Rebecca's People Fight Back against the Gentry; What Is the Most Important Object inWelsh History? Today DR LOWRI ANN REES Bangor University, Argues the Case for a Tollgate
Byline: DR LOWRI ANN REES
On May 13, 1839, under cover of night, a band of men armed to the teeth and disguised in women's clothing descended upon the village of Efailwen, on the border between Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.
Their target was the newly constructed tollgate. They swiftly demolished the gate, and after setting fire to the adjoining tollhouse, disappeared into the night. The attack came as a great surprise to the authorities, especially as Wales had long been perceived as a peaceful and quiet nation. So began what is probably one of the most famous and striking protest movements in modern Welsh history - the Rebecca Riots.
The tollgates were the rioters' principal targets, and became a symbol of oppression which spurred them to action. Administered by Turnpike Trusts, the tollgates were introduced as a means of raising revenue for the maintenance of the roads. Trusts were managed locally by trustees, many of whom were landlords and magistrates, who regulated the number of gates within their jurisdiction. However, there were opportunities for professional toll collectors to secure contracts and raise tolls on behalf of several Turnpike Trusts, and there were examples of those who took advantage of this power by raising additional gates and increasing the tolls. By 1843 South-West Wales saw 23 trusts in operation, responsible for nearly 10,000 miles of roads in Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire, where every four miles or so, a tollgate or bar was to be found. Some tollgates brought in more money than others, especially those situated on well-travelled roads, such as those on the outskirts of towns, or at junctions where several roads met e.g. Porthyrhyd between Drefach and Llanddarog, and Ffairfach near Llandeilo. Tollgates also appeared along the routes to lime kilns, catching farmers on their way to collect lime, which was used as a fertiliser.
Complaints about the tolls were not uncommon, or indeed new, at the outbreak of the Rebecca Riots in 1839. The practice of over-charging had been a common complaint, and there were instances of people refusing to pay the tolls, forcing their way through the gates. There were even reports of tollgates being demolished during the late 18th century, y long before Rebecca and her daughters waged their campaign of destruction. The payment of tolls was a steady drain on the rural populace, many could ill-afford to part with their money. y The tolls were to be paid in addition to the tithes, church rate, highway rate and poor rate, not to mention other taxes, and the rent. On their own, they were not huge sums, but collectively, y they proved a real financial strain. It was a time of economic hardship and depression, and petitions and complaints regarding the tolls presented before local justices of the peace appeared to have little impact. Therefore, it's ' no wonder that people felt the only alternative was to take more forceful action.
Rebecca and her daughters In a notice published in The Welshman on September 1, 1843, Rebecca declared that "the people, the masses to a man throughout the three counties of Carmarthen, Cardigan, and Pembroke, are with me" and referred to "the oppressed sons and daughters of Rebecca". A significant proportion of those who took part in the riots were tenant farmers, agricultural labourers and farm servants, but these were also joined by some craftsmen, millers, blacksmiths, fishermen, publicans, colliers and other labourers from non-agricultural backgrounds. Many of the rioters were young men in their early 20s.
Such was the demographic of the crowd, but who was Rebecca? Was a there more than one Rebecca? Did she actually exist, or was she a fictional figure created in order to unite the crowd, giving them the sense they were fighting for the same cause? Theories abounded that the people were being led by individuals from the middle, or even upper class, such as sympathetic magistrates, landlords or freeholders. …