The Dynevors

Policing Rebecca

The 4th Lord and the Rebecca Riots

George Rice
Colonel, the Honourable George Rice Trevor MP, Vice Lieutenant for the County of Carmarthen and from 1852 the 4th Baron Dynevor.
Picture: Nat. Lib. of Wales

As a result of his policing of the Rebecca riots in Carmarthenshire, the 4th Lord Dynevor has a place in Welsh history not accorded the rest of his family. A selection of his letters which have survived in various public archives reveal in some detail his involvement in the dramatic events that unfolded in Carmarthenshire during 1843 and 1844. George Rice Trevor (1795 - 1869), who became the 4th Lord Dynevor in 1852, was also the local Member of Parliament and Vice-Lieutenant of the County of Carmarthen and it was his responsibility for policing the disturbances. (His father, the 3rd Lord Dynevor, was the Lieutenant of Carmarthen, so it was a family affair in every sense of the word.) After an attack by Rebecca rioters on Carmarthen workhouse in June 1843, George Rice Trevor rushed back from his London residence to take over the responsibility of law and order in Carmarthenshire from his elderly father, a task he undertook with evident relish. And when Rebecca burned down corn stacks on his own Dinefwr estate in Llandeilo he quickly discovered he had a personal interest in the drama that was rapidly developing in his own backyard. And there was more to come, as his biographer in the 2004 Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) reveals:

Trevor assured a meeting of magistrates at Newcastle Emlyn in June 1843 that he would order troops to fire on the rioters if necessary. The response of the protesters was predictably fearsome: in September 1843, they audaciously dug a grave within sight of Dinefwr Castle, the family seat, and announced that Trevor would occupy it by 10 October. Trevor, however, surrounded by soldiers, survived unscathed.
Mathew Cragoe, DNB, 2004

The George Rice Trevor letters, relating mainly to the activities of 'Rebecca' in south-east Carmarthenshire and west Glamorgan between 1843 and 1844, allow a picture of the unfolding events to be pieced together. Most of them are addressed to William Chambers junior, who was regarded as a liberal, and was present at a number of the early public meetings held by 'Rebecca'. However, as a magistrate at Llanelli, he also had a close relationship with the authorities, and did his best to stamp out the often violent night-time activities of the 'Daughters of Rebecca'.

The 'Rebecca Riots' is the name commonly given to a series of disturbances and popular protests which took place in parts of south-west Wales during the 1830s and 1840s. At that time, the inhabitants of this rural area were living in considerable poverty as a result of a serious economic depression. Between 1837 and 1841, local farmers endured a series of extremely poor harvests and the prices of their produce fell sharply. At the same time, the farmers faced considerable increases in their outgoings: rents were increased, as well as tithe payments (taxes), poor rates and turnpike tolls. The population had also increased sharply since the beginning of the nineteenth century, placing an even greater strain on this rural society.

By the mid-19th century Britain's already bad roads were being used by ever-increasing wheeled vehicles. Smaller parishes could not afford proper repair and so the 1835 Highway Act was passed, permitting tolls for road maintenance. Turnpike Trusts run by private companies were established and allowed to recover the costs of road building and repair by means of toll charges, plus whatever profit they felt like making. But the rights to collect tolls were auctioned off to the highest bidder and used to maximise profits as well as recuperate costs; with gate-keepers often paid on commission this was a system open to abuse, and abuse there certainly was. Llandybie historian Gomer Roberts gives us the details of such an auction in 1813:


Notice is hereby given that the TOLLS arising at the several tollgates upon the Turnpike road of Ffairfach, Llandebie Gate, with the sidegate thereunto belonging, and the Llanedy Forest Gate, will be LET by AUCTION to the best bidder, at the George Inn, Llandilo, on Saturday, the 4th of September next ... which tolls produce the present year sums hereunder stated, above the expenses of collecting them:

Ffairfach and Llandebie Gate with side Gate, £640. Llanedy Forest Gate, £21.

Thomas Morgan, Clerk to the Trustees, Llandebie, 10th August, 1813

Hanes Plwyf Llandybie (History of the Parish of Llandybie), Gomer Roberts, page 78 of English translation by Ivor Griffiths, 1986

Gomer Roberts also informs us that it was seven shillings a week (£18 a year) that the 3rd Lord Dynevor paid his servants on his lands and gardens in 1811 so the income generated by a tollgate could be considerable - and most tollgates came complete with a house for the gate keeper and his family.

