Occupy the Tollgates: the Rebecca riots as myth, meme and movement
Originally written for Wales Arts Review 13.11.15
Part of the pleasure of studying history is its ability to throw as much light on the present as the past. Long-term perspectives can make the short-term easier to understand. For me, having an interest in history was a function of growing up in a place which often seemed to consist, as the poet observed, of nothing but the past. History in Wales is not so much submerged as sedimentary, with much of it seeming to commemorate only struggle, failure, loss, and things which might have been. In school and out of it, I learnt about the Valleys’ radical tradition: the Scotch Cattle’s nascent trade union agitation, the raising of a red flag in the 1831 Merthyr Rising, and Welsh Chartism’s mass drive for popular democracy and parliamentary reform. Intrinsically tied to the progress of industrial capitalism, the grand narrative of the south Welsh coalfield presented instance after instance of the clash between workers trying to improve their conditions and local employers and authorities. In this context, things like the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, which still casts its shadow over post-industrial parts of the country, slotted more comprehensibly into place. The history of my part of Wales, it seemed, was full of conflict, resistance, opposition – and, apparently, inevitable defeat. While this knowledge helped me to make historical and political sense of myself and my surroundings, it became at the same time a source of fatalism and of pique. However inspiring and heroic figures like the Merthyr Rising’s Lewsyn yr Heliwr or the Chartist leader John Frost seemed to me, they were also undeniably tragedies, martyrs, their stories bleak and their endings unhappy.
When I looked at the gloomy chronicles of Welsh protest, its single bright spot seemed to originate further afield, not from my own bleak and militant south-east coal and iron belt but from the country’s apparently placid south-west muzzle of Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. The 1840s agricultural unrest known as the Rebecca riots is remembered as having been an unqualified success and, most famously, as having been carried out on horseback at night by men dressed, for some reason, like our grandmothers. The Rebecca riots capture the retrospective imagination, much as they did at the time, by their colourful and spectacular qualities – not least the fantastical images of stout Welsh farmers sporting bonnets and petticoats – and by their appearing to be a textbook example of righteous community uprising against unfair financial penalties, a bit like a nineteenth-century incarnation of the Poll Tax Riots. I spent a chunk of my postgraduate years examining how true this impression was, and discovered a complex but still inspiring picture. Having maintained my interest in the Rebecca movement through years of incremental independent study. I now find myself in the vaguely surreal position of bringing out my own book on it.
Rebeccaism, then: what happened, and why? For south-west Wales, the early 1840s were years of population growth, increasing poverty and unemployment, and deepening social and economic division between landowning gentry and their tenant-farmers and labourers. The latter group, facing a fall in income due to bad harvests and low prices for their produce, saw no such fall in the money they had to spend, as church tithes and poor rates remained constant or increased and landlords refused to lower their rents. This material pressure intersected with a developing sense of cultural conflict between largely Welsh-speaking, chapel-going tenants and Anglicised, Church-going landowners. Additionally, the effects of the 1834 New Poor Law were also restricting the support that poverty-stricken individuals could expect from their local authorities. Those asking for help risked being committed to one of the multiplying number of workhouses, in which families were separated and conditions frequently made deliberately harsh in order to discourage applicants from seeking further relief. In 1843, the Welshman newspaper described the region’s rising sense of economic and social crisis:
Distress and ruin are progressing with giant strides all over the country. The manufacturers are stopping work because they cannot sell their goods; and their workmen are thrown upon the parishes and cease to buy the food, clothing and provisions which the farmers have to sell. This produces distress among the farmers, besides a heavy increase in their poor rates; and then as the farmers find they cannot dispose of their cattle and their corn, they will by degrees cease to produce them; up will go the prices to those few of the public still able to buy, and then will come in a flood of corn and cattle from foreign countries which will . . . put the finishing stroke to [the farmer’s] misery, unless his landlord will give up his rents – a thing not very likely to happen.
