Cymdeithas Gymreig Manitoba

header photo


Cymedithas Gymreig Manitoba

Welsh Society of Manitoba









History and Background of the St David’s Society of Winnipeg

by Dr. Keith Davies Jones


‘Adar a hedodd, gwenyn a felodd, pysgod a nofiodd, Cymry ymfudodd’

(Birds fly, bees make honey,  fish swim, Welsh people emigrate.)

Menna Elfyn - ‘Preiddiau’r Cymry’

Wales is situated on the western peninsula of the British Isles.  When the Romans reached the southern shores of those lands, they called the country ‘Britannia’ after its inhabitants who spoke a Celtic language known as Brythonic, the ancestor of modern Welsh. After the Romans left Britain more than 4 centuries later, these now Romanised Celts were quickly displaced from what is now England by a succession of invading peoples - the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings and finally in 1066, the Normans under William the Conqueror; and from this melting pot emerged the English people and the English language. The indigenous Britons were driven back to the mountainous land of Cymru (Wales), which had never been fully conquered by the Romans, and there they continued speaking their ancient Welsh tongue, Cymraeg, despite their eventual conquest by the English king in 1282. To the north, another Celtic people also resisted conquest for many centuries, and became the modern nation of Scotland. Despite loss of political independence, Wales has maintained or established many of its own institutions, political, cultural educational and ecclesiastical, and on May 6th 1999, the first elections to the new National Assembly of Wales were held. On May 26th, I had the privilege of being present at the opening of the first Welsh parliament in over 500 years.

Welsh is one of the oldest living languages in Europe, and has a rich literary tradition going back to the 6th century. Welsh literature remains vibrant to this day. There is a rich folk-song heritage, and a strong choral tradition. Indeed, the national anthem of Wales tells of a ‘Land of poets and singers’, that is how we see ourselves, and that is how we have come to be known to the world.  Wales is a land of choirs and eisteddfodau (musical and literary competitive festivals).  There are other countries with a choral tradition at least as vigorous as ours, but perhaps nowhere else in the world is the writing of poetry taken more seriously.  These are the gifts we bring with us when we move to other countries. Those of us who have come to Canada feel that we are indeed fortunate that in this country there exists a rich choral tradition also, and that honour is given to writers and poets.  It is not the same everywhere.

Wales was Christianised in the 6th Century, and its greatest evangelist was St David,  Patron Saint of Wales, and founder of the Cathedral that bears his name in South-West Wales. We do not know exactly when he was born or when he died, but legend has it that he passed away on March the 1st somewhere around the year 600; and on this day, Welsh people the world over celebrate the memory of their St David, who has come to symbolise for us our Welsh nationhood and identity. 

During the last 200 years, many Welsh people through hardship at home have emigrated to new lands - to Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and to Canada; and have played no small part in building those countries into what they have become today. A quarter of the men who signed the American Declaration of Independence were said to have been of Welsh extraction, and four of them became presidents. It is estimated that from 1900 to 1950, some 50,000 Welsh people immigrated to Canada. The Prime Minister’s residence in Ottawa bears a Welsh name, ‘Gorffwysfa’, the name given to it when it was built in 1886 by Joseph Merrill Currier, who was of French-Canadian extraction and born in Vermont, USA. It is not clear how he came to choose this Welsh name for his house. Canadian artist Robert Harris was born at Bryn-y-Pin in the Parish of Caerhun, near Ty’n y Groes, Dyffryn Conwy in 1849. His works include the well-known painting ‘Fathers of Confederation’ and a portrait of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A Macdonald. Harris was a founder-member and later president of the Royal Canadian Academy. He came to Canada with his family in 1856 and died in Montréal in 1919. Noted Ottawa biochemist and burns expert, Dr Brian Sparkes, was born in Cardiff in 1941. Canadian mezz0-soprano Patricia Kern was born in Swansea in 1927. In 1998, Canadian astronaut Dr Dafydd Rhys Williams became the first person to speak Welsh in space.

Many Welsh people came to Winnipeg in the 19th century, and brought the Welsh language and culture with them.  At the turn of the century, there were several Welsh choirs here, and according to Dulais Rees, some notable performances of works by the Welsh composer Joseph Parry were given in 1901 by the “combined Welsh Choirs of Winnipeg”. Welsh-born musicians who were prominent in Winnipeg at that time included the choral conductor Rhys Thomas, pianist and impressario Fred Gee and composer and conductor Ralph Horner. Distinguished Winnipeg musicians of Welsh descent include pianist and teacher Gwendda Owen Davies, soprano Joan Maxwell, contraltos Myfanwy Evans Story and Gloria Doubleday, and composer Victor Davies. A newspaper, the Welsh Pioneer, was published in Winnipeg from 1910–11. Some of the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 were Welshmen. Also in 1919, the Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn painted the striking mural in the Manitoba Legislature.

