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What Were the Rebecca Riots?

Updated on January 31, 2013

Contemporary Cartoon of Rebecca Rioters

A cartoon showing a Rebecca Riot, published in Punch 1843
A cartoon showing a Rebecca Riot, published in Punch 1843 | Source

Quick Facts About the Rebecca Riots

When: 1839-1843

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.

Genesis 24:60

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

The old toll house at Stanton Drew, just outside Bristol
The old toll house at Stanton Drew, just outside Bristol | Source

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.

Why Wales?

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 memorial marks the spot where the Rebecca rioters destroyed the turnpike
The memorial marks the spot where the Rebecca rioters destroyed the turnpike | Source

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.


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  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi FlourishAnyway - I think the Rebecca Riots are a great little corner of British history - such an inventive (and slightly weird!) way to make your grievances be heard. So glad you enjoyed this hub - thanks for the kind comments.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

    So interesting! I have never heard of this and am so glad I stumbled upon your wonderful hub. It is so well researched and well told. Ah, when the differences between the rich and poor become so magnified, what are folks to do? I feel like I learned something today! Voted up and interesting.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi monisays2u - if you look at the paragraph "Rebecca and Her Daughters" it explains how the rioters got their name - it was from a reference to a Bible quotation in the Book of Genesis. I am glad you thought the article well researched.

    Thanks so much for your kind comments, I appreciate them.

  • monisays2u profile image

    Rajiv Pandey 4 years ago from India

    Hi Judi Bee,

    The articles were fine and deeply researched. This researching is not done even in Wikipedia. But I would have love to know more about "Why it was termed as Rebecca", but anyhow superb article. Will be waiting for your next hub.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Glad you are going to write a hub - I'll look forward to reading it!

  • BigBlue54 profile image

    BigBlue54 4 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

    Funny you should say that about making it into a hub. I did not realise how much I had written until after I had posted my comment. I took one look and though, that should have been a hub. So I will do a bit of research and post a hub. Thanks.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Well BigBlue54 - I think you have a hub to write! No, I didn't know the origin of swashbuckling, thanks for that, very interesting. And really, write a hub about it! Thanks again for adding such interesting commentary.

  • BigBlue54 profile image

    BigBlue54 4 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

    When I read about Cochrane I was thinking about the Second World War when his swashbuckling would have been more acceptable. The SBS does date from that period.

    Do you know the origin of the term swashbuckling. A buckler was a small metel shield about 6 to 18 inches across and was used in conjunction with a single handed sword and dates from the Middle Ages. When not in use it was hung over the swords handle by a leather strap and made a swashing sound when you walked, hence swashbuckler.

    In use the buckler was held in a fist like grip by a handle in the centre of the back of the shield. It was used along with the sword to help parry blows from your opponent sword, it was not strong enough to do this on its own so the sword was used to help block the blow.

    It was not just used defensively though. Because of the way it was held you could punch your opponent with it. This was known as the metal fist. Handy if you have just block his sword with yours and his right hand side is now exposed.

    The users of the sword and buckler were highly skilled and could be seen as the Wild West gunfighters of their day.

    One last thought. Much has been made of the skills of the English bowmen at the Battle of Agincourt, and rightly so. One thing I have not heard mention in an TV documentary, of most books, about this battle is that the bowmen were also sword and buckler men. Puts the battle in a different light.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi BigBlue54 - from what I remember reading, his life was so extraordinary that he seemed like a fictional hero. He was probably better off in his own times - far more swashbuckling! Not sure if this particular family history quest will turn up anything useful, but you never know. Thanks again for your comments!

  • BigBlue54 profile image

    BigBlue54 4 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

    I remember when reading about Cochrane that in more modern times he would have been involved in the special forces such as the Special Boat Squadron, the Royal Marines equivalent of the SAS.

    Hope your family history search proves successful.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi BigBlue54 - I'm pretty sure there's a hub about Thomas Cochrane, just can't remember by whom. I'm trying to find out if my great-great-grandfather worked with McAdam - he was a road surveyor and definitely worked for one of the Turnpike Trusts around Bristol, as did McAdam. Haven't turned anything up yet, but will keep digging!

  • BigBlue54 profile image

    BigBlue54 4 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

    Your mention of John McAdam reminded me of Thomas Cochrane, a captain in the British Royal Navy at the time of Nelson, who did some experiments with a tar like substance for road building. Unfortunately it did not work out as the coaches and wagon could not get enough traction and would slide about. He did not have the same road building experience as McAdam.

    On the upside he did become Admiral Lord Cochrane, so his navel career proved more successful then his road building career.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi grand old lady - so glad you enjoyed reading my hub, thanks for the kind comments too - much appreciated.

  • grand old lady profile image

    Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 4 years ago from Philippines

    Very interesting, and very well told, too:)

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi BigBlue54 - from what I have read there appear to have been a great many dishonest Turnpike Trusts - the one at Hull sounds like it was one of those. John McAdam, of tarmacadam fame, seems to have been one of the good things to have come of the Toll roads.

    Thanks very much for your comments, much appreciated.

  • BigBlue54 profile image

    BigBlue54 4 years ago from Hull, East Yorkshire

    Great hub Judi Bee. I had heard of the Rebecca Riots but I did not know of the details to the story. I Kingston upon Hull there was a toll road which ran from Hull to nearby Cottingham. The locals complained very much about the tolls raised to repair this road because the vehicle causing all the damage was the trusts own repair wagon.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi Rebecca - you look a far more convincing Rebecca than those rioters :D Thanks for your comments, always appreciated.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Gosh, I'm overwhelmed with all the comments! I'm delighted that I was able to write about a little piece of history that so many had not heard of before, even more delighted that many of you found it interesting and very grateful for all the congratulations. Thanks to each of you for taking the time to read, comment and even share - so very appreciated!

  • Deltachord profile image

    Deltachord 4 years ago from United States

    Hi Judi Bee,

    I had heard about this in class also, but forgot about it. Enjoyed your article. Interesting that there were women tollgate keepers. Voted up and tweeted.

  • chestom profile image

    Chester Impang 4 years ago from Bohol, Philippines

    This is very informative maam.

  • LA Elsen profile image

    LA Elsen 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

    I loved reading this hub. It brought back memories of a fairy tale/children's book I read when I was young about a boy on horseback who couldn't pay the toll so a kind old woman who worked in the toll house paid it for him. I can't remember the name of it, but your picture at Stanton Drew reminds me of one of the illustrations. I wonder if this was the toll house the illustrator used for inspiration. Hmmm?

    Congratulations on the HOTD . Voted Up. Very Brilliant!

  • joe-christmas profile image

    Malek Zarzour 4 years ago from Turkey, Istanbul

    voted up and interesting. thank you Judi Bee for this useful article.

  • mitowrite profile image

    mitowrite 4 years ago from Austin, Texas,USA

    I'm disappointed that this was never discussed in my history classes. This was such an interesting part of history! Fantastic hub, and thank you for sharing.

  • Geoff Morova profile image

    Geoff Morova 4 years ago from South Dakota

    Cool Hub! I had never heard of the Rebecca Riots before today. You learn something new on here all the time.

  • wetnosedogs profile image

    wetnosedogs 4 years ago from Alabama

    Fascinating and something I did not know.

    Congratulations on HOTD.

  • truthfornow profile image

    truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

    Always love a good upraising against the rich. I hate tolls too! This hub makes learning about history fun. Thanks.

  • jpcmc profile image

    JP Carlos 4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

    This is very interesting. Today, toll fees are common. Although we are irked by increases in the fee, we don't resort to such violence. but the circumstances before are quite different from now. Thanks for the history lesson.

  • rebeccamealey profile image

    Rebecca Mealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

    Of course I had to check this out, as my name is Rebecca. I was glad to learn information about the Rebecca Riots, a new one on me!

  • Cyndi10 profile image

    Cynthia B Turner 4 years ago from Georgia

    I enjoy learning history. Thanks for providing something I never knew anything about. Voted up and interesting

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Ah, something to add to my collection of "learn something new each day." I'd not heard of this before, and it is most interesting. Congratulations on a well-deserved HOTD!

    Voted up, interesting and useful.

  • Kathryn Stratford profile image

    Kathryn 4 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

    Congrats on receiving the HOTD award!

    It was a very interesting lesson. I had no idea what the "Rebekkah Riots" were, since most of my knowledge of history is centered in the USA, so this was educational for me!

  • Just History profile image

    Just History 4 years ago from England

    Judi- really interesting I had not heard of these rioters- men in women s clothing is just fantastic- I cannot imagine a gruff Welsh farmer nipping home to borrow his wife's pinny! Great hub and congrats on the Hub of the day feature

  • Judi Bee profile image
    Author

    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi tillsontitan - you're right, the poor always used to rebel against the rich - we seem to put up with it these days!