For many, the final straw came when the area’s road-maintenance trusts – groups responsible for the privatised upkeep of roads – made their collection of tolls far more demanding and pernicious. The Peel government’s detailed inquiry in 1844 into the operations of the trusts found no evidence of systematic mismanagement, but did uphold several popular objections to them, including charging excessive tolls, often at two or more gates placed on the same road. So it might have come as no surprise when, in May 1839, a toll gate at Efailwen on the Pembrokeshire–Carmarthenshire border was demolished and its tollhouse set on fire. The culprits were a group of men dressed, reportedly, in white ‘smock-frocks’, aprons, shawls, bonnets and petticoats. Further tollgates were targeted in the winter of 1842 and spring of 1843, with attacks usually led by a single cross-dressed figure referred to as ‘Rebecca’. Despite the presence of troops and magistrates at the scene of destroyed toll gates, no admissions of responsibility were made or convictions achieved for any of the incidents.
On 19 June 1843, a mass march of the discontented populace took place in the regional capital, Carmarthen. Those taking part intended to parade through the town to Carmarthen Guildhall, where they would outline their grievances – including rents, tithes and workhouses as well as turnpike tolls – to the town’s magistrates. Some contemporary reports, intriguingly, alleged that there were Chartist activists in the crowd, along with ‘inflammatory placards’ calling for political as well as socio-economic reform. As the demonstration passed Carmarthen workhouse, a breakaway group invaded the building with the apparent aim of demolishing it. Occupying the dining-hall and turning out the inmates while staff and local dignitaries remonstrated with them, the crowd dispersed only at the arrival of the military and reading of the Riot Act. The dramatic nature of events at Carmarthen gained the movement national attention. The Times dispatched a dedicated reporter to the area, whose regular reports attributed the riots to economic distress but also blamed central government for provoking unrest through its ‘centralizing, theorizing’ tendencies and lack of consideration for local circumstances.
Throughout July and August 1843, Rebeccaism became so visible and volatile that one historian called the period ‘midsummer madness’. Despite an increased military presence in the area, disturbances grew more violent as well as more diverse in tactics and targets, with threatening letters, damage to property, arson and physical assaults directed at landowners, bailiffs, gamekeepers, judges, employers and Anglican clergymen. ‘Rebecca’ urged farmers to collectively petition their landlords for rent reductions, as well as demanding financial support for unmarried mothers who had been disadvantaged by the New Poor Law. As autumn advanced, the unrest spread to semi-industrialised south-east Carmarthenshire, where farmers attacking toll gates were joined by local mineworkers, who were themselves experiencing falling wages and unemployment. In September 1843 a battle took place between Rebeccaites and the military at Pontarddulais, with gunfire exchanged and seven arrests made, while the destruction of a tollhouse at Hendy saw its toll-keeper shot and killed. By this stage, the movement’s increasing violence was unsettling many of its previous adherents, and its anonymity and immunity from prosecution was beginning to fracture, with several participants sought out, arrested and transported. In early 1844, the government commissioners charged with examining the circumstances behind the riots reported their findings. Recommending changes to toll administration, their intervention in the form of the 1844 Turnpike Act seemed to mark the end of Rebeccaism in its ‘classic’ phase.
In repeated retellings over the past century and a half, this story’s spiky contours have been smoothed into something resembling a fairy-tale: Once upon a time, we are told, men in women’s clothing struck down the villainous tollgates, and after the government waved its magic wand they all lived happily and travelled toll-free ever after. It’s a great story to tell, particularly if one’s history is otherwise full of unsuccessful struggle, but what struck me when researching Rebeccaism was the extent to which, in the pursuit of a happy ending, significant aspects of the movement have been forgotten or underplayed. Opposition to tollgates is only one part of a fuller and more interesting story. Rebeccaism, it turns out, was a wide-ranging movement concerned with defending the established rights of rural communities and with popular opposition to injustice. It formed part of the dislocation, conflict and resistance generated in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain by the shift from a society regulated by paternalist obligations, the authority of popular custom, and what E. P. Thompson called a pre-existing ‘moral economy’, towards an economy, politics and society informed by industrial capitalism. Faced with absent, negligent or actively oppressive local authorities, people attempted to remedy their collective discontent by taking matters into their own hands. Rather than a single-minded and focused campaign against road tolls in particular, this looked more like a Victorian version of Occupy – a broad if not always coherent social movement which arose to call attention to the negative social and economic impact of political changes and to the lack of attention by local elites to those they governed. Protestors obscured their identity and proclaimed their allegiance using bonnets and petticoats rather than Guy Fawkes masks, and, rather than ‘the 99%’, they called themselves ‘the children of Rebecca’.
Rebeccaism has been very well documented by, among others, David Williams in 1955 and David J. V. Jones in 1989, but my reading and research still left me with a handful of unanswered questions. Why had these men donned women’s clothing to protest? Why, when they had opposed workhouses, churches, bailiffs and landowners, were their subsequent memorialists only interested in tollgates? How did ‘respectable’ middle-class farmers end up fighting alongside proto-proletarian labourers from local coalmines and ironworks? Some of the aspects I found most fascinating – the use of costume, the press attention given to the movement – were those that previous historians had considered too obscure to analyse or simply irrelevant for their purposes. But, in the past few decades, the development of cultural history and the influence it draws from the neighbouring fields of anthropology and literary theory has made it possible to explore parts of history that previously looked impenetrable.
A cultural perspective makes it easier to examine the symbol and ritual used in Rebeccaite activity, including the celebrated adoption of stereotypical women’s clothing by male protesters. Previous studies have interpreted cross-dressing only as a method of disguise, or as an allusion to the social and community roles of women. However, I argue that Rebeccaite costume also expressed several additional oppositions, and that the destabilising of categories involved in this costume formed part of a ritual process intended to create a liminal space. When in this space during protest, participants could carry out extraordinary actions, liberated from the responsibilities of their everyday roles and identities within a more restrictive social structure
Studying the social and cultural framework of events can also demonstrate what insights the Rebecca riots have to offer on historical images of women and ideas about women and men. Rebecca’s establishment as a popular cultural heroine – or anti-heroine – in the national press, and in public and political discourse, involved ‘her’ being cast in a variety of roles and narratives which reflected contemporary attitudes towards gender. The costume and behaviour of ‘Rebecca’ in itself reflected the images of female power and agency which were available in south-west Wales. Additionally, attempts by Rebeccaites to oppose the New Poor Law, as part of which they upheld the rights of single mothers and illegitimate children, formed part of popular resistance to the Victorian state’s attempts at imposing social discipline upon pre-existing cultural attitudes that had granted women greater rights and agency.
Despite the highly visible and important role of women’s clothing in Rebeccaite protest, the movement is often thought of as involving only men. Although participants tried to keep themselves anonymous, a handful of names have come to light as part of Rebecca’s legend: Twm Carnabwth, the first man known to play Rebecca in 1839; John Hugh, John Hughes and David Jones, arrested and transported to Tasmania for rioting in 1843; and the notorious Shoni Sguborfawr and Dai’r Cantwr, proto-gangsters who are often presented as the villains of the piece. However, women were also present in supplementary and supporting roles within Rebeccaism. The Carmarthen demonstration in June 1843 included women marchers, and around two-thirds of street spectators were women and young girls. During the storming of Carmarthen workhouse Frances Evans, a local servant girl, was observed urging the invading crowd onto the building’s upper floor (and, scandalously, dancing on the dining-hall table, for which she later found herself on trial). Women turned out to witness and encourage the destruction of toll gates, and courtrooms were regularly thronged with the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and partners of arrested Rebeccaites.
