Dr David Howell, the author of ‘The Rebecca riots’, taught throughout his career at University College, Swansea. By 1988, when the essay was ﬁrst published, he had established himself as the leading authority on Welsh agriculture and rural society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in particular with his monographs Land and People in Nineteenth-Century Wales (1977) and Patriarchs and Parasites (1986). Subsequently he built on this foundation with a study of The Rural Poor in Eighteenth-Century Wales (2000), and co-authored an authoritative essay on Wales for the Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750–1950 (1990). An original evaluation of Howell’s important contribution to Welsh historiography has been made by Matthew Cragoe in A Companion to Nineteenth- Century Britain (2004).
A close colleague of Howell’s at Swansea was Professor David J.V. Jones. If Howell’s expertise was in the economic and social history of agrarian Wales, Jones’s was in the overlapping worlds of protest and crime, and in 1989 he published a major study of the Rebecca riots, Rebecca’s Children. Jones (who died in 1994 at the age of 53) was himself a former student of Professor David Williams (of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth), the ﬁrst scholar to write at length on the movement in The Rebecca Riots: A Study in Agrarian Discontent (1986 ). The only other extensive modern account, And They Blessed Rebecca (1983), was written by Pat Molloy, a former Detective Chief Superintendent of the Dyfed- Powys police force, and there is also a curious early treatment by Henry Tobit Evans, Rebecca and Her Daughters (1910).
Although there are, quite clearly, signiﬁcant connections between the key historians of the Rebecca movement, it would be misleading to assume from this that its written history has remained an insular or self-referential affair. The peculiarities of Rebeccaism not only stimulated much interest at the time (sufﬁcient to inspire The Times to send a special correspondent, Thomas Campbell Foster, to south-west Wales), but have continued to fascinate ever since. The riots have provided the subject-matter for plays, poetry, musical compositions and novels, including The Rebecca Rioter by Swansea industrialist Amy Dillwyn (2001 ) and Hosts of Rebecca by the popular writer Alexander Cordell (1975 ); and in 1991 they even inspired a feature ﬁlm, Rebecca’s Daughters (dir. Karl Francis), starring Peter O’Toole and the great Welsh rugby international turned actor Ray Gravell.
Nor have historians from outside Wales remained immune to Rebecca’s charms. Thus, the highly orthodox Geoffrey Elton termed the movement ‘Wales’s special revolutionary enterprise ... a strange transvestite outbreak in which justiﬁed complaint mingled with unmistakeable criminality’ (Elton, 1970, p.107), whilst George Rudé and Edward Thompson, leading Marxist historians of the second half of the twentieth century, have each touched on Rebecca as part of wider considerations of popular movements – Rudé in The Crowd in History (1981 ), and Thompson in Customs in Common (1991). Certainly, there is much to be learned from placing Rebecca in the context of similar rural and industrial protests across Wales and Britain, including Luddism, the ‘Captain Swing’ revolt of 1830 and Chartism.
New ways of looking at the events of south-west Wales in the 1830s and 1840s have been inspired by the American cultural historian (of France) Natalie Zemon Davis in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) and the English social historians Alun Howkins and Linda Merricks in ‘“Wee be black as Hell”: ritual, disguise and rebellion’ (1993). And among Welsh scholars, Rosemary A.N. Jones has written on the interrelationship between issues of gender and ritual, most particularly the tradition of the ceffyl pren (which translates literally as ‘wooden horse’) in ‘Popular culture, policing and the “disappearance” of the ceffyl pren in Cardigan, c.1837–1850’ (1988–9).
In ‘Riotous community: crowds, politics and society in Wales, c.1700–1840’, Sharon Howard (2001) has attempted to locate the Rebecca riots in a longer-term perspective stretching back into early modern Wales, and most recently Rhian Jones has applied a range of insights derived from work in cognate ﬁelds of English and European social and cultural history in her M.Litt. thesis ‘Rethinking Rebecca: popular protest and popular culture in nineteenth-century south-west Wales’ (2008). Although, as mentioned above, the last major study of Rebecca is now some two decades old, the subject is far from dormant. Yet, for a concise overview of Rebecca’s main events and predominant themes and for an outline of the key questions relating to the movement, it is difﬁcult to better Howell’s essay.
