On this day in 1620 the Mayflower left Plymouth for North America, carrying on board 102 passengers and 25 to 30 crew members
Having first attempted to make the crossing in August the Mayflower had been forced to dock due to her companionship, the Speedwell, repeatedly springing leaks. It was here that the Speedwell would be left, here condition too poor to make a successful voyage likely.
Now in September, western gales turned the North Atlantic into a dangerous place to sail, yet the Mayflower left port on what William Bradford called "a prosperous wind". They could ill afford to stay longer; provisions were already quite low when departing Southampton, and they became lower still by delays of more than a month.
At about 180 tons, the Mayflower was considered a smaller cargo ship and so the 130 or so people on board would be forced to endure extremely crowded conditions. This would be her first transatlantic trip, having previously been used to ship wine and clothing between England and Bordeaux. She was not in particularly good shape either and would be sold for scrap four years after her Atlantic Journey. The stakes for both passengers and crew was therefore very high.
In our next blog on the voyage, we will look at what life aboard the Mayflower was like for its passengers and crew.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on the voyage of the Mayflower. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1797 The Massacre of Tranent took place, when workers from the East Lothain town confronted the Cinque Port Light Dragoons to protest the conscription of men into the British Militia.
In 1793 Great Britain had entered the War of the First Coalition against France. Britain feared a French invasion, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, the latter having only been a part of the Union since 1707 and the Jacobite Risings still within living memory. The fear was not without justification, for the French had managed to land a small expeditionary force in Wales in February 1797, though it had quickly been dealt with by the local yeomanry.
In 1797 therefore the Militia Act was passed in Scotland, which empowered the Lord Lieutenants of Scotland to raise and command militia regiments in each of the "Counties, Stewartries, Cities, and Places" under their jurisdiction. The aim was to raise around 6,000 to 8,000 militiamen throughout Scotland who could be used to defend the country but could also be deployed elsewhere if needed. Furthermore, the militiamen represented a fertile pool for recruitment into the regular army, for while militia regiments were constitutionally separate from the army, from the 1790s militiamen were encouraged to volunteer, and did so in large numbers.
The act was initially deeply unpopular as it was believed the militia ballot would be used to enable the Crown to remove men from Scotland.
On August 28th a proclamation was drawn up by local people of Tranent to object to the conscription of Scots into the British Militia, to be used either for controlling their own people or for deployment elsewhere. The proclamation comprised four clauses:
The following day, the proclamation was handed to Major Wight, the commanding officer of the recruitment squad; it was initially ignored. Later, when a contingent from the local colliery communities, led by 'Jackie' (Joan) Crookston confronted the troops, their response was swift and bloody. Several of the protesters, including Crookston, were shot dead out of hand.
The protesters fled from the centre of the small town into the countryside, pursued by the Cinque Port Light Dragoons, who are reported to have cut down people indiscriminately, caring little whether they were involved in the protest or not. Casualty estimates range from around a dozen to twenty or more men, women and children dead, with more injured. After the slaughter the troopers are alleged to have carried out rapes and pillage in the small town.
The Light Dragoons' overall commanding officer was then Colonel Viscount Hawkesbury, (later 2nd Earl of Liverpool, and future British Prime Minister) who was not present. It was reported that "His lordship was blamed for remaining at Haddington, as his presence might have prevented the outrages of the soldiery."
These scenes were created by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on people and protest. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1875 the Chimney Sweepers Act gained Royal Assent, which required sweeps to be licensed and made it the duty of the police to enforce all previous legislation.
In the 18th and 19th centuries it was common for children to be employed by chimney sweeps as apprentices. These were usually boys from the local workhouses or children that were purchased from their parents and trained to climb the chimneys. Boys as young as four years old climbed up the hot flues that could be as narrow as 9 inches square. The work was dangerous, with children getting stuck in flues and suffocating. The poor conditions began to cause concern, with pamphlets describing the nature of the work bringing it to the public conscience. The fate of one such boy is described below:
"After passing through the chimney and descending to the second angle of the fireplace the boy finds it completely filled with soot, which he has dislodged from the sides of the upright part. He endeavours to get through, and succeeds in doing so, after much struggling as far as his shoulders; but finding that the soot is compressed hard all around him, by his exertions, that he can recede no farther; he then endeavours to move forward, but his attempts in this respect are quite abortive; for the covering of the horizontal part of the Flue being stone, the sharp angle of which bears hard on his shoulders, and the back part of his head prevents him from moving in the least either one way or the other. His face, already covered with a climbing cap, and being pressed hard in the soot beneath him, stops his breath. In this dreadful condition he strives violently to extricate himself, but his strength fails him; he cries and groans, and in a few minutes he is suffocated. An alarm is then given, a brick-layer is sent for, an aperture is perforated in the Flue, and the boy is extracted, but found lifeless.”
Suffocation was not the only hazard that young chimney sweeps suffered, with general neglect being rife and . stunted growth and deformity of the spine, legs and arms being common
Therefore, late in the 18th century, efforts were made to improve the conditions of the young chimney sweeps. The first major piece of legislation was the Chimney Sweepers Act 1788, which stated that no boy should be a bound apprentice before he was eight years old. His parents’ consent must be obtained, the master sweep must promise to provide suitable clothing and living conditions, as well as an opportunity to attend church on Sundays. The clause inserted into the Bill requiring the Master Sweep to be licensed was voted down in the House of Lords, and without proper policing, the Act had little effect.
In 1834 therefore, the Chimney Sweepers Act 1834 was passed to yet again try to stop child labour as it was evident that many boys as young as six were still being used as chimney sweeps and their conditions had changed little. The act stated that an apprentice must express himself in front of a magistrate that he was willing and desirous, that masters must not take on boys under the age of fourteen, that an apprentice could not be lent to another master, that the master could only have six apprentices, that boys under the age of fourteen who were already apprenticed, must wear brass cap badges on a leather cap and that apprentices were not allowed to climb flues to put out fires.
In 1840 the Chimney Sweepers and Chimneys Regulation 1840 were passed, making it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to sweep chimneys. These where however largely ignored. The Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act 1864, c37. tightened controls significantly, by authorising fines and imprisonment for master sweeps who were ignoring the law, giving the police the power of arrest on suspicion and authorising Board of Trade inspections of new and remodelled chimneys.
In 1863 the publication of 'The Water-Babies', a novel by Charles Kingsley, did much to raise public awareness about the gross mistreatment of children in this kind of employment through its central character, Tom, a child chimney sweep. Parliament responded the following year with a new Chimney Sweepers Regulation Act 1864. This attempted to tighten controls significantly, by authorising fines and imprisonment for master sweeps who were ignoring the law, giving the police the power of arrest on suspicion and authorising Board of Trade inspections of new and remodelled chimneys. This was ineffective despite its humane purpose.
In 1875 a twelve year-old boy named George Brewster died in a chimney at Fulbourn Hospital, causing a scandal. As a response Lord Shaftesbury seized on the incident to press his anti-climbing boys campaign. He wrote a series of letters to The Times and in 1875 pushed another Bill through Parliament. The Chimney Sweepers Act was passed in 1875 requiring Master Sweeps to be authorised by the police to carry on their businesses in the district, this providing the legal means to enforce all previous legislation. George Brewster was the last child to die in a chimney. As a result George Brewster was the last child to die in a chimney.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1620 the Mayflower and her companion ship the Speedwell, left Southampton on their journey to North America. The Mayflower had left London in mid-July with the aim of rendezvousing with the Speedwell, which was coming from Holland with members of the Leiden congregation, at the Hampshire town on the 22nd. Although both ships planned to depart for America by the end of July, a leak was discovered on the Speedwell, which had to be repaired and so the voyage would be delayed until August.
Find out what happened next in our next blog on the voyage!
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on the voyage of the Mayflower. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1540 Thomas Cromwell, who had for served as chief minister to King Henry VIII, was executed at Tower Hill in London. For nearly ten years Cromwell was one of the strongest and most powerful proponents of the English Reformation, coming to the fore through his engineering of the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533. During his years in power, he skillfully managed Crown finances and extended royal authority. In 1536, he established the Court of Augmentations to handle the massive windfall to the royal coffers from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He strengthened royal authority in the north of England through reform of the Council of the North, extended royal power and introduced Protestantism in Ireland, and was the architect of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, which promoted stability and gained acceptance for the royal supremacy in Wales.
