Welsh Drovers: Wales Had Cowboys Too

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

| September 2013

  • Welsh Drover Illustration
     Idris Evans’ depiction of a Welsh drover. Note the wide-brimmed hat. 
    Illustration Courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Drover Arms Restaurant
    The Drovers Arms in the small village of Rhewl in North Wales. Once a stopping place for drovers on their journey to Smithfield Market in London, the inn still serves food and drink today, but the staff might no longer take kindly to you arriving with 500 head of cattle and a bunch of unwashed men and dogs. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Cattle Shoes
    Cattle were shod for long journeys. These are copies of original cattle shoes that Idris has had made. It is said that cattle shoes were once made from old used horseshoes. We really knew how to recycle in those days. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Front Side Of Anglesey Penny
    Front side of the Anglesey penny used by drovers as currency at various inns en route to London. Using a metal detector, Idris found these coins in the village of Rhewl. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Backside Of Anglesey Penny
    Back side of the Anglesey penny used by drovers as currency at various inns en route to London. Using a metal detector, Idris found these coins in the village of Rhewl. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Hardy Welsh Black Cattle
     Hardy Welsh black cattle, the sort that Welsh drovers would take to the cities of England to sell. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Hard Road To London Book Cover
    The cover of "Hard Road to London" by Idris Evans. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Cockfighting Pit Illustration
    Idris’ sketch of a cockfighting pit. The drovers liked nothing better than to stop at an inn after a hard day’s droving and indulge in drinking, gambling, cockfighting and probably more besides. These men worked hard and played hard. Perhaps some of your cowboys had Welsh drovers in their ancestry. We certainly know that a great many Welshmen left their home country to start new lives in America. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Collectibles Shop of Idris Evans
    As well as being a keen historian and raconteur, Idris also runs a collectibles shop with everything from oil lamps to old rocking horses in the centre of Ruthin Town here in North Wales. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts
  • Drovers Rode On Horseback
     I like to ride the old drover’s roads on horseback whenever I can. The Welsh drovers would have ridden Welsh cobs, but I’m on an American quarter horse called Casey. The two breeds are around the same size. They are tough, nimble animals, ideal mounts for traveling long distances. 
    Photo By Josephine Roberts

  • Welsh Drover Illustration
  • Drover Arms Restaurant
  • Cattle Shoes
  • Front Side Of Anglesey Penny
  • Backside Of Anglesey Penny
  • Hardy Welsh Black Cattle
  • Hard Road To London Book Cover
  • Cockfighting Pit Illustration
  • Collectibles Shop of Idris Evans
  • Drovers Rode On Horseback

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.