The Rebecca riots, 1839-43 - Jon Bauckham

Contemporary cartoon of the Rebecca riots

A short account of the successful protest movement in Wales against excessive road tolls, when locals would wear dresses and blacken their faces in disguise and destroy toll gates.

Late one night in August 1843, William Rees was rudely awoken by knocking on the door of his tollhouse at Trevaughan Turnpike Gate, in Carmarthenshire.

It wasn’t that unusual for him to be disturbed while trying to get some kip, as he was tasked with collecting money from travellers making their way along the bumpy road to St Clears.

But when William opened the door, he found himself surrounded by an angry mob, with three guns pressed against his chest. They weren’t after money, but his toll book, which recorded the names of those who had refused to pay the charge. Terrified, Rees gave in to his attackers’ demands, before they rode off into the night.

It was a lucky escape, as in recent months, scores of people had been destroying tollgates scattered across the Welsh countryside. Operated by private turnpike trusts, the gates had been installed on the instructions of English landowners, who then demanded extortionate fees to use their roads.

This was met with resentment and loathing as farmers relied on the roads to transport carts of lime to use as fertiliser on their fields. It was claimed that it could cost ten times as much in tolls to move the lime than buy it in the first place.

To fight the fees, protesters chose an unconventional costume. With blackened faces and dressed in women’s clothing, the God-fearing Welshmen dubbed themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’ – referring to the Biblical figure who had spoken of the need to “possess the gates of those who hate them”.

It was an unusual tactic, but it appeared to work. At a court hearing, William Rees could not identify any of his attackers, recalling only the sight of “white frocks” and “coloured handkerchiefs tied under their chins”.

Many of the protests tended to follow a ritual, whereby a ringleader (‘Rebecca’) would stumble towards a gate like a blind, elderly woman. The ‘daughters’ would then clear the path with an almighty racket. A local newspaper recalled the scene after a riot at Llandeilo: “pickaxes, hatchets, crowbars, and saws were set in operation and the gate was entirely demolished.”

But the protests weren’t purely about the tolls. For rural communities, mired in poverty, the gates were a symbol of gross inequality. Rents and church tithes were spiralling out of control, while the centuries-old Poor Law had paved the way for workhouses.

After months of disorder – including the death of a tollhouse keeper near Swansea – the government concluded that the turnpike trusts should be merged and tolls reduced.

It was only a small step towards progress, but in this instance, Rebecca had won.