The Mysterious Tollgate Destroying “Jack a Lents”

I noted one author’s comparison of the Rebecca Rioters to another set of tollbooth-destroyers a century earlier called “Jack a Lents.” Hunting up information on the Jack a Lents has been tougher, but there are some notes in Thomas Wright’s England Under the House of Hanover:

The following particulars relating to these insurgents are taken from the Daily Gazetteer of and :—

There are now committed to the county gaol two, and more are daily expected, of the Ledbury rioters, who rather deserve the name of rebels, for they appeared a hundred in a gang, armed with guns and swords, as well as axes to hew down the turnpikes, and were dressed in women’s apparel, with high-crown’d hats, and their faces blacken’d. I suppose you have heard of the attack they made at Ledbury on the , when in two hours’ time they cut down five or six turnpikes to the ground; but, before they had gone through all their work, they were disturbed by a worthy magistrate in the neighbourhood, John Skipp, Esq.; who, being in the commission of the peace, caused the proclamation to be read against riots, and then the act of Parliament; but to no purpose; for this gentleman, with his servants and neighbours, going to defend the last turnpike, a skirmish ensued, in which he took two of those miscreants prisoners, whom he secured for that night in his own house; but the whole gang appeared soon after, who demanded the said prisoners, threatening, in case of refusal, to pull his house down, and burn his barns and stables, and immediately discharged several loaded pieces into the house, which happily did no damage. The justice finding himself and family beset in such a manner, discharged several blunderbusses and fowling-pieces at them, whereby one was shot dead on the spot, and several so wounded, that ’tis not believed they will recover. At this the rioters fled with precipitation, leaving their two companions behind them. But ’tis fear’d that more blood will yet be spilt, the country being in the greatest confusion, and I am informed that an attempt is designed upon the county gaol; but the quarter sessions being to be held next week, a petition will no doubt be presented to the justices for relief.

You have already heard that two men were committed to the keeper of the gaol of this county, for the riot at Ledbury. I am now to acquaint you, that on above twenty of those turnpike cutters or levellers, as they call themselves, though that is a character by much too good for them, met with the said keeper at the King’s Head Inn at Ross fair, and demanding his reasons for detaining those two men in custody, without giving him time to return an answer, dragged him out of the inn into the street, knocked him down several times, and almost murdered him, notwithstanding all that the innkeeper and his servants could do to prevent it, who were used in a very cruel manner for assisting him. The villains immediately carried the keeper to Wilton’s Bridge, where at first they concluded to throw him into the river Wye; but at length they agreed to carry him to a place where they would secure him till they themselves had fetched the prisoners out of custody. The better to complete that design, they dragged him four miles in his boots and spurs, to a place called Horewithey, a public-house, where he was kept prisoner, beat in a shameful manner by those merciless wretches, and obliged to write a discharge to the turnkey, being threatened, in case of refusal, to be hanged upon the spot. Four gentlemen from Hereford, who followed them, and endeavoured to dissuade them from such wickedness and cruelty, were inhumanly beat, and obliged to ride off for their lives. After they had detained the keeper near six hours at the house aforesaid, they ferried him over the Wye, walked him about the country till near four o’clock in the morning, and then robbed him of his money. Those that robbed him made off, but left others to guard him, who, quarrelling and fighting about dividing the booty, it gave the keeper an opportunity to make his escape out of the villains’ hands with his life, but not without bruises in abundance.

Rebecca and Her Daughters

This illustration, commonly found on-line as a contemporary representation of the Rebeccaites, is actually a political cartoon from Punch that compares the agitators for Irish independence with the Rebecca Rioters. In the cartoon, Irish independence fighter Daniel O’Connell, dressed as a woman, joins in hacking away at the gate of Union, Tithes, Church Rates, and Poor Laws, while Prime Minister Robert Peel hides in the gatehouse.

I’ve since found an even earlier example. During the “Western Rising” of , protesters were led by men dressed in women’s clothing who collectively used the alias “Lady Skimmington.”

“Skimmington” comes from the name of a spontaneous scapegoating or shaming festival of the period, while “Jack-a-Lent” comes from the name of a figurine that was used as a ritual scapegoat around Lent.