The Rebecca Riots
There are relatively few roads in Blighty that you have to pay to use – our vehicle road tax eliminating the need to pay tolls. It was not ever thus. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the state of the roads was so bad that turnpike trusts were established, usually by Act of Parliament. In return for improving the condition of the roads in their area the Trustees were able to erect toll gates and charge the users of the road a fee for the privilege.
In the rural Welsh counties of Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire, toll gates were erected like they were going out of fashion. The market town of Carmarthen was surrounded by twelve such gates, meaning that whichever way the local residents approached it to trade their produce and livestock, they had to pay a toll. This was particularly irksome, especially when economic conditions in the rural communities were harsh.
The flashpoint and the start of what became known as the Rebecca Riots was the erection of a new gate at Efailwen in in Carmarthenshire in 1839 to catch farmers who were evading the other toll routes. A large crowd assembled and tore down the gate. When the gate was restored by the turnpike trustees, a public meeting was held, the consensus being that there was no need for a toll gate at Efailwen and it was destroyed again.
Why Rebecca? If nothing else, the chapel-going communities of Wales knew their bible and in particular Genesis 24, verse 60, “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”. The trustees were generally the local gentry who were often also the landlords from whom the farmers rented their land. They were seen as oppressors because of the high rents they extracted and because of the toll charges. The toll gates, obvious symbols of oppression, if you followed this line of reasoning, became the focus of all the simmering discontent in the Welsh countryside.
The rioters wore women’s clothing and blackened their faces. The ringleaders bore the names of Rebecca, Charlotte, Nelly and Miss Cromwell whilst the foot soldiers were known as “daughters”.
The riots reached their height between 1842 and 1843 when economic conditions in the area took a further turn for the worse. So successful were the rioters that not one toll gate remained standing in the three counties. Threatening letters were sent to landlords trying to force them to lower rents and some individuals who were thought to be against the cause – “I am averse to tyranny and oppression” was their rallying call – were beaten up. The workhouse at Carmarthen was attacked and there were several incidents where shots were fired. Surprisingly, only one person, a woman, was killed in the riots.
In an attempt to restore order troops were sent but the rioters who knew the terrain better led them a merry dance spreading false rumours as to where they were going to strike next and watched qith amusement as the troops marched through the countryside to no avail. Only a change to the toll gate system and the poor laws pacified the locals but by then life in rural South West Wales had changed for ever. More and more people left the countryside to find employment in towns, the arrival of the railway into the area in the late 1840s facilitating the diaspora.
A Pyrrhic victory for the rioters, methinks.