What Were the Rebecca Riots?
Contemporary Cartoon of Rebecca Rioters
Quick Facts About the Rebecca Riots
Where: Usually in mid/south and west Wales, but isolated outbreaks in other parts of Britain.
Who: Mainly Welsh tenant farmers.
Why: The rioters had several grievances, including high tolls on the roads. The tollgates provided easy targets.
What: Attacks on tollgates or turnpikes - buildings demolished - and occasionally tollkeepers.
The Rebecca Riots
It's not often that men dress up as women with the express purpose of rioting, but that's exactly what happened for a few years in the nineteenth century. Welsh farmers, annoyed by what they saw as their exploitation by the gentry, disguised themselves as women and attacked toll houses across West Wales.
The men had a number of grievances, though their chief complaint was the high cost of using the roads. Hence their targets were the tollgates that controlled passage on the roads. The attacks started in 1839 and continued for several years. Here is what happened during the Rebecca Riots.
Rebecca and Her Daughters
The Welsh rioters took the name of "Rebecca and her daughters", most probably a reference to this Biblical passage, since their wish was to destroy the toll gates of their enemy:
And they blessed Rebecca and said to her "Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies.
The rioters often performed a set piece before attacking a tollhouse, in which the leader of the rioters would call out that he could see something in his way. The other rioters would reply and a few more lines would be said in which they exhorted and justified the destruction of the gate, then the attack would begin.
A Toll House
Toll Roads and Turnpike Trusts
Britain started to see a growth in toll roads in the seventeenth century. The trend gathered pace in the following two centuries, reaching a peak in the 1830s. By this time, "turnpike trusts" had been set up by Parliament with the purpose of collecting tolls in order to maintain the roads. Over 1,000 trusts existed by the time of the Rebecca Riots, and there were approximately 8,000 turnpikes along the country's main roads.
Trustees of a local turnpike trust would typically be the local gentry, clergy and businessmen. The trustees would then appoint a surveyor, a clerk and a treasurer to administer and maintain the road. A turnpike gate would be erected at each end of the trust's road and they would stop traffic at the gate and levy a charge to pass through. It wasn't just coaches and carriages that were charged a toll; farmers could expect to pay a toll for driving livestock through the gate too.
The toll roads, poor houses and tithes were resented all over Britain, yet it was in Wales that the resentment spilled over. This may have been due to a magnification of the differences between gentry and commoner in Wales. Whilst the gentry were better off everywhere, in Wales they tended to speak a different language (English as opposed to Welsh) and go to different churches (Church of England as opposed to Non-Conformist Chapel).
The Causes of the Rebecca Riots
Toll roads were unpopular throughout Britain. People were used to travelling along Britain's road freely and the imposition of tolls was seen as oppressive. For some, it caused hardship as well as resentment.
Farmers had suffered two years of poor harvests (1837 and 1838) and many had been forced to sell off stock to buy grain. Several years later they received a further blow when the price of livestock fell. They found no relief from their outgoings; tolls, tithes, rents and rates remained steady. Their anger found an outlet in direct action against the tollgates.
Rebecca Memorial at Efailwen Tollhouse
The First Rebecca Riot
The first Rebecca Riot happened on 13 May 1839. The leader of the group of rioters was Thomas Rees (Twm Carnabwth) and he and the others dressed themselves in women's clothes to march on Eifailwen tollgate. Apparently the attack was unsuccessful because the men returned on 6 June, when they again destroyed the turnpike and this time burnt the tollhouse.
The authorities tried to find out who had been involved in the riot, even taking the aged local blacksmith to jail, but were unable to identify anyone.
Later rioters adopted Twm's habit of dressing in women's clothes. Rioters often blackened their faces with soot or wore masks to avoid identification.
A Rebecca Riot Fatality
One tollgate keeper did not leave when warned of an impending riot. Sarah Williams died on 7 September 1843 in Hendy after her tollhouse was set alight. She tried to get help, but having failed, returned to her home. Neighbours heard a shot ring out and one of them discovered her shortly afterwards collapsed outside their door. She died soon after.
Continuing Rebecca Riots in Radnorshire
The Rebecca Rioters apparently caught the imagination of the men of Radnorshire. There are reports that gangs of Rebeccas continued to protest in the county against fishery laws throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and right up until the 1930s.
The End of the Riots
The riots continued against tollgates for several years. Although the rioters were protesting against poor laws, tithes and other issues, tollgates provided the easiest target. However, the authorities started using troops to deal with the rioters and gradually the riots subsided. By 1843 protests had become more peaceful, with public meetings taking the place of riots.