Which is exactly what you might expect, of course. This was a community movement, involving all who were affected by economic and social disadvantage. Women are not and never have been hermetically sealed away from protest, and indeed notably took leading roles in pre-industrial food riots. In popular movements up to the Miners’ Strike and beyond, women have taken their place alongside men. This perspective, which one might call common-sense, made it all the more depressing to see the recent #WelshHistoryMonth criticised on Twitter for its relative though not complete absence of women. What we think of as traditional history is still subject to some astonishingly big blind spots, whether in relation to gender or to race or sexuality. E. P. Thompson’s enduringly majestic The Making of the English Working Class has nonetheless been validly criticised by feminist historians for its lack of attention to women’s role in working-class consciousness and activism. As late as 1986, the Welsh historian Deirdre Beddoe sharply observed that “Welsh history, like English history, has been about chaps”. Recent historians including Angela V. John, Rosemary A. N. Jones, Sharon Howard, Jane Aaron and Beddoe herself have attempted to redress the balance. Ultimately, though, the solution is not to elevate ‘women’s history’ over ‘men’s history’, nor to study the roles and stories of women in sterile isolation, nor to make do with token examples of individual women – whose prominence is frequently a by-product of their privilege – to the exclusion of the multitudes of ordinary women who have also been part of making history. What is needed, as Joan Wallach Scott advocated when critiquing Thompson, is a holistic perspective which takes account of the fact that history is the creation and the intersectional experience of both women and men, as well as of all races and classes. In 2015, this shouldn’t still sound like a revolutionary suggestion.
Rebeccaism may have dropped beneath the official radar following government intervention in 1844, but it did not die. A ‘second Rebecca Riots’ took place in 1870s and 80s Radnorshire over the privatisation of salmon reserves, and Rebecca’s name and image have been continuously referenced in twentieth and twenty-first century Welsh protest. In 1973 the journalist Paddy French founded a radical magazine, scrutinising and challenging corruption among establishment figures, which he titled Rebecca. The 1970s also saw the forming of the Welsh arts collective known as the BECA group, in protest at the lack of official recognition or support in Wales for politicised art. In Pembrokeshire at the turn of the millennium, environmental protesters took the name Deffro Rebecca (‘Wake up Rebecca’) and wore ‘traditional’ Welsh dress. Rebeccaite symbolism has always been fluid and flexible, capable of inspiring popular action often far removed from the purposes of its originators. Its staying power and evolving use by those wishing to express opposition to one or many perceived injustices means that it could be described, in modern parlance, as ‘a unit for carrying cultural [or political] ideas’ – a meme.
The ways in which popular resistance took shape in the past can inform how we think about politics and popular movements today. The international financial crisis of 2008 has inspired movements united, as the Rebeccaites were, by their common resentment of remote, incompetent or corrupt elites, economic and social inequality, and the growing distance between themselves and those with decision-making power. In Western Europe, while the protests of the past few years may have dramatically pulled back the curtain on the extent of popular discontent, the decades beforehand were spent setting the stage for it – not only through growing economic hardship in an increasingly post-industrial economy, but also through the accumulation of wealth by a super-rich elite, marginalising of workers’ organisations, spread of precarious labour and diminishing of the welfare state. The problems of the 1840s – poverty, high rents, unemployment, privatisation of common space – are hardly unfamiliar today.
In the present century, the relative decline of mass-membership political parties or trade unions seeking constitutional channels of redress has been accompanied by a resurgence of Rebecca-like mass movements, anonymous and leaderless. Those taking part in such movements find themselves criticised as naïve idealists at best and irresponsible insurrectionaries at worst, in terms which continue the historically uneasy reaction of the establishment to popular unrest. The Daily Telegraph in 1879 denounced Rebeccaism, in an oddly familiar tone, as ‘the rallying-cry of discontent, representative of the “ultimate argument” of a people too impatient or too ignorant to redress their grievances by constitutional means’. The use of similar language to decry contemporary discontent illustrates that we are once again facing a situation where political and economic elites pay little attention to constitutional expressions of opposition, and where the individual citizen feels increasingly little control over their own working and living conditions. When those in power appear uninterested in and impervious to constitutional protest, direct action will inevitably look, as it did to the followers of Rebecca, like a more attractively effective – or at least attention-grabbing – option. Many of us are still Rebecca’s children.
Reblogged this on Industrial Workers of the World Dorset.