Today, a look at the wacky, cross-dressing, Welsh tax resisters of the 1840s who called themselves “Rebecca and her daughters.”
The earliest mention I found in the Google News archives was a piece from the Carmarthen Journal that was picked up by The Public Ledger of :
Rebecca and Her Daughters
We regret to state that Rebecca and her daughters are still at their old work in the lower part of the country, notwithstanding the utmost exertions of the authorities to discover the parties implicated in these outrageous proceedings. About , Rebecca and a numerous party of her daughters proceeded to Pwlltrap, near St. Clears; and after arriving at the gate, the following colloquy took place between the old lady and her youthful progeny. Rebecca, leaning on her staff, hobbled up to the gate, and seemed greatly surprised that her progress along the road should be interrupted. “Children, (said she, feeling the gates with her staff,) there is something put up here, I can’t go on.”
Daughter.—“What is it, mother? nothing should stop your way.”
Rebecca.—“I do not know, children; I am old, and cannot see well.”
Daughters.—“Shall we come on, mother, nothing shall hinder you on your way?”
Rebecca.—“I do not know, children; I am old, and cannot see well?”
Daughters.—“Shall we come on, mother, and remove it out of your way?”
Rebecca.—“No, let me see, (feeling the gate with her staff;) it seems like a great gate put across the road to stop your old mother.”
Daughters.—“We will break it, mother, nothing shall hinder you on your journey.”
Rebecca.—“No, let us see, perhaps it will open, (feeling the lock.) No, children, it is bolted and locked, and I cannot go on. What is to be done?”
Daughters.—“It must be taken down, mother, because you and your children must pass.”
Rebecca.—“Off with it then, my dear children, it has no business here.”
With that the whole of the children set to, and in less than ten minutes there was not a vestige of the gate nor post remaining. Rebecca and her children then passed by, and immediately disappeared, having completed the work of destruction. The London police were at the Blue Boar at the time, but we were not aware that they had the least intimation of what was going forward, until their services could be of no avail.
A brief note in the edition of the same paper reads:
The nocturnal outrages of “Rebecca and her Daughters,” at Carmarthen have reached to such a height as to excite just grounds of apprehension that the magistracy of that and the adjoining counties of Pembroke and Cardigan will be obliged to place the whole district under military surveillance. From attacking and destroying turnpike gates situated in remote and unfrequented parts of the country, these violent men proceeded to exploits of greater daring; and at length, early on morning last, attacked and completely destroyed one of the gates of the county town—Carmarthen.
Pembroke, .—“Rebecca and her Daughters” have hitherto kept at some distance from this place, but last night, or early this morning, a notice was posted on the Holyland turnpike gate, within a mile of this town, as follows:—
“Take notice, I and my Daughters intend paying a visit to the union workhouse, Pembroke, on
Another notice was thrown over the workhouse wall, addressed to the manager, the purport of which was similar to the one in Holyland gate. We are under no apprehension of the ladies appearing here, but the Mayor has considered it necessary to be on the alert, and has sworn in several special constables.…
It is curious to mark with what steadiness of purpose and with what success the rioters of South Wales continue to knock down gates, break up toll houses, threaten toll-collectors, and baffle all the pursuits of the regiments. It is almost laughable to read of the dragoons scampering about from place to place, deluded by false intelligence, deceived by false signals, and baffled by the caution, the combination and the cunning of those whom they are directed to keep in check.
The soldiers receive certain information that the rioters are destroying a gate and alarming a whole neighborhood near some village with an unpronounceable name; the clank of sabres and the tread of war-horses sweeping along at speed are heard on the road; the soldiers approach the scene at a hand gallop; already on the other side of the mountain they hear the dropping shots, the sound of horns, and the voices of the rioters. Suddenly a solitary peasant is seen on the highest turret of the hill; he raises his hat as if to salute some one at a distance; the soldiers press forward; they dash towards the toll house, and find all desolate. The fragments of the gate are strewn across the road, the gate-house is in ruins, the keeper is found imprisoned in an adjacent barn, and the villagers are cowering in their cottages, alarmed even at the voices of the soldiery, and fearing every moment that the dreaded Rebecca will be upon them. The dragoons scour the adjacent passes, but not a soul is to be discovered far or near. Baffled and weary and dispirited, men and horses return towards their quarters. They have not proceeded far when they are met by a breathless messenger, who informs them that on their very footsteps “Rebecca and her daughters” have followed, and that between them and the place which they quitted but a few half-hours since another gate has been splintered, another toll-house dismantled. Again the soldiers prick forward in hope of falling in with some of the lawless band; but a similar scene of quiet desolation again awaits them, and they again dash into lanes, by-paths, and thickets, in the hope of discovering some wearing such disguises as those exhibited by the rioters. The mountain paths are deserted, the green slopes are without occupants, and
All seems as peaceful and as still
As the grey mist upon the hill.