The Rebecca riots were the product of a dire poverty gripping the farming community of south-west Wales during the late 1830s and the early 1840s. While the harvests of 1837 and 1838 were poor the country over, the three seasons from 1839 to 1841 in south-west Wales were atrocious, the wet and deﬁcient harvests rendering it incumbent on farmers to buy corn at famine prices for their own use, thereby further eroding what little capital they possessed. Nevertheless, sheep prices between 1839 and 1842 and butter prices between 1837 and 1841 were high, and the low cattle prices of 1839 and 1840 also recovered remarkably in 1841, so that a general fall in all prices occurred only in 1842 and 1843. This general fall largely accounted for the riots. Despite an early isolated outburst in 1839, the riots really commenced in the winter of 1842 and continued throughout 1843. Cattle prices slumped in south-west Wales in 1842, and the blame for this was directed at Peel’s tariff measures of that year which eased the importation of foreign cattle and meat. Butter and fat pig prices also fell in 1842. The harvest of that year was the best seen in Wales for many years and this, together with the diminution in demand from the Glamorgan ironworks whose trade had slumped in autumn 1841, led to corn prices falling steeply. Nor did the good corn harvest of 1842 much beneﬁt livestock farmers though introducing cheaper feed costs, for in 1843 the slump in the Glamorgan iron trade, together with the new tariff, also meant that prices for butter, cheese, pigs, store sheep, horses and lean cattle, upon which the Welsh pastoral farmer primarily depended, were adversely affected (3A). Arguably, the combined effects of the demand for food from the iron centres eastwards and of the tariff were the crucial factors in precipitating the riots.
Faced with this drastic fall in income the farmers found no relief coming their way in the form of a reduction in their outgoings – rents, tithes, poor rates, county rates and turnpike tolls. On the contrary, these either remained constant (as their farm rents) or were actually increasing, as were their tolls, tithes, county rates and poor rates. In this situation they rightly saw themselves as the victims of ‘tyranny and oppression’ and in a spirit of recklessness, discontent and desperation they took the law into their own hands to rid themselves of unbearable burdens.
It was the toll-gates they ﬁrst attacked, and there is no mistaking their loathing for the harshness of the toll-gate system. This ‘oppression’ set in from the late 1830s, when a group of English toll-renters, prominent amongst whom was the reviled Thomas Bullin, took over the trusts of the region and in return for paying higher rents for the gates made the mode of collection of tolls far more exacting. The worst grievance of the farmers was the big increase of side-bars (simple forms of toll- gates) on by-roads which were erected to catch any trafﬁc, especially the all-important lime carts, which had skilfully joined and left the turnpike roads via side lanes to avoid the gates. These side-bars were hated as very ‘catching’ and a trick, and it was indeed the case that the discriminating Rebecca would sometimes attack only the side-bars and leave the ‘legal’ gates on the main roads intact (3B). Toll-gates were, however, but one among several grievances, and they were doubtless in large measure singled out for attack because they were tangible objects for farmers to lay their hands on and they were less easy to defend than were union houses. Arguably, the Poor Law was as much detested as turnpike gates, but farmers were powerless to attack union houses owing to their being garrisoned by troops. Arguably, too, rent and tithe were just as oppressive as tolls and affected more people, but it would have been extremely difﬁcult to enlist a wide geographical area in a crusade against either. On the other hand, it would be unwise to play down overmuch the irksomeness of tolls vis-à-vis other burdens, for they saw the farmer’s hand in his pocket constantly in the course of just one journey and so constituted an ever- present irritant. Indeed, we dare not underestimate the importance of tolls in seeking to explain Rebecca, for purely it was the erection of the many side-bars in this particular area to catch the elusive lime carts, together with the dependence of the farmers of south-west Wales, more so than those elsewhere in the Principality apart from the Vale of Glamorgan, upon the consumer market of the iron centres eastwards, which must largely explain why Rebecca was essentially a south-west Wales phenomenon.