During this period Cromwell made many enemies and there were no shortage of those who would try and to oust him from his position of power. In 1540 he arranged for Henry to marry the German Princess Anne of Cleves, who Cromwell hoped would help breath fresh life into the Reformation in England and help protect England against the possibility of a French / Imperial alliance. This appears to have been a costly mistake, as the king was reportedly shocked by her plain appearance and Cromwell was accused of exaggerating her beauty. The wedding ceremony took place on January 6th at Greenwich, but the marriage was not consummated. For Cromwell’s conservative opponents, most notably the Duke of Norfolk, the King's anger at being forced to marry Anne was the opportunity to topple him they had been waiting for.
Cromwell was arrested at a Council meeting on June 10th and accused of various charges. His initial reaction was defiance: "This then is my reward for faithful service!" he cried out, and angrily defied his fellow Councillors to call him a traitor. A Bill of Attainder containing a long list of indictments, including supporting Anabaptists, corrupt practices, leniency in matters of justice, acting for personal gain, protecting Protestants accused of heresy and thus failing to enforce the Act of Six Articles, and plotting to marry Lady Mary Tudor, was introduced into the House of Lords a week later and passed on June 29th.
All Cromwell's honours were forfeited and it was publicly proclaimed that he could be called only "Thomas Cromwell, cloth carder". The King deferred the execution until his marriage to Anne of Cleves could be annulled: Anne, with remarkable common sense, happily agreed to an amicable annulment and was treated with great generosity by Henry as a result. Hoping for clemency, Cromwell wrote in support of the annulment, in his last personal address to the King. He ended the letter: "Most gracious Prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy."
Cromwell was however condemned to death without trial, lost all his titles and property and was publicly beheaded on Tower Hill on July 28th 1540, on the same day as the King's marriage to Catherine Howard. The circumstances of his execution are a source of debate: whilst some accounts state that the executioner had great difficulty severing the head, others claim that this is apocryphal and that it took only one blow. Afterwards, his head was set on a spike on London Bridge.
The king later expressed regret at the loss of his chief minister and later accused his ministers of bringing about Cromwell's downfall by "pretexts" and "false accusations".
This scene was built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on the English Reformation; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Marriages have served many purposes throughout history, including political and religious ones. Such was the case of Mary Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Mary, who was a Catholic, had come to the throne of England somewhat unexpectedly and against her younger brother’s wishes. However, Edward VI died at the age of 15 on July 6th 1553 from a lung infection and Mary was the next in line. England had undergone a religious upheaval under Henry VIII, who had separated the Church of England from Papal authority. Edward had been committed to the ongoing religious reform and was concerned that his oldest sister would return England to the old faith.
Edward attempted by means of the Succession Act, which excluded Mary and Elizabeth form the line of succession, failed and Mary, after political rankling with Jane Dudley, her first cousin once removed, became Queen of England at the age of 37. Once monarch she turned her attention to marriage, at least partly motivated by her desire to ensure that England remained a Catholic nation. Once married she would be able to produce a heir, thereby preventing her protestant half-sister Elizabeth, becoming the next English monarch in line with their father’s will and the Succession Act of 1554.
Early suitors put forward included the Catholic nobles Edward Courtenay and Reginald Pole, however it was her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s suggestion of his son, Prince Philip of Spain that went ahead. Mary was excited to be marrying Phillip who she considered to be handsome having previously seen a portrait of him. With Philip a powerful Catholic ruler, the marriage was also seen as a significant step to returning England to Catholicism once again. For Phillip this would be his second marriage (his first wife having died a few years before) and while not thrilled with the idea, he could see its political advantages.
The marriage proposal was not well received by the English nation and Lord Chancellor Gardniner, along with the House of Commons, petitioned Mary to consider marrying an Englishman. Despite the protestations Mary insisted on the marriage. Insurrections broke out, including the ambitious Wyatt’s Rebellion, led by Thomas Wyatt.
