, I have had to make some educated guesses about some of my ancestors (Thomas Lewis must surely have been the most popular man’s name in 19th century Wales.)

*This information comes from the Digest of Welsh Historic Statistics, Volume 1, by John Williams.

Another note: I should note here that I did all of the original research for this blog, and wrote it, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The research took about five days. Geography continues to change.


  1. Kasey Moore May 30, 2012
  2. Laura O May 30, 2012
  3. Kavon Johnson May 30, 2012
  4. Lindsey C May 30, 2012
  5. Donald Rallis May 30, 2012
  6. Donald Rallis May 30, 2012
  7. chris r. February 17, 2013
  8. Donald Rallis February 17, 2013
  9. Brianna D'Agata May 28, 2013
  10. Brianna D'Agata May 29, 2013
  11. Paola Fuentelsaz May 29, 2013
  12. Donald Rallis May 30, 2013
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  20. Katelyn P. June 26, 2013
  21. Eric Raterman July 27, 2013
  22. Katie Fago June 15, 2015

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