In the autumn of 1843, the idyllic landscapes of south-west Wales bore witness to a surge of social upheaval. The Rebecca riots, a series of protests against burdensome taxation, particularly targeted tollgates, leaving the region in turmoil. The protagonists, often clad in women’s attire, were dubbed “Merched Beca” or Rebecca’s daughters in Welsh, giving rise to a movement that would etch its name in history.
The roots of discontent can be traced back to the late 17th century when tollgates, instituted to fund road maintenance, became symbols of oppression. The Turnpike Trusts, parliamentary bodies overseeing these tolls, faced widespread criticism for their unfair regulations, igniting a simmering discontent that erupted into the Rebecca riots.
The first act of defiance occurred on May 13, 1839, when a tollgate in Efailwen, Pembrokeshire, crumbled under the protest’s fervor. The movement gained momentum throughout the winter of 1842 and reached its zenith in the summer of 1843, as tollgates and authority figures alike found themselves under attack.
A peculiar and theatrical aspect of the protests was the adoption of women’s clothing, a guise donned by the protesters to conceal their identities. The enigmatic leader, known as Rebecca, urged her followers to dismantle any gate obstructing their path, creating a mystique that further fueled the unrest.
Yet, the Rebecca riots transcended mere opposition to tolls. They were a visceral response to the socio-economic challenges gripping rural communities. Agricultural depression, failed harvests, soaring rents, and onerous taxes converged, exerting immense pressure on the populace. Additionally, the newly implemented Poor Law of 1834, consigning the poor to harsh workhouse conditions, fueled public resentment.
The turning point came on June 19, 1843, in Carmarthen, when a procession escalated into the storming of the workhouse. This marked a pivotal moment as protests escalated, extending beyond tollgates to private property. Reports of physical violence and firearms emerged, with the tragic death of Sarah Williams, the 75-year-old tollgate keeper in Hendy, highlighting the severity of the unrest.
As the chaos unfolded, The Times dispatched Thomas Campbell Foster to report on “The State of South Wales.” Queen Victoria herself expressed concern, fearing that the events in Wales might catalyze movements seeking the repeal of laws tying Ireland to Great Britain. The ripple effect of the Rebecca riots was spreading far beyond the Welsh borders.
The protests waned in the autumn and winter of 1843, with sporadic appearances of Rebecca and her daughters. A government inquiry, conducted during this period, delved into the root causes of the riots. Though the tollgates endured, the inquiry’s findings prompted increased regulation of Turnpike Trusts in Wales, coupled with the establishment of new county police forces.
Rebecca’s legacy endured, with around 250 tollhouses and gatehouses meeting their demise. The aftermath saw the captured rebels transported to the penal colonies in Tasmania, forever separated from their Welsh homeland. Some, like John Hughes (Jac Tŷ Isha), became mythical figures, while others, such as Thomas Rees (Twm Carnabwth), were remembered as leaders of the rebellion.
Despite the apparent conclusion, Rebecca’s spirit persisted. In the 1870s, protests bearing her name erupted anew, this time concerning salmon poaching on the river Wye in mid Wales—an echo of the “second Rebecca Riots.” The 20th century witnessed a resurgence of Rebecca’s essence in 1956, when Y Seren called upon “the spirit of Beca” to combat the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn for Liverpool’s water supply.
Intriguingly, Rebecca’s influence endures in modern Wales. The 21st century witnesses re-enactments and community engagements inspired by her legacy, proving that the struggle for justice and the tradition of protest remain integral to Welsh society. The echoes of Rebecca’s daughters continue to resonate through time, a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who defy oppression and champion the cause of justice.