The Rebecca Riots
The Rebecca Riots were a series of attacks on toll gates throughout South Wales. They were in protest against the Turnpike Trust’s excessive charges to use the roads. The rioters were often disguised as women and their leader was called Rebecca.
The name Rebecca for the leader of the rioters and daughters for the followers came from a biblical text:
Genesis 24 verse 60, “
“And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!”
In the C17th and before, Gower Roads, even the main Carmarthen to Swansea and the old Loughor to Neath roads were little more than dirt tracks or mud baths depending on the weather.
There were no local Councils responsible for roads but there were a number of local trusts set up to improve and manage the roads and in return the Trusts were able to charge people a toll to use the roads.
The tolls were collected at the toll gate. The toll collector was provided with a house so he or she could collect tolls from anyone passing whatever the time of day or night.
A traditional toll house and gate St Fagan’s National History Museum.
In Gwlad Nini, many of the local tenant farmers took their surplus produce to Swansea Market and had to travel to collect their provisions, such as lime, to put on the fields. Each time they passed through a toll gate with their horse and cart they had to pay as much as 6d, (6 old pennies or 2.5p in current money) to pass through a gate, which meant a cost of one shilling (5p) for every return journey. It could cost as much as five shillings (25p) in tolls to move a cart of lime eight miles from the coast to the farm.
Five shillings was a lot of money, John Rees in 1839 was a farm labourer at Llys Nini, his weekly wage would have been only 10 shillings (50p). People were therefore very upset about the charges, especially as they also had to cope with food shortages after wet summers and poor harvests in 1839, 1840 and 1841.
The toll charges added to local people’s worries in a climate of social change and unrest.
The Bolgoed Toll Gate
Rebecca Rioters attacked the Bolgoed Gate (73) on the Swansea Road, less than 2 miles from Llys Nini, on July 6th 1843. At that time the Walter Family were living at Llys Nini. William Walters would have been 43 and his sons, Evan and William both 17, Griffiths 16, David 13 and John 11 may well have taken part in the riot. It is possible that the Walters supported the Rebeccorites.
The riots started in Pembrokeshire in 1939, this was the year that their youngest daughter was born, whom they named Rebecca.
The Bolgoed Gate was less than 2 miles from Llys Nini, near the Fountain Inn at Bolgoed, Pontarddulais, a stone on the road commemorates the spot.
The gate spanned the main road in front of the inn; while a smaller bar blocked the Goppa Road at the side of the building.
The attack was planned in the Fountain Inn, the leader or Rebecca was Daniel Lewis, a local weaver. At about midnight a hundred or so men wearing women’s clothes and caps and bonnets, destroyed the gate. They moved the toll gate keeper’s furniture out of his house before pulling the building down.
Daniel Lewis and 3 other men were caught; David Jones, a farmer’s son from Tŷ Mawr Farm and previously from Cwrt Y Carnau, William Morgan, a farmer and the keeper of the Red Lion Inn in Pontarddulais, Griffith Vaughan. A local man John Jones informed on them, but his evidence was not believed.
Daniel Lewis was a well known local man, he was a poet using the bardic name of Petrys Bach. He was apparently “courting” Elizabeth Davies of Ystomenlle Farm and John Jones, a local labourer was jealous of him, which may have been the reason that Jones informed on Lewis.
Daniel and Elizabeth Lewis’ grave in the Cemetry next to the Goppa Chapel, on the Goppa Hill just a few hundred yards from the site of the gate.
The heading is in an alphabet devised by Iolo Morgannwg.
Daniel Lewis was an active and leading member of the Pontarddulais Ivorites; a men’s friendly socieTŷ with the aim of promoting the Welsh Language. “ In 1841, Lewis was recognised, in a ceremony at the Fountain Inn (ph), as ‘Ovid’ of the Iorwerth Mystic Lodge of True Ivorites, and in 1866 at the Fountain, he was awarded a Druidic silver medal for the work he had carried out for the Lodge (the Cambrian 27.11.1841 and 8.6.1866 respectively). Indeed, Lewis had helped to put the Lodge on such a sound footing that the Cambrian reporter was moved to write: “Who is the Parliamentary semi-lunatic who will say that the working man is not to be entrusted with the franchise!” (Deric John from Fountain to river.)
