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

By Karen Harris
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.

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