The truth is, that though dragoons may do very well to quell violent acts by masses of evil-disposed individuals, they are not competent to act against such slippery people as Rebecca and her daughters. It would be as wise to take a chain cable to fish for eels, or to set an elephant to hunt rats, as to manœuvre bodies of soldiery against scattered companies of active mountain peasants united for the perpetration of mischief. It was folly in Lord John Russell on Friday night, blaming the government for not putting down these extraordinary malcontents, who seem so very mad, yet exhibit so much method in their madness. It is only very recently that Sir Robert Peel or Sir James Graham have learned with any degree of accuracy either the causes of discontent or the true nature of the disturbances. A tolerably strong body of police would in the first instance have been more effectual in detecting the rioters than all the military in existence. The magistrates of Carmarthen, however, asked for soldiers and soldiers were given to them. They did not, as they ought to have done, inform the government of the reason why the people were discontented. No; they asked for soldiers to keep the peasantry in order. The energetic reporter for the Times has shown the causes of the people’s uneasiness and the reason why they have been roused to take such very improper measures to get rid of their grievances. There is now every prospect of the speedy restoration of peace in these beautiful and once happy district. Mr. Hall, the intelligent magistrate of Bow-street, has been sent from London to take such measures as may appear most proper for the restoration of order. He will, without doubt, be charged to lay before government the cause of discontent. The very fact that the complaints of the people are likely to reach the ears of government will do more to allay discontent than any force of dragoons could effect in twelve months. However, other necessary precautions have not been neglected. A body of police has been also despatched to the disturbed districts; and while due efforts will be made to obtain such information as may enable the government to remove any real grievances or oppressions under which the poor Welsh farmers may labour, the capture and punishment of the guilty, who may persevere in acts of lawlessness and disorder, will be by no means neglected.
A report in The Public Ledger read as follows:
The Riots in Wales.— The latest accounts from South Wales bring no intelligence of any collision between “Rebecca’s daughters” and the military since the attack on the workhouse at Carmarthen; but the midnight war against tollbars appears to be still carried on with much vigour and perseverance as ever. Meanwhile the magistrates are beginning to take steps for asserting the supremacy of the law, and for putting a stop to those violent outrages which have lately created so much alarm in the counties of Pembroke, Carmarthen, and Cardigan. In the last-named county, a proclamation has been issued by the lord-lieutenant, in which the rioters are warned that certain ruin will speedily overtake them, should they persist in the course which they have lately been pursuing. If they have any real grievances, they are told to come peaceably and quietly to the magistrates at each petty sessions, and lay their complaints before them; in which case they are assured, that those complaints “will be heard and redressed in a legal and constitutional manner.” A letter from Carmarthen dated , says:— The attack upon and destruction of the gates not only is continued with increased daring, but is spreading into a wider locality. Not only have they levelled the principle gates in Carmarthenshire, but the work of destruction is going on in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, and yet not a single individual has been apprehended. A night or two since they marched in very large numbers to the Sceleddy gates, near Fishguard (where the French landed in ), and in a very short time demolished the gates, posts, and houses, and broke the toll-roads, &c., into pieces so small, that in the morning not a piece was discovered larger than would be fit for match-wood. After the work of destruction had been completed, the whole party left in the direction of the Haverford west-road, On the same night they attacked the Fishguard Hill-gate, which they also broke in pieces: they then proceeded to the toll-bar at the other end of Fishguard, where they attacked the toll-keeper’s house, the windows of which they demolished. Things have now reached such a pass, that it is thought by respectable persons of the neighborhood, that unless stopped, both private property and persons travelling on the roads will shortly be rendered very insecure. They appear now to have adopted plans to harass the soldiery. Dragoons were ordered to mount at eleven o’clock, to march to some gate in the neighborhood; just, however as the men were about to start at a gallop, subsequent information was received which prevented their proceeding. The troop of dragoons at St. Clear’s was also out upon the road all night, lights having been shown at various spots which induced them to believe that an attack was being made on gates in different stations.
