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The Rebecca Riots. An artist's depiction in the Illustrated London News, 1843.

The Rebecca Riots took place in 19th century rural Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire and were a protest against the high tolls (or taxes) which had to be paid to use the local Turnpike roads. These tolls were collected at toll-gates built at various points along the roads.

During the 18th century, locals trusts had been created throughout the country in order to maintain and improve the roads in their area, using tolls to fund the projects. The tolls were set mainly by local landowners and businessmen who ran the trusts. However, many trusts charged extortionate tolls and diverted the money raised to other uses.

These tolls imposed a heavy financial burden on poor farming communities who soon began to rebel by organising groups to destroy the toll-gates.

These gangs became known as Merched Beca (Daughters of Rebecca). The origin of their name is said to be in Genesis 24:60,

And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.

The first attack, on 13 May 1839, destroyed the toll-gates at Efailwen in Carmarthenshire. The rioting soon spread across the west of the country and into neighbouring Breconshire, Cardiganshire, Glamorgan and Radnorshire. In each of the riots the leaders wore women's clothes to avoid identification and were lead by one person who took the name Rebecca. It is said that before each attack the rioters would carry out a ritual before destroying the gates. This would involve the Rebecca dismounting from a horse and approaching the toll gate and performing the dialogue:

Rebecca - What is this my children? There is something in my way. I cannot go on.
Daughters - What is it, mother Rebecca? Nothing should stand in your way,
Rebecca - I do not know my children. I am old and cannot see well.
Daughters - Shall we come and move it out of your way, mother Rebecca?
Rebecca - Wait! It feels like a big gate put across the road to stop your old mother.
Daughters - We will break it down, mother. Nothing should stand in your way.
Rebecca - Perhaps it will open.... Oh my dear children, it is locked and bolted. What can be done?
Daughters - It must be taken down, mother. You and your children must be able to pass.
Rebecca - Off with it then, my children,

and at this point the rioters would destroy the toll gate.

None of these leaders was ever caught and, of those rioters who were apprehended, prosecution rarely followed as no-one was prepared to give evidence against them.

On several occasions, Church of England clergymen, regarded as part of the establishment, were also targeted.

The rioting led to a Royal Commission into the whole question of toll roads, which resulted in most of the tolls reduced or simplified.

In 1992 the film Rebecca's Daughters was released. It was adapted from an earlier novel by Dylan Thomas.

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