The Rebecca Riots
If you take a trip around South Wales today, you might notice a few oddities; a mural fixed into a moss-covered stone depicting figures charging at what looks like a fence gate, a signpost jutting out the side of a clothes shop depicting a gruff man wearing a dress which advertises that the building was used as a gaol in times past, or a waxwork of a similarly dress-clad man standing awkwardly next to a museum's leaflet board. Ask around, and you would find these all connect to 'Rebecca', a subject many people in South Wales know of or have heard about, but, when pressed, are unlikely to know about in much detail.
'Rebecca' refers to a series of agrarian protests during the mid-nineteenth century, also known as the 'Rebecca Riots'. The name most likely comes from the bible:
'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' (Genesis 24:60).
However, despite the biblical grounding for the name of the Rebecca Riots, its motivation was far from ecclesiastical.
The rise of Rebecca rioting from 1839-1844 emerged from communities in Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, and Pembrokeshire who were struggling with tithes, rent rates, and overpopulation. These communities needed only a spark to elevate their discontent to outrage, and in this instance the 'spark' was the construction of avaricious toll gates by Turnpike Trusts (hence the relevance of the biblical reference to 'possessing the gate').
What followed this spark was years of toll gates and associated properties being destroyed by mobs of local people; as time went on, the wrath of Rebecca even grew to tackle some of the broader economic and moral concerns of the community until the riots died down during 1844.
This bears similarity to many agrarian uprisings of times past; however, closer inspection reveals the unique character of Rebecca, indicated by the source below, a letter from local law enforcement:
'The [rioters] are... dressed in a loose garment resembling female attire, bound with a sash, and their faces masked or blackened: several were armed…'
It is this visage of Rebecca that has become the immortal image of the riots. What this does not illuminate, however, was the effectiveness with which the 'Rebeccaites' operated. Using their knowledge of the landscape, convening in secret meetings, making extensive use of written correspondence, and operating under the cover of night, the rioters outmanoeuvred local authorities and government enforcers alike at almost every turn. Indeed, so organised were the Rebeccaites that the leader of any given excursion was dubbed 'Rebecca', while the others were known as 'Rebecca's daughters'.
In the first months of the riots, Rebecca and her daughters focussed mainly on toll gates. To defend them the British Government sent Colonel Love and the 4th Light Dragoons in the wake of flailing local resistance to the riots. Love's strategy was simple but ineffective; if there was a disturbance, he would make haste to the scene. This reactionary approach meant that Love repeatedly arrived long after the rioters had left. Indeed, Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, commented that 'If a crime is committed...[Love] instantly sends soldiers to the place the following day.' Although this spurred debate in parliament and drew the attention of the newspapers, little was done to address the situation.
Rebecca's horizons expanded as time went on. By the summer of 1843, Rebecca was exercising a 'moral economy' - punishing people for immoral behaviour (such as adultery), blocking bailiffs from collecting debts, and generally preventing the normal execution of law. This fundamentally challenged the financial and legal authority of the British government.
Realising Love's ineptitude and concerned about setting a precedent for other rebellions, the home secretary reconsidered the strategic options. This led to Major General George Brown, a veteran of wars in Spain, America, and Crimea, being called on and introduced into the Welsh situation. Love was not replaced but Brown took control over much of the Welsh situation. At great financial cost, he distributed police officers across the three counties in dozens of assignments.
Broadly speaking, this strategy worked; it marked the beginning of a steady decline in riotous activities as arrests and punishments increased. At the same time, the government reformed the toll gates' administration and pricing in 1844 to a fairer model, remedying one of Rebecca's key grievances. While Brown's strategy was too expensive to be sustained, the government continued to make reforms in following years to address some of the issues raised by the riots.
This said, many grievances still remained in Welsh life. In the 1850s, provoked by changes to fishing policy, new riots broke out in Radnorshire, wearing the mantle of Rebecca, demonstrating that the spirit of Rebecca and her Daughters did not truly die in 1844; it only lay dormant.
Finding more about Rebecca: places to visit
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
Carmarthenshire County Museum, Carmarthen
Narberth Museum, Narberth
National Archives, Kew, London