The Welsh Drovers

facts collected by Kennel Benfro


Interested in history and legends, the stories of the Cur Dog and the Welsh Drovers of course makes my fantasy bloom. - But it's not all fantasy, it's reality, even if we can't link the old cur dog from the laws of Hywel Dda (Howell The Good), to today's Corgi - or we might after the diggings at king Brychan of Brecon's castle where dog bones, very similar to today's Corgi was found in 2004 This was around year 800.

painting by BaxterI have been collecting bits and pieces for this page for quite some time, and thanks to information received from the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, I'm now able to post it on the web. I do think this piece of history belongs on a Corgi page. Some might find it interesting just like me, others maybe boring. Most of it comes from recognized sources, some by "hearsay". The true story of the Welsh Drovers was neither like in the BBC TV-series "Drover's Gold", ( .... I did enjoy it though! ), nor what I have been led to believe, only driving the cattle and other farm animals to the meat markets in England. The Welsh Black cattle were actually just as important for the Sussex farmers in older times, as they also used the oxen in front of their ploughs.


Welsh Black Cattle.

welsh blackWe start with the cattle, Welsh Black. Not like the bull on the picture, that is a modern Welsh Black, but the old meat cattle from the northern part of Wales. According to Welsh Medieval law, 12 oxen, yoked in pairs, were necessary to pull the heavy wheeled ploughs in older times.

Debbie in Rotherham

In Rotherham, January 2007. The hills in the background used to be waste from the coal mines and out of sight to the right is a steel plant.

Then after the patenting of the Rotherham plough in 1730, only a pair of oxen or horses were required. Horses were considered more valuable animals in many parts of Wales, so they were not subjected to the drudgery of ploughing, that was the job of the ox team. The ox team could plough about an acre a day, not as much as horses, but in the hilly areas, the steadily ploughing was more valuable.

A working ox seldom lived longer than 7 years before it was killed. Then it's meat provided food for the farmer and family for many a day, the skin would be made into leather, the horns into handles, combs, spoons and lanterns. Even it's dung were useful as fuel when fire wood was scarce. The dung could also be mixed with clay, straw and other materials to make daub for the walls of buildings. Despite all this, the very last ox team was being used in Vale of Glamorgan in 1889.


The Cattle Export

drovers goldThe origin of the Welsh cattle export trade are obscure. The evidence indicates that a regular trade in surplus Welsh Cattle with the English pasture counties was in existence during the mid-thirteenth century, but there seems no reason to doubt that Welsh Cattle found their way into the Midland and South Eastern counties even earlier.
Some sources say that it might have started as early as the time of William The Conqueror. So the annual migration of cattle from Wales to the fattening pastures of England, and the life of the Drovers who led them, is a well known epic of agrarian history.

The journey from north Wales to Kent was over 250 miles, took around three weeks and the Welsh Drovers continued their task up to the last century. The export trade was not restricted to North Wales and Anglesey, it was also cattle from the counties of Pembroke, Glamorgan, Montgomery, Carmathen and Cardigan among the "runts" that were herded to the markets. In 1778 Pennant noted that approximately 3.000 cattle were driven each year from the Lleyn Peninsular. H. Kay estimates that by the close of the century the annual amount from Anglesey approached 10.000.

In a detailed monthly account of cattle passing over Menai Bridge, Scudder reported that 6.452 cattle left Anglesey between May 1st 1829 and April 30th 1830, so it's hard to tell the exact amount. If we then look to Rowlandson who quoted the price of a 3 years old to between £ 6 to 9, while a four years old would take as much as £ 8 to 12, it's clear to see that the cattle export was a very important element in Welsh rural economy.

But it cost as well, we complain about toll roads today, but they even excited then. Quite often The Drovers choose alternative routes and crossings to avoid paying toll. See map of the most common routes here.



The Drovers

The Drovers themselves were a romantic and hardy body of men who carried a great deal of responsibility. In addition to financing the cattle trade, they executed duties for their fellow countrymen in London. It is said that it was through the Drovers that the people in Wales learned about Napoleon's defeat in 1815.

They conveyed rents to absentee landlords and paid local tax to the Exchequer as well as they acted as unofficial bankers for people. They even founded banks, unfortunately those banks seem to have merged with other banks today, but if you follow the " The Drovers Bank ", once situated in Llandovery, link, you will see they prospered in older times.


It was far from simple to become a Drover. You had to be more that 30 years of age, have a licence, be married and own a house. Anybody without the proper licence could be fined £ 5, quite a lot of money in those days. When a Drover applied for the licence, he referred to his trade as "Art and Mystery", and when droverswe think of the hazardous journey, I suppose that name covers it all. It was a well known fact that the Drovers carried a lot of money on their trips, so they were often attacked by Highwaymen.

Most of the woods north of Aberystwyth was cleared just to make a safer road. People going to England was happy if they could join a herd, it was the safest way to travel. Woman were not allowed until a nurse, Jane Evans of Pumpsaint, on the way to join Florence Nightingale in Crimea, made the journey as the very first female.

The cattle were usually entrusted to the Drovers at the last summer fairs and then herded all the way to the meat markets in England. The herd could count several hundreds of animals as the Drovers started out with a smaller herd and were met by others on the way. Imagine a huge, slow procession of hundreds of animals being herded along remote mountain tracks by men on sturdy ponies and on foot. It could be half a mile long from front to back, and would include small black cattle with wide horns, sheep, pigs, and even geese all walking in line. Small, short-legged Welsh corgi dogs would be snapping at the heels of the cattle to keep them moving at a steady pace, and men with sticks would walk alongside to keep them from straying from the track.


drovers goldThis impressive sight was the passing of the drovers, a practice which had been carried out for hundreds of years but which was to end in the Victorian age with the coming of the steam railways. It then became much easier and quicker to load the livestock on to cattle trucks and send them to market by train.

The most valuable animals in the long procession of men, dogs, and livestock were the small Welsh Black cattle. An ancient native breed, they were very hardy and could cope with the poor grazing high in the upland areas. When they reached England they put on weight quickly in the richer pastures.

drinking vesselThe drovers' journeys from Wales to England could take up to three and cover hundreds of miles. They had to make sure that the animals arrived in the best possible condition in order to fetch good prices when they were sold. Progress across country was at a slow but steady walking pace, with regular stops for rest and for grazing. Look at the picture from Cilycwm to the left; what appears to be a drain in front of the cottage doors, is actually designed to let hundreds of cattle drink at the same time.

But the drovers had another way of keeping the livestock in good shape, for many of the animals in the long procession were fitted with specially made shoes ! The cattle were shooed for the journey, often on the forefeet only, and blacksmiths accompanied the Drovers on the journey - they were needed to replace worn out or loose shoes. It was not only cattle herded this way but also sheep, pigs and geese. They were shooed as well, pigs got woolen socks with a leather sole, Even the geese had protection for their feet. This was done by driving them through a mixture of soft tar and sand , which would form a very hard-wearing coating when it set. Sometimes they also had a metal foot set into the tar like very short stilts.

drovers HouseIt was a long and tiresome journey, but never boring. Other travelers could be delayed for hours when meeting up with a stream of slow moving animals. The were warned by the Drovers shouting out their "Heiptro Ho".This shouting could be heard over a long distance, as it echoed amongst the hills and mountains. When local farmers heard the shout, they knew they had to lock up their own animals, if they joined the herd, there was no way to get them back.

The men were shouting all the time, so of course they got thirsty. Even today there's several pubs and inns along the old Drover route that carries the Drover name. At the "Drover's House" on the Houghton Road there's even an inscription in Welsh on the exterior wall. Roughly translated it reads: "seasoned hay, tasty pastures, good beer, comfortable beds".

the InnThere were no working on Sundays, so they did need good meadows for the cattle as well as proper accommodation for themselves. In old times, Rhydspence, overlooking the Wey Valley, was a main assembly point on the "Black Ox Trail". Attached to the Inn were some 140 acres of land split up into penny, ha-penny and farthing fields where animals were grazed and rested, so here both men and beasts could find comfort.

The Drovers were split into groups. The "Porthmon" on his Welsh Pony was in charge both of the herd and the sale. After him men and beasts followed on foot. Such a big herd needed to be organized, and just the Corgi with his endurance and ability to nip any beast attempting to slow down, made him a very important part of the team. The drovers regarded the Corgi to be highly intelligent, as well as herding corgiideally built for the job, low to the ground so that when it was needed to control a beast who might decide to go his own way or do his own thing, this dog could snap at the heel of beast, and be well out of the way before the beast could pick up his hoof and kick. Such a trip would take from three to five weeks, but the return trip from England was different. Then they usually traveled in groups of two or three and some even sold their horses and returned on foot. At the Welsh border they usually let their Corgis loose. The dogs would run home a lot faster, and when the Corgi arrived at the farm, the woman knew they could expect their men in a few days time.

National Museums and Galleries of Wales
Life and Tradition in Rural Wales
Journal of the Meironeth Historical and Record Society Vo. 6 1969-72
The Drovers by Shirley Toulson
Mair Jones-Rees , Kennel Gwenlais




© Kennel Benfro.