In , the paper’s “private correspondent” from London wrote:
The Rebecca riots in the south-western portion of Wales have not been checked — that is, the nightly campaign against the bars has been carried on as boldly and with as much success as ever. One or two meetings have been held, in which, amongst other demands, a reduction of rents and a repeal of the poor-laws have been insisted on. Although I believe that as regards toll bars in particular the Welsh yeomanry have often just and great cause of complaint, yet it is necessary to caution those who derive their information from the Rebecca sympathizer, the Times, that the statements of its reporters are one-sided, very inflated, and based on mere report.
State of South Wales
The Pontardulais-gate, which the military went to on night, was on night again destroyed, and the toll-keeper given notice that, if any more tolls were attempted to be taken, they would pull the house down. In Llanelly all was quiet.
Further Rebecca outrages have occurred in the neighborhood of Haverford-west. The very night after the Wolfscastle meeting a large party of Rebeccaites destroyed the Fishguard and Parkymorfa turnpike gates, and cautioned the toll-collectors not to levy more toll; but they, not heeding Rebecca’s warnings, collected the toll as usual on the Saturday. This exasperated the Rebeccaites, and notices were sent to them to remove their furniture, or the toll-houses would be destroyed on Monday night. True to their threat, about 400 persons visited the Fishguard toll-house, and completely destroyed it. They then proceeded to Parkymorfa toll-house, and instantly demolished it. After firing guns and frightening a great number of the inhabitants, they levelled a piece of a wall belonging to the road surveyor, and dispersed about three o’clock. About 2,000 persons were assembled in the town, looking on whilst this was going on, but no one interfered.…
The Hobart Town Advertiser of gave us a tax resistance trifecta:
The resistance to the collection of poor rates in Ireland, not only continues, but is successful. On the a number of cattle were rescued from fifty police. At Kildorrery, near Cork, a large body of constabulary have been several days engaged in collecting; they have succeeded in seizing one goat. There must, however, be some reason for this, as the parish is assessed in £450 per annum for the support of three paupers.
The increased duty on Irish spirits is to be removed — the only effect was to increase illicit distillation. The decrease in the duty was £7,361 4s. The number of persons in confinement, for breach of the revenue laws, had increased from 84 to 368.
The disturbances in Wales are increasing in intensity, number, and boldness. A body of 800 to 1,000, half, at least, mounted, and very many of them respectable farmers, came into Carmarthen, on the , paraded through the streets, insulted and threatened the magistrates, and, finally, broke open the workhouse and commenced throwing the furniture into the yard. A troop of the 4th Light Dragoons, who had been sent for in anticipation, arrived, and the Riot Act being read, charged the rioters, who fled in all directions, except 80, who were taken after considerable resistance in the workhouse and committed to gaol. Rebecca has, in Wales, assumed the province of Captain Rock in Ireland, and threatens similar penalties.
A report, and some further paragraphs in the last one seem to hint that the Rebeccaites were either expanding their campaign into local, non-toll-related grievances, or that some people were disguising themselves as Rebeccaites as a way of trying to get their own vengeance and terrorism masked by the Rebecca phenomenon.
, The Sydney Morning Herald carried this report based on reporting from the Atlas and Times:
Outrageous Proceedings of “Rebecca and her Daughters”
Our readers are aware that for some time past a lawless band, somewhat fancifully yclept “Rebecca and her Daughters,” have produced considerable alarm in Wales, in consequence of their outrageous proceedings. This association contrived to shroud themselves in as much mystery as the Carbonari, and their deeds were more desperate and alarming than those of any secret body of modern days. Up to this hour, the chief who assumes the title of Rebecca, and dresses in women’s clothes, has alluded [sic] all the attempts made to discover his identity. Some say he is a county magistrate, others insinuate that he is a still more important personage; but the only certain thing is, that the “great unknown” has succeeded in organizing a large number of followers, who appear ready to adopt the most violent measures to procure what they term the redress of their grievances. Hitherto, turnpike-gates alone excited their fury, and all their energies were solely deovted to their destruction. On , however, they made a furious attack on the workhouse at Carmarthen, which would, no doubt, have been entirely destroyed had it not been for the opportune, but tardy, arrival of the military. These misguided men previously paraded the town, and, in answer to the persuasions of the magistrates to return home, stated that they had assembled to make a demonstration of their force, in order that the authorities might be aware of the means which they had at disposal to compel a compliance with their demands. According to a correspondent of the Times—
They then read a list of their complaints, and the changes they desired, which included not only the removal of all the turnpike gates in the county, but also the abolition of all tithe and rent-charge in lieu of tithes, the total alteration of the present poor-law, towards which they expressed the most bitter hostility, abolition of church-rates, and an equitable adjustment of their landlords’ rents. These, with other alleged grievances, six or seven in number, they stated their determination to get remedied.
