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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