Mary swept all opposition the wedding took place at Winchester Cathedral on July 25th 1554, two days after their first meeting; it was a grand affair with the walls of the cathedral draped in Flemish flags, carpets and standards. The wedding was taken by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.
With the marriage having taken place Phillip was created “King of England” and ruled alongside rather than being a step below Mary. Though King he had to run things past Mary, much to his dissatisfaction. Mary had a deep affection for Phillip but apparently Phillip did not have the same feelings towards Mary.
In addition to being monarchs of England, Charles V ceded to Philip the crown of Naples along with his claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, thereby making Mary Queen of Naples and titular Queen of Jerusalem.
The married couple's family life now looked to the next stage, producing an heir, the focus of our next blog on the couple.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1298 the Battle of Falkirk took place between the forces of Scotland under William Wallace and an English army under Edward I. A pivotal moment in the First War of Scottish Independence, it would be a significant defeat for the Scots leading to Wallace resigning as Guardian of Scotland.
In September 1297 the Scots had inflicted a crushing defeat upon the English at the Battle of Striling Bridge. Since then Wallace and his army had been able to travel south with little opposition and raid the countryside along the Scottish / English border. Hearing of the defeat at Stirling, Edward hastily agreed a truce with the French king, Philip the Fair and returned to England to prepare a counterstrike. He assembled a force of around 15,000 men, including some 10,500 Welshmen. Edward ordered his army to assemble at Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders on June 25th where he remained until July 3rd.
He reached Kirkliston in two weeks, where he awaited supplies expected to arrive along the coastal ports, delayed due to weather. There he was forced to deal with a mutiny among his Welsh troops but on July 20th was able to move on, reaching Linlithgow on the 21st. Hearing that a Scottish army was at Torwood, near Falkirk, he decided to place his army south of the town.
The Wallace’s army numbered around 6,000, perhaps consisting of four schiltrons with about 1,000 men each, in addition to the cavalry and archers. Absent however, were forces under the Comyns and Robert Bruce. Also absent was Andrew Moray, co-victor with Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, having been mortally wounded in that battle. It was Moray who used the schiltrons offensively.
The schiltrons formed the backbone of the Scottish army, consisting chiefly of spearmen arranged in a circular formation, with the long spears pointing outwards. At Falkirk it is thought four were arranged with archers filling the gaps between them and some 500 knights supporting them to their rear. When in formation however schiltrons were essentially static and at Falkirk they were fortified by stakes driven into the ground before them, with ropes between. In front of them was an area of marshy ground which would make an English charge difficult.
It was therefore up to the English to advance and since they were eager to do battle, advance they did. Their cavalry was divided into four battalions with the Earl of Lincoln leading from the right but moving left to avoid the marshy ground; they were followed by the Earl of Surrey's horse. Anthony Bek and Edward’s horse moved around the right of the marshy ground. Lincoln and Bek charged aggressively and Lincoln quickly routed the Scottish cavalry.
The Scots bowmen commanded by Sir John Stewart of Bonkill, the younger brother of the High Steward of Scotland, stood their ground and were quickly destroyed. But the schiltrons held firm, with the knights making little impression on the dense forest of long spears, and 111 horses were killed in the vain attempts. Edward's cavalry fell back as his infantry and archers arrived.
Edward's longbowmen were brought into place and quickly overcame the inexperienced force of badly armed Scottish archers. The schiltrons were an easy target; they had no defence and nowhere to hide. The hail of arrows was supplemented by crossbow and slingshot. Unable to retreat or attack the schiltrons were cut to pieces, the battle lost almost as soon as the first arrows began to fall. The English cavalry waited, this time observing the King's command, until the Scots ranks were thin enough to allow them to penetrate the Scottish formation and cause whatever damage they could. The English footsoldiers, who had been advancing during the English barrage on the Scottish formations, closed the distance and the schiltrons finally started to break and scatter. Wallace managed to escape and the surviving Scots fled into the woods.
Casualties among the Scottish leaders were not particularly heavy, but did include Wallace's second-in-command, Sir John de Graham, as well as Sir John Stewart of Bonkill, and Macduff of Fife. According to the historian Stuart Reid, "while unquestionably a good partisan leader, William Wallace's military abilities were simply not up to the job of organizing, training and leading a conventional military force." At Falkirk, Wallace "simply drew up his army in an open field and froze."
