The Rebecca Riots
The Rebecca Riots took place between 1839 and 1844 in South and Mid Wales. They were a protest against the high tolls which had to be paid on the local Turnpike roads. The term turnpike refers to a gate on which sharp pikes would be fixed as a defence against cavalry.
The many toll-gates on the roads were operated by trusts which were supposed to maintain and even improve the roads. Many trusts charged extortionate tolls and diverted the money raised to other uses. Even where this was not the case, the toll-gate laws imposed an additional financial burden on poor farming communities and people decided that enough was enough. They took the law into their own hands and gangs were formed to destroy the toll-gates.
These gangs became known as Rebecca's Daughters or merely the Rebeccas. The origin of their name is said to be a verse in the Bible, Genesis 24:60 - 'And 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 which hate them'.
Others have suggested that the leader of the protests, Thomas Rees (Twm Carnabwth), wore women's clothes as a disguise when leading attacks (one could be hanged for rioting in those days). Some versions of the story say that these clothes were borrowed from a (rather large) lady called Rebecca living near his home at the foot of the Preseli hills. Local records do not bear this out.
Rees was the first Rebecca and he destroyed the toll-gates at Yr Efail Wen in Carmarthenshire in 1839. However, other communities also adopted the name and disguise, and other grievances besides the toll gates were aired in the riots. Anglican clergymen from the established Church of Wales were targets on several occasions. The Church could demand tithes and other ecclesiastical benefits even though most of the population of Wales were Nonconformists. Other victims were petty villains such as the fathers of illegitimate children.
The riots ceased after several of the ring leaders were caught and transported to Australia. According to local legend, the men laughed when they were given this punishment.
The protests prompted several reforms, including a Royal Commission into the question of toll roads. Most of the hated toll-gates were legally removed in 1844.