From around the time of the Norman Conquest to the end of the 19th century, any traveller in Carmarthenshire in West Wales would have witnessed large droves of cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and geese, stretching over half a mile long being driven to the East of England for sale at livestock fairs, the cattle for further fattening before their ultimate sale in London markets. A horseman and two cattle acted as leaders for the drove. Each large drove of cattle would have comprised of several smaller droves from the villages of West Wales. It is estimated that for every four hundred beasts there would have been around twelve men, or drovers as they were referred to, all of which would have called and bellowed all the way to London. This must have been some spectacle to behold, as people spoke of the noise that was generated for generations after the practice of Droving gave way to the power of steam and the train network. The noise generated had two objectives, firstly to move the drove along, and secondly to warn the farmers in the locality of the impending threat. They of course would scramble to move their own livestock from the route as once mixed into the drove, they would be difficult to separate.
During these times, Welsh farmers derived most of their income from the breeding of black cattle. The Drovers not only provided a marketing service for their livestock, but were the main source of news for rural communities as to what was happening in London and further afield. The so called easy life in the new lands of America would have typically permeated the Drover grape vine.
By the 19th century, the Drovers were professional men that needed licences to operate. To get such a licence, a Drover had to be over thirty years old, married and a house owner. No hired staff were eligible to run a drove. In 1799, Dafydd Jones founded the Black Ox Bank in Llandovery to facilitate the growing demand for the services of the Drovers. The bank had its own notes which carried the emblem of a Black Ox, examples of which can still be seen in the Llandovery heritage centre. During this time, Government agents had quite a headache negotiating highwaymen, thieves and pirates in safely navigating ship money and rents from West Wales to London. The answer came in the form of the Drovers Banking system. The Government agents would deposit monies in banks such as the Black Ox Bank. That money was used to purchase cattle, sheep, pigs, geese and by that time even turkeys for droving to London. The money raised from the sale of the stock that had matured and grown throughout the journey to London was used to pay debts and deposited in London banks. The safe passage of rent and ship money was secured in the form of livestock. No Highwayman was a match to the drove. The Black Ox bank prospered and was purchased by Lloyds bank in 1909.
Press cuttings from the period make very interesting reading and give an insight into the spectacle that must have embodied the process of Droving.
Daily News, September 1850. Beyond the Welsh Horse fair and nearer to Barnet is the Welsh cattle fair. Here all kinds of Welsh cattle are to be met with. These cattle are generally black, and though small are kindly and well-shaped animals which prove profitable where there is rough land attached to a farm on which they can run through the winter and until they improve their condition on a moderate quantity of food. They are much bought by the farmers of Hertfordshire, Essex, Sussex, Kent and Middlesex.
Barnet Fair, Farmers magazine 1856. Imagine hundreds of bullocks like an immense forest of horns propelled hurriedly towards you amid the hideous and amorous shouting of a set of semi-barbaric drovers who value the restive bullock far beyond the life of a human being, driving their mad and noisy herds over every person they meet if not fortunate enough to get out of their way, closely followed by a drove of unbroken wild Welsh ponies fresh from their native hills all of them loose and unrestrained as the oxen that proceed them, kicking, rearing, biting each other amid the unintelligible phrases of their human attendants – lots of non-English speaking Welshmen.
Those Welshmen needed to be highly skilled stockmen. The value of their drove would either increase or decrease on route to the London markets according to their ability and ingenuity. Not only was the threat of storm or drought a concern, but also disease such as foot and mouth. The negotiation of the drove no doubt carried risk and took dedication. There were also human perils to be aware of.
Daily News, 1850. A Welsh Drover fell among the thieves at Barnet Fair and was considerably fleeced. He however had his revenge in the following fashion; quitting the town with his drove, he aspired one of his plunderers in the road, with the assistance of a brother drover or two he made capture of him, fastened him metsopella-like astride one of the wildest of his unbroken colts, that is, lying on his stomach with his face near the tail, started the animal off at a rough trot and after a ride of four to five miles, the fellow galled, jaded and three parts dead was glad to purchase his release from further torment by disgorging his ill-gotten pelt.
The memory of the Drovers lives long in West Wales. Many roads, pubs and bridleways are named after them. The Heritage Centre in Llandovery is well worth a visit to learn more about these honest men.
Llandovery Rugby Club players are known as the Drovers. I played for them and am proud to be a member of the “Hen Borthmyn” or Old Drovers, the ex-players organisation.
It certainly feels surreal driving sheep across London Bridge,
as though I have completed a circle, and fulfilled in part the objectives of my ancestors. I don’t have the licence needed during those times to be a Drover and am driving these sheep on a Sunday. If I did so in Victorian times, I would be fined £5 and receive a custodial sentence.
The Drovers must have looked like mountain men with mountain manners to the inhabitants of the city. Beware the people of London, A Welsh Drover is back in town.