Edward occupied Stirling and raided Perth, St. Andrews and Ayrshire. Yet, he retreated to Carlisle by September 9th. By this time Wallace had resigned as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick and future king, and John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, King John Balliol's nephew. Edward invaded again in the summer of 1300 and so began a new chapter of the First War of Scottish Independence.
This scene was built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on the Kings and Queens of Scotland. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1832 The Anatomy Act was passed, giving free licence to doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students to dissect donated bodies while also effectively ending the practice of resurrectionists in Great Britain.
The 19th century ushered in a new-found medical interest in detailed anatomy thanks to an increase in the importance of surgery. In order to study anatomy, human cadavers were needed and thus ushered in the practice of grave robbing. Before 1832, the Murder Act 1752 stipulated that only the corpses of executed murderers could be used for dissection. By the early 19th century, the rise of medical science – coinciding with a reduction in the number of executions – had caused demand to outstrip supply.
The shortfall had been met by resurrectionists who dug up the recently dead. In London the graves were relatively shallow and wooden spades were used as they were quieter. The body snatchers were careful not to take any clothing and personal items as they would have been found guilty of a felony. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to run the risk of detection, despite interfering with a grave being a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and only punishable with a fine and imprisonment rather than transportation or execution.
Around 1810, an anatomical society was formed to impress upon the government the necessity for altering the law. The efforts of this body gave rise in 1828 to a select committee to report on the question which lead to the Bill that would become the act. There was however very little public interest in the cause.
However, around the same time the demand for bodies took on a new dimension when murder took the place of grave-robbing. In Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare committed at least 16 murders over a period of about 10 months in 1828, and sold the corpses to Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy lectures. In England a group known as the London Burkers apparently modelled their activity on Burke and Hare. They came to prominence in 1831 when they were found to be murdering victims to sell to anatomists, by luring and drugging them at their dwelling in the northern end of Bethnal Green. The public outcry at the activities of the London Burkers caused pressure for a Bill to be passed and a year later the Anatomy Act 1832 gained royal assent.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on interesting events in British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
John Balliol was a King of Scotland, who reigned between November 30th 1292 and July 10th 1296. He was chosen to succeed Margaret, Maid of Norway, who died in September 1290 leaving no obvious heir. Following her death the Guardians of Scotland, who had been appointed to govern the realm during the young Queen's minority, called upon Edward I of England, to decide between various competitors for the Scottish throne in a process known as the Great Cause. Edward and his council would choose John, but the English king used it as an opportunity to turn Scotland into one of his vassals and what ensued was the bitter struggle of the First War of Scottish Independence.
Little of Balliol's early life is known. He was born between 1248 and 1250 at an unknown location; possibilities include Galloway, Picardy and Barnard Castle, County Durham. He derived his claim from being the great-great-great-grandson of David I (who reigned between 1124 and 1153), being senior in genealogical primogeniture but not in proximity of blood. His main rival was Robert Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale (grandfather of Robert the Bruce, who later became king) and so following the Margaret's death there was a great risk that this rivalry would descend into a catastrophic civil war.
In an attempt to avoid conflict Guardians and other Scots magnates asked Edward I to intervene. Edward issued the ultimatum that his involvement would be on the condition that the realm of Scotland become a feudal dependency of the English throne. This was a long held ambition of the English monarchy, and while it was not unusual for Scottish kings to pay homage to their English neighbours, the practical implications were usually non-existent. What Edward sought was something more legally binding. This condition was not forthcoming, however a compromise was reached where Edward was put in temporary control of the principal royal castles of Scotland and for his part, Edward agreed that he would return control of both kingdom and castles to the successful claimant within two months.
Fourteen nobles put themselves forward as candidates for the throne. In reality only four had genuine claims, namely Balliol, Bruce, John Hastings, 1st Baron Hasting and Floris V, Count of Hooland. Of these only Bruce and Balliol had realistic grounds on which to claim the crown. The rest merely wished to have their claims put on the legal record. Edward gave judgement on November 17th 1292 and Balliol was chosen as king, with Edward’s son, the future Edward II, becoming heir designate. This decision had the support of the majority of Scots nobles and magnates. Balliol was crowned King of Scotland at Scone on November 30th 1292, St. Andrew's Day.
