Welsh Drovers: Wales Had Cowboys Too

The rich history of drovers, the Welsh equivalent of cowboys.

Welsh Drover Illustration

 Idris Evans’ depiction of a Welsh drover. Note the wide-brimmed hat. 

Illustration Courtesy Josephine Roberts

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Cowboys formed a huge part of my childhood. Not only did we play cowboys, we also watched them in films, and those staring John Wayne were particular favorites. However historically inaccurate those films might have been, they were often extremely moral, with the “baddie” always getting his comeuppance in the end. The “goodie” was often unconventional in appearance and behavior, which taught me early on never to judge a book by its cover. But the overriding picture of the hero was that of a cool, strong character with a fine, no-nonsense understanding of right and wrong.

I fell in love with these brave men who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, who lived their lives in the saddle and who told time by the sun. As an adventurous horse rider with a love of the great outdoors, I always felt slightly saddened that there were no cowboys in my past. Much as I loved them, cowboys were American and were not in any way a part of Welsh history.

But I was wrong, because we did have our own cowboys here, albeit in the dim and distant past. Instead of cowboys, we called them drovers. I was an adult before I knew this; I had heard of drovers, and even of ancient drover’s roads, but never given much thought to who the drovers really were. Cowboys had become immortalized on the big screen but drovers had not, and still haven’t today. So until recently I’d never realized how similar the life of the drover was to the life of the cowboy.

Who knows when people started to move livestock the length and breadth of Britain? It must have taken place on a small scale not long after farming began. Some people think that droving as a trade began whilst we were under Roman occupation (the last Romans left Britain in 410 A.D. after almost 400 years of occupation). Certainly by medieval times, droving was regularly taking place, and by the 16th century it had become an important part of the British economy. It continued until the 19th century, when the arrival of the railways killed off this great tradition.

As the large industrial towns of Britain began to grow and the population increased, meat had to be sourced from farther afield. Wales was one of the places deemed ideal for producing cattle and sheep. Throughout the summer months regular droves set off from Wales, with anything up to 1,000 head of cattle in the drove, and they would make a three-week long journey to places as far off as London.

The Welsh raconteur

I became interested in the largely forgotten story of the Welsh drovers after attending a lecture on the subject at my local historical society. The speaker, Idris Evans, turned out to be a great raconteur with a talent for telling a ripping good yarn. Many in the audience had never heard of Welsh drovers, and Idris, with his beautiful Welsh accent, his humour and enthusiasm, had us all gripped with his tales of these wise and wily characters.

At an early age, Welshman Idris was told that his late grandfather had once been a “porthmon,” that is, a drover. The name didn’t mean a lot to the young Idris at the time, and it was many years later when he moved to the small village of Rhewl, near Denbigh, that he became interested in finding out more about the history of Welsh drovers.

First he found an old house with the name “Buarthau,” which translated into English means yards or enclosures. Houses with this name are always close to drover’s roads and tend to be the place where drovers enclosed and rested their livestock during the journey to market. Very often these stopping places were marked by the presence of Scots pine trees, and in fact much of the drover’s route was dotted with these tall and easily recognizable trees.

At about the time Idris discovered what Buarthau meant, he took up the hobby of metal detecting. As he went about the village of Rhewl with his metal detector, it wasn’t long before he started to discover unusual coins made of copper, much larger and thicker than a traditional penny. He’d found the “Anglesey penny” and its partner, the halfpenny. With a druid’s head on one side, and “P.M. Co.” stamped on the other side, these coins were produced by Parys Mining Co. on the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales. These coins, or tokens rather, were used by the very drovers who rested the night at Rhewl on their journey south. Thomas Williams, owner of the copper mine, persuaded the drovers to use the coins as payment at inns and resting places along the road to London. Highway robbery was a real concern in those days, but since the coins were tokens rather than actual money, they were of little value to thieves and therefore safer for drovers to carry.

Wise, tough and wily

The Isle of Anglesey is a flat and fertile place, certainly in comparison to much of the rest of Wales, and so it was deemed an ideal spot in which to rear livestock. Therefore many droves would start on the Isle of Anglesey, swelling in numbers as more and more people brought their cattle to join the group. A head drover and his assistants rode on horseback, whilst other workers were on foot.

Drovers had secret compartments built into their clothes and saddles to protect the valuables they carried. They were in effect the first bankers, carrying notes with the words, “I Promise to Pay the Bearer” – words still seen on bank notes today. Since the drovers regularly traveled to London, they did business and settled affairs on behalf of people who wanted to avoid making the arduous journey themselves, and in that way they provided an important link between rural Wales and the city of London. Interestingly, due to the threat of highway robbery, head drovers were allowed to carry guns, and as long as the gun was marked with a drover’s stamp, and therefore licensed for use by a drover, it was permitted for him to kill an attacker with that weapon, should the necessity arise.

