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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

A time when 9,000 cattle swam across the Menai Strait.

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

‘Our cattle driven and sould in most parts of England, hath bin and is the onelie support of yo’r petitioners being and livlihood, among whom be many thousand families on the mountainous part of this country, who sowing little or noe corn at all, trust merely to the sale of their cattle, wool and welch cottons for provision of bread.’

Petition asking for protection written, to Charles I, during the civil war.

Before the invention of the railway, the wealth of Wales walked slowly to England. Records show that in one year in the 18th Century 9,000 cattle swam across the Menai Straits from Anglesey and were driven to England. 6,000 left from the Lleyn Peninsula and 30,000 from Mid Wales. William Brooke in his work, The True causes of our Present Distress for Provisions, estimated that in 1798 a total of 600 million pounds of beef were consumed in England. English yeomanry ate Welsh beef while Welsh farmers lived on a meagre diet of barley and potatoes. A Pembrokeshire farm labourer’s grace tells the story.

'Arglwydd annwyl ! Dyma Fwyd

Cawl sur a bara llwyd.'

[Good Lord! What a spread- Sour broth and mouldy bread]

To protect the cattle’s hooves, on the long walk, they were shod with narrow metal shoes that were nailed on. A thrower, or feller, would pass a rope over each beast and loop it around the legs. Then he would topple the animal by the horns and tie it, allowing a blacksmith and his lad to shoe the animal. It needed great strength and the team of men would shoe between sixty and seventy cattle in a day. It wasn’t only cattle that walked to distant markets. Flocks of geese would be walked through wet tar and sand to coat their webbed feet ready for the journey. Pigs were dressed with leather soled woollen socks.

The drovers that took the animals to the markets of England were tough men. Droving paid well but it was a dangerous job. Wolves, robbers and cutthroats roamed the countryside. Drovers undertook financial errands on behalf of farmers, paying absentee landlords. On the 10th April 1734 a Mr. Bulkeley wrote to Thomas Lewis, a drover, instructing him to use £15, from the sale of animals in London, to pay for his sons keep as an apprentice lawyer in Chancery Lane. Travellers joined the drovers for protection. Jane Evans travelled with drovers from Pumsaint to join Florence Nightingale and travel on to the Crimea.

Drovers handled large sums of money and a banking system grew up around the business. It is recorded that, in 1806, drovers David Roberts and Griffith Jones arrived at the cattle fairs in Kent and sold their herd for the handsome sum of £6,053. Banks in Llandeilo issued their own promissory notes and Lloyds Bank began life serving the drovers of Wales. The Aberystwyth

Aberystwith and Tregaron Banknote.

and Tregaron Bank, often called the Black Sheep Bank, started as a drover’s bank. The values of its £1-£10 notes were illustrated by numbers of sheep while the 10 shilling note had a smaller picture of a single sheep. Drovers transported gold to be sold in London for the miners of Rhayader, agreeing to split profits.

The responsibilities of transporting animals to England and money back to Wales, was based largely on trust but the industry was regulated by the state. Drovers had to be over 30 years old, married and own a house before they could be licensed. When applying for a licence the drovers would always describe their work as 'An art and a mystery'. Anyone caught droving without a licence could be fined £5 and imprisoned for vagrancy. To stop drovers defaulting on their customers, Queen Anne passed a law prohibiting drovers from declaring themselves bankrupt to avoid repaying money in their care. Droving was not allowed on Sundays. In 1869 a drover was fined £1 plus 8/6p (42.5pence) costs for driving swine through Builth Wells on the Sabbath.

Welsh drovers c.1880 30,000 cattle and sheep were driven from Wales to London each year.
Welsh Drovers

Drovers were the main carriers of news to the people. It was a drover that first bought news of the British victory at Waterloo in 1815 to Wales. Using the turnpike road system was expensive. Heavy toll charges for moving the animals made them uneconomical for many drovers while others were willing to pay the tolls in order to reach the cattle fairs more quickly and with the animals in better condition so they would fetch a higher price. Mostly however, the drovers used ancient tracks and high roads where the animals could graze as they moved and the tolls avoided. Many of the drover’s routes still exist while others have vanished, becoming part of our network of trunk roads.

During the civil war, landowners of North Wales wrote to the King asking for protection for the herds being moved. The war made droving a particularly dangerous business. In 1645 parliamentary soldiers seized nearly 1000 beasts from a party of 18 drovers and no compensation was paid.

Welsh black cattle are a hardy breed and ideal for droving. They can survive on poor pasture and are nimble enough to climb mountain tracks. There were frequent inns and cider houses along the drover’s routes. These important places of refreshment were often signposted by three Scots pines, positioned to be visible from miles away. Each night the animals were corralled in a field for half a penny per beast. These halfpenny fields are still greener and lusher than the surrounding land because of the manure left by so many animals. Head drovers, known as Porthmon, would sleep in the inn while the junior drovers would sleep by the animals. Often the inn would have a blacksmith ready to repair broken shoes.

Travelling at a steady two miles an hour, a drive from North Wales to London would take three weeks. The cry 'Heiptrw Ho' could be heard for miles, warning the farmers ahead to secure their animals so they did not become mixed with the moving herd. Corgis were used to drive the stock. These intelligent dogs were low enough to avoid getting kicked by the cattle as they did their work. Returning after the drive, the dogs would often go ahead of their masters, arriving home a day or two before the men.

Drover Robert Jones kept accounts of bringing sheep from Carmarthenshire to London through Pinner and Edgware between 1823 and 1837. Pigs made a similar journey travelling at a steady six miles per day.

The drovers of Monmouthshire would congregate at ‘Two Tumps’ on the Western end of the Kerry Ridgeway with their animals, ready to start their drive along the oldest road in Wales.

While it was a tough business, some of the drovers were educated men. Edward Morus was a famous poet who continued as a drover until he was 82 when he died and was buried in Essex. Others grew wealthy from the trade. When part time drover Rowland Edmund died in 1819, his will included £963 plus sheep, cattle, pigs and horses amounting to a considerable fortune. He was buried in a cemetery near Harlech Castle.

Once a busy drover's route. Now a quiet country lane.
Kerry Ridgeway

Finally, with the coming of the railways, droving went into decline. It was easier and quicker to move the animals by train and they arrived in better condition. Droving did not die out completely though. During the 1914 - 1918 war cattle were again walked from Wales to England. One of the last drovers, Morris Roberts, finally retired in the 1930’s and became a farmer, ending a proud tradition that had lasted for over a thousand years.


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