Rebecca, it will be apparent, was also concerned at the high rents paid by farmers to their landlords and it is likely that had the latter made timely reductions the riots would not have occurred. By mid-July 1843 protest in the form of threatening letters was spreading from tolls to rents. Landlords were warned to make reductions. The summer of 1843 also saw large meetings being held demanding that rents should be lowered by at least a third (3C) and in mid-September Rebecca was urging farmers in the parish of Penboyr and those parishes adjacent to petition their landlords, signiﬁcantly in concert, to reduce their rents. For all the petitioning and threats of incendiarism and personal injury to landlords (3D), agents and bailiffs, no great achievements were won in the face of farmers’ competition for holdings and landlords’ caprice. From late August onwards farmers were calling for regulation of rents by some form of independent assessment, thereby foreshadowing the late- century clamour for a land court in Wales to establish fair rents and ﬁxity of tenure.
The furore over rents was justiﬁed, for apart from a number of commendable exceptions, most landlords failed to help their tenants. Rents were higher within Wales as a whole than in England. Many rents, indeed, under the system of leases for lives still common, remained at the level they had been charged in favourable years. For those farms coming up for re-letting, landlords were enabled to maintain the high level of previous rents because of the desperate demand for holdings arising from the anxiety of local inhabitants to rent a farm in their native area and from the fast growth in population. The situation was exacerbated by the common (though not general) practice of letting land to the highest bidder by tender. Landlords and tenants were both to blame (though the landlords more so) for this disgraceful system which resulted in exorbitant rents.
The working of the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836 was claimed by the Rebecca Commissioners inquiring into the riots to be second only to the turnpike system as a cause of discontent. Such opposition to tithe commutation was unique to south Wales, for elsewhere in Britain the business of commutation proceeded fairly smoothly. Circumstances were different in south Wales, where the tithe rent charge was borne by the occupier whereas in English areas the burden after commutation was borne by the landlord who, by undertaking it, rendered the collection easy and was enabled to let his land free from tithe. Doubtless because of this landowners in south Wales were careless in attending to the process of commutation and so let their tenants suffer by allowing higher amounts to be ﬁxed than would otherwise have been the case. The Act meant that tithe payment in south Wales was increased by 7 per cent and considerably more so for south-east Wales. Though the increase was real enough, farmers misunderstood the principles underlying commutation and wrongly blamed the Act for imposing on them an unfair and heavy increase in payment. The real hardship arising from the working of the new legislation was that the price of corn in 1843 was depressed, so that the average price of corn for seven years upon which the annual tithe rent-charge was based was higher than the current 1843 price. Unlike the situation under the old system, after commutation little annual variation in the amount of payment was possible, however unproﬁtable the season to the farmer, and payment was now exacted rapaciously. And, of crucial impact on the farmers’ besieged state of mind, tithe had now to be paid in money when they were very short of cash (3E). This grievance over the ﬁnancial burden of tithe, when merged with other factors especially acute in Wales, such as the great extent to which tithes had passed into the hands of laymen and the fast growth of Nonconformity, meant that payment of tithe in 1843 was bitterly resented.
Complaints against tithe were voiced from June 1843. And, with many of the toll-bars having by the end of August been destroyed or abolished, from that time opposition to tithes, high rents and the New Poor Law began to take precedence in Rebecca’s programme. From June onwards mock auctions of tithe collectors were held (3F) and threatening letters sent (3G); an (unsuccessful) attempt to injure seriously the detested tithe agent, John Edwards of Gelliwernen House near Llannon (Carmarthenshire), was made in the night of 22–23 August by a large crowd of Rebeccaites; from early August 1843 protests against the burden of tithes, among other complaints, were made at daytime public meetings; and, foreshadowing the Tithe War of the 1880s (though the tithe issue had by then become more politicized and infused with nationalistic fervour thereby explaining its greater fury), at the tithe pay-day at Llandeilo on 27 August 1843, most of the farmers refused to pay, having the previous day requested a reduction.
