‘Persons unacquainted with country affairs are apt to associate everything that is rustic and even vulgar with the vocation of a drover; but there was never a greater mistake.
From ‘Obituary of Robert Hope’ 1826
As early as 1359 there is a record of two Scottish drovers being given letters of safe passage through England with cattle, horses and other merchandise and yet, for centuries, the trade of driving cattle to English markets did not flourish, Why? Well, the main reason was the wars between Scotland and England that lasted centuries; any trade with England was actively prevented as it was seen as giving aid to the enemy. However, in 1603, James the Sixth ascended the English throne as James the First of England, uniting the two countries; by 1607, free trade had been agreed between the two.
This free trade agreement launched cattle droving to almost unimaginable heights, helped in no small way by the active discouragement of cattle rustling, or ‘reiving’. This unlawful practice had once been the scourge Scotland and if continued, would have been a threat to any meaningful movement of cattle. With rustling reduced significantly – for it was never completely eradicated, neither was the nice little earner for a few enterprising tough individuals who offered to ‘protect your cattle’ – some with a less romantic view would term it simply as a ‘protection racket’. Most, however, conducted the business honestly and there was no doubt that droving would not have grown into a huge operation, which it did by the middle of the 17th century, without complete trust in those who took your cattle to market and returned with the money, whether it be honouring ‘bills’ or handing over cash.
In the lawless days of Scotland, cattle were the main source of a man’s wealth, obtained either by raiding or trading. The beasts were small and thrived on the hills, moorland and the intemperate climate which no doubt conditioned them for the future long drives to the English markets. Daniel Defoe noted that “in the South West of Scotland the gentlemen took their rents in cattle. Some of them acquired such large numbers that they took their own droves to England; a Galloway nobleman would often send upwards of 4,000 head of black cattle a year”. In the North of Scotland he found that “the people lived dispersed among the hills. They hunted, chiefly for food and, again, bred large quantities of black cattle with which they paid their rent to the Laird”. These cattle, which came from the remotest parts, were driven south, “especially into the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex”. The burial of two Scottish drovers in Thrandeston, Suffolk —William Brown on 6 February 1682 and John Deek on 21 November 1688 —provides evidence of the traffic in cattle from Scotland to East Anglia in the 17th century.
For the most part, however, the drovers handling these cattle would have been local Scottish men who, in May of each year, would visit farms bargaining for cattle, often for only one or two at a time because many of the Highlands farming tenants were very poor. Gradually as summer advanced, the Drovers would gather together a herd before heading south across the border and into England. For example, in 1663 the border town of Carlisle recorded 18,574 cattle passing through during that year. By the middle of the 18th century, 80,000 cattle a year were being driven south. These totals would have been made up of herds of at least 100 strong and often up to 2,000 strong; many, if not all, on their way to markets in Norfolk and London. This movement was a clear indication that the economy was balanced between the Scottish cattle breeder and the East Anglian farmer. The former, until improved methods of farming were developed in Scotland in the early 19th century, was unable to bring his cattle to a condition suitable for a wholesale butcher. The East Anglian farmer, on the other hand, was within reach of the London markets and had grazing, straw and, later, root crops, enabling him to fatten and finish the beasts; the resulting manure provided a valuable by-product.
The farmers in the Highlands and Islands needed to reduce their stock in the autumn owing to the difficulties of winter feeding. Dealers would visit the Highlands to attend the local markets, and notices would be posted on church doors informing the farmers when they would be in the District so that cattle could be brought from the glens. The business revolved on credit: a price was agreed and, if the cattle fetched more within a certain period, the seller received more; but the reverse also applied and farmers suffered many a loss. The cattle might change hands again before reaching Crieff Tryst which, until the middle of the 18th century, was the largest cattle market in Scotland and considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and convenient to both buyers and sellers.
Before the Rising of 1745 the trade had been in the hands of the Scots, but later, English dealers in greater numbers were visiting the Scottish markets and Falkirk, further south, replaced Crieff in importance. The Falkirk Trysts were held in August, September and October and lasted several days, during which time endless droves arrived from the North. They spread over a large area of the surrounding country which was enlivened by many tents selling refreshments and interspersed with banks for the financial transactions. When an agreement was reached, the tar dishes were brought out and the cattle marked and taken from the field. Small jobbers would send their purchases to a common trysting place where they were consigned to a drover who collected cattle from several grazings. The topsman could, without scruple, reject any beast he considered unfit for travel, as his remuneration was a small sum per head for every beast safely delivered to a market. These men were entrusted with the management of other people’s property worth thousands of pounds.
