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Shirley Toulson

In Memoriam


I have discovered that Shirley Toulson, poet and author of many books on droving and green lanes, died just over a year ago in October 2018.

I wrote to her when I first started my interest in drovers’ roads and she was kind enough to reply.  She suggested we went walking together with a friend of hers, but for some reason the walk never materialised.  I blame myself.  I would like to have met the erudite lady.

In 1976 Shirley Toulson recorded a live interview with Mr Morris Roberts, a drover, and was kind enough to send me a transcript of it.  I’m certain she wouldn’t have minded my including it here – although she confessed that she hated the internet.  Call it a tribute:


Mr Roberts was born in Hendra Maur, near Bala in Mid-Wales, in 1901.  His father Robert was a farmer and dealer.  He has one brother who is a dealer near Corwen and another who is a London doctor.  He had three brothers & two sisters.

As a child he went to school in the mountains in Maesywaen and then to Grammar School in Bala.  During World War 1 he was taken away from school and “hidden from the war” by being sent to Surrey, where he stayed with an aunt and worked on the farm for 10/= a week.  (He was used to that because his father ran seven farms in the Bala area, mostly sheep & cattle with a little arable: the children had always helped out and there had been little time for play.)

His father bought animals locally and sold them to graziers in Essex, where they were fattened up: they were too small for local markets.  An anxious time was the drought summer of 1921, until Mr Cook, the Essex drover he used, suggested he tried the cattle on the salt marshes of Burnham-on-Crouch.  Much of this marshy grassland was owned by Strutt & Parker. 

Morris Roberts became a drover until the mid-1930’s.  It cost 3/= a head to send sheep by train from Welshpool to Ingatestone (North Essex) and more [twice as much] for cows.  A large truck cost £8-9.  Essex drovers, paid £1 a day, met the train.  The cattle arrived on Wednesdays and were cleaned up ready to be taken to Chelmsford Market on the Friday.  They used to get very dirty in the truck.

Mr Roberts sent cattle to Northampton, Market Harborough and Essex.  He bought black cattle from Northampton and sold mostly shorthorns in Essex.  Irish heifers were bought from Holyhead, but they were usually poor quality. 

The buying was done from dealers and farmers in Wales over the three autumn months.  The beasts were walked along the A5 to Corwen – at that time [the 1920’s] the state of that road was much as George Borrow would have known it: the surface was not macadamised and for much of the year it was simply a muddy track.  At Corwen station they were put on the train in the morning and could be at their destination by the afternoon of the next day (although it usually took a little longer).   They were fed en route, at Acton.  The breeders sold were usually shorthorn, though the Scots bought a few Friesians.  It was difficult to sell Herefords in Essex as their hide was so thick [?].  Most were 3-year-old bullocks, some heifers.  The animals were “branded” by having two parallel lines cut in the hair of their hips with scissors, the same mark as had been used by Morris Roberts’ father.  They were then driven on foot from Waltham Cross to Chelmsford, some being sold en route.

The drovers stopped overnight.  Many of the men slept rough but the dealers such as Mr Roberts, who often travelled with the herd, stayed at a hotel or pub.  The Woolpack and The Talbot at North Weald were popular.  They started off again as early as they could after breakfast.  For the first few miles they walked fast, then gradually slowed down.  They went on main roads rather than green lanes.

Any animals not sold at market were taken to a local farm, then collected the following week to join the new consignment.

The dealers had to find land to graze cattle en route and during the Great War Mr Roberts senior walked miles round Essex farms looking for suitable grazing land.

Roberts Father & Son never took their cattle to Smithfield but they found customers there.

Morris Roberts once had to take 50 cattle on his own through Waltham Forest; it took all day.  “It was all right as long as I took them just nice & quiet,” he says.  One heifer disappeared into the wood to calve and it took several days to find her & the calf. 

The drover’s work was seasonal and he was only employed for a few days at a time.  He had no dogs to help him, in Morris Roberts’ experience, and the animals had not been shod for many years.


Morris gave up droving in the 1930’s, partly because the Milk Marketing Board was encouraging the production of dairy rather than beef cattle.  He then gave up the nomadic life and settled down on a farm near Thame and raised a family.


Thank you, Mrs Shirley Toulson. 

Shirley Toulson image 1
Shirley Toulson