On the night of 6th June 1839 the tollgate at Efailwen was destroyed and the tollhouse set on fire. It is unknown, to this day, who perpetrated this act of destruction, as those who took part had blackened faces and a number wore women’s clothes.
This was the second time in as many months, that the tollgate and house at Efailwen had been attacked. These incidents marked the start of a series of events which spread to many communities in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, known as the Rebecca Riots.
Rebecca, “came to symbolise the revolt of an oppressed peasantry against human injustice and the struggle of men and women against inexorable poverty… in those moments they all felt themselves to be sons and daughters of Rebecca, whose seed had, at least for the time, possessed the gates of their oppressors”
David Williams, The Rebecca Riots, reprinted 1971.
The Rebecca Riots provided a powerful expression of the community’s unique cultural identity and the image of Rebecca pervades the life of those who live here today.
Life in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire in the 1830s & 1840s
Two hundred years ago farming was the main industry in Wales. Life in the countryside was both hard and primitive. Only a few people could read and write.
There were several complaints against the establishment:
• The system of administering justice as the privilege classes / landlords were the magistrates
• Enclosure of common land
• The establishment of the Workhouse
• Increased financial demands to maintain new Workhouses and to pay at toll gates, and increased church rates
• Dependence of a growing population on the same limited resources and limited employment opportunities
Establishment of toll roads
Rebecca’s initial target was the tollgate of the Turnpike Trusts and although there were other complaints, the tollgates remained the symbol of oppression; the Trust charged farmers for using their roads and made transportation very expensive. The farmers were already poor and the rents were high.
Companies were formed by Acts of Government in the eighteenth century to enable private investors to maintain the roads, on condition that they could charge a toll as the public went through the gates across the roads. This system exsisted in Britain but several small companies were formed in west Wales, for example the Whitland Trust. Even though only a fifth of the network was in their power the gates were being built on the main roads, especially near junctions.
Very often the administration of the Turnpike Trusts was very defective. The public had very little trust in the Turnpike Trusts, as the standard of the roads was poor even though the public had to pay high tolls.
Increased tolls threatened
The first events of the Rebecca movement took place in the summer of 1839 because of highly unpopular action by the Whitland Turnpike Trust who were responsible for the upkeep of the toll roads in the area. The road from Efailwen, in the parish of Llandissilio, southwards past Narberth to the Ludchurch limekilns was one of those listed in the act of 1791, which brought the Trust into existence. The road from Maesgwyn mansion in Llanboidy to St Clears was added when the act was renewed for a second time in 1832. Thus far, neither road had been repaired by the Trust nor was there a tollgate on either. However, for financial reasons, the Whitland Trust decided on 24th January 1839, to erect four new tollgates including Efailwen and Maesgwyn.
Farmers reach point of desperation
The farmers in the area had suffered a number of bad harvests, they were very poor, and felt desperate at the news of toll charges. The farmers decided to act in the only way they felt that remained open to them, and community action at Efailwen was quick and effective.
On the night of the 13th May 1839, only one week after it had been erected, the gate at Efailwen was destroyed and the tollhouse set on fire. At 10.30pm on the 6th June a crowd of three hundred people disguised in women’s clothing with their faces blackened arrived at the Efailwen gate and destroyed it for the second time.
Reaction of the Whitland Trust
In the face of such opposition, what could the Whitland Trust do? An emergency meeting of the Trust was held at the Blue Boar Inn, St Clears on 23rd July 1839, which was also attended by a large number of magistrates. Soon afterwards, the act establishing the four new tollgates was revoked. The disturbances ceased, Rebecca had succeeded.
Why were the disturbances referred to as the ‘Rebecca’ Riots?
There are a number of theories as to why the name Rebecca was chosen for the leader of the disturbances. According to local tradition the Efailwen leader known as Rebecca was identified as Thomas Rees who farmed the homestead of Carnabwth in the Parish of Mynachlogddu. It is said that he borrowed clothes from “Rebecca Fawr” of Llangolman and the movement may have derived its name from this simple chance. At a time of such a devoutly religious era, its quite possible that the name comes from a passage in the bible, the book of Genesis, xxiv, 60, which reads “And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, let thy seed possess the gates of those which hate them”.
The First Action of ‘Rebecca’
A barn in the farmyard of Glyn Saith Maen, Llangolman is said to have been the meeting place of the first activists. The only evidence of Twm’s involvement came from local folk stories as the authorities only arrested one old man for a short time and Twm Carnabwth seemed to play no further part in the riots.
A colourful character, his behaviour ranged from being devoutly religious to being outrageous. He was a regular reciter of the ‘pwnc’ but was also known as a prize fighter in fairs throughout the counties of Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire. He is buried in the graveyard of the Baptist Chapel, in Mynachlog-ddu.