These tough and wily men were more than haulers; they were also businessmen who carried a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. As well as undertaking financial transactions, they also brought news and messages home, and often items like seeds and other items not readily available in the north. It is said that many of the first fruit bushes grown in the gardens of Welsh farms were brought north by the drovers. Dealing as they journeyed, these men could buy in one town and sell in another, helping spread money and information in a country that was otherwise very isolated. Knitted woolen socks were just one commodity that drovers bought from the north and sold as they journeyed south.

A head drover had to be a competent businessman. In addition to the errands he ran as part of his journey, he also had to deal with the main job in hand, which was to keep account of how many animals he had taken from each person and deal with the subsequent payment for each animal. Each drover had his own stamp, or “logo,” that he used on his paperwork. These logos were always in the shape of some kind of animal, and since they were in the form of an ink stamp, the logo was always a black animal. Until I listened to Idris’ lecture, I had never realized that one of these drovers’ “banking” logos is still in use today, and that is the famous Lloyds Bank “black horse.”

Work hard, play hard

The treacherous journey to London would really begin when the drovers left the Isle of Anglesey. Today bridges link the island with the mainland, but back in the time of the drovers the animals had to swim across to the mainland. It was near Beaumaris, at a place called Gallows Point, that the crossing was made, and it is said that this brave feat was made possible by one man and his very famous cow! Local farmer Elias Roberts had a cow that readily took to the water, and with her encouragement, and no doubt a bit of persuasion from the drovers, the herd followed the cow into the water and headed for the mainland.

Bear in mind that at the time when the drovers were making these journeys, most of Britain was woody, wild and unfenced. With the largest of the droves being 1,000 animals strong, it must have taken considerable manpower and skill to keep this valuable convoy under control in such a hilly and wooded environment. How exciting it must have been to see a drove like that coming through your village, and to the average person, who had probably never traveled farther than his own horizon, how worldly those Welsh drovers must have seemed.

In his book The Hard Road to London, Idris describes the drover’s fondness for gambling and cockfighting, and how, on stopovers, they’d indulge in wild nights of merrymaking. It was without doubt a case of “work hard, party hard.” Whilst the headmen usually had a roof over their heads on such nights, the hired hands generally slept in the open with the livestock. Idris has found many Anglesey pennies under hedges in Rhewl. He speculates that the coins fell from the pockets of hired hands as they slept under a hedge, heavily anesthetized by the effects of a wild night of partying.

Rhewl has a public house to this day called The Drovers Arms. A great many hotels and inns throughout Britain were once the resting, feeding and drinking places for drovers, and most still bear such names today. Drovers, their horses and dogs, and the livestock stopped the night at these places, and they might have their horses (and their cattle too) shod in these villages. The shoeing of cattle was essential, as a lame beast slowed the drove and lost condition.

End of the line

The destination for many of these beasts was the famous Smithfield Market in London. The name Smithfield may be a corruption of “smooth field,” a grassy area with water near the outskirts of London. In 1327 Edward III granted market rights to the spot, and it went on to grow in size. Charles Dickens described it in the 1830s: “The ground was covered, nearly ankle deep, with filth and mire: A thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle.” He goes on to describe the dealers as “unwashed, unshaven, squalid and dirty figures” and the market itself as “a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.”

As livestock was often slaughtered on site, the area was awash with blood, but human blood often flowed there too, as executions historically took place here. One famous bloody, brutal and long drawn-out execution was that of William Wallace (aka Braveheart) in 1305. Anyone wishing to know more about Wallace and his place in Scottish history will find plenty of information on the Internet, all of which points toward the fact that we were living in far crueler times than we do today, and that men like the early drovers, traveling through a largely untamed Britain, certainly had to have plenty of “true grit.”

Perhaps some of your tough, sun-beaten cowboys of the past had drover’s blood flowing in their veins. Many farmers and drovers did immigrate to America, partly because in Wales property was split between the sons, rather than passing to the eldest son. Therefore many estates became smaller and smaller, which meant that ambitious individuals who wanted to own (or work on) large tracts of land had no choice but to leave their home country and look overseas for new opportunities. I like to think that this link between the Welsh drovers and the American cowboy somehow explains my fascination with the Wild West, because it seems that after all, most of us, even we Welsh, probably have a cowboy somewhere in our past. FC 

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned small holding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net. 

Signed copies of The Hard Road to London are available from the author. Contact Idris Evans, Drws y Deri, Maes Bache, Llangollen. Denbs. UK LL20 8AQ. Email: idris.steptoes@lineone.net; phone: 01978860461.