Moreover, the Ivorites met at the same Fountain Inn, where the attack on the Bolgoed Toll gate of 1843 was planned by the Rebeccorites, led by Daniel Lewis. Lewis is buried in Goppa Chapel cemetery and has a similar inscription in Colbren Y Beirdd alphabet on his grave, to that of Gwilym Hopcyn (William Hopkin) at Llandeilo Talybont, suggesting that both Lewis and Hopkin shared a common passion for Welsh culture and the language. Hopkin’s headstone has the Welsh form of his name – Gwilym Hopcin inscribed on it. Perhaps they were both Ivorites and participants in the Rebecca Riot which destroyed the Bolgoed Toll Gate in July 1843.
The Rhyd Y Pandy Toll Gate
The Rhyd-Y-Pandy Toll Gate in Morriston was attacked 20th July 1843. Matthew and Henry Morgan (forefathers of Rhodri Morgan, Wales’ second First Minister), were thought to have destroyed the gate, but it took 40 men to arrest them.
The exact position of the Rhyd Y Pandy Toll Bar is not known, it was somewhere on the Rhyd Y Pandy Road, about 3 miles to the east of Llys Nini, possibly not far from Cynghordy Farm on the bridge where the road crosses the River Llan.
Matthew and Henry Morgan (forefathers of Rhodri Morgan Wales’ second First Minister), were charged with assembling the group that destroyed the gate on Thursday 20th July 1843.
Henry Morgan lived with his parents at Cwm Cilau Fach Farm, while Matthew lived a short distance away at Tŷ Mawr Farm, a tenant farm on the Penllergare Estate. Local sources in Pontarddulais believe that Daniel Lewis who played “Rebecca “at the attack on the Bolgoed Gate, was also Rebecca on this occasion.
The Morgan brothers had been identified by the same John Jones who had named Daniel Lewis and the other attackers of the Bolgoed Gate. Jones reported the Morgan Brothers to Inspector Rees of the Swansea Borough Police on the following Saturday. In the early hours of Sunday Morning Captain Charles Napier, the Chief Constable and Inspector Rees, a Sergeant Jenkins and PC Henry Lewis went to apprehend the attackers of both gates. They first went to Pontarddulais and then on to Cwm Cilau Fach ( Cwmcillau Fach) Farm to arrest the Morgans.
They arrested Matthew at Tŷmawr and then went to Cwm Cilau Fach, where, after reading the arrest warrant, they tried to take Henry by force. The whole of the Morgan Family physically resisted Henry’s arrest resulting in the family facing charges; Henry’s father and mother, Morgan and Esther Morgan and siblings Rees, John and Margaret Morgan.
Napier claimed to have been hit around the head with a wooden stick, a hammer and iron bar from the fire, a reaping-hook, and had boiling water poured over his back, had his face scratched and that an attempt was made to gouge his eyes. During the attack Napier shot John Morgan with his pistol. The family were finally arrested by a party of 40 soldiers from the 73rd Regiment and several policemen. The London press, which reported the incident, made much of Napier being hit by an old lady with a frying pan.
The Morgans’ trial was held in Cardiff October 1843. The charges were commuted from felony to misdemeanour, when their defence claimed that they had only acted in the way they did as they believed Napier and his men were acting illegally in arresting Henry on a Sunday. Morgan and Esther Morgan, in view of their age ( 57 and 63), were discharged while Margaret Morgan was sentenced to 6 months and Rees and John to 12 months, all without hard labour because of their previous good character.
