The Grievances Behind the Rebecca Uprising

This article, from the Monmouthshire Merlin, touches only indirectly on the work of the Rebeccaites, but gives a good feel for the sorts of concerns that were finding that movement sympathy and followers in the Welsh population:


Important Meeting.

A large meeting of farmers, freeholders, miners, and inhabitants from the several parishes of Llanguick, Llandilo, Llangadock, and Bettws, was held on a common, Bryn Cwm Llynfell, situate on the border of three counties, viz., Glamorganshire, Brecnockshire, and Carmarthenshire, on . John Jones, Esq., of Bryn Ammon, in the chair.

The place of the meeting was romantically situated in the very heart of the mountain, Mynydd dû, or Black Mountain, forming the northern boundary. The approach was somewhat difficult and dangerous, passing over an extensive common or bog, called Waun Cae Gurwen Common, which a stranger would find almost impossible to traverse safely without a guide. Being accompanied by gentlemen who well knew the track, we succeeded in crossing and recrossing without accident, although in the dark, the meeting not terminating till It was necessary, however, to march in Indian file, passing the word of caution from van to rear when any dangerous part occurred. At length a steep and rugged descent into Guthe Vaur Valley, terminated the perils and dangers of our passage, and the generous hospitality of our worthy chairman and host, at Bryn Ammon House, revived our drooping energies; it was, however, about ere we reached Swansea, after an absence of nearly eighteen hours.

The Chairman opened the meeting by stating, that the meeting was called to take into consideration the cause of the present difficulties and distress under which the country suffered. That the various complaints would be laid before the meeting by the different speakers, whom he requested to state unhesitatingly their opinions on the subject.

The Chairman then said it was intended by nature that every man should be happy; if he was not so, there must be a cause, and the object of the meeting was to enquire into the cause of the present misery and distress. Had any one anything to say?

Mr. Benjamin Hall, of Fountain Hall: Allow me to say, the great men who have made the laws, have done so in ignorance of the wants and the condition of the people. Let every man come forward boldly, and explain fairly his view of the causes of the present distress. Never mind homely language; we are not here to make fine speeches. If we do not help ourselves, no one else will. We have been oppressed for years. and may continue to be oppressed for years to come, if we don’t put our shoulders to the wheel.

Mr. John Jenkins, M.A. of Swansea: A gentleman said a few days ago, that the farmers of Carmarthenshire and Glamorganshire knew nothing at all about the matter, but he said to the meeting, let them come forward and give the lie direct to that, by each man saying what he had to say. The voice of the people must do away with all grievances.

Mr. Samuel Williams, farmer, of Cwm Garw: I can say plainly enough what are our grievances. We pay a 6th and 7th, instead of a 10th for tithes. It is not the gentlemen that oppress us as much as the competition amongst ourselves — that has caused the distress. The restriction upon trading over the sea has been upheld as keeping up the price of agricultural produce; but I am willing to have it done away. The landlords held out restriction as a bugbear over us.

Mr. Hopkin Herbert, farmer, Cwm Nantymoel: I think all the farmers will agree with the last speaker, that tithes are oppressive. With regard to the poor-rates, only 6s. 6d in the pound go toward the support of the poor; the remaining fourteen shillings are consumed in the management and other payments charged thereon. The farmers and the farm labourers are for getting the Corn-laws down, and so am I too.

Mr. David Williams, Gwm Carw: The tithes are pressing double, to what they were, and very little of the poor-rates go to the support of the poor.

Mr. John Harris, Court Falde: I have very little to say. What has been said I agree with. The tithes and the poor rates are mismanaged. Very little of the money paid goes to the poor, I should be very happy to pay it if it went to support the poor.

Mr. Morgan Daniel, Tygwyn: I have as much necessity to speak as anybody here; my rent is too heavy. I should like the labourer to have fair play, to enable him to live comfortably. I am an advocate for free trade.

Mr. Thomas Isaac, Cwm Ammon: I think the great cause of the difficulties of this country are the Corn-laws, and next, the Poor laws. The money we pay I wish the poor to have, and not those who are in better circumstances than I am.

The Chairman then said, the farmers seem to be of opinion that tithes and rates are too high; the reasons are — that the corn and provision laws prevent the farmer having fair play. Government, through the Corn-laws, promised the farmer 56s. per quarter for wheat, whereas he only got 46s. This is one of the props the farmers have to keep up rent. If the tenant have sufficient credit to enable him to buy his seed, and he does not realize the price promised him, he cannot pay for it nor his rent. What then does the landlord? Why he sends in a distress, and he gets the produce of the land before any other creditor. This is hard, for the other creditors get nothing. The laws of good society say “do unto others as you would they should do unto you,” but landlords forget this golden maxim in their dealings with their tenants. The law of society ought to be like a machine, steady in operation, and easy of application but the fact is, the law makers have hitherto almost exclusively belonged to the landlord class, and they have made laws to benefit themselves. The laws of distress are very unfair, and should be amended. The system of the present laws is contrary to the Law of God. There is nothing more injurious to the nation than a restriction upon commerce. Let every nation be allowed to exchange their surplus commodities freely. England is like the steam-engine of the world — if things go wrong with her, all the world goes wrong too. Markets should be open for perfect free trade.