The term ‘drover’ covered a wide range of men, from the cattle dealer who turned over thousands of pounds a year to the hired hand who helped to drive the beasts. By an Act of Parliament of 1562, drovers had to be registered: they also had to be married householders and at least thirty years old. This was obligatory until 1772. They came to enjoy a professional reputation which enabled them to assume the role of travelling bankers. It is probable that only the topsman was required to register.
The Galloways were bred in the South West districts of Scotland, and were popular in Norfolk and Suffolk as they were easily fattened. A similar pattern of sale occurred: a number of local cattle markets, a large weekly market and three autumn markets on the Whitesands of Dumfries. The droves heading for England from both Dumfries and Falkirk passed through Carlisle. The cattle were shod for the journey and accounts vary as to whether the shoes were fitted at the outset of the drive or when rough roads were reached. The ‘cues’ were made of thin, crescent-shaped metal plates and, to be fully shod, a beast needed two to a hoof, but often only the outer hoof was covered. To accomplish the operation, its front and back legs were tied together and the animal thrown on its back. An experienced man could shoe seventy beasts a day.
From Carlisle, the path to East Anglia lay across the Pennines to what is now the Great North Road, turning eastwards south of the Wash. In the autumn, when the industry was at its peak, the roads south were thronged with cattle: 2,000 a day passed through Boroughbridge and there were many times when from dawn to sunset Wetherby was never free from beasts. The route chosen depended on the decision of the topsman, the head drover. If the weather had been wet the rivers might be impassable; if dry, certain paths would be devoid of wayside grazing. A drove would consist of 200 or more beasts with one man to every fifty or sixty cattle. They went to Norwich, Long Stratton and Hoxne at a steady pace, averaging twelve to fifteen miles a day. The topsman, usually the only man mounted, would ride ahead to warn oncoming traffic and secure overnight pasture for the beasts and shelter for the men. If neither was available they slept in their plaids alongside the cattle.
The men reputedly often travelled barefoot and carried their own food, a mixture of oatmeal and water called ‘crowdie’, in a leather bag. In the early 19th century they received between three and four shillings a day, twice that of a farm labourer, and ten shillings for the return journey. They had to pay their own expenses —at one time, nine pence a night for lodgings in the winter and five pence in the summer.
Norfolk’s St Faiths Fairstead:
For hundreds of years the village of Horsham St Faiths was famous for its annual cattle market, traditionally named the St Faith’s Fairstead, held there from October 17th for three weeks each year. This fair was granted a Charter in 1100 and the last cattle fair was held there in 1872. Whilst the Fairstead itself ran from October 17th each year, the so-called ‘Norfolk Season’ began at Candlemas, on 2 February. Drovers taking cattle from the Fair, made weekly journeys during February and March, twice weekly during April, May and June, with possibly one or two journeys in August and September. The season appears to have been approximately the same in Suffolk.
The site on which the St Faiths Fairstead was held was situated just outside Horsham St Faiths, to the north of Norwich. It occupied at least 50 acres along the present Spixworth Road, between Bullock Hill and Calf Lane, two legacies of the old Fair. In those far off days, the Fairstead consisted of many small fields which Drovers would hire to hold their cattle for the duration of the sales. Then, alongside these fields, there were a further three acres called ‘The Lond’ which held the market stalls. Whilst the St Faiths Fairstead attracted sellers and their livestock from around Britain, it was particularly favoured by Scottish Drovers who brought with them Norfolk’s favoured beast – the Galloway.
“The purchase of Scotch in the district is chiefly at the Fair of St. Faiths, to which Scots drovers bring annually great numbers. The most common age is 4 years old. Some have been worked in the collieries.” –
Norwich Mercury circa 1800
Invariably perhaps, and because of the good business links between Norfolk and the markets at Dumfries and Falkirk, the largest droves that came into Norfolk probably headed for the St Faith’s Fair. There were, of course others of which the Hempton Fair, near Fakenham, was used, not only to sell cattle in their own right, but to also assist the selling of those heads which failed to find buyers at St Faiths. The date for the Hempton Fair was usually on, or around, the 22nd November.
