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Guest author essay: Droving

Author: Joan Featherstone (2003)

Droving was important in Herefordshire from the medieval period to the 20th century, but surprisingly little is known about the actual routes that were taken. Drove roads can be traced from various identifiers, e.g. the presence of smithies (to shoe the animals), the width of the road, and by fieldnames, such as Halfpenny Fields. These and others are discussed below. This article is taken from many sources held in Herefordshire libraries but mainly from Richard Colyer, Welsh Cattle Drovers, 2002; Heather Hurley, Ancient Trackways, 1992, and Shirley Toulson, The Drovers, 1980.

Before the coming of the railways and motor transport, livestock going to market had to walk. This had been going on from Norman times or before, and was called droving. This term referred to stock from outlying farms being walked either into the livestock market or to a fair in their local town. There was also long-distance droving where herds of 200 to 400 cattle covered several hundred miles from their farms in the hilly areas of Wales and Scotland to fatten on the lush grazing grounds around London. The population of London was growing rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries when the long-distance droving reached its peak. By the mid-18th century upwards of 30,000 cattle from Wales travelled annually through Hereford.

The drover/dealers collected cattle into herds and in early spring, and again in autumn, started their journeys south, at first along grassy hillsides where their wide green trackways can still be seen. When they reached the hard roadways the cattle had to be shod to prevent lameness. Unlike a horse shoe, the shoes for cattle consisted of two half-moon shaped plates, two for each cloven hoof, which were called cues. In Herefordshire two of the main shoeing stations were at Kington and at The Rhydspence Inn near Hay-on-Wye for cattle entering England from Wales. Some drovers were accompanied by smiths on horseback, carrying spare cues and nails, which were usually smeared in butter to prevent them from rusting.

From Kington their route lay along roughly what is now the A44. Along the way were frequent overnight stops. One documented stop was on Bromyard Down where there were drinking ponds near the Royal Oak Inn, a public house where the drovers would have been fed. However, only the head drover would have slept here as his men and dogs tended to spend the nights in barns or under the hedges near the cattle. Overnight stopping-off places were often situated near three or five pine trees. These tall trees showed up from far away and served as Bed & Breakfast signs for the drovers. There, fields were set aside for the cattle, for which a halfpenny per head was charged, hence the name Halfpenny field or lane, which can still be seen in the fieldnames of today. From Bromyard the herds then went to Worcester or Malvern and joined the Welsh Way, covering about 15 to 20 miles per day and grazing as they went. Inns with the names of the Black Ox or Drovers Arms showed where they had passed, heading for the grazing grounds or Fairs at Barnet outside London, or straight into Smithfield.

Study the Herefordshire maps or the field names database on this website and you will find places with the names of Little London, Hackney, Smithfield, Piccadilly and other names from the south, denoting that men from the countryside had made the journey and named their homes from their destinations. The head drover had to be a trusted man as he carried large sums of money from the wealthy country landowners into London and from the sale of the cattle back to the farmers. This was a risky undertaking, many being attacked by brigands of all sorts. From the 16th century the head drover had to be licensed and only men over 30 years old, married and householders could apply for a licence. One enterprising drover, John Jones, established the first bank in Wales, known as the "Bank of the Black Ox" in Llandovery. It was then no longer necessary to carry money to and fro, as other banks joined the network. Some of these were eventually taken over and became the present Lloyds Bank.

Herds from Scotland also went south down the centre of England, some having swum across the Solway Firth. Wherever possible drovers tried to avoid toll gates, where a toll had to be paid on each animal and the time taken to count them through the gates tended to make the cattle restive.

As well as cattle, sheep, geese and pigs also had to walk. The geese were first driven through tar and sand to protect their feet on the hard roads. Pigs, probably not covering such long distances, wore knitted woollen socks with leather soles.

In some places the animals were ferried across rivers, otherwise, where possible, they had to swim. The route from Hereford to Ledbury then crossed the River Severn, and went over the Cotswolds and along the Ridgeway towards Bedfordshire, then on to Surrey and into Kent. Farnham in Surrey was a large centre for the sale of knitted stockings which the drovers carried from the cottage industry of Wales.

The coming of the railways in the mid 1800s gradually put an end to long-distance droving when the stock could be sent by rail to their destinations. Now we see motor trucks of various sizes transporting stock on even longer journeys.

© Joan Featherstone, 2003

Further reading

Belsey, Valerie, The Green Lanes of England, 1998

Bonson, K., The Drovers, 1970

Colyer, Richard Moore, Welsh Cattle Drovers, 1976 and 2002

Gregory, Donald, Radnorshire, an Historical Guide, 1994

Hughes, P.G., Wales and the Drovers, 1943

Hurley, Heather, Ancient Trackways, 1992

Lord Rennell of Rodd, Valley on the March, 1958

Shoesmith, Ron and Roger Barrad, The Pubs of Leominster, Kington, Hereford... 2000

Sinclair, J.B. & R.W.D. Fenn, The Border Janus, A New Kington History, 1995

Skeel, Caroline, The Cattle Trade Between England and Wales, 15th - 19th Centuries

Taylor, Christopher, Roads and Tracks of Britain

Toulson, Shirley, The Drovers, Shire Publications, 1980

Toulson, Shirley and Caroline Forbes, Drovers Roads, Pembroke and the South II, 1992