Learning About

Harlech Castle

Education

The Drovers of Snowdonia

Evidence suggests that droving began in England and Wales during Roman times. Following the Roman invasion, the Romans were able to raise taxes, and they could be paid for with slaves, metals, or even cows. This began the demand for moving cattle from one area to another.

Driving herds of cattle, sheep, pigs and geese along Welsh roads, towards the markets of East Anglia has been common ever since the Norman period, and in the C17, turkeys began to be driven in the same way. These travels can be imagined to be exceptionally noisy, and the drover himself would shout at the top of his voice, in order to warn the local farmer that his herd was about to pass. Then, the farmer would gather his animals to ensure that they wouldn’t join the herd. Animals would be driven to England, from Wales, to be sold for their meat: a good income for the agricultural industry, which was, at that time, a self-sustaining industry for most farmers, with very little produce left over and available to be sold (be it vegetables, meat or milk).

According to Adam Smith: “The mountains of Scotland, Wales and Northumberland indeed are not capable of much improvement and seemed destined by nature to be the breeding grounds for Great Britain" (The Drovers’ Roads of Wales; Godwin and Toulson, Biddles Ltd., 1977, t.16-17).

Ironically, the English middle and upper classes would live on Welsh beef, whereas Welsh farmers would survive on poor diets. W.F.Mayor commented in 1805: “the poor Welsh farmer depends more on his livestock to pay his rent than on the produce of the Earth, which seldom furnishes more than a subsistence for himself and his family" (The Drovers’ Roads of Wales; Godwin and Toulson, Biddles Ltd., 1977, t.17).

The word ‘porthmon’ (‘drover’) was recorded in Borough and Lordship records during the C15-15, according to the historian, R.T.Jacks. By the time of the English Civil War, droving was thriving and that war, between the Parliamentarians and Royalists, became a danger in itself to the welfare of drovers. The threat to drovers became so great that a group of north Wales gentlemen wrote to the King, seeking a guarantee of the safety of drovers:

“Our cattle driven and sould in most parts of England, hath bin and is the onelie support of yo’r petitioners being and livelihood, aming 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." (The Drovers’ Roads of Wales; Godwin and Toulson, Biddles Ltd., 1977, t.12).

Pont Scethin, Llanddwywe

Pont Scethin, Llanddwywe (© SNPA)

The main route from Harlech to Dolgellau crossed the southern part of the high ridge of the Rhinogydd by a spectacular route over Llawllech and down the long ridge of Braich towards Bont Ddu, crossing the Afon Ysgethin by this impressive bridge.

Droving Traditions

Drovers were responsible for driving animals to the large English markets and animals were shoed before hand, travelling between six and twelve miles a day. It could take up to three weeks for a herd to travel from north Wales to Kent. Hundreds of animals would travel in each drove, forming a flow of up to half a mile! Up to twelve drovers would guide a drove of four hundred cows, with corgi dogs making sure that animals kept together.

According to local folklore in Ardudwy, corgis could find their way back home before the drovers! As a rule, drovers would try to avoid main roads, to make the journey more comfortable for animals and by the C17, in order to avoid tollgates.

Droving Dangers

As a rule, travelling wasn’t a safe activity, so individual travellers would tend to travel with drovers, to ensure their own personal safety to an extent – even if the drover’s journey was slow and laborious. By the C18, it appears that the drover’s journey became linked to romantic illusions of adventure, and sons of wealthy landowners would join their trails to experience the adventure. Others, including men who were on their way to take up apprenticeships in the cities of England would join the drovers – and by the C19, women would travel with them. One of these was Jane Evans, of Carmarthenshire, who was on her way to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses in the Crimean War.

Drovers had a substantial responsibility over carrying vast amounts of money back to Wales (after selling animals) and they would also carry money and legal documents backwards and forwards to the towns and cities on behalf of farmers, such as taxes and bills. Up to the C18, when banks were established for drovers, they would ‘buy’ animals from farmers, not paying for them until they returned from the markets. Drovers were therefore required to be very honest but it’s obvious that that wasn’t always the case and farmers subsequently became very dubious of them.

As we can imagine, carrying money across the length and breadth of the country was a dangerous venture, leading to the establishment of drovers’ banks in west Wales. The person who wanted the drover to pay a bill or carry money would pay the money into the bank and the drover would pay the bill once the animal was sold.

Cheating and Treachery

The drover’s life could also be hard. During the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, new laws were passes, insisting that drovers apply for a licence to work as a drover, and then they would need to register this licence with the Clerk of the Peace. Strict restrictions were placed on who could be a drover: only married men over the age of 30 years old, who owned his own home could own a licence. Drovers were forced to undertake droving work under contract and by the reign of Queen Anne, drovers were banned from declaring themselves bankrupt and therefore abdicate his responsibility to fulfil the terms of his contract. Also, any drover caught without a licence would receive a fine of £5 and a period in prison for breaking vagrancy laws and they were also forbidden from working on Sundays. By keeping to the rules, however, drovers could become wealthy landowners, and indeed, they were considered to be a part of the middle layers of Welsh society during the Early Modern Period.