Rebecca Rides Again
Following Efailwen, there was a very uncomfortable lull, because the riots had been successful, as the gates that were destroyed were not re-erected, but Efailwen set a precedent to others. When the Mermaid Gate at the junction of the Main and Whitland Trusts in the town of St Clears was erected by the Main Trust, it meant that farmers would have to pay twice in the space of a mile. No sooner was the gate erected, on the 18th November, it was destroyed. A number of other gates in St Clears and Pwll Trap were also destroyed. Troops were again sent for and a police officer was sent from London, but the disturbances continued.
The ‘Ceffyl Pren’
At the Pwll Trap gate Rebecca and her daughters acted out a pantomime in the style of the Ceffyl Pren, an ancient form of local justice. A large crowd gathered, dressed in a variety of garments, faces blackened, and armed with the usual array of weaponry, and walked up to the gate at Pwll Trap. During attacks, one farmer would take the lead as Rebecca, and others would act as her Daughters, or Children. They halted a few yards short, and the lady Rebecca – stooped, hobbling, and leaning like an old woman on ‘her’ blackthorn stick – walked up to the gate. Her sight apparently failing her, she reached out with her staff and touched it. Rebecca seemed greatly surprised that her progress along the road should be interrupted.
Rebecca: (feeling the gate with her staff) Children, there is something put here. I cannot go on.
Daughters: What is it mother? Nothing should stop your way.
Rebecca: I do not know, children. I am old, and cannot see well.
Daughters: Shall we come on, mother, and move it out of the way?
Rebecca: Stop; let me see (feeling the gate with her staff). It seems like a great gate put across the road to stop your old mother.
Daughters; We will break it, mother. Nothing shall hinder you on your journey.
Rebecca: No; let us see, perhaps it will open (feeling the lock). No children. It is bolted and locked, and I cannot go on. What is to be done?
Daughters: It must be taken down, mother, because you and your children must pass.
Rebecca: Off with it, then, my dear children. It has no business here.
The gate was then quickly destroyed and burnt.
Rebecca Visits Carmarthen
The riots spread with the number of tollgates that were being destroyed increasing.
Most people thought that Rebecca would not dare to enter the town but on the night of Friday, 26th May 1843 a mob of 300 attacked the gate of the Carmarthen and Newcastle Emlyn Trust at Water Street.
Carmarthen was now in a state of panic. The magistrates had lost control of the surrounding countryside and their civil authority had been mocked. Gates throughout Carmarthenshire were destroyed during the next week including Llandeilo, Newcastle Emlyn and Pembrey.
June 1843 saw one of the largest events of the organisation. A crowd estimated at over four thousand, assembled on the Monday morning at the ‘Plough and Harrow’ and marched towards Carmarthen. They were led by ‘Rebecca’ accompanied by a band of music and huge notices proclaiming:
“Justice and Lovers of Justice we are all”; “Freedom and Food” and “Free tolls and freedom”.
At this stage a detachment of about forty of the 4th Dragoons led by Major Parlby, who had just reached Carmarthen, arrived at the workhouse at a gallop with sabres drawn and blocked the way out. The crowd scattered and fled leaving nearly a hundred captured.
‘Rebecca’ had escaped by leaving his horse and climbing over the workhouse wall. Alcwyn Evans claimed that Michael Bowen of Trelech was the Rebecca, and that he had also been at Water Street.
The publicity by the Carmarthen demonstration led “The Times” newspaper to send their own Journalist, T C Foster who arrived on the 22nd June, the same day that Colonel J F Love was placed in command of all the Troops in the area. A third arrival on the 22nd June was Colonel George Rice Trevor MP and Vice-Lieutenant of Carmarthenshire who returned from London to take over civil responsibility from his sick father, the Lord Lieutenant.
Within a few days Foster tried to find out the main reasons behind the riots rather than branding the rioters ‘lawless vagabonds’ as did the ‘Carmarthen Journal’.
Action to quell the riots
So in less than a week after the Carmarthen demonstration Colonel Love and the military, T C Foster of the Times and Colonel Trevor as chief magistrate had added a new dimension to the story of the riots. There was now to be a more organised treatment of the disturbances based on an understanding of its causes. The intervention of these three individuals was to be of great significance for the future but in the short term Rebecca continued in her usual way.
In August 1843, the Home Office set up a preliminary investigation, and on Monday, 30th October a Commission of Inquiry opened its proceedings at Carmarthen and began to take evidence.
