An interesting period of Welsh history which had a major impact is the four years of the The Rebecca Riots, when men dressed as women and attacked toll gates in many areas of West Wales in the mid-19th Century.
Turnpike Trusts, made up of groups of businessmen, had been founded to maintain road systems across the country. In order to fund the work, all road users were charged a fee when passing toll gates, which were set up at intervals along the routes controlled by the trusts. Of course the temptation to overcharge was irresistible and by the end of the 1830s, the trusts had proliferated and set their tolls so high that they had a stranglehold on the rural communities. For example, there were 11 turnpike trusts around the town of Carmarthen and each had several gates. Imagine how angry people became when they had to pay each time they passed through a gate!
Provocation of the Poor
Not only did the tolls create an unfair method of extracting money from rural communities, they were just the final straw in a catalogue of injustices and misfortunes of these times:
- Poor harvests
- Levying of high rents by largely English-speaking landlords
- Sudden increase in the population
- Taxes levied to pay for building of workhouses following the Poor Law of 1834
- tithes levied by the church.
By the end of the 1830s the struggling peasant population had become overwhelmed by the expense of moving cattle or essential materials like lime and animal food to and from market.
Eventually the general feeling of discontent erupted in an angry outburst in May 1839 when a group of men attacked a toll gate in Efailwen near Clynderwen in Carmarthenshire.
In much the same way as mob hysteria provokes riots in this day and age, groups of men from all over the counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire began to attack turnpike toll gates.
Why the cross-dressing?
Welsh men from rural communities were accustomed to taking the law into their own hands when they punished an offender by tying him to a ladder or wooden pole and parading him through the streets. This was called the ceffyl pren – the wooden horse. In order to disguise themselves during these episodes, men had the habit of dressing as women and blackening their faces.
Why Rebecca Riots?
It is thought that the rioters may have taken their name from Rebecca in the Book of Genesis who, when sent off to marry Isaac, receives a blessing from her relatives to the effect that her offspring should “possess the gates of those that hate them”. As people at this time were familiar with the stories of the Bible, this is plausible although legend has it that one of the earliest rioters, Twm Carnabwth, borrowed clothes from a woman called Rebecca, thus inspiring the alliterative name!
Four years of rioting
The riots raged on for over four years, with toll gates regularly smashed or burned. Troops were brought in to combat the rioters, who also formed a 2,000 strong mob to ransack the town workhouse in Carmarthen.
In the autumn of 1843 a particularly violent demonstration caused the death of the elderly Sarah Williams, the gatekeeper at Hendy, following which popular support for the riots began to diminish, especially as some rioters had been imprisoned and several even transported to Australia.
All not in vain
Following a visit to Wales, a sympathetic report was produced by a journalist from The Times, Thomas Foster. It appears that this was instrumental in making public the true grievances of the Welsh tenant farmers and forcing the government to call a Commission of Enquiry. As a result, all the Turnpike Trusts within each county of Wales were amalgamated in 1844 and tolls on vital commodities were reduced by half. One of these was lime – used to fertilise fields, it was an essential part of the rural economy; indeed the earliest riots took place on the lime roads leading inland from the coast.
Aberystwyth Southgate Tollhouse, now at Museum of Welsh Life – Published by Aberdare Blog, Author: Darren Wyn Rees
50 years later, the last turnpike toll gate in Britain was removed from the Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Mon). The railways were influential in diminishing the power of turnpike trusts and the Local Government Act of 1888 gave road maintenance responsibility to County and Borough Councils.