"About twenty five or thirty men disguised, (having white frocks on and their heads tied on with coloured handkerchiefs under their chins) came to his house and compelled him by threats, pointing at the same time three Guns at his breast to deliver up his Books, which they carried off."
Statement of William Rees, Toll Collector of Trevaughan Turnpike Gate, 1843
Sometime after midnight on July 6, 1843, John Jones passed the Bolgoed turnpike gate situated along the road between Swansea and Pontarddulais, Wales. He observed what he claims to be hundreds of men destroying the gate. They pulled down the tollhouse with pickaxes and cut up the gate with saws. What was peculiar to Mr. Jones, as per his later testimony in court, was that the men had disguised themselves. They wore women's bedgowns and white shirts. They also wore women's caps on their heads. Some draped handkerchiefs across their faces like a veil, while others blackened their faces with soot. Several were armed with guns. One man was on horseback, and the mob continually addressed him as "Mother." The crowd dispersed back into the surrounding hills no sooner had the gate and tollhouse been destroyed.
Men wearing women's clothing and attacking a turnpike was not unusual. In fact, the first half of 1843 saw an increase in the frequency of such attacks that began in 1839 with the destruction of the turnpike at Efailwen. Much of the activity happened in the rural areas of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, and Pembrokeshire in southern Wales. The farmers in the region were suffering from severe economic distress, and they were angry at the increase in turnpikes and the high price of tolls.
By the end of the 17th century, British roads were in a state of disrepair. Since Henry VIII, road maintenance was left up to individual parishes. At best, construction and repair were haphazard, and most parishes ignored the law. Roads were poorly drained and, more often than not, turned into muddy rivers, especially during the winter months. The British government realized that the poor state of the kingdom's road infrastructure was hindering economic growth. They decided to privatize the upkeep of roads and make it into a profitable business venture. Groups of men formed Turnpike Trusts, and with the permission of Parliament, they were responsible for the building and maintaining of the roads. These trusts were also allowed to charge tolls for the use of the roads to offset expenses and garner a profit. By 1750, hundreds of these Turnpike Trusts had been created across Great Britain. (Originally, the word turnpike referred to the actual gate that blocked the road until the toll was paid. Also referred to as a tollgate.)
At the beginning of the 1830s, the economic condition in Wales was worsening. Despite emigration to new industrial urban centers or America, the rural sections of the country were experiencing population growth. People were having a hard time finding work, and opportunities were limited. The average farmer did not own his land but paid rent to a wealthy landlord. Rents were hard to pay in normal times, but the region had suffered from a series of poor harvests. On top of this, cattle and sheep prices were falling. Government policies had allowed for the enclosure of common lands over the decades, which were now in the hands of a few landholders. According to the law, everyone had to pay a tithe - 10% of their income - to the Anglican church. The problem was that most Welsh of this period were members of one of the many Non-conformist sects rather than the Church of England. They still had to pay the tithe. In 1834, the system of poorhouses and workhouses was established, and farmers were expected to pay to construct and support these as well.
Then there were the tolls. The number of roads in south-western Wales had increased over the years. Twenty-three turnpike trusts maintained nearly ten thousand miles of road. Farmers were obligated to pay more and more of these tolls to transport their goods even a short distance. For example, the major market town of Carmarthen had at least eleven different turnpikes around it. This presented an additional burden that sapped the farmer's already meager income. In 1839, it was decided to place a new gate at Efailwen along the last remaining free road leading to and from Carmarthen. The road was also the major route for the lime brought up from the coast. Lime was an essential ingredient for fertilizer, and the new toll only added to the cost. In May of that year, a mob of seventy men descended on the new turnpike in the middle of the night, destroyed the gate, and set the tollhouse afire. They were dressed up as women and led by a Thomas Brees who stylized himself as "Rebecca."
It is not clear where the name Rebecca was adopted from. The one most often presented is that the name is a biblical reference. From Genesis 24, verse 60: ‘And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.’ Presumably, the "gate" was the turnpike gate, and "those which hate them" were the turnpike trustees. Cross-dressing had a long tradition in British theater, and at the start, the early protests took on a theatric air. The leader of a sortie was dubbed Rebecca, and when he approached the gate, he would shout, “My children, something is in my way!” At this point, the rest of the gang - Rebecca's daughters - would appear from hiding and begin breaking down the reviled turnpike. Rebecca and her daughters returned to tear down the replacement when a gate was rebuilt. The Efailwen gate was rebuilt, and a "public meeting" was held to vote on whether the gate was needed or not. When the vote was a unanimous "no," the local gang destroyed the gate a second time. Local authorities tried to track down the culprits, but the perpetrators utilized their knowledge of the local landscape to evade capture and hide behind a wall of community silence.
In the beginning, the attacks on tollgates were sporadic, but as declining economic conditions intensified in 1842, the frequency of the riots became alarming. They were also taking on a more violent nature. Before the end of 1842, not a single tollhouse stood in the three counties of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, and Pembrokeshire. Landlords received threats. Mass meetings were held where attendees voiced their grievances over tithes, rents, and poorhouses. Shooting became more prevalent, and at least one woman tollkeeper was killed. Attacks occurred against those individuals who were deemed breaking "the people's law." In this regard, Rebecca and her daughters were exercising what has been termed "the moral economy." This was a concept developed by British historian E.P. Thompson in the 1960s to explain peasant uprisings. Simply it is the idea that rural communities share a set of attitudes regarding social relations and behaviors with regard to the local economy. These include food availability, prices of needed goods, and administration of taxes. Local social arrangements need to be structured to respect the needs of the poor. Peasants will revolt when they perceive this "subsistence ethic" is broken by the authorities or market forces.
The British response was to send in the military to support local law enforcement efforts. They assigned Colonel Love and the 4th Light Dragoons, but the colonel proved ineffective. He was reactive in his methods, arriving long after rioters had done the damage and dispersed into the night. Frustrated by Love's failure to get results, the government sent Major General George Brown, a war veteran. Though Brown did not replace Love per se, he did take effective control of the Welsh situation. His strategy was to distribute police and military units throughout the three affected counties at critical places. His approach achieved immediate results as riots declined in the summer of 1843. When rioters stormed and ransacked the workhouse near Carmarthen, the dragoons were ready to make arrests. Dozens were tried, convicted, and sent to Australia to warn against future disturbances. The British government reformed the turnpike system in 1844 and essentially removed the protesters' key grievance. The riots quickly ended after that.
The so-called Rebecca Riots were not unlike the many other protests and social movements, such as the Chartists and the Levelers, happening across Great Britain at the time. These were symptomatic of the profound economic and social shifts resulting from the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Yet in Wales, the Rebecca Riots also connected to the nationalism that was sweeping the European continent. Since the departure of the Romans from the British Isles, Wales had remained a bastion of Celtic heritage and language, much like Ireland. For several centuries, the Welsh stood firm against Anglo-Saxon aggression. But Wales lost her independence to England in the late 13th century. For the Welsh, even in the 19th century, the tithes, the tolls, and the poor laws were all symbolic of English subjugation. Therefore Rebecca and her daughters became icons of Welsh nationalism against the tyranny of British rule.
The Rebecca Riots: Dr. David Williams