by Jonathan Lee
On the edge of my hometown stands a boulder about shoulder high, hewn from the mountainside, with the word “Rebeca” inscribed on its surface. It commemorates the night of the 6th September 1843, when over a hundred working-class men on horseback rode out, in full drag, and destroyed the most grievous symbol of class oppression in rural Wales – the toll gate.
The rioters were led by a man named John Hughes (known locally as Jac Tŷ-isha) and arrived at the Pontarddulais toll gate late at night bearing flaming torches, axes, hammers and saws. They wore women’s clothing, with their coats turned inside out, and had faces blackened with charcoal to disguise themselves. Their leader halted before the toll gate, turned to his followers, and called out to them:
“What is this my children? There is something in my way. I cannot go on!”
To which they replied: “We will break it down, mother Rebeca. Nothing stands in your way!” and set about destroying the toll gate.
But they were not aware that the authorities had received a tip-off, and the Chief Constable of Glamorganshire, Captain Charles Napier, had secretly travelled to Pontarddulais accompanied by seven policemen and three magistrates in order to arrest the cross-dressing horsemen. They had travelled cross-country, through the fields, to avoid being seen by people on the road who might warn of their arrival.
The attack on the Pontarddulais toll gate was neither the first nor the last incident of what became known as the Rebeca Riots, which lasted from 1839 to 1843
When the rioters arrived at the toll gate and began to dismantle it, Captain Napier and his officers suddenly appeared on the road and ordered them to stop. A fight broke out between the rioters, armed only with farm implements, and the policemen who fought back with guns and cutlasses. In the middle of the fray, Jack Hughes took a gun and attempted to shoot Captain Napier before being subdued and eventually arrested along with several of the other rioters. Three of them were later transported to Australia, including Hughes and one David Jones, who had been shot and stabbed by police officers and died of his injuries shortly after arriving in Australia.
The attack on the Pontarddulais toll gate was neither the first nor the last incident of what became known as the Rebeca Riots, which lasted from 1839 to 1843. Similar commemorative standing stones can be found at roadsides throughout Mid and West Wales, at the sites where the Merched Beca – the Daughters of Rebeca – rode out and destroyed toll gates under the cover of darkness.
The Rebeca Riots were a rural response to a widespread issue of national inequality. While the Daughters of Rebeca were carrying out pantomime vandalism in country lanes, the Welsh Chartist Movement was at its peak across the socialist, urbanised South Wales Valleys. There had been armed risings in the industrialised areas of Merthyr Tydfil in 1831 and Newport in 1839. Across the border in England, there had been Chartist riots in Bristol, Nottingham, and Derby in 1831. Agricultural workers across the South and East of England had destroyed farm equipment, workhouses and tithe barns in 1830 to protest poor working conditions and job losses. By 1842 the wide scale civil unrest culminated in a general strike throughout Great Britain. Started by miners in Staffordshire, the strike grew to involve over half a million workers all demanding a People’s Charter and universal suffrage.
The Rebeca Riots were as much against the hated toll gates, which taxed farmers to use the roads which brought them to their markets, as they were about class inequality. As tenant farmers, many were being priced out by wealthy landowners who wanted to rent their land to large-scale farms rather than traditional small-holdings. At the same time, Welsh farmers were forced to pay tithes to the local Anglican parish. As the majority of West Wales’ population were Non-Conformist, they resented paying this tax to an English church which they did not even attend. The divide between the Anglican, English-speaking gentry and the Non-Conformist, Welsh-speaking working class was a particularly local trigger for the popular unrest.
The grievance which linked the Rebeca Rioters with the wider civil disobedience was the incredible levels of inequality. The Daughters of Rebeca not only attacked the toll gates, they attacked the workhouses too. The Poor Law, introduced in 1834, meant that poor people in England and Wales who could not support themselves were imprisoned and forced to work under terrible conditions. The conditions in the workhouses were made deliberately harsh as punishment for what the ruling class considered to be the principle causes of poverty – idleness and poor character.
The Daughters of Rebeca set fire to the workhouses in Narberth and Carmarthen and by 1842, not a single toll gate was left standing in the three counties of West Wales. Anglican vicars who set the high tithes were targeted, landowners who unfairly taxed their tenants were sent warning letters ordering them to obey ‘the People’s law’. A common refrain of the rioters was “I am averse to tyranny and oppression.”
By the end of 1843 the riots had given way to open protests, after an attack on Hendy toll gate on the 9th September resulted in the shooting of 75-year-old toll keeper, Sarah Williams. The authorities began to come down hard on rioters, bringing in troops to bolster police forces and sentencing those arrested to transportation for life. However, the troops were often ineffective, as the rioters knew the land better and often spread false information about where they would strike next, leading soldiers on wild goose chases through the countryside.
The leaderless, peasant uprising of a few hundred cross-dressing farmers on horses was an important milestone for Welsh class solidarity and socialism.
The Rebeca Riots were a uniquely South Walian demand for justice. Although the method seems a little bizarre, it had precedent in rural Mid and West Wales, where a folk practice had existed for centuries known as the Y Ceffyl Pren (the wooden horse). In this act of mob justice, the offender would be tried by a jury of men dressed as women with their faces smudged with charcoal. The wrongdoer would be tied to a ladder and paraded through the community, while his crimes were shouted out to all through a mock trial. Those who were punished had generally committed crimes which strongly went against the villagers’ sense of morality, namely: domestic abusers, adulterers, those who informed on their neighbours to the authorities, and those who refused to marry girls who they had got pregnant.
The Rebeca Riots took this ancient punishment and carried it out against the wrongdoers who had outraged the community’s morality: the landowners, the turnpike trusts, and the workhouses. They incorporated pantomime performances into the riot (something still loved in South Wales’ culture today) particularly the blurring of gender roles and the call and response between “Rebeca” and her “children”.
The leaderless, peasant uprising of a few hundred cross-dressing farmers on horses was an important milestone for Welsh class solidarity and socialism. Rents were reduced in the aftermath of the riots, toll gate rates were lowered, and in 1844 the Turnpikes, South Wales Act was passed which standardised the rates and reduced them by half for farm traffic. The Daughters of Rebeca effected change by tapping into local sentiment, local traditions, and utilising direct action as a form of protest. Although incidental violence occurred, it was never the goal. The Rebecas had realised that community meetings and protest could only get them so far, and so engaged in direct civil disobedience and destruction of the symbols of oppression – something which is directly applicable to those engaged in the protest movements of today seeking to effect change.
community meetings and protest could only get them so far, and so engaged in direct civil disobedience and destruction of the symbols of oppression
Importantly the Rebeca Riots had something which all protest movements need if they want to garner popular support – they were cool. What’s not to love about bandit groups of horsemen, refusing to conform to gender roles, smashing up symbols of class oppression?
Their protest was familiar and relatable. It had a simple, common enemy, and it was built on a shared, community sense of injustice. It was also very likely something which was considered glamorous to be involved in at the time. These three ingredients: common support, a clear goal, and the ‘cool-factor’, are crucial to any successful movement. We could all learn a thing or two from these rural radicals in how to build a popular movement today. And if we can incorporate flaming torches, horses, and gender fluidity – all the better.
Featured image via National Archives
The Norwich Radical is non-profit and run by volunteers. All funds raised help cover the maintenance costs of our website, as well as contributing towards future projects and events. Please consider making a small contribution to fund a better media future.