The New Poor Law of 1834 was also hated by the lower orders. What rendered the farmers so angry at the legislation was that they were faced with an extra ﬁnancial burden precisely at a time of acute scarcity of money and this new aggravating circumstance glaringly contrasted in their experience with the hitherto lax practice of permitting a man pressed for money to pay his poor rate in kind (3H). Furthermore, in the rural parishes the operation of the Law meant an increase in the amount of rates compared with the old system (3I) (though it should be appreciated that even under the earlier system a big increase of rates would have occurred in the early 1840s owing to the depression in both the agricultural and iron-manufacturing areas). Farmers, too, were upset at the harsh bastardy clauses of the Act, both on grounds of their inhumanity and, predictably, because of the extra cost incurred when they operated. Although within the workhouse paupers seem to have been treated kindly and conditions of cleanliness and food were good and superior to those which were to be had outside, nevertheless the labouring classes hated the New Poor Law – above all, because they contended that their poverty was being treated as a crime and that they were being locked up in the cruelly-run union house as a prison (3I). Also, they resented the insolence of the relieving ofﬁcers.
While many farmers wished to return to something like the old system of granting poor relief, several, particularly the better informed, were strongly opposed to this, desiring instead an amendment to the Act. Protest against the New Poor Law took the form of threatening letters being sent to masters of union workhouses warning them to empty the premises of paupers (3J). Although Carmarthen workhouse was ransacked on 19 June 1843, the desired widespread assault on the execrated workhouses was frustrated by their being heavily guarded. Protest was also voiced against the New Poor Law at public daytime meetings and in a long Rebecca song in Welsh. (Rebecca songs also voiced other grievances.)
Rebecca was also concerned with the inﬂammatory issue of landholding. No one else, Rebecca stipulated, was to take treacherously a farm vacated by another because of a too-high rent (3K) and an attempt was made through Farmers’ Unions (though perhaps there were very few of these) and Rebecca’s ‘emissaries’ (3L) to obtain fair rents. Rebecca also forbade covetous farmers from holding more than one farm (3M). Threatening letters warned the recalcitrant, and destruction of premises and incendiarism were the punishment visited on those who persisted in transgressing Rebecca’s laws (3K, 3L, 3M).This was basically an attempt (partially 3L successful) by Rebecca to establish ﬁxity of tenure as was 3M then being advocated in Ireland.
In all her doings Rebecca was concerned with righting injustice, and this led her to settle a whole variety of what she deemed to be public and private wrongs perpetrated in the community. She strove to invoke traditional justice and to restore lost ‘rights’ to the community. Fathers of illegitimate children were forced to accept responsibility for their offspring (3N); weirs adjudged to be illegally obstructing rivers and so interfering with the supply of ﬁsh, were destroyed; gentry of one area (Llangendeirne, Carms.) were warned off from shooting game as it belonged to Rebecca (Rebecca on another occasion desired that farmers be allowed to take game on their respective farms); individual farmers were warned against hoarding corn in expectation of a higher price; and, as an example of a private wrong being punished precisely in ceffyl pren tradition (which is discussed in more detail later), a cottager and his wife had their furniture destroyed because the latter had testiﬁed against a neighbour stealing tobacco.
The riots, unlike the Captain Swing labourers’ revolt of 1830–31, were a farmers’ revolt. Labourers did not pay high rents, constant tolls, tithes and poor rates; indeed, they beneﬁted from the current low prices even if jobs were scarcer. Nevertheless the labouring classes looked favourably on Rebecca, and agricultural labourers and, in south-east Carmarthenshire, colliers, were involved as lesser actors in the drama. In a very real sense, Rebecca was a community revolt and saw herself as such. Some farm labourers joined for positive reasons: they had close social ties with their employers, who tenanted only small farms and like themselves lived a threadbare existence; they hated the poor law; they resented paying tolls for potatoes which by custom they were permitted to plant in the farmers’ ﬁelds. Moreover, labourers and boys joined in for ‘a lark’; again, it was the joke at making fools of the authorities and military that kept many of the rioters out of bed; and some labourers were present at the express demand of Rebecca to certain farmers to present themselves along with their servants. But towards the end of August 1843 Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire labourers, claiming to have helped their employers to get their grievances redressed, began to hold their own meetings to complain against the paltry way the farmers treated them (3O). So alarmed were the farmers by this ominous twist of events that by late September 1843 they were welcoming the presence of troops. From late July 1843 the centre of Rebeccaism was to be increasingly found in semi-industrialized south-east Carmarthenshire. Here colliers, depressed through falling wages and unemployment, supported the farmers in smashing gates. Clearly, they had no quarrel with the gates and were diametrically opposed to the farmers’ interests in wanting a reduction in food prices. Certainly the payment they received was a strong inducement; they may also have reasoned that support for the farmers would oblige the latter to support them in turn. Thus in early August the colliers resolved that inasmuch as they had assisted the farmers to get rents and tolls reduced they should call on them to lower the price of their produce. A further rift was opening up in the Rebecca movement.