Mr. John Jenkins, M.A.: I stand here, my fellow-countrymen, as the defender of free trade, and the opponent of the Corn-laws. I am the advocate of Free Trade, and am ready to answer any question from any farmer.

No one speaking,

The Chairman said, if you are all silent, you must be of opinion that the Corn-laws should be abrogated.

Mr. Jenkins then asked the manufacturers and miners if they had any questions to put.

Not receiving any reply, the learned gentleman proceeded with an excellent and appropriate speech, of which our space will only allow us to give an outline:—

There is as evident a dependence and connection between the parts of the social system, as there is between the seasons of the year. If you oppress the poor, the day of retribution must come. The same law applies to society as to individuals — the welfare of one class should not be purchased by the sacrifice of another. What are the principal causes of distress among the farmers and working classes? Some say the Poor-laws. I don’t say the Poor-law is not the cause. Some say tithes. I don’t say they are not. But this is my opinion. We feel the few pence we pay for the gates every Saturday. We feel we are going to destruction. We feel every little tax all press upon the country, and therefore let us do away with them. But we must examine the reason why the farmers of Carmarthenshire and Glamorganshire are in such straightened circumstances. What is the reason that they feel these little taxes? The reason is — the Government have cheated the farmers — the Government promised one price, and the farmers are getting another and a much less one for their produce. Is there such a strength in the hands of Government — do they possess unknown power to keep up price? It is not so. They have made laws which are quite contrary to the laws of nature. They have imposed such high taxes upon the export of goods to other countries, that it has stopped our country sending coal to France. This is sufficient to produce distress in these parts. There is no use growing corn where there is no one to eat it. There is no use growing corn on ground which is better adapted for other purposes. Whoever is benefited by the Corn-laws, it is certainly not the farmers; the farmer pays a price for his land as if he got 80s. per quarter: and if he gets less ’tis plain he loses the difference. The farmer of small capital being the weakest goes to the wall first; and that is the reason the small farmers are now so distressed in Carmarthenshire and Glamorganshire; and it is the same all over England. Let farmers make up their accounts for the last 28 years, and they will find they have been losing their capital. Instead of redressing our grievances, soldiers are sent into the country; although I don’t agree with the mode adopted, of breaking the gates, and of breaking the laws. Mr. Jenkins then read an extract from a document, shewing the quantity of corn imported during the quarter of a year, , viz., 1,500,000 quarters, and 400,000 quarters in Midsummer quarter. Corn is brought out of bond at the time when the farmer expects to make a fair price, viz., 56s. Well, the price falls to 47s. — he must pay, nevertheless, rent according to the price of 56s. If the price rose to 66s. he would be gaining, but the fact is, when corn rises above 56s., bonded corn comes in and deprives the farmer of his profit. Thus the poor farmer is brought down to ruin, and when rent day comes he finds be is worth nothing. The Corn Laws operate as an impediment to the manufactures! the demand lessens — wages fall off. We have now an instance of that ruin in Yystradgunlais. I would urge upon the meeting the necessity of petitioning Parliament to repeal the corn and provision laws. It is impossible in a short speech to explain fully this great question, but I think I have said enough to convince you of the impolicy of all restrictions upon trade, and the connexion they have with the distresses which afflict the country.

Mr. Price, surgeon, Yniscedwan: Fellow countrymen, I have heard a good deal about things that oppress the country. Mr. Jenkins has told you what he considered the causes and remedies. We have heard of the doings of “Becca;” of her taking down gates where there were good roads. I don’t approve of it. Let us have good roads. If we had good roads we might travel as safely by night as by day. (A voice in the crowd cried out “I wish you good roads, Mr. Price.”) Let Becca come in the middle of the day, as well as in the night. I don’t like these nocturnal outrages.

The speaker continued at some length, and was replied to by Mr. Jenkins, but by this time it was too dark to report.

Shortly afterwards the following resolutions were carried unanimously—

“That in the opinion of this meeting, Free Trade is the only remedy for the existing distresses of the country.”

Three cheers were given for Free Trade.

“That the following petition to the Queen be adopted.” Carried unanimously.

