“Jack-a-Lents” Antics “High Treaſon,” Says King

A century before Rebecca and her daughters were engaging in their cross-dressing, toll-booth-destroying sprees in Wales, a group of “Jack-a-Lents” were doing much the same thing in England. I’ve so far found less trace of their antics in on-line archives, but I’ll share some of what I found today.

The London Gazette published a Royal Proclamation dated in which the King complained…

…that ſeveral ill deſigning and diſorderly Perſons, have of late, in a tumultuous and riotous Manner, aſſembled themſelves, both by Day and Night, in our Counties of Glouceſter and Hereford, and have cut down and deſtroyed ſeveral of the Turnpikes for repairing the Highways in the ſaid Counties, erected by Authority of Parliament, and have pulled down the Dwelling Houſe of one of the Turnpike-Keepers, and have made publick and open Declaration, that they would proceed to pull down ſeveral other Turnpikes; and that if any of the Commiſſioners ſhould attempt to ſet up the Turnpikes again, they would pull down their Houſes, and would cut down the Turnpikes as often as they ſhould be ſet up.

The King went on to call these acts “High Treaſon,” to threaten future offenders with seven years of exile, and to offer amnesty and a £50 reward to anyone who gave information leading to conviction of any of the rebels.

That apparently wasn’t good enough, as another Royal Proclamation followed, this one dated , similarly complaining…

…that ſeveral ill deſigning and diſorderly Perſons, having their Faces blacked, and being diſguiſed, and being armed with Fire Arms, and other offenſive Weapons, did, upon , aſſemble themſelves together in a riotous and tumultuous Manner at Ledbury, in our County of Hereford, and cut down and deſtroyed ſeveral of the Turnpikes for repairing the Highways erected by Authority of Parliament, in or near the ſaid Town of Ledbury, and made Publick and open Declaration, that they would not ſuffer any Turnpikes to be erected in or near the ſaid Town of Ledbury, and that if any of the Commiſſioners ſhould attempt to ſet up the Turnpikes again, they would pull down their Houſes, and would cut down the Turnpikes, as often as they ſhould be ſet up: And [furthermore] great Numbers of the ſaid Rioters and diſorderly Perſons did afterwards, on , make an attack upon the Houſe of John Skipp, Eſquire, one of our Juſtices of the Peace for our ſaid County of Hereford, who had ſecured in his Houſe two of the ſaid Rioters taken in the Fact and diſguiſed, in order to bring them to Juſtice, and threatned to pull down or fire his Houſe, if the ſaid two Rioters were not immediately delivered up to them: And [furthermore] ſeveral Guns were fired by the ſaid Rioters againſt the Perſons defending the ſaid Houſe, and in the ſaid Attack ſeveral Perſons were wounded on both Sides, and one of the Rioters was actually killed: And [furthermore] the Perſons concerned in the ſaid Riots, and ſeveral others of their Abettors, have at ſeveral times ſince aſſembled themſelves together in a riotous and diſorderly Manner in our ſaid County of Hereford, and have threatned to burn and deſtroy the Houſes, and to take away the Lives of the ſaid Mr. Skipp, and ſuch others of our Juſtices of the Peace, as ſhould dare to put the Laws in Execution againſt them; and that upon great Numbers of the ſaid Rioters made an attack upon Thomas Ireland, the Keeper of the County Gaol of Hereford, treated him in a very barbarous Manner, and compelled him by blows and threats, in order to ſave his Life, to ſign a Diſcharge to the Turnkey of the ſaid Counly Goal, to ſet the two Rioters at Liberty, who were ſo taken into Cuſtody as aforesaid, and afterwards robbed him of his Money…

The King then reminded everyone that this sort of thing was “High Treaſon,” and threatened yet more serious consequences: saying that if groups of Jack-a-Lents did not disperse after being read the riot act, or that if anyone were to be caught armed and in disguise, or if anyone is convicted of dismantling toll gates or trying to rescue prisoners being held for such offenses, they “shall be adjudged Felony without Benefit of the Clergy; and the Offenders ſhall ſuffer Death without Benefit of Clergy.” The King also boosted the reward to £100 and listed off a number of the “notorious offenders” the authorities were hunting for:

William Bithell, of Ledbury, Labourer, Elizabeth Walters, Servant to William Jones of the Noverings, in the Pariſh of Bosbury, in the ſaid County of Hereford, Richard Price of Ledbury aforeſaid, Carpenter, Thomas Bunting, late Servant to William Smith of Aſh, near Roſs, Thomas Arnold and William Carrier, two other Servants, who are ſaid to have lived with William Smith of Wilton, near Roſs, –– Jones, a Servant of Mrs. Abrahall of Ingeſton, John Powell, a Husbandman, who uſed to work for the late Mrs. Vaughan of Bayſham in King’s Caple, Thomas Phillips, a Welchman, ſaid to be a Bailiff in Husbandry to Thomas Symonds, Eſq; and Thomas Wellings, ſupposed to be a Bargeman…

The similarity between acts like these and the later Rebecca Riots seems not to have been often noted at the time of the latter, but I do have one example. This is a letter to the editor in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian from “A Farmer” published in its issue (about five years after the Rebecca Riots had died down):

Sir, — Turnpike-gate riots, almost in every respect similar to the Rebecca riots, took place in Bristol and its vicinity in . Colliers from Kingswood, country people from Gloucestershire and Somersetshire, assembled, “many naked with their faces blacked,” and destroyed the gates at Bedminster, Ashton, Don John’s Cross, Dundry, Backwell, Nailsea, Redcliffe, Totterdown, Teasford and Bath Roads, Hanham, Kingswood, Stoke’s Croft, &c., &c. They called themselves “Jack-a-Lents,” and had the letters J.L. on their hats and caps. They destroyed some houses, and were only stopped by the arrival of six troops of Dragoon Guards, when the principal ringleaders — Derrick, Cox, Robert Price, Walter Fitzharding, Pierce Robins, and others, were apprehended, and set off in postchaises with armed escorts to Ilchester gaol.*

From my old files.


* A letter was drawn up by the citizens of Bristol to the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State, requesting his Grace to order the sppedy trials of the several prisoners in the several gaols of the city for the same offence.

So apparently similar actions were going on as early as and as late as .