The 1830s and 1840s were tumultuous decades in Welsh history as years of unrest among the working classes reached a violent climax. 1831 saw the Merthyr Rising, and the Chartists became the first working-class movement in Britain culminating in the 1839 Newport Rising. But one event during this period arguably captured the hearts and minds of the Welsh like no other – The Rebecca Riots or Terfysg Beca.
On May 3rd 1839 the tollgate in Efailwen, Carmarthenshire, was destroyed by a gang of men with blackened faces, clad in women’s clothes. But who were these men and what had made them so angry?
Poverty and social inequality led these men to revolt against what they felt were unfair road taxes raised by the Turnpike trusts. These trusts were set up to improve Wales’ poor quality of roads. In return they were allowed to build toll gates. For example, between Pontarddulais and Carmarthen there were eleven tollgates. Farmers who regularly used the roads were hit the hardest. Efailwen tollagte was built in 1839 to catch out those who were not paying their way. This was the final straw.
The tolls were very much symbols of oppression, but as Neil Evans of the School of History and Archaeology writes here almost half of the incidents ‘were about general economic conditions in the countryside and not about tolls at all.’
The economic hardship of the period meant life was hard and primitive. Below are some of the reasons why:
- A population increase in rural Wales meant gaining a livelihood was difficult
- Most farmers did not own their own land so had to pay high rents to wealthy landlords
- Prices for livestock were falling
- Common land which had been available for all the people in the village were now enclosed
- Establishment of the Workhouse (one was built in Carmarthen in 1837)
- Farmers had to pay tithes to the church – one tenth of all their produce each year – even if they attended chapel, which many did
Times were hard, but in 1842-3 when economic conditions were even worse the outbreaks once again spread through the south west….
Now Discover for Yourself
There are a number of theories as to why the name Rebecca was chosen for the leader of the disturbances. Do some detective work of your own and find out what they are and which one you feel is the most convincing.
For those of you interested in reading some primary sources (original materials from the period) visit the People’s Collection Wales website. The National Archives website have some very useful and interesting primary source exercises so get involved!
You may even have seen episode 4 of The Story of Wales which was recently shown on BBC 2 which covered the Rebecca Riots. I was lucky enough to work as a runner on the series and the scene you can view here was filmed at St Fagans National History Museum just outside Cardiff, and took most of the night to film. The original gate was replaced with one specially made for the scene only so it could be smashed up by the rioters. It was all very fun.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous take a walk or cycle along the Bro Beca Trail and explore the landscape of Rebecca.