With the new king in place, Edward I coerced recognition as Lord Paramount of Scotland, the feudal superior of the realm, and steadily went about undermining John's authority. He demanded homage to be paid towards himself, legal authority over the Scottish King in any disputes brought against him by his own subjects, contribution towards the costs for the defense of England, and military support was expected in his war against France.
The Scottish nobility soon became weary of their king’s compromised position and so John’s authority was taken from him by the leading men of the kingdom, who appointed a council of twelve at Stirling in July 1295. They went on to conclude a treaty of mutual assistance with France, known in later years as the Auld Alliance.
The Franco-Scottish negotiations did not go unnoticed in England and in early October, Edward began to make preparations for an invasion of Scotland. One of Edward’s key appointments was that of Robert Bruce, 6th Lord of Annandale (father of the future King Robert the Bruce) as the governor of Carlisle Castle. He also ordered John to relinquish control of the castles and burghs of Berwick, Jedburgh and Roxburgh. Bit by bit, the English king began to build up his forces along the Scottish border.
In response John summoned all able-bodied Scotsmen to bear arms and gather at Caddonlee by March 11th 1296. Several Scottish nobles chose to ignore the summons, including Robert Bruce. On the 30th March, Edward sacked Berwick and then moving his forces north, met the Scots on the April 27th at the First Battle of Dunbar. The battle was a crushing defeat for the Scots, effectively ending the Scottish war effort. John retreated north, reaching Perth on June 21st, where he received a message from Edward, inviting him to surrender.
John abdicated at Stracathro near Montrose on July 10th 1296. Here the arms of Scotland were formally torn from his surcoat, giving him the abiding name of "Toom Tabard" (empty coat). By the end of August, most of Scotland was under Edward’s control and, after removing the Stone of Destiny from Scone Abbey and transporting it to Westminster Abbey, Edward convened a parliament at Berwick, where the Scottish nobles paid homage to him as King of England.
John was imprisoned in some comfort at the Tower of London until July 1299, when he was allowed to go to France on the request of Pope Boniface VIII. While initially he was required to stay with the Pope, in 1301 he was released and spent the rest of his life on his family’s ancestral lands in Picardy, France. He died in late 1314. He was survived by his son Edward Balliol, who later revived his family's claim to the Scottish throne and with the support of the English, would manage to briefly establish himself as king in opposition to David II.
These scenes were built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on the Kings and Queens of Scotland. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
The Rebecca Riots are perhaps one of the more unusual British protest movements of the 19th century. Taking place in west and mid Wales between 1839 and 1843 they were undertaken by local farmers and agricultural workers in response to deteriorating economic conditions in the countryside. Nothing unusual there, however what marks these riots out is that they were usually undertaken by men dressed as women. Rebecca was their mythical leader and the name came from the Bible:
“And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, by thou the mother of thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them” (Genesis 24 Verse 60).
The rioters targeted toll-gates which were seen as the property of the gentry ('those that hate them') and were therefore tangible representations of high taxes and tolls. Consequently, the gates became a symbol of many different discontents about the land and the church. The rioters became known as Merched Beca (Welsh for "Rebecca's Daughters") or merely the Rebeccas.
In the late 1830s and early 1840sm the agricultural communities of West and Mid Wales were in dire poverty. Most farmers did not own their own land but paid rent to wealthy landlords (known as gentry) for the use of their farms. Rents were quite high - and out of proportion to what farmers could earn from their produce. The prices they received for cattle and sheep were falling. The common lands which were once available for the use of all the people in a village were now enclosed - that is they had become the property of the landlords and were leased out to farmers. Labourers (who worked for the farmers) had used the common to graze animals or for gathering firewood, suffered as a result.
The farmers also had to pay burdensome tithes to the church, to support the local vicar. But most people who went to religious services regularly went to chapels rather than the church. They still had to pay, even if they went elsewhere.