The trial of those allegedly involved in the destruction of the Bolgoed and Rhyd Y Pandy Toll Gates was scheduled for the Spring Assizes in March 1844, but all charges against Griffith Vaughan, William Morgan, David Jones and Daniel Lewis for the destruction of the Bolgoed Gate and against Henry and Matthew Morgan for attacking the Rhyd Y Pandy Gate were dropped. The reason for this is not recorded but is it likely that John Jones, the prosecution’s one witness, did not attend to give evidence. Local legend says that Jones had hurriedly left Wales for America before the case, so he could not be called as a witness.
However Prys Morgan, a descendent of the family, believes that Esther Morgan was related to George Rice Trevor (1795 - 1869), who became the 4th Lord Dynevor in 1852. He was the local Member of Parliament and Vice-Lieutenant of the County of Carmarthen and it was his responsibility for policing the disturbances in Carmarthen. Dr Morgan says that it is very unusual that the inquiry into the cause of riots was started before the trial of those arrested for rioting in Bolgoed and Rhyd Y Pandy. He speculates that someone in a position of influence, like Trevor, possibly interfered with the legal process, especially as the Morgan Family were given such light sentences for what amounted to attempted murder of Napier.
There is also a story that the Rebeccaists dug a grave in front of Trevour's House - Newton Hall in Dynevor, Llandeilo, as a threat or warning to him about his involvement with the Turnpikes. Trveour is reportedly to have been worried about this evnt and could have influenced him in this case.
Reasons for the Rebecca Riots
The Rebecca Riots began in 1838 in Pembrokeshire. The rural community rose up in response to a number of factors such as poor harvests and what they regarded as unfair taxation.
There had been recent changes to the tithes system and instead of collecting the tithes in kind, such as farm produce, the farmers now had to pay in cash. Many of the local land owners had acquired the tithes rights, so the tenant farmers were not only paying rent but tithes to their landlord. Moreover there had been a recent 7% increase in rents in south west Wales.
In 1834 a New Poor Law 75 was passed by Parliament, which resulted in the development of the workhouse. This law meant that those people finding themselves temporarily unemployed or in need of help had to enter the workhouse in order to get any aid. Obviously they were reluctant to enter a workhouse, with its strict and often cruel regime.
At the time there were also strong feelings amongst tenant farmers and men who did not own land, that they should have the right to vote in Parliamentary elections. The Chartist movement was set up to get the vote for all men. The first Chartist group in Wales was established in Carmarthen in 1837. 76
The social unrest and anger at the working man’s treatment found an outlet in attacking the hated toll gates. The attacks, later to be called riots, started in Pembrokeshire and slowly came east.
There were other attacks in that year on other Toll Gates in the area surrounding Llys Nini but not in the area designated as “Gwlad Nini”. The Poundffald Gate was attacked on 15th July; the Tycoch Toll at St Thomas, Swansea on 3rd August; 7th September the Pontarddulais Gate and 2 days later on the 9th the Hendy Gate was destroyed. Unfortunately, a toll gate keeper Sarah Williams was killed in one of the attacks and John Hugh, John Hughes and David Jones who attacked the Pontarddulais Gate were transported to Tasmania in 1844.
Eventually the authorities of the day had to concede defeat and most of the hated toll-gates were removed in 1844.
A Commission of Enquiry under Frankland Lewis, into the riots and the rioters complaints was set up. Its report in 1844 supported the rioters’ claims and made recommendations for reforms. Falkland said later: ‘The people saw that their only remedy was to take the law into their own hands. … The Rebecca Riots are a very creditable portion of Welsh history’.77
Local farmers formed groups and held meetings to give evidence to the Commission. These groups developed into a Farmers Union, which turned into the National Farmer Union NFU.
“The people saw that their only remedy was to take the law into their own hands. The Rebecca conspiracy was organised with much skill, and carried through with much fidelity......It was never diverted from its original purpose, and the instant that purpose seem likely to be attained, that is to say the instant that an enquiry into the Welsh turnpike system was instituted by the government, the association was dissolved and no one has ever proposed its revival. The Rebecca Riots are a very creditable portion of Welsh History."
'Nassau Senior in Wales', by E Evans in NLW Journal 1951 78