As for the St Faith’s droves, they usually left Dumfriesshire around the 14 September, the 340 miles taking twenty-eight days, at an approximate twelve miles a day. Before reaching St Faith’s, each drover would have hired a field for his beasts, the majority being bullocks, four to five years old, mainly black or brindled, some dun and a few red. To accommodate each herd, the host farmer would have ensured that his fields would offer ‘a full bite of grass’ for the cattle. However, before arrival and employing the usual practice of ‘showing off’ his cattle to attract buyers, the ‘topsman’ drover would have assessed likely demand and price. As long as sales continued he would stay, up to a fortnight, before moving any unsold stock to another market.
As with all markets and sales, there was an art to selling lean cattle and much could be gained by choosing a favourable stand. The cattle looked best on a gentle slope with a minimum of forty beasts, especially the polled variety which stood closer together. Sixty were better and eighty better still. Ten beasts, matched for quality, would be segregated in one corner in the hope of persuading a grazier to buy all ten, in which case a discount would be given. The grazier had to know at a glance how much a beast would improve on good, bad or indifferent land as well as on turnips, in three, six or twelve months.
Whilst the Scottish drovers would eventually leave and return with business done, those cattle not retained for breading purposes would have further to go before their travels ended. There would be those sold on to Suffolk & Essex graziers who would further fatten these cattle on the luxuriant grass of coastal marshes before, in turn, selling them on to London buyers. The remainder would be fattened by local Norfolk farmers themselves, before returning to the St. Faiths Fairstead at some future date to sell their cattle direct to their own London customers. Local drovers would undertake the task of taking the animals to London and their final destination of Smithfield Market and the wholesale butcher – there to help feed a large and hungry city. It was a fact that Suppliers to London relied heavily on the Scottish Drovers who brought cattle south, together with the English (particularly East Anglian) farmers who fattened the beasts. The London meat market of Smithfield recorded in 1794, 108,000 cattle arriving for slaughter, at least 80% of which came from Scotland along the extensive network of Drove Roads.
Back at Horsham St Faiths, as elsewhere, local drovers would advertise their services to those attending the Fair. The advertisements for the times and places for drawing in the stock for Smithfield invariably began with the drover thanking the graziers, gentlemen farmers, jobbers and friends for past favours and the hope that he would continue to merit their future custom. When each beast had had the owner’s mark clipped from its coat, preparations for the journey (approximately a week) were complete.
One such 1826 advertisement from a John Mald at St Faiths is an example:
“John Mald, drover from Norwich to London, returns his sincere thanks to his friends and the public for that liberal share of patronage which he received last year, and begs respectfully to assure them that the same unremitting attention will be paid to the punctual delivery of all cattle etc. with which he may be entrusted, to any salesman whom they may appoint.”
Once a contract had been agreed with farmers at the Fair, John Mald would issue a Notice of time and place for collection of each consignment:
“J.M. Will start on Saturday 2nd December 1826 and stop at Homesfield Swan on Sunday night; Wortwell Bull Monday morning; Cap Inn, Harleston, at 12 o’clock; Needham Fishmonger’s Arms; Brockdish Greyhound and Scole Inn that night. Also at the Queen’s Head, Long Stratton at nine o’clock; Tivetshall Ram at twelve; Dickleburgh Kings Head at three in the afternoon, and meet at Scole Inn the same night. On Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock at Wortham Dolphin; Botesdale Greyhound till two; Pakenham Woolpack that night; Bury Market every Wednesday; and at Alpheton Lion that night.”
It is clear from this Notice that J.M’s drove would set out on a Weekend, arriving in London the following Sunday, ready for the Monday market. Smithfield Market was held weekly on Mondays and Fridays, with the latter day being favoured by Suffolk farmers. At Mile-End, salesmen would meet John Mald, as too other drovers, taking charge of their lots and handing over payment. It was Mald’s responsibility to take the money back to the Norfolk farmers. It was clear that the East Anglian drover, like his Scottish counterpart, had to be a man of integrity, financing the overheads of the journey and returning with his clients’ profit in cash or short-date bills on a local bank, which he would dispense on settlement day. A typical settlement day is described by William Marshall at the ‘Angel’ Inn at Walsham, Norfolk in 1780.
“There was a roomful of graziers who had sent bullocks to Smithfield the previous week. The weekly journey was made alternately by the drover, J. Smith of Erpingham, and his servant. Smith sat with each man’s account and a pair of saddle bags with money and bills lying on the table before him. A farmer would sit at his elbow, examine the salesman’s account, receive his money, drink a glass or two of liquor, throw down sixpence towards the reckoning and return to the market”…. “What a trust, no security but his honesBeyond
Beyond Norfolk and nearer to London:
Similarly, Suffolk drovers followed same practice and would place notices in the local press advertising where they would be collecting cattle stock. James Howlett of Brome, a drover and salesman was one:
A postscript to his advertisement assured ‘those gentlemen who may be pleased to confer their favours’ on him that every attention would be paid to their stock, and every care taken ‘to obtain the best price the market will afford to the benefit of his employers’ 2 January 1819). The advertisement ends ‘Please to direct, 60 West Smithfield, London’, which suggests that he was commissioned by a Smithfield salesman.
Inevitably misfortunes occurred. The drovers Benjamin Bell and his son Thomas farmed near Canobie in Dumfriesshire and brought droves to East Anglian fairs. They left home in mid October 1746 with a drove which contained 500 particularly good beasts which Thomas had bought at a favourable price after bargaining for twenty-four hours. On reaching Hoxne, on this occasion, in December they met with disaster – Distemper! Thomas wrote to their backer on Christmas Day to say that the illness was raging in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and there was no way for them to escape. The cattle in the area were dying at an alarming rate, and one hand at Hoxne had already lost 300. An Act of Parliament had been passed which obliged them to insure any cattle sold; they had sold forty beasts to a Mr Wilson of Colchester and had heard that they were all dead. On 7 January Thomas wrote again saying that he had found twenty-nine dead in one pasture, and twenty-five in other pastures; the rest were all infected. They were expected to dig pits and bury the infected beasts within three hours. The Bells had charges to pay and no money. He added that they would be home by Candlemas and people could do what they would with them. Apparently, the Bells’ fortunes recovered during the ensuing years!
In June or July 1766 there was an increased demand for Scottish beasts owing to a shortage resulting from a series of past cattle plagues. Many of the dealers in East Anglia went to Scotland for the first time and bought direct, depriving Scottish drovers of custom; this deprivation of trade stimulated a number of ‘drovers’ to become dealers in their own right. There developed a class of professional cattle dealer, referred to as ‘drover dealers’, whose reputation for honesty and fair-dealing became recognised throughout the country. They were highly organised, hard-headed businessmen who rode thousands of miles to cattle markets; they therefore needed a stud of horses, and rented thousands of acres of grazing. Many of them dealt with the English markets and sent their own droves south, where they employed a salesman or used the services of another firm.
These droves would start travelling down in January February and March, when the usual venues were either the Tie’ Nagpie] or the ‘Cardinal’s Cap’, both at Harleston. George Campbell was one of the first men to sell in this manner; his notice in the local newspaper for 2 January 1779 advised the gentlemen, farmers and graziers in Norfolk and Suffolk that he had on the road, on its way to Harleston and Hoxne, ‘a capital drove of Galloway Scots and heifers which he is determined to sell upon the most reasonable terms at the above places’. The date of sale was to appear in a future issue. The advertisement was repeated in the editions of 9, 16 and 23 January. On 30 January a further notice announced that the sale would begin on the following Monday, 1 February, and continue until all the cattle were sold. The First three days’ sale would be at Harleston, the next three at Hoxne, ‘and to change alternately’. The drove was said to be ‘very capital’ and would be ‘sold cheap’. The sale was evidently successful, for Campbell inserted a further notice on 20 February, intimating that he would be at Harleston with yet another capital drove by the end of March.
Campbell’s journeys emphasise the organisation required of the drovers, who had to work to a tight schedule to arrive at their destination on time. January, February and March were not the best months to be travelling on foot from Scotland to East Anglia. Grazing would have been at a premium, while paths could be water-logged, frozen, or obliterated by snow Overnight stops with fodder had to be reached and occasionally the weather did defeat them. James Campbell intended selling a capital drove at the Tye’ Inn, Harleston, on Wednesday 15 January 1794 which he advertised in the Local newspaper on 4 January. A week later a further notice informed the graziers that ‘owing to the badness of the roads’ the drove would be a day late and shown on 16 January.
Another name of note was William McTurk, possibly a relative of Robert McTurk who, in his day, was a dealer of consequence. A bystander recalled seeing one of his droves, numbering seventy-five score of Galloways, passing through Carlisle on its way to Norfolk. McTurk would buy between one and two thousand large cattle at Falkirk, sweeping the fair of the best lots before the other dealers had made up their minds to begin. He was a stout man with a calm, composed demeanour, who would sit on his pony and buy seventy score without even dismounting. He rented large grazings in Dumfriesshire, where he wintered his highlanders ready for the southern markets.
With a workforce of one man to fifty or sixty beasts there could be a number of Scotsmen at the fairs and sometimes tempers flared. A violent fight took place between the Scotsmen and the locals at the `Bell’ in Hempton, Norfolk, in August 1791. Several people were injured, two seriously. The drovers then broke into a neighbouring public house where they attacked people and swore they would defend themselves against the Civil powers to the last drop of their blood. The next morning Lord Townshend armed his servants and tenants, surrounded the house and ordered them to surrender. The few who refused broke through the roof as evening approached and were caught nearby.
On the outskirts of London, such as Mile End, there were ‘layers’. These were areas outside the City’s jurisdiction where the beasts could be fed, watered and rested before they were collected by the licensed London drovers in the early hours of market day. Such ‘layers’ possessed great advantages as the stock went into the market less fatigued and in better condition than is possible in the usual method of droving. Early morning departure for Smithfield appears to have been at 3 o’clock when it would just be possible to see the beasts; the implication here is that salesmen came to the ‘layers’ and found advantages there.
As the droves funnelled towards the Capital they caused much inconvenience to the local inhabitants. When it was proposed to close one ancient footpath in Hornchurch Lane the tenants of Havering Enclosure wrote in alarm to the Commissioners to say that the path ‘enabled the women and children of the industrious tradesmen to enjoy the benefit of the air free from the dread and danger of the numerous droves of cattle and from the greater dread of insults from the drovers’. It is not difficult to imagine the disturbance caused by jostling cattle being driven through the narrow London streets. In 1839 regulations were enforced as to the number of beasts and the hours in which they could be driven. No dogs were to be used. On their left, upper arm, the London drovers wore a metal badge stamped with the armorial bearings of the City of London and their licence number. Further regulations in 1850 stipulated the routes the cattle had to follow; those from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridge were met at ‘layers’ in Stratford or Mile End and were to be driven via Shoreditch, Worship Street, Barbican and Long Lane. Tolls were paid at the City gates and to the City of London for the beasts sold in the market. On reaching Smithfield the beasts were tied individually to long lines of oak rails where the salesmen negotiated sales with the carcase butchers. Although the cattle had their prescribed routes through the City they caused much disruption and the public voiced their distress at the cruelty suffered by the beasts which, alarmed and frantic from pain, would rush in any direction but that which was intended.
By the early 19th century, droving as a major industry was nearing the end of its days. The peace, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815 finished the Napoleonic wars, meant the shrinking navy needed less beef but other changes were even more important. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a revolution in agriculture. Enclosed systems of fields replaced open common grazing and large, fatter cattle were bred and raised ready for market. More importantly, by the 1830s, faster steamships were being built and farmers in the lowlands and elsewhere started to ship cattle directly to the southern markets instead of by the long arduous overland droves. Then, once railways were being established from the 1850’s, an even swifter and more reliable means of transporting cattle and other agricultural products to market was being offered. By then, cattle had been more carefully bred and were not hardy enough to take the long road anyway.
In East Anglia few traces of the long trails south now remain. ‘Bullock Hill’, ‘Calf Lane’ or ‘Fair’ incorporated in the name of a road suggests a one-time involvement, while the Inns, where farmers brought their cattle to be taken to London, now have large car parks. Was this where the men congregated with their cattle? – and, did the rivers nearby provide water for the drinking troughs?