Rebecca was not in her origins motivated towards political change (3P). Yet there was a radical spirit informing the west-Wales peasantry born of their Nonconformity. Detestation of church rates and particularly of tithe was pronounced. The leadership of Nonconformity, however, generally disapproved of Rebecca because of her violence. But below the ranks of the ofﬁcial leadership it is likely that the dissenting ministers provided their hearers with scriptural justiﬁcation for their action, even if they did not actually incite them to violence, as the correspondent of the (usually) scrupulously fair London newspaper The Times insisted was the case (3Q). Although the peasantry were aware of Chartist ideas (both from the press and Chartist emissaries travelling the countryside) and Rebecca and the Merthyr Chartists both in turn invited the other to join their ranks, it seems (contrary to what some, particularly the landed gentry, averred) that Chartist emissaries and their ideas did not win much support among the Rebeccaite peasantry, perhaps because they were English (3R, 3S). Albeit, with the replacement of rioting by mass meetings from late August 1843 Chartist ideas could be, and were, more easily propagated, especially by Hugh Williams, the Carmarthen Chartist, and the massed gatherings certainly approved a call for the dissolution of the present (unsympathetic) parliament, the extension of the franchise and the ballot. In its later stages the Rebecca movement exhibited more than a tinge of political disaffection. For all that, unbearable poverty not political discontent led to the outbreak of Rebecca, a poverty poignantly mirrored in the heart-rending circumstances of a farmer’s wife tearfully selling her wedding ring in July 1843 because the sale of corn had not raised sufﬁcient to cover her rates – a circumstance arguably as pregnant with pathos as the celebrated enforced sale of a Dissenter’s Bible (Penbryn parish, Cardiganshire) who would or could not pay his tithes.
While farmers (apart from certain of their number during the later stages of the revolt) were not politically disaffected, their oppressive burdens ﬁlled them with loathing for the magistrates and landowners for failing to redress their grievances, for refusing to give them what they called ‘justice’ (3T). This want of conﬁdence that the magistrates would listen to their grievances, adopt a conciliatory spirit and grant them justice by removing oppressive exactions, was, indeed, one of the main causes of the riots. Their haughty, over weening demeanour towards the peasantry–treating them‘like dogs’ when they appeared before the bench–was sorely complained of (3U). Magistrates’ignorance of the law, their decisions being inﬂuenced by their political opinions, and the inﬂuence exerted over them by uneducated clerks who, besides, charged oppressive fees, meant the peasantry could not obtain proper justice. Much of the obloquy against the tyrannical and arbitrary conduct of the magistrates was justiﬁed, but some was unmerited: after all, it was they who were given the thankless job of putting into operation‘unfortunate’recent legislation which was ill-suited to Welsh social conditions,the new taxation involved pressing peculiarly hard on the impoverished Welsh peasantry; and, with their estates encumbered, they simply could not afford to reduce their rents by between a third and a half as was popularly demanded.
Not a little of the fascination of the riots lies in the manner in which they were enacted – men dressed in women’s clothing, often white gowns, and having their faces blackened or wearing masks (though sometimes only some would wear female clothing), attacking toll-gates at night to the accompaniment of much noise and, in the early stages, a mock trial before the work of destruction. Such traits of female dress, blacking, noise and mock trials were a direct offshoot of the local practice of ceffyl pren, signiﬁcantly on the increase in the late 1830s (3V). Ceffyl pren (‘the wooden horse’) was a way of frightening and punishing someone who had offended against the community’s values, such as by marital inﬁdelity or informing against another. The ceffyl pren was mirrored in the noisy, masked festivals of other European countries, as in the ‘rough music’ of certain English areas, in the charivaris, scampanate, katzenmusic and cencerrada, all forming part of The Abbeys of Misrule, bands of men who would mock the misdemeanours of neighbours. The carnival right of criticism and mocking sometimes spilled over into real social protest across Europe, Britain and Ireland in the early modern period, when men wore women’s clothing – in Wales we see it in the striking colliers of south Wales between 1830–32 and, of course, in the Rebecca riots. Ritual and festive inversion were being put to new uses.
