In the late 1830s and early 1840s, a series of riots took place in south and mid Wales. Male farmers and labourers – many of them dressed in women’s clothes – rioted in protest against unfair laws and taxes, low wages and toll roads. The rioters called themselves ‘Rebecca’s daughters’ and their actions became known as the Rebecca riots.
From the late 1830s, Britain experienced an economic depression. Unemployment was high and wages were low. Thousands of ordinary people were living in dire poverty, made worse by a series of bad harvests. The worst year was 1842 when the Conservative government, led by Sir Robert Peel, was in power and it was no coincidence that the Rebecca Riots peaked in this year.
Between 1839 and 1843, protestors attacked toll gates across agricultural areas of mid and south Wales. Although the hated toll gates were just one of the factors contributing to the terrible plight of ordinary people, the gates became a target for destruction because they were physical representations of everything the protestors despised. It is thought that dressing in women’s clothes is a reference to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, which says: ‘…and they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.’
This cartoon first appeared in the popular satirical magazine, Punch, in 1843. Although its main subject is rioters attacking a toll gate, there are references to their many other grievances at the time, all combined within the theme of social and political collapse. The toll officer is Robert Peel, who can be seen half-asleep, peeking concernedly out of the toll-house door. In contrast, leading the charge dressed as Rebecca is the authoritative figure of Daniel O’Connell, the Irish reformer, and his Repeal Association (which pushed for greater independence for Ireland) make up her burly associates.
The gates are labelled with the words tithes, Church laws, Union and Poor Laws.
• Tithes were payments which entitled the Church of England to a tenth of people’s annual income. This payment was demanded from all, even though most people in Wales were nonconformist.
• The Poor laws were a set of draconian measures introduced in the 1830s to provide ‘relief’ to the poor. At the heart of these measures were the workhouses, where people would be given meagre food and basic shelter, often living in appalling conditions, in return for hard labour and domestic work.
• ‘Union’, is a reference to the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1800. By the 1840s the Irish nationalist movement to repeal the Union was gaining strength, with religious aspects of English law being a particular focus for opposition.
The government eventually revised the toll gate system and amended the poor law to remove some of their worst features. Conditions gradually improved, helped by the coming of the railways in the late 1840s.
Did you know..?
When the local community bought a surviving toll in Porthmadog in the 1990s, they named it Rebecca and gave the money raised through toll charges to local charities.
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Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.