Rhayader and the Elan Valley
The Rebecca riots


Rebecca and her daughters
Between 1839 and 1844 the rural areas of South Wales were witness to a unique phenomenon. At a time of growing discontent among the rural and urban poor, who were under increasing pressure form the changes then occuring, violent attacks on tollgates across the area became common. The attackers wore womens clothing and claimed the identity of "Rebecca and her daughters" as they smashed down the gates and terrorised the gatekeepers.

Tollgate under attack from the Rebecca rioters

From the Illustrated London News. 1843

picture from Illustrated London News
The exact origin of the name "Rebecca and her daughters" is open to debate but one commonly held theory ascribes a biblical origin to it through a reference to Rebecca recommending that some "possess the gates of those which hate them". (Genesis XXIV, 60). At a time of growing Nonconformity, most of those involved would certainly have been familiar with the Old Testament scriptures. These different groups of attackers were often led by a "Rebecca" dressed in women's clothing and the followers often dressed similarly.
  Sources of grievance
Across rural South Wales the tenant farmers and farm workers in particular were finding the high toll charges levied on them by the Turnpike Trusts a genuine burden in what were already difficult times. Rhayader had no less than six toll gates on the roads into the town. This meant any journey by horse or horse-drawn vehicle could prove expensive and bringing animals into market especially so.

A contemporary image showing rioters attacking toll gates marked with the sources of their grievance

From Punch magazine 

cartoon from Punch
  Although this immediate cause of grievance against the Turnpike Trusts can be identified there do appear to have been other causes for complaint which contributed to the violence. Prices of stock at sale had fallen as had harvest yields, increasing local poverty. High rates and the increase of tithe payments exacerbated the situation and those who feared they would not be able to manage had only the new Poor Law Unions and the feared workhouse system to fall back on. (see pages on the Rhayader Union
There are 6 pages on the Rebecca riots. Use the box links below to view the other pages.