The Rebecca Riots

The often forgotten Rebecca Riots were a series of protests that took place between around 1839-1843, throughout the rural areas of west Wales, including Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire. The protesters were usually working farming people who had been aggrieved, in general by unfair taxes, and more specifically by the high tolls being charged to transport goods and livestock along the minor roads of the region.

In the early 19th century many of the roads in Wales were owned and operated by what were called Turnpike Trusts. These trusts were originally set up to maintain and even improve the condition of the roads and bridges through charging tolls to use them. The reality was however, many of these trusts were operated by English businessmen whose main interest was in extracting as much money as they could from the local people and farmers.

The farming community had suffered badly through poor harvests in the years preceding the protests and tolls were one of the biggest expense a local farmer had to face. The charges levied to do even the simplest of things, such as transporting animals and crops to market.

The people finally decided enough was enough and took the law into their own hands; gangs were formed to destroy as many tollgates as possible. These gangs became known as ‘Rebecca and her daughters’. Usually, at night, men dressed as women would blackened their faces and attacked the hated tollgates and destroyed them. A huge man, named Thomas Rees was the first ‘Rebecca’ and he destroyed the tollgates at Yr Efail Wen in Carmarthenshire.

The rioting was at its worst in 1843, with many major tollgates being destroyed this was to sadly see a young woman named Sarah Williams, a tollhouse keeper killed. By late 1843, the riots had all but stopped as the government increased troop numbers to the area, and in 1844 laws were passed to control the powers of the turnpike trusts. In addition, many of the protestors had recognised that the associated violence was getting out of control. So the much-hated tollgates all but disappeared from the roads of South Wales for over 100 years.

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