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The Rebecca Riots Of The 1830s And 1840s (When Welsh Peasants Revolted Tolls)

1800s | March 19, 2021

During the Rebecca Riots in Wales, men and boys, dressed as women, attacking a turnpike gate in protest at charges at tollgates on public roads. From The Illustrated London News (London, 11 February 1843). (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Life was tough for Welsh peasants in the 1830s. Poor farmers couldn't own their own land and had to pay a portion of their crops to their landlords, a portion of their income to the church, and a lot of taxes on top of it. When the towns of Wales built toll booths along all the roads and started charging the peasant farmers just to get to the market, they finally had enough and revolted in a most unusual way: dressing up as women and attacking the toll booths.

The Last Straw

A number of factors contributed to the economic hardship experienced by Welsh peasants in the 1830s and '40s. During the preceding decades, the population of rural farmers in Wales had nearly doubled, so jobs were scarce. In the past, each town or village had its own plot of public ground where farmers could graze their sheep and cattle, but that was no more. By the 1830s, the common grounds were fenced off, accessible only by fee, and crop farmers were forced to rent from the landed gentry, who charged them outrageous prices. Peasants were also required to tithe the church 10% of their income, which wasn't much. In fact, between the saturation of the market and the price of simply doing business, many farmers were left with a higher tax burden than income.

The last straw came when towns in the Welsh counties of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, and Cardiganshire decided all those taxes weren't enough to maintain their infrastructure and erected toll booths along the roads going into and out of the towns. That was a big problem for the already cash-strapped peasants: The Welsh market town of Carmarthen alone contained a full dozen toll booths that could charge whatever they liked. Initially, peasants simply took their wagons and carts off-road around the toll booths, but that only worked until they found a new gate at a common entry point in Efailwen. They were ready to make their grievances known ... and to do it in style.

Cartoon published in Punch in 1843 depicting events inspired by the Rebecca Riots of South Wales. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Rebecca Riots

Taking down the gate at Efailwen and the rest of the toll booths wasn't going to be easy. The peasant farmers couldn't afford arrest or retaliation, but when they noticed that guards at the toll booths tended to pay less attention to the innocent peasant women hitting up the market, they realized they could not only disguise themselves but also catch the guards unawares by dressing as women.

Inspired by Genesis 24:60, which reads, "And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, 'Thou art our sister, by thou the mother of thousands of millions and thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them," the leaders of various peasant drag mobs began calling themselves Rebecca and their men Rebecca's daughters. Their first target was the gate at Efailwen, which they successfully destroyed in a sneak attack in 1839.

For the next four years, Rebecca and her daughters burned down, dismantled, or otherwise demolished every toll booth in all three counties that erected them. On a roll, they also sent threatening letters to landlords, demanding that rents be lowered, and held massive protests against their exorbitant rents, taxes, and tithes.

Aberystwyth Southgate Tollhouse, now located at St Fagan's National History Museum, Cardiff. (Darren Wyn Rees/Wikimedia Commons)

Stopping The Rebeccas

The Welsh government sent soldiers to quell the Rebecca Riots, but the Rebeccas outwitted them by planting false intel about upcoming attacks. They also knew the countryside much better than the soldiers and sent them on so many wild goose chases that they became the laughingstock of Wales. 

It wasn't until a reporter from the London Times, Thomas Campbell Foster, arrived in Wales to cover the riots that negotiations between the peasants and their oppressors began in earnest. The government agreed to revamp the toll system and modify unjust laws, the landed gentry agreed to lower rents, and the economic situation of the Welsh peasants slowly began to improve, all thanks to some dudes in dresses.

Tags: 1800s | british history | riot

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.