An extraordinary book by Bethan Phillips has been republished.

Described by the late Jan Morris as “a truly fascinating book”, Pity the Swagman is a classic that has been out of print for over 20 years.

It is the biography of Joseph Jenkins (1818-98), a successful farmer in Tregaron. Without warning, aged 50, Jenkins left his farm and family to travel Australia and live as an itinerant farm labourer. His diaries returned to Wales with him and were kept by one of his daughters for over 70 years, until a chance encounter between the author and Jenkins’ great-grand-daughter.

In the book preface, Dr R. Brinley Jones, then President of the National Library of Wales, describes it as “a very moving human story” and Bethan Phillips’ work as both “readable and scholarly”.

The diary illustrates Welsh rural society at the time, with inequality between the poor and the gentry and corruption in parliamentary elections. The hardships endured by early migrants to Australia and the travails of the Aborigines are described, as well as the fate of the Kelly Gang.

In her Foreword Bethan says: “The diaries reveal him as a man seeking to exorcise his own demons by attempting to escape from them, but they also reveal him as an astute observer of the people and occurrences impacting on his own eventful life. His dogged determination in keeping a daily journal, often under the most difficult of circumstances and in the most unpropitious surroundings, has given us a uniquely valuable historical record of life in the nineteenth century.”

Bethan spent 15 years studying the original diaries, which cover 58 years, skilfully choosing extracts from them. She also spoke to Joseph Jenkins’ descendants, still living in Ceredigion, hearing stories, and reading further writings, including his poetry, which won prizes. She also followed Joseph Jenkins’ footsteps in Australia, which was filmed for a BBC documentary.

Joseph Jenkins’ diary is celebrated as one of the richest sources of information about life in rural Australia. Pity the Swagman, studied on the school curriculum in Australia, is published by Y Lolfa.