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Rebecca 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.

The 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.


The main 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 poverty.

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).

Public history courtesy of the National Archives of the United Kingdom

For more information on the Rebeccan Riots: