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THE REBECCA RIOTS

BACKGROUND

SOCIAL CONDITIONS AND UNREST

In the countryside of West Wales (Carmarthen, Cardigan & Pembroke) there had been a good deal of unrest in the late 18th andearly 19th centuries, related to the poor conditions of the tenant farmers and working men. Much of this was directed at the Gentry who were their landlords. Violent protests had occurred in the Town of Carmarthe in 1801 and 1818 due to the shortages and high prices of food. In Cardiganshire in 1815 and 1816 crowds of farmers attacked officials who were surveying land which had always been open to all, in preparation for its enclosure and sale to the landowners. Threatening letters were sent to landlords ans sometimes their property was attacked. Again in 1831, at the time of the Merthyr Riots, there was rioting at Carmarthen Town in support of Reform. The 1834 Poor Law which increased the rates and set up the Workhouses only served to make disaffection greater in West Wales.

Against this background one of the first local newspapers, The Welshman, commenced publication with a radical agenda, attacking poverty and bad social conditions, and Hugh Williams, a Carmarthen lawyer, strong radical, and one of the founders of Chartism (in 1838), had a great deal of influence with local people. Another strong influence in West Wales was non-conformity, with up to 80% of religious worshippers attending Non-Conformist Chapels. The Non-Conformist Religions were generally highly critical of the Established Church to which most landlords belonged. In particular Non-Conformists objected to paying the Tithes to the Church or to the landlords and encouraged farmers to protest and resist paying.

THE TURNPIKES

Roads in West Wales, as elsewhere, were in a poor condition in the 18th century. Local roads within parishes were maintained by the parish from the rates; main roads were maintained by the Counties but they were even more loathe than the parishes to spend the rates on road maintenance. In the light of this the Government passed a law in the early 18th century allowing private companies, Turnpike Trusts, to build and repair main roads (turnpikes). Many of the Trusts had been set up by the landlords with the help of investors. The Trusts also built roads to link the main market towns. Of course the Trusts were not charitable organisations and needed to raise money for the maintenance of the road network and to pay back their investors. In order to do this they set up Toll Gates where people passing through had to pay for the use of the road. Originally the turnpikes were a great boon to the farmers of West Wales because they enabled them more easily to obtain the lime that they needed as a fertilizer for their farms (this lime generally had to be obtained from the edges of the South Wales Coalfield usually some miles away from the farms). The Trusts did not, originally, charge the farmers the tolls for the transportation of lime, but by the 1840s they had started to make charges for lime transportation. Collecting the Tolls could be a difficult affair and the Trusts employed "Toll Farners" to do the collection. The farmers, of course, objected strongly to paying the Tolls and this was another cause of unrest.

POLICING

It must be remembered that in the 18th and earlier 19th centuries there was no police force in West Wales; there were only the local parish officials, the Militia and Yeomanry Regiments and sometimes Regular Army Regiments on Garrison duty, to keep order. Generally the military (both Regular and Volunteer) were only used as a last resort, Special Constables being sworn in to keep the peace wherever possible. Although an Act of Parliament in 1839 allowed counties to set up police forces the West Wales Counties decided that this was too expensive a task, and decided to continue their previous policy of using Special Constables as required.

REBECCA

The origin of Rebecca is in The Old Testament Genesis XXIV 60 :-

"And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, let thy seed possess the gates of those which hate them"

It was this Biblical passage which was used as a basis for the dressing up of men in women's clothing to act the part of Rebecca in attacking the Toll Gates.

THE RIOTS

THE FIRST "REBECCA"

The Winter of 1838-39 was particularly severe and this was followed by a poor harvest in 1839, bringing poverty to many farmers in West Wales. In Pembrokeshire in 1838 Thomas Bullin of Swansea was appointed Toll Farmer by the Whitland Turnpike Trust and he erected more Toll Gates and increased the tollscharged. Amongst the new gates erected were four near the village of Efailwen. The erection of these gates were to be the initial "powder keg" for the Rebecca Riots. On the night of 13 May 1839 "Rebecca" and "her" supporters attacked the gates and the new Toll House.

There was immediate speculatuion about who this "Rebecca" really was. Many thought that it was Hugh Williams, the Carmarthen lawyer, who had dressed up as Rebecca and led the attack, but Levi Gibbon, a farmer who was one of those that took part, said that it was Thomas Rees of Carnabwth, (born at Mynachlog-ddu), farmer, who was this first "Rebecca". Sporadic attacks by "Rebecca" at Efailwen continued until July 1839 but then ended.