Thus it would appear that the Rebecca movement is still more dangerous than the [Irish anti-Union] repeal movement, because, exciting as may be the speeches of Mr. O’Connell, physical force is always repudiated. These Welsh malcontents, however, appeal to arms at once, and assume such a formidable aspect, that considerable alarm was necessarily created throughout the whole of the districts which were the scenes of their exploits. This outrage adds another melancholy proof — none was wanting — of the existence of deep distress and discontent. However well founded the complaints of these men may be, they must be taught that such demonstrations can no longer be tolerated. Indeed, we think it will be a general feeling throughout the country, that there has been negligent supineness on the part of the Government: for although week after week every newspaper in the kingdom teemed with accounts of their lawless proceedings, and the acts of Rebecca and her Daughters have been bruited about in all directions, nothing in the way of prevention has been attempted, and all the descriptions that we have seen of the last riot admit that no precautions had been used, and that if the military had not arrived without delay, the most disastrous results would have ensued. The executive functions of a Government, which form so essential a portion of its attributes, appear to have been wofully neglected, and thus the evil has spread to a fearful extent. Really, the “strong” and “popular” Government, as some men delight to call it, has enough upon its hands. Discontent in England, threatened rebellion in Ireland, and open insurrection in Wales, these are tolerably significant symptoms of popular confidence.
The Hartford Times, , noted that reprisals had begun:
A Special Commission has been opened in Wales, by Mr. Baron Gurney and Mr. Justice Creaswell, for the trial of the parties connected with the late Rebecca riots. The proceedings occupied three days. One of the ringleaders was found guilty, and sentence to twenty years’ transportation.
And the good cop to the bad cop was, of course, an official government inquiry into whether there was anything to what these crazy Welshmen seemed so upset about. From The Bytown Gazette, :
Mr. Frankland Lewis has begun the inquiry into Welsh grievances in a fine spirit, which does credit to himself and the Government which appointed him. This passage in his address on opening the commission at Carmarthen extorts approval from the Times, even for a Poor-law Commissioner:— “They (the Ministers) are most anxiously desirous to ascertain whether there be any real causes of grievance subsisting, in order that by powers of the Executive Government or of Parliament, or of both combined, a legislative remedy may be effected; for which purpose we are here.
“Even to wrong-doers I will say, that this inquiry will be conducted with feelings of compassion and of kindness towards all. We know the infirmities of human nature, and cannot but feel deeply sorry for these who have been misled; for although the law must be upheld, we still feel (and it is my full conviction) that many have been misled from erroneous opinions, whom a wise, judicious, and I may say gentle treatment, may bring back into those right paths from which they have been induced to wander.”
The trial of John Hughes, the “Rebecca” in the attack on Portardulias gate on the night of the , began , at Cardiff.
The bad cop kept copping, but Rebecca’s daughters kept smashing up tollbooths, at least according to this Public Ledger article from :
The Rebecca Riots.— The Commission for the trial of the Rebecca rioters for Glamorganshire was opened at Cardiff on morning, and ended on , the judges being Mr. Baron Gurney and Mr. Justice Cresswell. The calendar contained seventeen prisoners; two cases of maliciously cutting and wounding, a third for shooting with intent to murder, and the remainder for assisting at various riots in demolishing the turnpikes at Pontardulias and other places. One of the prisoners who were convicted, was sentenced to be transported for twenty years, two others for seven years each, some to various terms of imprisonment, and others were discharged on their own recognisances. Accounts from this part of the principality are far from indicating a return to quietness and submission to the law. Scarcely a night passes without some daring outrage against persons or property being committed; and this, notwithstanding the large military force at the disposal of the executive, besides a numerous body of the most experienced of the London police.
The lamentable disturbances in Wales, committed by parties disguised as women, and known as “Rebecca and her daughters,” continued to an alarming extent. At first they confined themselves to the destruction of toll-gates at which excessive tolls were charged, but gathering courage from the impunity with which they committed outrages, latterly they have taken upon themselves the right, after the O’Connell fashion, of settling disputes about rents and tithes. Several encounters between the Rebeccaites and the police had taken place, and two murders had been committed.
, the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle reported on the Queen’s state of the union speech, or whatever it is they call it on that side of the pond:
The references to the agitation in Ireland and the tumults in Wales are both followed by promises in the first instance of amendments in the existing laws tending to improve the social condition of the country; and in the other of inquiry into the circumstances that have led a peaceable people to insubordination.
