14 - The Rebecca Riots
The Rebecca Riots were a series of protests against conditions in the rural areas of Wales between 1839 and 1843. They mainly involved attacks on toll gates on the roads of rural Wales, particularly West Wales.
The common lands which were once available for the use of all the people in a village were now enclosed - that is they had become the property of the landlords and were leased out to farmers. Rents were quite high - and out of proportion to what farmers could earn from their produce. The prices the were receiving for cattle and sheep were falling. The main reason for the choice of toll gates as targets for Rebecca, was that the booths and gates were tangible representations of the system they so despised. In the early 19th century many toll-gates on the roads in Wales were operated by trusts which were supposed to maintain and improve the roads, funding this from tolls. However, many trusts charged extortionate tolls and diverted the money raised to other uses.
The 'oppression', felt by the farmers, began in the late 1830s, when a group of English toll-renters took over the region's trusts. This group was led by Thomas Bullin, an Englishman, who was hated by those who paid his tolls. The main reason for his dislike was the exacting method of the toll collection and the big toll increases of side-bars. The side-bars were simple toll gates, away from the main trunk roads, placed strategically on by-roads to catch any traffic that had tried to bypass the main toll booths via side lanes. These side-bars increased the cost dramatically of farmers' carting lime to their fields that was needed as fertilizer or to counteract acidity in soil: e.g. it was said that it cost ten times as much in road tolls to cart lime to a farm in the hills inland than the price of the lime itself.
The farmers would attack the gates at night. They dressed as women and blacked their faces to conceal their identity. Often the proceedings would take the form of a skit which went something like this..
The riots were an important socio-political event within Wales. In the aftermath of the riots, some rent reductions were achieved, the toll rates were improved and the protests prompted several reforms, including a Royal Commission into the question of toll roads, which led to the Turnpikes Act of 1844. This Act consolidated the trusts, and simplified the rates; furthermore it reduced the hated toll on lime movement by half.
More importantly, the riots inspired later Welsh protests. Recently a group of 100 men from a male voice choir in Newport dressed as women and went to the Severn bridge to protest against the bridge tolls – and as some of you may know they have recently been reduced! Protest works!