To compound matters, in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. The Act meant that if people did not have enough money to support themselves, they would be forced into one of the new workhouses where conditions were meant to be worse than the worst paid labourer outside. Families were split up; husbands separated from wives and sisters from brothers. The financing of the new system fell upon the local rate payer. In the past, farmers had often given food and goods to the poor but now they were expected to pay for building the hated workhouses. Therefore, the new system was not only seen as cruel, but expensive too.
The farmers and agricultural workers were therefore hit with a combination of a drastically reduced incomes, static rents and other business costs and an increase in local rates. Seeing themselves as victims of 'tyranny and oppression', the 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.
In the early 19th century many toll-gates on the roads in Wales were operated by turnpike trusts, which were supposed to maintain and improve the roads, funding this from tolls. However, many trusts charged extortionate tolls and diverted the money raised to other uses. Even where this was not done, the toll-gate laws imposed an additional financial burden on poor farming communities.
The 'oppression', felt by the farmers, began in the late 1830s, when a group of toll-renters took over the region's trusts. This group was led by Thomas Bullin, who was hated by those who paid his tolls. The main reason for his dislike was the exacting method of the toll collection and the big toll increases of side-bars. The side-bars were simple toll gates, away from the main trunk roads, placed strategically on by-roads to catch any traffic that had tried to bypass the main toll booths via side lanes. These side-bars increased the cost dramatically of farmers' carting lime to their fields that was needed as fertilizer or to counteract acidity in soil: e.g. it was said that it cost an amount to buy a load of lime in Cardiff docks, and then ten times as much in road tolls to cart it to a farm in the hills inland.
The first riots took place in May 1839 when a new toll-gate at Efailwen in Carmarthenshire was destroyed. The Whitland Turnpike Trust rebuilt the gate, only for it to be destroyed again in June. A second new tollgate was attacked at Llanboidy while the new workhouse in Narbeth in Pembrokeshire was also attacked. Landlords were sent threatening letters to intimidate them into lowering rents and Anglican clergymen from the established Church of England were targets on several occasions. Trouble died down when it was agreed by the authorities that the gates would not be rebuilt.
It would however not be until 1842-43, when economic conditions were even worse that the movement would not become popular. In 1842 the Whitland Trust built a new gate at The Mermaid Tavern, 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 December 12th. 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 May 1843, the tollgates at Carmarthen were destroyed and in June a crowd of 2,000 tried to burn down the workhouse there. Troops were called in as the movement became more violent. On July 6th the Bolgoed tollgate near Pontarddulais was attacked and destroyed by a group of some 200 rioters and in August riots took place in Llanelli.
The riots resulted in at least two deaths, the first on September 7th 1843, in which a young woman and gate keeper named Sarah Williams was shot and another in October when the tollhouse keeper of Hendy Gate near Swansea was killed.
From August 1843 things had begun to change with the farmers generally moving away from riots and instead holding open protest meetings. This was partly in response to an increasing presence of troops in the area but also because a group of petty criminals had started opportunistically masquerading as Merched Becca to commit crime. This group, led by known trouble-maker John Jones (Shoni Sguborfawr) and his associate David Davies (Dai'r Cantwr), were eventually convicted and transported to Australia, but before this they were enough to turn more respectable people away from Rebecca.
By late 1843, the riots had stopped completely. Although Merched Becca had failed to produce an immediate effect on the lives of the farmers they had sought to serve, the very nature of a leaderless uprising of the downtrodden peasantry in an attempt to obtain justice from an unfair system, was an important socio-political event within Wales. In the aftermath of the riots, some rent reductions were achieved, the toll rates were improved (although destroyed toll-houses were rebuilt) and the protests prompted several reforms, including a Royal Commission into the question of toll roads, which led to the Turnpikes, South Wales Act 1844. This Act consolidated the trusts, simplified the rates and reduced the hated toll on lime movement by half. he ending of the Corn Laws in 1846, and attempts in 1847 to make the Poor Law less cruel, also helped.
More importantly, the riots inspired later Welsh protests. These included opposition to the privatisation of salmon reserves on the River Wye in the 1860s and 70s, which became known as 'the second Rebecca Riots', and the formation in the 1970s of the radical arts collective known as the BECA group.
These scenes were built by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on people and protest. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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