RE-APPEARANCE

In the early 1840s severe Winters and poor harvests bcontinued in West Wales and the poverty which continued to affect the farmers and workers was not alleviated even when the harvest improved in 1842 because industrial unrest in South East Wales resulted in reduced demand for farm produce and reductions in prices. In October 1842 the Main Turnpike Trust decided to erect additional Toll Gates to prevent people avoiding payimg the tolls. On the night of 18 November 1842 "Rebecca" and "her daughters" destroyed the gates at Pwll-Trap and Mermaid near St.Clears, Carmarthenshire and on the night of 24 November the gates at Trevaughan, owned by the Whitland Trust, were also attacked, and on 12 December all the gates in the St.Clears area (some of which had been re-ercted after the earlier attacks) were destroyed. A request for assistance from the Government was made, and resulted in the arrival of two Metroploitan Policemen ! The authorities tried to swear in Special Constables from trustworthy local farmers but "Rebecca" threatened them if they agreed to be sworn, and so very few were prepared to sign up. A request for the Government to send soldiers was refused but they were allowed to call in the Marines from Pembroke Dock and the Castlemartin Yeomanry Cavalry. In 1843 "Rebecca" incidents grew alarmingly across the whole of the West Wales area, ranging from the Fishguard area of Pembrokeshire in the West to Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire in the East and into the Teifi Valley in Cardiganshire. In May 1843 gates within the town of Carmarthen were attacked for the first time. The authorities warned that harsh penalties would be meted out to anyone found to be involved with "Rebecca", but Hugh Williams and others defended the riots in the local newspapers and, indeed, the activities of "Rebecca" not only continued but widened to include not only the Toll Gates but the property of people who spoke out against the rioting. The rioting also became more violent with gunshots being fired at Special Constables in the village of Blaen-y-Coed near Carmarthen. The supporters of "Rebecca" now felt strong enough to march in daylight to Carmarthen to present a petition to the Magistrates at the Guildhall and "rebecca" led a march of around 2000 people to the town on 19 June 1843 and were joined by some of the poor people of the town. In Carmarthen they marched to the Workhouse and demanded to be let in. The Master had little option but to open the gates to the yard and once inside the rioters laid hold of the Matron, Mrs Evans, and took the keys to the house from her. They then attacked the Master, broke up the contents of the house and ordered the children outside. They were preparing to burn the Workhouse when a rumour spread that soldiers were approaching. Meanwhile, the increased violence and the spread of the riots had eventually caused the Government to send in troops and a troop of the 4th Light Dragoons was sent from Cardiff to Carmarthen. They were approaching the town when they heard of the attack on the Workhouse and proceeded at a gallop, riding into town to find the destruction of the bulding taking place. The rioters panicked at the approach of the Dragoons and stampeded, some 60 being taken prisoner by the troops.

The Government was, at last, taking matters seriously and The Honourable George Rice Trevor, MP for Carmarthenshire, Vice-Lieutenant of the County and a member of the distinguished Dynevor family hurried down from London and called a publicmeeting at Newcastle Emlyn, Cardiganshire. At the meeting he endeavoured to persuade people not to put themselves against the law and threatened that, even if they got away with it for a time, eventually the Government would send such a force into the area that the riots would be put down. He agreed to investigate any wrongs which could be proved to him an the Magistrates of the Counties. Despite these words by George Rice Trevor, the riots continued unabated and again increased, pressing further into Cardiganshire. At the end of June 1843 more soldiers were sent into West Wales, the 73rd Foot Regiment joining the Dragoons. Colonel (later Major-General) James Love, a distinguished soldier, was put in command of the forces in the area. The forces of Law & Order, however, were very hard pressed for success. The area was large and "Rebeccca" might appear anywhere. False information was often given to lead the soldiers away from the area where the next riot took place. Despite the presnence of three companies of the 75th Foot, the whole of the 4th Regiment of Light Dragoons, a detachment of artillery and the Yeomanry not one incident was stopped nor one person arrested by the end of July 1843. At this time, too, industrial workers in the area between Llandeilo and Carmarthen first became involved in the riots. In addition, in July 1843, the first incidents in Glamorgan took place at Pontardulais and Llangyfelach.

In August 1843 a toll keeper was blinded by a gunshot wound and, generally, the violence was increasing and spreading to targets other thasn Toll Gates, with the Workhouses, the Salmon Weirs, and the property of landowners, clergymen, solicitors and anyone who had offended by increasing rents, tithes etc.

CHANGE OF MOOD

In July 1843 Thomas Campbell Foster, a Times reporter, managed to attend a night meeting of the Rebeccaites and he obtained entry to later meetings too. At these meetings Foster noted that the mood of the farmers was changing. The supporters of violence were giving way to the more respectable farmers who wanted to set up a "Farmers Union" and protest peacefully in the open and during the daytime. Such meetings were held at various places in West Wales, grievances discussed openly and petitions drwan up for presentation to the authorities. This changein tactics seems to have rsulted from a number of things:-

the presence of the large number of troops

the moderating influence of the Non-Conformist Chapels, which, whilst they supported the aims of the campaign, could not support the violence

the similarly moderating influence of Hugh Williams who, like the chapels, supported the aims but no longer supported the methods of the Rebeccaites

the fact that the Government had sent Commissioners to enquire into the accounts of the Turnpike Trusts

NEW "REBECCA" IN GLAMORGAN & INDUSTRIAL CARMARTHENSHIRE

Whilst the riots now largely ceased in the rural areas of West Wales, they increased in Industrial South East Carmarthenshire and in West Glamorgan, with the attacks at Pontardulais & Llangyfelach in Glamorgan and at Llanelli in Carmarthenshire. Some of these attacks resulted in arrests being made, since Glamorgan had a Police Force. It is notable that those arrested were industrial workers and labourers not farmers. On 6 September 1843 at Pontarddulais a crowd of over 100 Rebeccaites attacked the tollgate in the village. However, the ploice had been warned about the attack and Chief Constable Charles Napier of the Glamorgan Police, leading policemen and soldiers lay in wait. They suddenly appeared and challenged the rioters who fired shots at them for about 10 minutes and then tried to escape. Seven people were arrested and on 26 October they were tried at Cardiff Assizes. John Hughes, one of the leaders of the attack was sentenced to 20 years transportation, David Jones and John Hugh, seven years transportation, and the others lesser sentences.

