Joseph Jenkins (1818–98) was a farmer and poet from Tregaron, Wales. From his early twenties until his death, he kept a diary, written in both Welsh (his mother tongue) and English, describing his daily activities and offering his reflections and insights on a wide range of subjects.

At the age of 51, Joseph sailed to Victoria where he worked as an itinerant farm labourer and, later, as a council worker in Maldon. In 1894, he returned to his family in Wales. The 25 diaries from Jenkins’ years in Victoria (1869–94) offer an extraordinary window into the working and social lives of people living here at the time. He documented everything from the exorbitant price of a cabbage in drought-stricken 1860s Melbourne, to his belief in Aboriginal land rights.

For many years after his death, Joseph’s diaries were stored in the attic of the family farmhouse in Wales. In 1997, State Library Victoria acquired the Victorian diaries from Joseph’s great granddaughter who still lived at the property. The earlier diaries, 1839–70, are held at the National Library of Wales.

All 25 of the Victorian diaries are digitised and available on the Library website, but the cursive handwriting can be tricky to read. Sixteen of the 25 have already been transcribed, but there is more work to do to complete the job and make all the diaries easier to access and explore. As Library staff have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been an amazing opportunity to continue this work. Thirty staff from across the Library are assisting with transcribing the full set of diaries. These texts will be available by request, via the Ask A Librarian service, and in future we plan to make them available online.

Mr Jenkins’ handwriting can be challenging to decipher at times, especially when he’s been scrawling away after a long day’s work – or trying to squash a word in to an already full page! Although the diaries are mostly written in English, he often includes words, sentences and poetry in Welsh. Luckily we have access to a great Welsh-English dictionary eresource, and a team of volunteers at the Caulfield South Community House, who assist us with translation and transcription. Here are some interesting passages from the diaries, selected by our scribes:

Gerard Hayes, Librarian: I’ve just been transcribing the entries where Jenkins travels to Melbourne to see the International Exhibition of 1880–1881. If I had a time machine, that’s one place I’d go, so the diary is the next best thing.

On Thursday 28 April 1881 he takes the train from Creswick to Melbourne, but not without complaining about the expense of the ticket (13 shillings one way). He finds comfortable lodgings close to the Exhibition at the ‘Family Hotel’, again complaining about the expense. He makes the following comment about Melbourne:

This town is managed as polite and flash as any town in England but little more forward in pride and pickpocketing. A stranger dares not to walk the streets during night time so everybody is obliged to employ a cab or some other conveyance duly registered and numbered. I could walk the streets in London with safety all night and so I did many times in Birmingham and Liverpool. But the traveller cannot chance it here. I found that out when I came in first, I was robbed when I could not avoid it.

Here’s another gem. Jenkins visits the Exhibition and is of course particularly interested in agricultural machinery. Having seen the best the world has to offer in an age of explosive technological innovation – there’s no pleasing some people.

30 April 1881, page 123
I came out thoroughly disappointed for not finding even a model of the most essential things for the present day. That is, an improved dung cart and dung spreader

Dominique Dunstan, Librarian: I came across a lovely passage in the diary today. Joseph is struggling to earn his rations as a woodcutter in the bush but is still moved by the wonder of his surroundings on a Sunday morning:

Page 188
Sunday the 14th of August 1881 Same Place
I was up early as usual and went out for a morning walk. There is something new always to be heard and seen in my “Big chapel” that is, the Bush being the truthful book of Nature. Nothing but love can be seen and heard in that chapel and the collecting plates are not in use. It is a free church for all denominations.

Fiona Jeffery, Librarian: This entry includes a little ditty or poem by Joseph Jenkins about working hard. Perhaps a nice parallel with our hardworking transcription team! Glad we don’t have a reaper following right behind us like Joseph did.

Page 28
Tuesday the 18th of January 1881 ­same place
We were up very early, and were soon summoned for breakfast. The morning was very cold but it was hot enough before 9 o’clock. The wind made northwest in fact it was a hot windy after noon. Very warm and sultry uphill work again.
I had no time to touch a fly
And stop the same to blight my eye
If for drink I had to stop
The reaper would be on my top.
Our employer was driving hard after the evening lunch, and the paddock was finished by 6 o’ clock.

Hellena Lozanovski, Senior Library Technician: Looks like things haven’t changed with sudden changes in Victoria’s weather!

6 July 1881, page 166
I am able to forecast the state of the weather in this colony better than many of the old colonists who had been here since the year 1840 but still I cannot do it here as well as at home the [sic] are so many sudden changes here.

Further reading: 

Bill Jones, ‘Jenkins, Joseph (1818–1898)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary volume, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

‘Joseph Jenkins’, Wikipedia.

The Welsh Swagman, Culture Victoria.

Welsh-English dictionary eresource:

Rachel Solomon, ‘The Victorian diaries of a Welsh swagman’, La Trobe Journal, no. 92, Dec. 2013, pp. 107-125, 190-194.



Katie Flack, ‘The diaries of Joseph Jenkins’, La Trobe Journal, no. 100, Sep. 2017, pp. 48-49, 121. 


This article has 9 comments

  1. Will you be publishing this online ?
    It’s difficult to get now that it’s no longer in print.

    • Thanks for your interest in the project Danielle. We are not in a position to publish the transcripts online at this time, but we are looking to develop an online transcript viewer in future, so they can be made freely available. In the meantime you are welcome to contact our Ask A Librarian service to request copies of the years we’ve transcribed.

      Katie Flack, Description Original Materials Manager

  2. Patricia Filby

    I look forward to reading Joseph’s diaries when they become available on line. Another gem of Australian history not to be missed.
    Thanks to those who are working so diligently to make tis possible.
    From a dedicated and appreciative member of the Wodonga Library.

  3. I found this article very interesting!

    Many years ago, I acquired an old 1800’s diary in the 1970’s (re-used as a child’s newspaper scrapbook in 1920’s) which seems to have been written in old German and the last page has an annotation Geelong 8/1/57. It was acquired from the deceased estate of a woman who seems to have been some of hobbyist collector judging by the other things which were auctioned off at the time.

  4. Michael Hassed

    Very good. Looking forward to hearing more from Joe. Great efforts.

  5. Thankful to be able to view these originals and their transcripts.

  6. Sharon Barends

    How interesting is this! What a great team effort from State Library staff and volunteers transcribing the Joseph Jenkins diaries.

  7. Sounds great! Will it be published in print ?

    • Hi Barry,
      Thanks for reading the blog. There are no plans for a print version at this time, but you are welcome to contact our Ask A Librarian service to request electronic copies of the volumes that have been transcribed.


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