Here followed a petition that restated the grievances discussed above in more formal and flattering language. Wikipedia has a good summary of the rise and fall of the Corn Laws.

The Spectator summarized the above-reported meeting, and also mentioned similar meetings that passed similar resolutions, that were held at Goppa-Fach, near Pontardulais, and at Treleach. At the latter:

The petition having been adopted, Mr. Goring Thomas produced a notice which had been stuck up in the parish of Penboyr. It was headed like a proclamation, “Becca — ”; and it called upon the farmers for coöperation in lightening their own burdens. Almost immediately after the beginning, it turned to the form of a dialogue between Becca and a Farmer; Becca suggesting that the farmers should fix on a day to visit their landlords, and each ask “his highness” (the landlord) to agree to the appointment of a person on each side to value the land and fix the rent. The Farmer inquires of Becca how that should be accomplished?

Farmer — Suppose the landlord refuse to appoint persons to value the land, he should tell me to give it up to him?

Becca — Take him upon his offer, and tell him to take it up next Mareh.

Farmer — Then, in this way we shall lose our claim to the land, and whoever wishes may take it.

Becca — Yes, certainly; but as to his enjoying it, I testify to you that there is not a man of any nation under heaven that shall enjoy an acre of your land, as it is but justice you will be seeking in desiring your landlord to lower your rents: therefore, I will take your part, were we forced to burn the bodies of those that dare try to take your land. Now, I have never deceived those to whom I have given notice, as you know. As notice, if you will not endeavour to retake your farms, as the Lord God knoweth, you shall see more fires than you have ever seen in your lives. It is probable I may visit some of you in Penboyer ere long. Take heed, on your peril, that the hire of the harvest is not lowered by you.

After expressing his horror at this attempt to institute a system of terrorism, Mr. Thomas moved the following resolution; which was carried unanimously before the meeting separated–

That this meeting has heard with great and unfeigned regret of the various outrages that have taken place in different parts of the county. The farmers and others now present hereby pledge themselves not to attend or countenance nightly meetings, and to discharge any farm-servants who do attend them.

The correspondent of the Times perceives a change of feeling in South Wales–

During the last two or three days, there has been a lull in the breeze of disturbances which has agitated this country; though I fear the gale is far from having ceased. It is the opinion of many intelligent gentlemen with whom I have conversed on the matter, that the shocking murder of the poor old woman at Hendy-bridge gate has produced a salutary effect upon the better-disposed part of the population; and that the farmers, who would willingly run the risk of imprisonment for breaking a toll-gate, in order to get rid of what they consider an unbearable grievance, shrink with horror from being classed as murderers and giving possible employment to the hangman. I know that this is a general feeling just now, and that this very shocking result of these disturbances has caused many to pause and reflect on the probable consequences of their lawless course. On the other hand, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Pontardulais fight, it is quite true that a deep and brooding spirit of vengeance exists. A very great number of persons engaged in that fight were wounded and got off. I have been informed on credible authority, that several farmers in the neighbourhood are dangerously ill of wounds received by them at that encounter. I heard of one young man, the other day, who received a ball in his leg, and who is at this moment lying at his home with the wounded limb dreadfully swollen, but afraid to send for surgical assistance. Among the friends and acquaintances of these parties, the most bitter and rancorous spirit of revenge prevails.

It is said, too, that the better class of farmers are beginning to get sick of Rebecca’s proceedings; and with some reason. I am informed that a kind of black mail is levied on them. The parties who break gates, &c., are generally paid labourers, led on by some few farmers and the Rebecca of the district; and I am informed these men are paid 2s. 6d a night, out of which they provide their powder and shot; and the money to pay them with is raised by sending round notices, first to one farmer and then to another, to pay a sum at which he is assessed by a certain time, and bring it to some meeting of Rebeccaites. If he refuse it, he does it at the peril of having his stacks fired. The Rebecca for the night pays the men from this fund. On the person of the Rebecca taken at Pontardulais, several receipts acknowledging payments of this nature were found. This sort of tax on the farmer has caused, I am told, a great deal of secret information to be given by them to the authorities; and I have heard that it was from information derived in this way that the Police came upon the party attacking Pontardulais gate.

The outrages, however, are very far from having entirely ceased.

During , about fourteen different toll-bars have been destroyed in Carmarthenshire; and property to the amount of 800l. was burned in the rick-yard of Mr. J.R. Lloyd, a County Magistrate, at Dolhaidd.

A reward of 500l., with the Queen’s pardon to any accomplice, has been offered for the discovery and apprehension of the person who murdered Sarah Williams, the Hendy-gate toll-collector; and 100l. for the detection of the persons who destroyed Lechryd fishing-weir.