The Rebecca riots took place in the rural parts of west Wales, including Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire, and Carmarthenshire, in 1839-1843. They were a series of protests made by tenant farmers against the payment of tolls (fees) charged to use the roads. Turnpike Trusts, or groups of businessmen, owned most of the main roads. These men fixed the charges and decided how many tollgates (turnpikes) could be built.
During the riots, men disguised as women attacked the tollgates. They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’. This is most likely to be after a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them’ (Genesis XXIV, verse 60). People at that time knew the Bible well.
Tolls were a big expense for small farmers, who used the roads to take their crops and animals to market, and also to collect lime (a chalky mineral). Lime was used to improve the quality of the soil so farmers could grow better crops. It could cost as much as five shillings (25p) in tolls to move a cart of lime eight miles inland. The people of west Wales did not want to pay to use their roads. Use this lesson to find out about the Rebecca riots using original documents relating to the nature of the movement, the experience of some of those involved and the reaction of the authorities.
The first incident occurred in Pembrokeshire in May 1839 when a new tollgate at Efailwen was destroyed. This gate was an obvious target, situated on the road used by those carrying lime back from the coast. The Whitland Turnpike Trust rebuilt the gate, only for it to be destroyed again in June. A second new tollgate was attacked at Llanboidy. Trouble died down when it was agreed by the authorities that the gates would be not be rebuilt.
The disturbances started again in 1842 when the Whitland Trust built a new gate at The Mermaid, on the lime road at St Clears in Carmarthenshire. This was destroyed in November, as were the tollgates at Pwll-trap and Trevaughan. The gates were rebuilt, but all gates in St Clears were destroyed by 12 December. The government refused to send soldiers and so the magistrates called in the marines from Pembroke Dock and the Castlemartin Yeomanry Cavalry. The rioting continued.
In May 1843, the tollgates at Carmarthen were destroyed and in June a crowd of 2,000 tried to burn down the workhouse there. Troops were called in as the movement became more violent. In August, riots took place for the first time in Glamorgan at Llanelli. The tollgates at Pontardulais and Llangyfelach were attacked. In October, during a riot at the Hendy Gate near Swansea, the tollhouse keeper was killed. Attacks occurred in Cardiganshire and Radnorshire as well.
The main trigger for the Rebecca riots came from farmers having to pay high tolls to use the roads, but there were other reasons for their discontent. Wales had seen a population increase since the start of the 19th century. This increased competition for land and jobs and added to unemployment and poverty.
Most of the farmers in these areas were small holders who grew enough to support their families. They rented their land from wealthy landlords. The landlords wanted to make more money and started to reduce the number of smallholdings available to rent. They created larger farms that could only be rented at a much higher price.
The income of tenant farmers was further reduced because they had to pay tithes. Tithes were payments made for the support of the parish church. These payments were made in kind, for example crops or wool. Tithes were paid to the Anglican Church in almost all Welsh parishes once a year. In 1836, an act was passed replacing payment in kind by a money payment that was fixed by the vicar or sometimes by the local landowner. As 80% of the population of west Wales was Non-Conformist, they resented having to pay tithes to a church that was not their own.
Another cause for discontent was the new Poor Law set up in England and Wales in 1834. The rioters attacked workhouses as well as tollgates. The law meant that poor relief (money) was no longer paid to the able-bodied poor. Instead, they were forced to live in a workhouse where conditions were deliberately made harsher than the worst conditions outside (the government believed that the cause of poverty was laziness or a bad character).
Poor harvests in 1837 and 1838 increased shortages and poverty. There was a good harvest in 1842, but the benefits of this were lost because that was a year of economic depression, so industrial workers could not afford to buy agricultural goods.
Lastly, there were big social divisions between the gentry (large landowners) and the small tenant farmers and labourers who worked on the land. The gentry tended to belong to the Church of England (Anglican) and spoke English. They often served as local magistrates or were Poor Law officials or belonged to Turnpike Trusts. They fixed the poor rate, the tolls and the tithes. They had little in common with those who worked on the land and often made decisions that suited their own interests. The rest of the population was Welsh-speaking and Non-Conformist.
The authorities eventually suppressed the Rebecca riots, using troops and the full force of the law. Some rioters were caught and sentenced to transportation.
Social conditions also changed over the decade. Improvements in the laws controlling turnpike trusts and the coming of the railway eased many of the transport problems in west Wales. People could move more easily to find work and this helped reduce pressure in rural areas for jobs. The ending of the Corn Laws in 1846, and attempts in 1847 to make the Poor Law less cruel, also helped.
In this lesson, Source 1 provides evidence of the aims and concerns of the movement. It also reveals the lack of opportunities for those aspiring to protest – they had to conceal their identity to avoid capture. The means of social control used by the authorities are evident in the source. The second source shows what happened during an attack on a tollgate – and the need for disguise. Source 3 reveals more about the attitude of the authorities and shows that punishments were severe (transportation) for those who damaged the tollgates and houses. Source 4 provides evidence from the commission of inquiry into the roads of south Wales that ultimately resulted in a change to the law.
All documents are provided with transcripts and simplified transcripts. Students can work through the questions individually or in pairs and report back to the class.
Teachers may wish to use the cartoon of the Rebecca protesters with the lesson as a starter to introduce the topic using these questions:
- What type of source is this?
- What can they see in the image?
- Does it have a title? What does this infer?
- Can we date the source?
- Where does this source come from?
- Why was it created?
- What is the cartoonist’s point of view?
- Whom is the cartoonist supporting?
- Create a role play/drama about giving evidence to an inquiry into the causes of the Rebecca riots. Characters can be taken from the sources provided.
- Write a poem or a protest song about the Rebecca riots
Lesson image: Illustrated London News, ‘The Welsh Rioters’, 11 February 1843,
Catalogue ref: ZPER 34/2
Source 1: Letter was addressed to the inhabitants of St Clears and others in Carmarthenshire, 16 December 1842 Catalogue ref: HO 45/265 f1
Source 2: Statement of William Rees, toll collector, 15 August 1843 Catalogue ref: HO 45/454 f.415
Source 3: Part of a handbill in Welsh, 20 June 1843 Catalogue ref: HO 45/454 f.107
Source 4: Extract from George Ellis’s memorandum gathering evidence, about the riots, 2 November 1843 Catalogue ref: HO 45/454B f.980
Powys Digital History Project
A useful site about the Rebecca riots in Rhayader, Radnorshire, using archival material.
Welsh Newspapers online
Explore Welsh Newspapers on line to read how the Rebecca riots were reported.
BBC Class Clips
Watch this clip about why Britain needed a better road network.
Connections to curriculum
Key stage 2
Changes in an aspect of social history, such as crime and punishment from the Anglo-Saxons to the present or leisure and entertainment in the 20th Century
Key stage 3
Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901: party politics, extension of the franchise and social reform
Key stage 3: National Curriculum Wales
‘changes to people’s daily lives in the locality in the nineteenth century; the changes that happened in Wales from 1760 and 1914 and people’s reactions to them
Key stage 4
Edexcel GCSE History: Crime and punishment in Britain, c1000–present
OCR GCSE History SHP: Developments in Crime and Punishment in Britain 1200-1945
GCSE WJEC: Changes in crime and punishment, c.1500 to the present day