On August 15th 1612, a Welshman, Captain Thomas Button, became the first European to set foot on what is now Manitoba. Button Gwinnett, a signatory to the US Declaration of Independence, was related by marriage to Thomas Button. Included in Jack Bumsted’s ‘Dictionary of Manitoba Biography’ are a number of other Welsh-born persons - Thomas Flye (labour leader), David Jones (cleric), David Peregrine (ballet dancer), William Smith (soldier) and Thomas Thomas (surgeon). Seymour James Farmer, born in Cardiff; was Mayor of Winnipeg 1922-23, later a Member of the Provincial Parliament, and a Federal Government minister during the Second World War. Wilfred William Henry Thomas (1875 - 1953), born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, was the first Bishop of Brandon.

John Williams, born in Ysgeifiog, Sir Fflint was MLA for Arthur constituency from 1908 - 1910 and from 1914 - 1922, and was Minister of Agriculture from 1921-22. Thomas Griffiths, born in Pembroke Dock in 1866, was a prominent Winnipeg businessman. He came to Canada in 1888. Franklyn Shinn, born in Barry, South Wales in 1911, was Director of the Winnipeg Planetarium from 1975-1976, and designed the Planetarium’s solar telescope, which was inaugurated in 1973 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus. Other distinguished citizens of Welsh descent include I.B. (Isaac Bertie) Griffiths,  Minister of Health from 1933-1940, D.W. (David Wesley) Griffith, who established Winnipeg’s first Ford dealership in 1912, Lyman Melvin Jones, Mayor of Winnipeg (1887-1888), and William Sanford Evans, Mayor of Winnipeg (1909-1911) and MLA and leader of the Provincial Conservative Party from 1923 - 1936.

A Welsh church was established here in 1896; the congregation met in a number of different locations around the city. The present building on Sherbrook Street, known as the First Welsh Church, was opened in 1932.  Eventually membership dwindled and the church closed in the 1970’s. 

An eisteddfod was held annually from 1908 till sometime after 1930 under the auspices of the Welsh Literary Society, and the Manitoba Free Press in 1912 reported that ‘several hundred’ people participated and the proceedings lasted more than 4 hours.  In 1916, there were ‘so many entries that in most classes preliminary tests had to be held, and only the best appeared on the stage. Even so, it was well after midnight before the final prizes had been awarded’. The Welsh United Choir won the mixed choir competition, and the male voice honours went to the Welsh Male Choir under the leadership of Watkin Williams. R.H.Jones won the open solo with his performance of ‘Gwlad y Delyn’. In 1928 there were 130 competitors. 

A Welsh Choral Society was formed in 1907 under the direction of Eddie Jenkins. By 1914, there were in existence a  ‘United Welsh Choir’ and a ‘Welsh Male Choir’.  There were numerous performances by visiting Welsh choirs. These included The Moelwyn Welsh Singers and The Royal Welsh Ladies’ Choir, conductor Madame Hughes Thomas, in 1911; and in 1912, The Mountain Ash Male Choir and The Royal Welsh Male Choir, conductor Cadwalader Roberts. The repertoire of the latter included selections by Parry, Protheroe and D. Pughe Evans.  In 1914 The Gwent Welsh Male Singers were in Winnipeg. In that year Mayor Deacon (who wasn’t Welsh) was President of the Welsh Musical Association.

Over the years, some of the most famous Welsh Choirs have performed in Winnipeg, including the Treorchy Male Voice Choir (1965) and the Pendyrus Male Voice Choir (1971).

The St David’s Society of Winnipeg (Cymdeithas Gŵyl Dewi) was founded in 1892 and was said to be the oldest in Canada. Eventually, membership dwindled, and in 1976 the organisation ceased meeting, but it was never formally disbanded and its bank account was never closed.

In 1993 and 1994, two very successful St David’s Day concerts were held at St George’s Anglican Church, and following the 1994 event, an impromptu meeting was organised, and the St David’s Society was reformed with over 50 enthusiastic members, some of whom, including our first president Mr Viv Rees and vice-president, John Owen, had been members of the Society formerly. For the 1995 concert, our choir, the St David’s Singers of Winnipeg, was formed under the direction of Mr Bill Owen, and has performed each year since then, growing both in numbers and in accomplishment.  Members who are not Welsh speakers have learned Welsh repertoire and performed it with that elusive quality that we call ‘hwyl’, approximately translated as ‘exhilaration’ 

“The St David’s Society of Winnipeg was established to celebrate and promote interest in the history, language, culture and heritage of Wales. Membership is open to anyone who wishes to join. The Society is non-political and non-sectarian.”