Local justice administered by Rebecca
The Officer commanding troops in west Wales reported in July 1843 ‘great numbers of discharged workmen from Merthyr and Dowlais have come into the county and are active in persuading the people to mischief’.
The Rebecca’s activities became part of local justice. An example of this is that a homestead in the hamlet of Gwynfe was set on fire in September 1843. There are other stories where Rebecca was even known to force young men to marry their pregnant girlfriends. It seems that Rebecca was prepared to act whenever she thought it ‘just’ to do so. This could involve an attack on an actual target representing a grievance or even intervention in a private quarrel or dispute.
Rebecca out of control
As the movement spread to east Carmarthenshire towards the industrial belt, the riots became more aggressive and the authorities more robust. Indeed, a tollgate keeper, Sarah Williams was killed at Hendy in September.
In this period, one of the most active Rebecca gangs where the ringleaders would meet at the Stag and Pheasant Inn at Fiveroads, including John Jones (Shoni Sguborfawr) and David Davies (Dai’r Cantwr). Together they led attacks throughout the area, but their motivation was different to that of early Rebecca. With an increase in the use of violence and their readiness to use guns and even accept ‘contracts’ for a fee to settle personal grievances.
Following evidence given against both, warrants were made for their arrests. They were tried at Carmarthen where Shoni was transported for life and Dai for 20 years but they left the dock laughing.
Sufferings of a folk hero
Information had been received by William Chambers, a magistrate from Llanelli on the 6th September that Rebecca was to attack the tollgates at Pontarddulais and Hendy that night. He took soldiers with him and hid near Hendy bridge. Captain Napier took half a dozen policemen and three magistrates to Pontarddulais from Swansea. Three of the main rioters rushed towards the police firing their guns but their horses were shot and the rioters dispersed. Rebecca was caught together with six others. Naturally, much interest was shown that one of the leaders of Rebecca was in jail. John Hughes, or Jac Ty-isha as he was known, was Rebecca and this was noted as one of the most important riot of the organisation.
The Government had appointed a special commission to try the prisoners and had moved the trial to Cardiff because of local feelings.
The prisoners had extra help and guidance from the local Radical and Chartist Mr Hugh Williams, the solicitor from Carmarthen. Against Hugh Williams’ will, Jac pleaded not guilty to the charges made against him, the first was to be responsible to shooting Captain Napier, Chief Constable of Glamorgan, with the intention of his murder. John Hughes was found guilty, but the Jury recommended him to mercy because of his unblemished character. Though many petitions were sent on Jac’s behalf including one from his mother to the young Queen Victoria, his sentence was not shortened.
He paid dearly for his part in the riots when he was sentenced to twenty years’ transportation to Tasmania.
Meetings to discuss grievances
An increasingly common occurrence during 1843 were the night-time meetings at which people had a chance to voice their grievances and to discuss possible solutions. Some of these meetings were held in villages as reported in The Times. The greatest Rebecca meeting was held on Mynydd Sylen above the Gwendraeth Valley in the daytime of 25th August 1843. Another meeting took place at Llyn Llech Owain on the Mynydd Mawr. One of the important speakers was Hugh Williams, a solicitor from Carmarthen, who had already become a well known supporter of Rebecca. He condemned violence and wanted to send a petition to the Queen.
Who was Rebecca?
The role of Hugh Williams in the Rebecca story has always been controversial. Many people believed that he was the main ‘instigator and undiscovered leader’ of the movement. He protected the Rebecca rioters who came before the magistrates. He helped defend the Chartists who were captured in Llanidloes in 1839. He was an enthusiastic Chartist who attended the 1838 Convention as the delegate for Carmarthen. His brother-in-law was Richard Cobden, the leader of the movement to abolish the Corn Laws. He was often present in the Rebecca meetings, sometimes acting as Chairman. At all meetings, he understood the grievances of the rioters but always spoke against violence and in favour of political change. He claimed to have been one of the first who had taken notice of the toll gate problem in 1838.
In a letter from Colonel Love to the Home Office, Hugh Williams was blamed for encouraging the ‘ceffyl pren’ by saying that it was an old custom that was not against the law. Ceffyl pren was accepted as being the root of the Rebecca movement.
Justice and lovers of justice are we
‘Rebecca’ had been a protest against those hardships that seemed to have interfered with the traditional order of life in west Wales. It was a reaction against what was regarded as injustice and, following the traditional custom of ‘ceffyl pren’, ‘Rebecca and her daughters’ appeared to challenge those grievances. At least for a time they had been the representatives of natural justice until their actions attracted firstly, a dangerous radical threat to society, and secondly, the attention of a government prepared to provide a moderate settlement of the worst abuses. As a result Rebecca disappeared from view to become a proud memory of the Welsh heritage.