Two leaders of the Glamorgan Rebeccaites were John Jones (Sioni Sgubor Fawr) and David Davies of Pontyberem (Dai'r Cantwr). John Jones was born at Merthyr Tydfil in 1811, worked as a farm labourer at Penderyn, then became a soldier, and after leaving the army was best known as a prize- fighter and a heavy drinker in Merthyr, where he was often arrested for disturbing the peace. By 1843 he had been living in Pontyberem for several years and had worked as a copperworker and as a labourer. Here he became friendly with David Davies, a coalminer, who had been born in Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan in 1813, worked as a farm labourer, quarryman & ironworker before coming to Pontyberem in 1843 as a miner. He was a strange friend for John Jones, since he was a completely different sort of man, he was not wild or violent, wrote poetry and was a Lay-Preacher in the Wesleyan Chapels.

These two men were almost certainly involved in the next attack on Hendy Toll House, during which, the toll keeper, the 75 year old Sarah Davies, was killed. Attacks continued under their leadership in September 1843 mainly in the area to the North East of Llanelli. These attacks included an element of Nationalism, in that they sought to prevent Englishmen from being in positions of power in the area.

The violence of the riots led by these two, however, as in the rural areas, turned many people away from supporting the Rebeccaites. In addition the Government had sent 150 more Metroploitan Policemen and additional Marines into the West Wales area, more farmers were agreeing to be sworn as Special Constables and higher rewards were bein offered for informing against the rioters.

Shortly after the 23 September attack on Hendy Toll house information was laid against John Jones & David Davies and on 27 December 1843 they and 39 of their followers were tried at Carmarthen Assizes. John Jones was sentence to Transportation for life, David Davies to 20 years transportation. Both laughed as they left the dock but very shortly afterward they both confessed and informed on others.

Before leaving David Davies wrote the following poem:-

Though wounding were the wicked blows

The cruel world hath struck at me

I have a strength they cannot break

My human pride my dignity

They bound my hands with prison chains

And yet my soul they could not bind

Now far across the sundering sea

I drag my sorely troubled mind

My father's home its tender care

I know I shall not ever see again

I'll rot for twenty searing years

Among corrupt unfeeling men

Farewell to you a hundredfold

Fair country, sweet untroubled Wales

Still I remember in my pain

Your streams, your hills, your gentle vales

You are the garden of the world

The Eden where all beauty lies

My heart breaks as with flaming sword

They drive me now from paradise.

"Threnody" by Dai'r Cantwr

THE END OF THE RIOTS

The Rebecca Riots thus largely came to an end, although sporadic outbreaks did continue in West Wales and even spread into the Upper Wye Valley in Radnorshire where people dressed as "Rebecca" continued to attack Salmon Weirs even in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s.. Later disturbances in North Wales in the 1880s against the Tithes were considered by the participants as a continuation of the "Rebecca" movement.

THE COMMISSION OF ENQUIRY

A Commission of Enquiry was set up in October 1843 under the Chairmanship of Thomas Frankland Lewis and its report was published in March 1844. Its findings were that the main causes of the riots were:-

mismanagement of the funds of the Turnpike Trusts

the frequency and amounts of payments of tolls

in some cases the conduct of toll collectors and the illegal demands made by them

the increses in tithes under the Tithe Commutation Act

the operation of the Poor Law Amendment Act, principally on account of the high salaries of the officers

the administration of justice by local magistrates and the amount of fees paid to their clerks

the progressive increases in the county rate

the effects of the severe Winters and poor harvests

the reductions in the prices paid for sheep, cattle & butter

The report also criticised the ignorance of the Welsh language by the magistrates.

Amongst the recommendations of the report were included recommendations for reforming the Turnpike Trusts, including the equalisation of tolls and the setting up of Road Borads in each county to take control of the roads. These recommendations were made law in August 1844 and for many years afterwards South Wales had the best road system in Britain.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE REBECCAITES WHO WERE TRANSPORTED ?

John Hughes was pardoned in 1857 with six and a half years left of his sentence. He settled in Tasmania.

John Hugh served out his sentence in full and became free in December 1850.

David Jones died in Australia in July 1844 at the age of 21.

John Jones continued to bee trublesome and remained in Australia under the order for Transportation for Life until his death.

David Davies also continued to be a troublemaker and he too served out his full sentence of 20 years, but eventually returned to die in Wales.