“Sefydlwyd Cymdeithas Dewi Sant Winnipeg er mwyn hyrwyddo diddordeb yn yr hanes, yr Iaith, y diwylliant a'r etifeddiaeth Cymru. Fydd aelodaeth yn agored i bawb sy'n ei ddymuno. Mae'r Gymdeithas yn gwbl amholiticaidd ac anenwadol”.

Since the Society was re-formed in 1994, we have held an annual St David’s Day event on or around March 1st, including a banquet, a short concert, and a Cymanfa Ganu, an event popular with Welsh people the world over which involves everyone in the singing of favourite Welsh hymns.  Those who take part are Welsh people, their non-Welsh family and friends, and others who have come along just because they are interested. All are equally welcome. Typically we receive greetings from a dozen Welsh Societies around the world, and these are read out at the dinner.  Our Society regularly sends greetings to other Welsh Societies in Canada.

In the Fall, we have our ‘Noson Lawen’ (“Merry Evening”), an informal event with music and story-telling which provides a good opportunity for people to meet and socialise.

For a number of years, we held a ‘Carols by Candlelight’ in December, and several new Welsh carols were introduced. Carols, familiar and unfamiliar, have been interspersed with readings from the Welsh Bible and from Dylan Thomas’s decidedly non-scriptural ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’.    

Other informal events have included ‘show and tell’ slide-shows, a summer party at Winnipeg Beach, which included an impromptu game of cricket, Welsh film nights, and occasional ‘sgyrsiau’ which give us a chance to refresh our conversational Welsh.

Our choir, ‘The St David’s Singers of Winnipeg’, directed and accompanied by Bill Owen, has performed on several occasions as a guest of the St Andrew’s Society, and of a local Rotary Association, and in Portage-La-Prairie, where our performance was reviewed in the local newspaper. In June 2005 we participated in the Manitoba Choral Association’s ‘Diversity Sings’ Festival, performing at Crossways United Church.  Sharing the program with us were the Academy of Chinese Studies Choir, the Winnipeg Labour Choir, the Jamaican Folk Ensemble and the Crossways Singers, a wonderfully expressive Baha’i choir which is based at that church. In July 2005 we participated in a ‘Celtic Weekend’ at Winnipeg Beach, a lakeside resort about 45 minutes north of the city, performing for the first time on an outdoor stage.  This event also featured our newly formed Welsh Dance group, under the direction of Robin Lynch, advertised on this occasion only as ‘Dawnswyr y Llyn’. In August 2006 we appeared at a Ukrainian Festival in Cook’s Creek, near Winnipeg. In this way, we have been privileged to present some of our Welsh repertoire to appreciative audiences outside of our own ‘community’. An arrangement of the Welsh folk-song ‘Tra bo Dau’  (While there are Two) by Jayne Davies, (Jayne o Fynwy), a composer living in Wales, was published in 2003 by the Welsh music publisher ‘Curiad’, and is dedicated “To Keith Davies Jones and the St David’s Singers of Winnipeg”. 

In 2001, the Winnipeg Free Press Community Review  published a feature on our St David’s Day event, including a front-page photograph of some of our ladies wearing their Welsh costumes.  Also at that time, I was interviewed on local television about the history of Wales, the national costume, the Dragon (our flag), the leek (our national emblem) and St David.

Accounts of our events have appeared regularly in the North American Welsh newspapers, ‘Ninnau’ (Ourselves) and ‘Y Drych’  (The Mirror), and recently in ‘Yr Enfys’ (The Rainbow), which is the magazine of Cymru a’r Byd/Wales International, published in Wales. Tom Jones, a former President of our Society and an accomplished wildlife artist, writes a regular Nature Column in ‘Ninnau’ and has also published his poetry in the paper. From 2007, I have been contributing a regular column to the paper ‘Composers of Wales’ - those featured so far are Grace Williams, John Metcalf, David Wynne, Alun Hoddinott, Hilda Morgan, Gareth Walters, Hilary Tann, Arwel Hughes, William Rhys Herbert, Mervyn Burtch, Jayne Davies, Daniel Jones, Dilys Elwyn Edwards, Ian Parrott, John Rippiner Heath, Denis ApIvor, Frances Williams and William Mathias. Mervyn Burtch’s opera, Jason and Hanna, was produced at the CanWest Performing Arts Centre in Winnipeg in 2008.

