The earliest Welsh settlers in Australia were convicts, 1,800 of whom arrived between 1788 and 1852. The gold rushes of the 1850s saw the first major Welsh influx. Many were single men who had left their families behind in Wales. Others emigrated to escape the degradations associated with industrialism or the hardships of farming life. The Welsh population in Victoria rapidly increased, from 2,326 in 1854 to 6,055 in 1861.
Religion served as a focal point for the new settlers. The first Welsh chapel in Melbourne was built in 1857 in La Trobe Street, and by 1865 there were over 20 Welsh chapels across Victoria. The Welsh presence on the goldfields during the 1860s was most evident during hymn-singing festivals and eisteddfods, the latter which evolved into a popular literary and musical competition.
The Welsh population of Victoria declined slowly during the first half of the twentieth century. Numbers slowly rose again after World War II as immigrants
began to arrive under the Assisted Passage Scheme. The population increased from 3,548 in 1961 to 5,113 in 1971. Reflecting the decline of the Welsh language in Wales, the majority of these new immigrants
did not speak Welsh.
The Welsh community continued to grow until 1986, then again declined slowly. In 2006 there were 4,452 Victorians born in Wales, only 3% of whom spoke Welsh at home. Half of those employed worked in professional roles; a further 40% worked in trade, production, clerical and service roles. Today the community lives in both urban and rural Victoria, with larger populations in Frankston and Melbourne’s outer fringes.
Welsh culture and community in Victoria is united and supported by organisations including the Cambrian Society of Victoria, the Victorian Welsh Choir, the Melbourne Welsh Church and the Carmel Welsh Presbyterian Church in Sebastopol, near Ballarat.