was a small army of gender transgressing folk heroes that
numbered in the thousands. Rebecca fought for justice
against an oppressive legal system that crippled the ability
of common people to live fruitful lives.
Rebecca Riots took place in the rural parts of west Wales,
including Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire, and Carmarthenshire,
in 1839-43. The "riots" were a series of direct actions by tenant
farmers against the payment of exorbitant fees charged to use
the roads, forced church tithing, oppressive poverty laws
and a corrupt church-state. During
these actions, men who presented themselves as women fought
on behalf of the powerless.
They called themselves 'Rebecca and Her Daughters,' 'The
Army of Rebecca' or simply 'Rebecca'. The Rebecca name most likely
refers to a passage in the Bible wherein Rebecca is blessed
by the people and urged to 'possess the gates of those who hate
them' (Genesis 24, verse 60).
Organized groups of businessmen
known as Turnpike Trusts owned most of the main
roads. These men fixed the charges and decided how many
tollgates (turnpikes) could be built.
Tolls were a big expense for small farmers, who used the
roads to take their crops and animals to market, and also to
collect lime (a chalky mineral). Lime was used to improve
the quality of the soil so farmers could grow better crops.
It could cost as much as five shillings (25p) in tolls to
move a cart of lime eight miles inland. The people of west
Wales could not pay to use their roads.
trigger for the Rebeccan actions came from the poor being
forced by the rich to
pay high tolls to use the roads to get to market, but there were other
reasons for their discontent. Wales had seen a population
increase since the start of the 19th century. This increased
competition for land and jobs and added to unemployment and
Most of the farmers in these areas were small holders who
grew just enough to support their families. They rented their
land from the rich landlords. The landlords wanted to make
more money and started to reduce the number of smallholdings
available to rent. They created larger farms that could only
be rented at a much higher price.
The income of tenant farmers was further reduced because
they had to pay tithes. Tithes were payments made for the
support of the parish church. These payments were made in
kind, for example crops or wool. Tithes were paid to the
Anglican Church in almost all Welsh parishes once a year. In
1836, an act was passed replacing payment in kind by a money
payment that was fixed by the vicar or sometimes by the
local landowner. As 80% of the population of west Wales was
Non-Conformist, they resented having to pay tithes to a
church that was not their own.
Another cause for discontent was the new Poor Law set up in
England and Wales in 1834. The rioters attacked workhouses
(poorhouses) as well as tollgates. The law meant that poor
relief was no longer paid to the able-bodied poor.
Instead, they were forced to live in a workhouse where
conditions were deliberately made harsher than the worst
conditions outside (the government believed that the cause
of poverty was laziness or a bad character).
history courtesy of the National Archives of the United
For more information on
the Rebeccan Riots: