REBECCA AND HER DAUGHTERS

RebeccaRiots

By Illustrated London News, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8007931

 

In rural west Wales, a woman known as ‘Rebecca’, together with her ‘daughters’, violently resisted paying toll fees. From 1839 to 1843, and sporadically for long after, gangs of mainly tenant farmers, dressed in women’s clothing and with blackened faces, responding to the call of a hunting horn, attacked and often destroyed toll booths and other infrastructure on the many privately-owned toll roads. To get their produce to market, the farmer needed to pass back and forth along these roads and also traditionally collected lime from them to improve their soils. As well as the toll road issue, many Welsh farmers and those who depended on them for employment were experiencing hard times and the payment of tithes, or taxes, to the Anglican church, while most Welsh people were chapel-going Methodists or other ‘dissenters’.

‘Rebecca’, or just ‘Becca’, was the name of the mythical leader under which they united. ‘She’ was often mounted on a horse during the toll gate attacks, an acknowledgement of the connection between the Rebecca movement and the traditional custom of the Ceffyl Pren (wooden horse). This was a form of public humiliation of wrongdoers by a local community, involving the parading of the miscreant through a village tied to a wooden frame, or ‘horse’. A ‘jury’ and ‘Foreman’ of men dressed in women’s clothes and with blacked faces administered the ceffyl pren, which was used as the organisational structure for the Rebecca riots. The symbolism of the connection was clearly one of righting perceived wrongs.

As with many other forms of protest and revolt, threatening letters were often sent to those the rebels identified as the source of their problems. This one was addressed to the people of St Clears, Carmarthenshire, in December 1842:

Take Notice

I wish to give you notice especial to those which has sworn to be connstable in order to graspe Becca and her children but I can sure you that it will be to hard matter for Bowlin and company to finish the job that they began and that is to keep up the Gate at Llanengel and [?] gate. Now take this few lines as information for you to mind yourselves, you that had any conection with Bowlin Messrs M. C. Lics, Mr Thomas Blue Boar, all thine property in one night shall be in conflagration if they will not obey to this notice. And that to send them vagabons away wich you are favourable to. I alway like to be plain in all my engagement – is it a reasonable thing that they impose so must on the country only picking poor labours and farmers pockets, and you depend that all the Gates that are on these small roads shall be destroyed. I am willing for the gates on the Queens Road to stand it is a shamefull thing for us welchmen to have the sons of Henegust have a dominion over us. Do you not remember the long knives which Henegust hath invented to kill our fore fathers and you may depend that you shall recieve the same, if you will not give up, when I shall give you a visit and that shall be in a short time, and now I would give an order to leave the place before I will come, for, I do determin that I will have my way all through. As for the constable and the policemen, Becca her children heeds no more of them than the Grass-hopers which fly in the summer there are others which as marked with Becca, but they shall not be named now but in case they will not obey to this notice she shall call about them in a short time.

Faithfull to Death
with the county
Becca & children

Trwn [?]
Dec, 16th 1842

Sometimes serious violence occurred during these midnight visitations, though nothing on the scale promised in the letters that usually preceded them. William Rees, toll collector on Trevaughan Turnpike Gate described his visit from Rebecca and her daughters in August 1843:

… between one and two o’clock on Sunday morning last he was disturbed by a man knocking at his door who enquired the way to Llanvallteg Bridge, which he told him and that immediately afterwards he heard the sound of horses, when about twenty five or thirty men disguised, (having white frocks on and their heads tied on with coloured handkerchiefs under their chins) came to his house and compelled him by threats, pointing at the same time three Guns at his breast to deliver up his Books, which they carried off. The Books contained among other accounts, the names of several persons who had refused to pay toll at the said Gate, he is unable to identify any of them, but the person nearest to his house window rode a grey horse.

This was a typical Rebecca visitation. The wise toll keeper did as he was told and did not interfere if the rioters pulled down his toll booth. In this case, Rebecca and her daughters seem to have been mainly interested in removing evidence of those who had refused to pay their tolls and who would otherwise have been prosecuted.

The authorities mounted mostly ineffectual attempts to forcibly put the riots down. Eventually, the toll gate system and problems with the poor laws were modified and the general economy improved. Nevertheless, some Rebaccaites were imprisoned and others transported.

Later in the century, and even into the early twentieth century, the name Rebecca and similar tactics were used by those protesting against restricted fishing rights along inland streams.

 

Rebecca_Riots_-_Punch1843

Unknown author – http://www.ngfl-cymru.org.uk/vtc/rebecca_riots/eng/RebeccaRiots/
Punch cartoon from 1843 depicting events inspired by the Rebecca Riots of South Wales

 

SOURCES

National Archives, Rebecca letter, 16 December 1842 (HO 45/265 f1

National Archives, Statement of William Rees, toll collector, 15 August 1843 (HO 45/454 f.415)

 

UNPLEASANT LETTERS FROM NED LUDD AND CAPTAIN SWING

Ned Ludd

 

The businessman who received the following note from Ned Ludd would have been in no doubt that the writer intended to do serious harm.

Mr H

at Bulwell

Sr,

Sir if you do not pull don the Frames

or stop pay [in] Goods onely for work

extra work or m[ake] in Full fashon

my Companey will [vi]sit yr machines

for execution agai[nst] [y]ou–

Mr Bolton the Forfeit–

I visitd him–

Ned Lu[d]

Kings [illegible]

Nottinghm—Novembr 8 1811

It was one of many similar semi-literate threatening letters sent to factory owners and employers of weavers by Ned Ludd. The letter commands Mr H to stop paying his weavers in ‘truck’, meaning in poor quality goods instead of cash, one of the frequent complaints of the workers. Or else…

Another letter from a Nottinghamshire knitter was sent to Richard Dennis, farmer and framework knitter, in 1819:

Richad Denniss

If you keep that Rouge in you house Ned shall viset you and we shall be acpt too give you A little could led and you cattle too if you dont get shoot ove him very soon and Need will set you all on Fire And you Promess Need will send them too Hell and Hall ove you too and you sheep Ned will ham string And if you don thay will send me word in the course ove of day

March the 12

I GENRALL LUD.

But Ludd, also sometimes titled ‘General Ludd’, as here, and ‘Captain Ludd’, did not exist. He was a mythical leader of a diffuse group of mainly northern English insurrectionaries angry at the threat to their livelihoods posed by the introduction of labour-saving machines into the framework knitting industry. ‘Luddites’, as they came to be known, formed clandestine groups who swore secret oaths and destroyed and damaged the feared new machines that were taking their jobs. The sabotage tactics of the Luddites failed, many were executed, imprisoned or transported. But their actions, and consequences, did bring their plight to the attention of the wider public.

In 1830, much the same situation, this time in agriculture, triggered the most serious rioting, mostly across southern England. Led by a ‘Captain Swing’, rural workers rose in large numbers to break threshing machines and to demand what they thought were their rights. They also said so in caustic correspondence, such as this note delivered to King’s College, Cambridge on December 8, 1830:

Dr Agnus

The college that thou holdest shalt be fired very shortly. Thou shalt here further from me when it is in flames.

Swing

Head Quarters

A more detailed and oddly polite letter detailing the rioters’ grievances arrived at the Goodwood estate of the Duke of Richmond in December 1830:

We beg to say that if the sentences of the men in kent & all others for rioting is not reduced to 3 months imprisonment & all those taken heairafter to 1 months ditto all the woods to a hedge stick on the duke of richmans estate with that of the other ministere [of] the crown lands magestrates constables &C engaged in takeing & triing the said men shall be all burnt up even to a furse bush but we promis faithfully if you comply with our request we will refrain from it all we want is Work & fair wages don’t think that the reward will induse our party to split we have all put our hands to the match so we cannot fear each other and are determind to carry on or have our starveing Contramen at liberty there is only 2 things to be done & then we shall have pease & plenty that is machinery put down and the Clergy paid out of the publick revenew and an income tax put on to take this burden of the farmer in lieu of the tithes’

swing 2 goodwood-mss-1446-fa18-backThese revolts were all put down with the ruthless force usually unleashed by the British establishment against those who dared challenge it. Rioters were perceived and presented as dangerous revolutionaries and criminals rather than starving workers. Some were shot, some hanged, many imprisoned and transported. Mechanisation of their livelihoods proceeded apace.

Neither Ned Ludd or Captain Swing existed. They were convenient fictions drawn from the traditions of underclass revolt stretching back to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in which a shadowy character named ‘Jack Straw’ appeared. At least one of the rebels in this revolt took this name, but historians are uncertain if such a person ever existed. His name is certainly suspiciously folkloric!

To some extent, the threatening letters, the dressing up and the blackened faces of the rioters can be seen as part of the ‘theatre of protest’. This does not mean that the rioters’ issues were not genuine and serious, but that there was an underlying assumption that the societal ties between workers and their employees would deliver justice. Naïve as this seems, a ‘moral economy’ as historian E P Thompson famously perceived, underlay the economic transactions between workers and employers.

The tragedy of this perception by the rioters – weavers or farm labourers – was that it was no longer true (if it ever was in any effectual rather than symbolic sense). Their bosses had moved on from the traditions and assumptions that underlay the moral economy ideal and embraced the improving agrarian mode of capitalism. Now, workers were no longer essential parts of a rural community but simply one element in a broader, more predatory economy in which calculations were made on the basis of profit and loss and not any obligation that the better-off might once have had towards their less affluent neighbours.

 

SOURCES:

Home Office archive (HO 42/118

The Nottingham Review 6 August 1819 – the sender of the letter had a grudge against the ‘Rouge’ mentioned

National Archives Catalogue ref: HO 52/6

‘Swing Riots letter’, 2 Dec 1830, West Sussex Record Office, Goodwood Mss 1446 fA18