It is thus confessed that in both cases there has been wanting what the Legislature or the Government ought to have afforded, and that the commotions have had the effect of drawing attention to the grievances. So true is the maxim of Bentham, that “Never, but by making the ruling few uneasy, can the oppressed many hope for a particle of relief.” As Kings of old used to come forth to their palace gates and administer justice when the clamour of the complainants reached a certain pitch, so Governments now attend to the wrongs of the people when a sufficient uproar and commotion are made about them. But for Rebecca’s outrages, the Welsh would have been fleeced and oppressed by their magistrates till doomsday.
The Queen is made to tell the Welsh in substance that they will be punished for what they have done against the law, but that what they have done against the law shall obtain for them, after chastisement, inquiry and redress. This will serve at least encourager les autres.
The Times has some caustic remarks on the fall of the curtain and the lame epilogue to which we have adverted:—
“[O]n the subject of the Welsh disturbances, they tell us they have ‘adopted measures to repress’ them, and ‘have directed an inquiry to be made into the circumstances which led to them.’ We wish they had done the latter sooner, and done it in a more politic manner. What is the state of the case? These disturbances began as early as or ; and they began upon some very plain and tangible grievances, which might, we will be bold to say, have been effectually rectified, had they been attended to at first. Nothing is done, however, and the disturbances go on . They get worse and worse day after day, and month after month. Cavalry scour the country in vain; Rebecca begins to hold nocturnal meetings; Chartists appear. Turnpikes and market dues usher in the much more deep and ominous subject of rents. Under the auspices of a blundering magistracy, and a high-rental gentry, a fierce collision seems impending, and society to be on the brink of disorganization. What is done then? Mr. Hall, the Bow-street magistrate, is sent down to rescue the country.
Now, Mr. Hall is a clever man; Bow-street magistrates are a sharp class of men; but we have yet to learn that a Bow-street magistrate is exactly the person to deal with the evils of a country, and a whole disordered agricultural and trading system. A Bow-street officer is a dead hand at catching a thief, but that is all that he need be. Was Mr. Hall sent down to perform this professional office, and catch some three or four individuals of station who were suspected of being secret movers in these outbreaks — for the ‘detection of offenders,’ as the speech says? The policy of Government hardly improves upon such a view. What, are you going to put Wales in the watch-box — to bring her up before the sitting magistrate — place her at last before an omnipotent bar, and make her figure in the police reports? Nay, if the grievances of the Welsh are real, what so mighty offense is it, after all, if some respectable persons have taken them up? At all events, it is statesmanlike to be aiming at catching a few individuals instead of rectifying a system, and to be snapping at a few gnats when a whole atmosphere wants cleansing? Poor pin, needle, and bodkin work — mere ferreting, ratcatching! Sir James Graham has chosen an enviable profession, and is now, we presume, giving us a proof of his skill in it.”
The riots in Wales still continue unabated. Murder has been added to the other atrocities. a poor old woman, upwards of 70 years old, kept a gate near Contadulais, on the road from Llanelly. On the the house was set on fire over her head — she ran to beg her neighbors to assist her in putting out the fire and save her furniture — they refused from fear. She returned to save it by herself; they fired the house more effectually. She ran across the road and shouted, imprudently, that she knew them. One fired, and she fell. An inquest was held; her chest was full of blood, shots were found in her lungs, clearly the cause of her death. The jury returned a verdict — “That the deceased died from effusion of blood into the chest, which caused suffication; but from what cause is to this jury unknown.” The reporter of the Times says — “I shall, of course, make no comment upon this extraordinary verdict.”
There seems to be no doubt that the toll gates are a grievous injustice on the Welsh roads. Two shillings are required on one road for eleven miles; the tolls in some cases are more than the value of the goods carted, and on one road there has been paid in seven years £600 tolls, while not more than £3 has been expended during that period, and the road is in wretched repair.
That, notably, is the first time any of these newspaper accounts actually attempted to report on the Rebeccaist grievances in any sort of detail.
Clearly, I’m missing some important reporting from the London Times. And in relying on the press, I’m getting a distorted, third-party take on the events, with a strikingly conservative gloss. I’ll have to do some more research.
Interestingly, nearly a century before, some of the Whiteboy agitation in Ireland had a similar flavor to it, with the rebels declaring themselves to be in allegiance to “Queen Sive and her children.” The name Rebecca comes from a bible verse in Genesis in which Rebecca is told, “be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.” But I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the template predates the arrival of the bible in the area.