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. 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 (Daughter's of Rebecca). The origin of their name is said to be from a verse 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. 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 1991 the film Rebecca's Daughters was released. It was adapted from a novel by Dylan Thomas.
- "The Rebecca Riots", David Williams, University of Wales Press, ISBN 0-7083-0933-X
- "And they blessed Rebecca", Pat Molloy, Gomer Press, ISBN 0-86383-031-5