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The Rebecca Riots

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 10:35 UK time, Monday, 8 November 2010

Mention the words Turnpike Trusts or the Rebecca Riots and most people immediately think of agrarian distress in the middle years of the 19th century. It's hard to believe but the last turnpike toll gate in Britain, where money was charged to pass along the road, actually remained in use almost to the end of the century and was not removed until November 1895.

Tollgate sign

Tollgate sign

It was situated on Ynys Mon and when you consider the furore that the Turnpike Trusts and their gates had caused 50 years before its passing was remarkably smooth and low-key.

The Rebecca Riots were a series of disturbances that took place between May 1839 and the autumn of 1843. Beginning with an attack on the toll gate at Efail-Wen in Carmarthenshire, the riots took place mainly in west Wales and were characterised by the rioters dressing themselves in women's clothes before attacking and destroying the gates of the hated Turnpike Trusts.

In the months and years to come workhouses were also targeted, as was, on one occasion, the home of the tithe agent Rees Goring Thomas.

The causes of the riots were many and varied. In the early to mid 19th century small farmers in west Wales were hit hard by wet harvests, the levying of high rents by largely English-speaking landlords and by a sudden increase in the population. Taxes levied to pay for the building of new workhouses also helped build a sense of discontent and disgruntlement in rural Wales.

One of the main causes, however, was the web of toll gates that were to found almost everywhere in Wales. Turnpike Trusts had been founded to repair and maintain road systems across the country, with tolls levied or charged in order to pay for the work. But by the middle of the 19th century toll gates had become far too common.

There were, for example, no fewer than 11 different Turnpike Trusts operating around a town such as Carmarthen, each with several gates. And each time people passed through the gates they had no choice but to pay.

The tolls charged by the Turnpike Companies were far too high for a distressed and struggling rural society. By the end of the 1830s the process of moving cattle or essential materials like lime and animal food to and from market had become prohibitively expensive. To some extent - and with hindsight - the riots, or at least some form of protest, were inevitable as discontent simmered and began to turn into furious anger.

But why dress as women in order to carry out the raids? A traditional method of handing out social justice in Wales was to force the miscreant, whoever he might be, to ride through the streets on the ceffyl pren, a wooden horse. Blackened faces and cross dressing were part of the ritual, hiding the identity of those involved. Men dressing as women were seen to symbolise a world that had been turned upside down.

The name of the rioters possibly came from the book of Genesis where Rebecca and her daughters were supposed to possess the "gates of those which hate them." Legend, however, declares that one of the earliest rioters, Twm Carnabwth, borrowed clothes from a woman called Rebecca and the name just stuck.

For four years after 1839 the riots raged. Toll gates were regularly smashed or burned and on 19 June 1843 a crowd of over 2,000 people marched into Carmarthen to ransack the town workhouse. Dragoons charged at the mob but it did little to stop the riots.

In August of the same year 3,000 men and women marched on Mynydd Sylen in Pontyberem. Such was the fear and concern of those in London that The Times even sent a reporter, Thomas Foster, to find out the truth about the Rebecca Riots. His sympathetic reporting did much to air the grievances of the small farmers of west Wales.

No single 'mastermind' for the riots has ever been identified and, often, the attacks on gates and Workhouses, were totally uncoordinated. Hugh Williams, a Chartist and radical lawyer, has sometimes been credited for organising the destruction but nothing has ever been proved. As many of the outbreaks were the result of local disputes and arguments it is difficult to see one central figure controlling every outbreak or instance of gate smashing.

It was far more likely to be a case of one group of rioters aping or imitating the actions of other groups as the need or desire took them - almost, it might be claimed, an early example of mob hysteria.

The riots finally petered out in the autumn of 1843, following the death of Sarah Williams, the aged gatekeeper at Hendy, during a particularly violent demonstration. Popular support for the riots began to fall away and when, in the coming months, several rioters were transported to Australia and others detained in prison it marked the end of a strange, not to say bizarre, period in Welsh history.

The riots might have ended but not before they had achieved their aim. Partly due to the riots themselves and partly due to the journalism of Thomas Foster, the government was forced to call a Commission of Enquiry to explore the grievances of the Welsh farmers.

As a result of the enquiry, in 1844 all the Turnpike Trusts within each county of Wales were amalgamated and tolls on vital commodities like lime (used to help fertilise the land) were reduced by half.

Rebecca and her daughters had won their victory - even though some of the gates lasted another 50 years.


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