Adventures

Droving was certainly a very special occupation and Welsh drovers were required to have received a good standard of education. The ability to understand and to speak English was necessary when bargaining with merchants at the English markets and some drovers contributed to the Welsh culture by composing poetry, such as Edward Morris, Cerrigydrudion. Drovers were required to make sure that cattle remained calm when crossing over mountains, bearing in mind that cows are nervous creatures, easily frightened. It’s ironic that drovers, like other craftsmen, refer to their occupation as ‘an art and a mystery’. They were also responsible for carrying news from farm to farm and village to village, and they also carried national and international news: it was from the drovers that the Welsh people learned of the British victory at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Drovers would also bring unusual fruits to Wales, such as red currants from Kent.

Drovers were frequent visitors to the towns of Wales and their records of them are valuable. Edward Morris, a drover from Cerrigydrudion described Dolgellau as: “A smoky Gomora town… full of dirt and prostitutes." (‘Hanes Cymru yn y Cyfnod Modern Cynnar’, Geraint H.Jenkins, Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, Caerdydd. 1983, t.69)

Hard Times

Drovers worked under very difficult and dangerous conditions, travelling through bad weather and sleeping under the stars with the animals. Drovers’ dress had to be suitable for all weather and in order to keep their trousers dry, they would wear woollen knee socks, knitted in Meirionnydd over the Winter and sold in Bala fair. The rough terrain of the landscape was dangerous and up to the C18, drovers were also threatened by wolves. Thieves were a constant threat, bearing in mind the vast sums of money that drovers would carry back from the towns, once the animals were sold. According to some, this lead to the establishment of several small banks in Wales, including ‘Banc y Ddafad Ddu’ (‘Bank of the Black Sheep’) and ‘Bank yr Eision Du’ (‘Bank of the Black Cow’). The strain of their work was unbearable for some drovers and they would turn to alcohol, whereas others gained ill reputations for being dishonest – these reputations are recorded in Welsh poetry, e.g. by Twm o’r Nant.

John Williams, Archbishop of York called the Welsh drovers, “The Spanish fleet of Wales” as they were the source “of the little gold and silver we own”. Many drovers became wealthy, such as Robert Ellis of Llanberis who bequeathed an estate worth £281 upon his death in 1757.

Upholders of the Welsh Economy

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution during the C18, droving remained a key part of the Welsh economy. As industrial towns in Wales grew, so did the demand for Welsh cattle and due to the activities of drovers, the Welsh people became accustomed to trading with money rather than exchanging goods. This custom was certainly useful with the increase in capitalism in Wales – even in the most rural areas.

The Impact of Industrialisation

The Industrial Revolution lead to an increase in the number of cattle merchants in Wales. London, however, remained the main centre of commerce and it became possible for several Welsh merchants to take advantage of this boom.

During the middle part of the C19, with the expansion of the railway to rural Wales, many droving routes were forced to change as several small fairs moved to nearer to the railway stations, although droving remained a key part of the rural life of Snowdonia until the 1930s.

Well-known Drovers

Tudur Penllyn ab Ieuan ab Iorwerth Foel
Tudur Penllyn is mainly remembered as a poet, and was sponsored by three well known aristocrats: Gruffydd Fychan, Rheinallt ap Gruffydd and Dafydd Siencyn. He was also a drover, keeping his own stock of sheep in order to sell their wool.

William Rowland
William Rowland once kept a tavern in Maentwrog and in 1762, the Quarter Session Michaelmas Festival was held at his home, as well as the following Easter meetings. It can therefore be assumed that William Rowland was a highly respected gentleman in Meirionnydd. William Rowland was described as ‘a top man drover’, suggesting that he was a merchant as well as a drover.

Rowland Edmund
Felinrhyd Fawr, Maentwrog was Rowland Edmund’s home. He died in 1819, and his will proves that he owned an estate valued at £963 – a significant amount of money at the time. Edmund owned £80 worth of cattle, £30 worth of steers, £150 worth of sheep, £3 worth of pigs and £30 worth of horses. He had two sons, both of whom were drovers and farmers. Rowland Edmund was illiterate and spoke very little English, but it is suggested that his sons were educated, as one of them owned an English dictionary.

John Roberts, Llandanwg
A drover who, in all probablility, followed in his father’s footsteps. He was married to Mary Griffith and eight children were born to them. He is buried in Llandanwg Church.

The Pugh Family, Llandanwg
The sons and grandsons of Rev. William Pugh of Llanfair Church were drovers, who remained working as drovers following the advance of the railways.

Siôn Cwmorthin, C18
A sheep drover who drove his sheep as far as the Vale of Clwyd and the vale became known as ‘Lloegr Siôn Cwmorthin’ (‘Siôn Cwmorthin’s England’). He acquired a grandfather clock – the first in the Ffestiniog area, apparently. This was very good PR for Siôn – the clock was a source of great intrigue and people came from afar to see it. Siôn himself cursed the clock, as it rang at every hour of the day and night!