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, always appreciated.

  • tillsontitan profile image

    Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

    Something we never would have known. Each and every country has hosted some kind of uprising over taxes or tolls, or whatever. The poor rebelling against the rich.

    Voted up, useful, and interesting.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi Elias - glad to be able to bring something "new" to you. Thanks for your comments, I appreciate them.

  • Elias Zanetti profile image

    Elias Zanetti 4 years ago from Athens, Greece

    I had no idea about this historical incident. Thanks for the hub Judi Bee.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi spartucusjones - thanks very much - what a great compliment!

    Hi Marcy - I don't think that these riots are well known in the UK, much less the rest of the world. They certainly are an oddity!

    Many thanks to both of you for your comments, always appreciated.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    What incredible information! I agree with Jellygator - this is new to me! A whole new take on gender and culture, in a way!

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Very fascinating piece of history that I knew little about. Your hub was presented in a well informed and engaging matter and I was definitely educated by reading it. Congrats on the well deserved HOTD!

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi pstraubie - thanks for the Angels, how lovely!

    Hi Graham - glad you enjoyed!

    Hi Thelma - thanks for the congratulations!

    Hi Hyphenbird - happy you found this so interesting :)

    Hi RTalloni - I've been reading up on a few of the social movements of the nineteenth century - a lot of struggle indeed.

    Hi Becky - thanks for the congratulations

    Hi jellygator - delighted to have brought you something new!

    Hi GoodLady - thanks so much!

    Many thanks for all of you for taking the time to read and comment, it means a lot :)

  • GoodLady profile image

    Penelope Hart 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

    Your hubs are so fascinating. Ashamed to say I didn't know about the Rebecca Riots until now so many thanks.

    Congratulations on such a well earned HOTD!

    Voting and sharing eta.

  • jellygator profile image

    jellygator 4 years ago from USA

    This is fascinating! I'd never heard of any riots like this where men disguised themselves as women.

  • Becky Katz profile image

    Becky Katz 4 years ago from Hereford, AZ

    Congratulations on HOTD. This was a very interesting look at this subject. Well written and very interesting.

  • RTalloni profile image

    RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

    History's accounts of how change has been effected can be sobering. Thanks for an interesting read.

    Oh yes, congrats on your Hub of the Day award. This was so thought-provoking that I almost forgot to mention it!

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    This article is a fascinating read and a piece of history that I never knew about. The photos are wonderful. I am going to reread it right now. Thanks!

  • Thelma Alberts profile image

    Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

    Thanks for this very interesting piece of history. This was awesome. Congratulation on the HOTD!

  • old albion profile image

    Graham Lee 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

    Hi Judi. Another first class hub. I had not heard of the Rebecca Riots before, your research is always the very best. Voted up and all.

    Graham.

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

    How interesting. My only history lesson ever on this topic. Well done. And, congratulations on Hub of the Day.

    Sending you many Angels this morning :) ps

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi Glimmer Twin Fan - I don't know how many of the toll houses are left. I know that one in Bristol, near the one which one of my relatives kept, is still there, and I think it is part of a shop now. The one in the hub, The Round House, at Stanton Drew, again is near my old home - I think it's still occupied, but I don't know for sure.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, always appreciated.

  • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

    Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

    This was fascinating! I bet those toll houses are quite expensive to buy these days. Do people live in them now? Great hub. You always give us such great info. Up, interesting and pinned.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi rfmoran - I had heard about it at school, but more recently I researched turnpike trusts since I found whilst looking into my family history that more than a few of my family were employed either as "surveyors" or "tollgate keepers" during the first half of the nineteenth century.

    Thanks for your comments, always appreciated.

  • rfmoran profile image

    Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

    I had never heard of this phenomenon before. Thank you for feeding my constant hunger to learn more about history. Good research, good writing, excellent use of "callouts"

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi innerspin - they must have looked tremendously weird! We could well have more toll roads soon - some times people just can't seem to learn the lessons of history - so, frocks at the ready everyone :D

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, I appreciate it.

  • innerspin profile image

    innerspin 4 years ago from uk

    Golly, the rioters must have been a fearsome sight. By all accounts we could have more toll roads appearing in England soon........Voted up and interesting.

  • Judi Bee profile image
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    Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

    Hi Bill - I think it's interesting, glad you thought so too. Thanks very much for commenting, always good to hear from you.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

    What a great piece of history. Thanks for that interesting history lesson.