For cash-strapped chapel-goers, the list of grievances was growing: Poor Law rates to build workhouses, rising rents and compulsory tithes for the Church. But it was the toll gate system that triggered the riots. Roads needing maintenance by the parish were almost unusable. So, turnpike trusts to improve them were established who were allowed to erect toll gates and charge road users. In next to no time, a dozen gates surrounded the market town of Carmarthen. Then in 1839, a gate was erected at Efailwen near Narberth to catch farmers who were evading the tolls. When Tom Rees, a fist-fighter and subsistence farmer, could not find clothes to fit, it is said he borrowed some from his neighbour, Big Becca, to lead the attack on the tollgate.
For chapel-goers, though, Rebecca also had Biblical significance: “They blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them.” (Genesis 24 Verse 60). Toll gates were seen as the property of the gentry ('those that hate them’) and became a symbol of grievances about the land and the Church (seen as the church of the gentry). The rioters wore women's clothes and blackened their faces, partly for disguise, partly to suggest that women were entitled to defend their families. Normally law-abiding people may also have felt that in disguise they were symbolising their community rather than breaking the law as individuals.
By 1842, economic conditions had worsened. Riots swept through the counties of Carmarthen, Cardigan and Pembroke. In June 1843, Rebecca and her lieutenants: Charlotte, Miss Brown, and Miss Cromwell marched into Carmarthen and attacked the workhouse. Shots were fired. One woman was killed. Soon not a single toll gate was left. The government sent in troops but they were ineffective. The rioters knew the territory and troops were often sent on wild goose chases. The Times sent a special correspondent, Thomas Foster, whose reports favoured the farmers. Eventually the government modified the toll gate system and the poor law. Gradually economic conditions improved.
Image: Mary Thorley
Mary Thorley’s talk on Rebecca Riots via Zoom on June 23rd starts at 7.30pm.
While Chartism was taking root in the Valleys, tensions were growing between farmers and the “gentry”. The cost of using toll roads was the last straw. Helen Morgan reports: