In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Welsh people began to venture into Western Canada. These were people seeking a new life, employment, and perhaps an adventure. For some it was an escape from poverty.
At the turn of the century, for example, some Welsh farmers, unhappy with their lot in the United States, entered Canada seeking a more familiar farming landscape. Many came from Nebraska and Iowa, and established a farming community named Wood River near the town of Ponoka in the province of Alberta. Very quickly, this farming community attracted more people directly from Wales.
On the industrial front, as railroads in Canada became busier, there was a greater need for coal. In answer to this demand, many miners came from across Europe including the Welsh, many highly experienced as well as bilingual. By 1894, the prairie ‘city’ of Calgary, Alberta was a very small settlement with a population of less than 5,000. There were Welsh people there as early as the 1880s, and Robert Cadogan Thomas, an entrepreneur from Bridgend, was already making his mark.
But this story really begins with the Empress of Britain, a passenger ship, which in 1906 brought the Morris family to Canada. The ship’s passenger list, dated 5 May 1906, includes Mr. W. J. Morris, Mrs. Morris, Miss L. Morris, Miss E. Morris, and Miss C. Morris. After a further trip by train from Montreal of over 2000 miles, the family settled in Calgary.
It is not known where they spent their first winter, but we know that another Welsh family, the Carters, spent the winter of 1906 on the east side of Centre Street in tents with wooden sides and tar paper to keep out the wind and snow. Indeed, these families may have known each other then but, if not in 1906, the Morrises soon got to know the Carter family.
William John Morris, known because of his small stature as “Morris Bach”, was born in Pen-y-Groes, Caernarfonshire. After settling in Calgary, as is common with the Welsh, he and his family missed the music and song of his homeland and felt a strong urge to keep the Welsh culture alive. With the help of Welshman Jack Lewis they pulled together a group of like-minded Welsh people and formed the Saint David Society of Calgary, of which Morris Bach would later become president.
Manors and music
Mr. Morris, a businessman who owned a grocery store, also delved into real estate. The Morris family made their home at 515 14th Avenue S.E, near Victoria Park. Lillian Morris attended Victoria school. Her teacher was Mr. Frank Buchanan, who later became superintendent of the Calgary Public School Board. Many years later, just after WWII, a great-nephew of Morris Bach, Derek Morris, would unknowingly also immigrate to Calgary after marrying a Canadian woman, and eventually became a superintendent of schools. Derek’s son Paul Morris and nephew Gareth Morris are esteemed Calgary realtors, like their great-great-uncle.
Where Welsh people go, eisteddfodau and Cymanfa Ganu will soon follow. The Morris family were all trained in music; Morris Bach was a singer and could read music in Tonic Sol-fa. The family came out well in the St David’s Day Eisteddfod. Morris Bach’s daughter won two gold medals on the same day in both the soprano and contralto competitions.
As of the 2016 Canadian census, 474,805 people were Wales-born or claimed Welsh descent. The exodus of Welsh people to Canada brought much music with it generally, right across the newer nation. There has been cross-fertilisation and mutual performance of music between Canada and Wales ever since. And there are Welsh societies across Canada and the United States, many more since the Saint David Society of Calgary was founded in 1906.
The Calgary Welsh Society
While the society has been renamed, it is still going strong today. One of its primary aims is to provide a focal and meeting point for those of Welsh origin or descent. Individuals with an interest in Wales and things Welsh are equally welcome. It encourages individuals to take pride in their Welsh heritage and culture, and to perpetuate the traditions and customs unique to Wales.
The society organizes and celebrates a number of social and cultural events throughout the year, and keeps in touch with similar societies all over North America and the world. It welcomes new Welsh immigrants to the community and to Calgary, and provides a source of contacts and information for anyone interested in Wales and Welsh people.
The flatness of the foothills and prairies around Calgary may not feel Welsh, nor the dry climate and huge skies above it. But the Rocky Mountains on the horizon hint at a home elsewhere, as does the Canadian community of Welsh people. Eisteddfod, after all, means ‘sitting-together’.