In part, of course, the black face and female attire was a simple matter of disguise. But equally important, argues Natalie Davis,1 were the various ways in which the female persona sanctioned resistance. ‘On the one hand the disguise freed men from full responsibility for their deeds and perhaps too from fear of outrageous revenge upon their manhood. After all, it was mere women who were acting in this disorderly way. On the other hand, the males draw upon the sexual power and energy of the unruly woman and on her license (long assumed at carnival and games) to promote fertility, to defend the community interests and standards, and to tell the truth about unjust rule.’ In similar vein, other historians such as Alun Howkins and Linda Merricks2 point to how participation in the ritual of blacking and wearing women’s clothes transforms those involved; blacking the face or wearing a mask was not just a matter of concealment. Indeed, the real element of concealment was against the self, for behind the ritual of mask, female garb and acting the ‘pantomime’ of resistance, respectable farmers (in Rebecca’s case) could become transformed into the community’s conscience and carry out acts of protest totally out of character with their respectable selves. This fascinating insight into the sexual symbolism and topsy-turvy play involved in transvestism and into the ritual of blacking, enrichens our understanding of the riots. We are left wondering whether resorting to turning one’s coat inside out, occasionally adopted by Rebeccaites, was simply a matter of disguise.
From late August 1843 public protest meetings were replacing riots, partly because the farmers were drawing back from violence and partly because the presence of troops was inducing caution. But though fewer, the riots grew more violent. The terrifying activities of a gang of miscreants masquerading as Rebecca and operating from Five Roads, near Llanelli, led by the unsavoury Shoni Sguborfawr and his henchman, Dai’r Cantwr, by late September had turned respectable farmers of that area against Rebecca. Also, as shown, farmers of west Wales were worried during September by the strident tone of their labourers. Accordingly, by the end of the month the farmers themselves had brought Rebecca to a halt, only isolated instances occurring henceforth on the periphery of the region.
The name ‘Rebecca’ was taken from the scriptural reference to Rebecca in Genesis 24: 60, and identiﬁed several Rebeccas in different areas, for the movement had no one master-mind and spread over the countryside by imitation. Though sometimes exaggerating her grievances (thus separation of husbands from wives and their families in workhouses happened less in practice than was claimed and, indeed, the workhouse test was not universally put into practice) and misconceiving the real situation, and sometimes needlessly violent, malicious and vengeful on her enemies (intimidation of fellow-farmers by ’Becca, however, is surely understandable given the nature of that society), Rebecca was a noble-minded movement on the part of a downtrodden peasantry to obtain ‘justice’, which their leaders so unfeelingly withheld. The riots have been rightly viewed as deriving basically from a fast-rising population overstretching the resources of a backward farming economy and proving too much for an outdated administrative machinery to cope with. In good years the farmers could struggle on, but under acute depression they folded. Matters were worsened by government legislation manifestly unsuited to Welsh conditions and which further harassed the peasantry. Trustees of turnpike roads, landlords, agents and bailiffs, magistrates, tithe owners and agents, poor law ofﬁcials and, not to be downplayed, English toll-farmers like Bullin and English land-stewards, all incurred Rebecca’s wrath. In her self- proclaimed ‘journey of doing good to the Poor and distressed farmers’ Rebecca gained real achievements. During the course of the movement itself, there were secured an amelioration of the toll-gate burden (nonetheless toll-houses destroyed in the riots had to be re-erected after the riots had ended) and certain modest rent reductions from some landlords at least. Later, a Turnpike Act of July 1844 consolidated the trusts, county road boards taking over all the trustsin each shire. Tolls were simpliﬁed and made more uniform and the grievous toll on lime cut by half. Rebecca, moreover, was to furnish an inspiration for later Welsh rural protest.