In May 1997 Rachael Harwood-Jones gave a recital of songs by Morfydd Owen, with proceeds donated to flood relief. During the Pan-Am Games held in Winnipeg during the summer of 1999, we presented a weekend Welsh Music Festival, again featuring the music of Morfydd Owen.  Dr Rhian Davies lectured on Morfydd’s life, and Mari Morgan, Rachael Harwood-Jones and Stewart Thomson performed her music.  There were two world premiere performances : ‘Cân Merch i’w Mam’ (A Girl’s Song to her Mother) by Hilary Tann, setting poetry by Menna Elfyn, which was performed by Mari Morgan (mezzo-soprano) and Sherry Bonness (oboe); and ‘Yr Arglwydd ar fy Nhaith’ by Morfydd Owen. Hilary’s piece was subsequently published by OUP, and the score indicates that its premiere was in Winnipeg. 

In October 2003, the Society hosted the North American Welsh Choir - Côr Cymry Gogledd America, directed by Mari Morgan, at St George’s for its Canadian debut. This highly successful event gave us an important opportunity to present our best talents and share our music with others. Much of Côr Cymry’s repertoire is sung in Welsh, some is traditional material, and much is new.  Seven new works have been written for the choir, and these draw in important elements from other cultures, creating a vibrant new music that is uniquely North American.  Victor Davies’s piece. ‘Lifting the Sky’, which received its Canadian premiere at this concert in Winnipeg, is based on a Salish legend from the West Coast, with text by Carolyn Maddux. ‘Preiddiau’r Cymry’ (The Welsh Fold) is a setting by Minneapolis composer David Evan Thomas of poetry by Menna Elfyn. Beginning with the analogy of the famous black sheep of Wales, she tells how the Welsh people have emigrated, mingled with many other races and created a distinctive Welsh culture in North America. From this work, the Choir took its motto ‘Croesi a chreu a chanu’  (Crossing, creating, singing).  My daughter, Heulwen, who is also of Caribbean heritage, was one of the soloists in this work’s premiere performance in Minneapolis in September 1999.  My arrangement of ‘Men of Harlech’ which also premiered on this occasion, was dedicated to the Society’s then Vice-President, John Owen, who had died the previous year. Musical quotations embedded in the instrumental sections of the work allude to some of the historical events leading up to the devolution referendum held in Wales on September 18th, 1997.

In February 2004, in the depths of the Manitoba winter, we had the pleasure of entertaining Hywel Gwynfryn and his colleagues from the BBC in Wales;  Carol Sharp and Alan Lloyd-Owen subsequently appeared in an episode of ‘Ar dy Feic’, a series on S4C featuring Welsh expatriates living in various parts of the world.  Ours was almost certainly the coldest location yet visited.

Through our commitment to Welsh Music, and through our involvement in other Welsh organisations, the Welsh National Gymanfa Ganu Association, Cymru a’r Byd (Wales International), and  Côr Cymry Gogledd America, our City of Winnipeg has a high profile at the present time in the international Welsh community, and we have also considerably raised awareness of Welsh culture and identity within the wider community of our City.  We shall continue to celebrate Welsh culture in whatever way we can, and shall be looking for any opportunity to promote the cause of Welsh music in the future. We regard ourselves as being very much part of the rich cultural diversity that makes Winnipeg a City of which we can all be proud.


Keith Davies Jones

1. Dulais Rhys,  Joseph Parry - Bachgen Bach o Ferthyr: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, Caerdydd, 1998

2. Jack Bumsted,  The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 - an Illustrated History: Watson Dwyer, 1994

3. Jack Bumsted, Dictionary of Manitoba Biography: University of Manitoba Press, 1999

4. Keith Davies Jones,  Victor Davies - A Canadian-Welsh Composer

Welsh Music/Cerddoriaeth Cymru   Vol X No.5  p7-8  Winter 2000/1


Biography links:

Ralph Horner :

Fred Gee :

Gwendda Owen Davies  :

Victor Davies :

Seymour Farmer :

William Sanford Evans :

Thomas Flye :

Franklyn Shinn :

Other Welsh-born individuals who have biographies on the MHS web-site and are not otherwise mentioned on this site are :  Walter Davey (farmer), Frank Robert Evans (architect), Eira Friesen (community activist), Lemuel Harris (MLA), Hyman David Isaacs (physician), John Myer Isaacs (lawyer), Manly Isaacs (lawyer), Max Isaacs (lawyer), Edward James (architect), Alexander Lawrence (natural historian), William Lee (building contractor), Mungo Lewis (veterinarian and MLA), Grace Jones Magnacca (political party worker), Trevor Morgan (civil servant), John Paxton (municipal official), Arthur Phillips (accountant) & Henry Phillips (municipal official).