Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Rebecca Riots

Genesis XXIV 60:- "And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, let thy seed possess the gates of those which hate them"
From The Illustrated London News 1843
On the night of 6th June 1839 the tollgate at Yr Efail Wen[Efailwen] was destroyed and the tollhouse set on fire by men dressed in women’s clothes with blackened faces for the second time. These incidents marked the start of the Rebecca Riots, which spread to many communities in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire.
In the early 19th Century, farming was the main industry in Wales, where life was both hard and primitive. Only a few people could read and write.  Wales had seen a population increase which increased competition for land and jobs, thus adding to unemployment and poverty. Wet summers ruined corn harvests, forcing farmers to buy corn at famine prices to sustain themselves, their animals and their families.

Rents remained static, as did the turnpike tolls, so seeing themselves as victims of  'tyranny and oppression', farmers and their workers took the law into their own hands to rid themselves of these unjust taxes.
The first institutions to be attacked were the hated toll gates, which were controlled by Turnpike Trusts, comprised of wealthy businessmen, who owned most of the main roads. They decided on how many tollgates (turnpikes) could be built and what charges they made for those using them. The tolls were intended for maintenance and improvement of the roads, however many trusts charged extortionate tolls and diverted the money to other uses.

Most people in rural Wales made their living in small tenant farms they rented from wealthy landlords and relied on the roads to take their produce to market.  They were also burdened with having to pay tithes, payments for the support of the Anglican parish church payable in crops or wool. Their landlords, the members of the Anglican church mostly spoke English, when in the 1830’s, eighty percent of the population of west Wales was Welsh speaking and Non-Conformist, thus they resented having to pay tithes to a church that was not their own.

Farmers collected lime to improve the quality of the soil, but the Tollgate Trust set a toll of five shillings (25p) in tolls to move a cart of lime eight miles inland.  Eleven different Turnpike Trusts operated around Carmarthen, each with several gates, and each time people passed through the gates with produce or lime carts, they had no choice but to pay the toll.
Harvests in 1837 and 1838 were poor, increasing shortages and smallholders could barely afford to take their goods to market, but in addition they were being charged high tolls for using the roads.
In 1839, a group of toll-renters, led by Thomas Bullin, an Englishman, increased toll rates and installed side-bars, simple forms of gates set on side roads to catch any traffic that had attempted to bypass the main toll booths. These side-bars dramatically increased the cost of farmers' carting lime to their fields and almost ruined them.

This precipitated the first attack on Yr Efail Wen , [Efailwen] the attackers calling themselves Merched Beca (Welsh for Rebecca's Daughters) or merely the Rebeccas. The Whitland Turnpike Trust rebuilt the gate, but a week later, a crowd of three hundred people destroyed it for the second time.

Their battle cry became ‘Rebecca’ as they smashed the gates, sometimes relating the entire verse from Genesis as they destroyed the gates.

The disturbances started again in 1842 when the Whitland Trust built a new gate at The Mermaid, on the lime road at St Clears in Carmarthenshire. This was destroyed in November, as were the tollgates at Pwll-trap and Trevaughan. The gates were rebuilt, but all gates in St Clears were destroyed by 12 December. The government refused to send soldiers, and so the magistrates called in the marines from Pembroke Dock and the Castlemartin Yeomanry Cavalry. The rioting continued.

In the village of Hendy on 7 September 1843, a woman gate keeper named Sarah Williams had been warned not to collect any more tolls and that rioters were on their way but refused to leave. That night she was heard shouting "I know who you are" by a neighbouring family. The rioters set fire to the tollgate and Sarah ran for help, but when she returned, she was shot dead.

By October 1843, the riots stopped, and the government was forced to call a Commission of Enquiry to explore the grievances of the Welsh farmers. This alsoe resulted in The Turnpikes Act of 1844 which consolidated the trusts, and simplified the rates; furthermore it reduced the hated toll on lime movement by half.
From The London Illustrated News 1843
The wearing of women's clothes was an established feature of traditional Welsh justice the Ceffyl Pren, wooden horse, bears many similarities to the Rebeccas, with men wearing female clothing, blackening their faces and conducting mock trials. Miscreants were sentenced to ride the Ceffyl Pren through the streets to punish members of a community for marital infidelity or informing on a neighbour.

Rebecca and her daughters had won their victory - even though some of the gates lasted another 50 years.
Dylan Thomas wrote the screenplay for a film, Rebecca's Daughters, which was published as a novel of the same name in 1965, though the film was not released until 1992, and starred Peter O'Toole, Paul Rhys and Joely Richardson.

For the source of this post and further information: Bro Becca

Anita is an Historical Fiction author with a special interest in the 17th Century, her latest novel, 'Royalist Rebel' will be released by Claymore books in early 2013


  1. Brilliant insight. The events in Wales paralleled the so called Tithe Wars in Ireland during the 1830's protesting the imposition of tithes on all tenants (who were mainly Catholic) for the upkeep of the Established Church of Ireland. Police and militia were used to support collectors and there was considerable violence in many areas. After years of agitation. the tithes were first significantly reduced and eventually abolished.

  2. Some years ago I visited the National History Museum at St Fagans where re-enactors told the story of the Rebecca Riots. We sat in a darkened Welsh cottage and witnessed the return home of a rioter. It was an experience that has remained with me. Thank you for this post.


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