Rebecca & her daughters
A contemporary print entitled 'Rebecca and her Daughters assembling to destroy a turnpike Gate'
Nat. Lib. of Wales

The 'Daughters of Rebecca' made their first appearance in Pembrokeshire on 13th May 1839, when a group of men disguised in women's clothes demolished the tollgate at Efail Wen near Narberth and attacks took place again in June and July. The owner of the tollgate was one Thomas Bullin, an Englishman who owned Turnpike Trusts all over southern Britain, from as far afield as east London, Portsmouth, Bristol and west Wales. Bullin was persuaded to pull the Efail Wen gate down and 'Rebecca' disappeared for a while before reappearing in November 1842 when a gate near St Clear's was destroyed. The attacks reached their peak during the summer of 1843, when the authorities decided to send for troops and the Metropolitan Police. By the end of that year the riots had come to an end, and many of the leaders of the movement were under lock and key. Rebecca's main targets to begin with were the tollgates - powerful visual symbols of the economic oppression which many farmers faced. However, the focus of their protests soon shifted to target high-rent landlords, bailiffs, unpopular magistrates, those individuals who were responsible for collecting tithe payments (taxes), and even fathers of illegitimate children. Attacks were also made against a number of workhouses in the area as the protesters expressed their hatred of the new Poor Law of 1834 and the means by which paupers were being treated. The rioters were mostly the small, subsistence farmers who were being forced to pay the tolls, though a number of new industries had been established in this area and coal miners and metal workers joined with the farmers in their protest. Elsewhere in the industrial area of neighbouring Swansea, the much larger Chartist demonstrations were occupying the authorities at the same time, stretching their resources to the limit. (The Chartists - today we would call them Civil Rights Campaigners - also had a wide-ranging political agenda, such as the right to vote, and this worried the authorities even more than the merely economic demands of Rebecca.)

Daughters of Rebecca
Daughters of Rebecca attacking a Toll Gate
London Illustrated News 1843

The numerous raids, usually at night-time, were made by men dressed in women's clothing and wigs with faces blackened to evade identification; the name Rebecca was taken from the biblical verse: "and they blessed Rebecca and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gates of those who hate them." (Genesis, chapter 24, verse 60.) The leader of each band of rioters was designated as 'Rebecca' and rode a white horse to distinguish him/her from the rest of her 'daughters' (see the above contemporary illustrations). Troops were sent to southwest Wales and some rioters were arrested, although such was the popular support for the protests that convictions usually proved difficult, even after one attack which had left Sarah Williams, the gatekeeper of Hendy tollgate, dead:

About 2 o'clock, on 9 September 1843, a party of men disguised in white dresses, went to Hendy Gate, about half a mile from Pontarddulais. They carried out the furniture from the toll-house, and told the old woman, whose name was Sarah Williams, to go away and not return. She went to the house of John Thomas, a labourer, and called him to assist in extinguishing the fire at the tollhouse, which had been ignited by the Rebeccaites. The old woman then re-entered the tollhouse. The report of a gun or pistol was soon afterwards heard. The old woman ran back to John Thomas's house, fell down at the threshold, and expired within two minutes. She had received several cautions to collect no more tolls.

On 11 September an inquest was held before William Bonville, Coroner. Two surgeons, Ben Thomas, Llanelli, and John Kirkhouse Cooke, Llanelli, gave evidence that on the body were marks of shot, some penetrating the nipple of left breast, on in the armpit of the same side, and several shot marks on both arms. Two shots were found in the left lung. In spite of all this evidence the jury found 'that the deceased died from effusion of blood into the chest occasioned, suffocation, but from what cause is to this jury unknown.

George Eyre Evans, describing a letter from George Rice Trevor, 13 Sept., 1843

The authorities quickly saw they had no hope of convictions in the other Pontardulais incidents if the trials took place locally, so great was the popular support for the Rebeccaites. Thus the tactical decision was taken to move the Pontardulais trials to Cardiff, where it proved easy to secure convictions (the High Sheriff of Glamorgan selected the jury himself) and five ringleaders (including the infamous Sion Ysgubor Fawr and Dai'r Cantwr), were transported to Australia, with others given lesser sentences. (During the year long series of disturbances a total of thirteen people were eventually transported. None ever returned.)

In certain areas like the Gwendraeth Valley, what had started as a movement for reform was hijacked by a much more violent element, and Sarah Williams was its tragic outcome. A far cry from the earlier raids, which had been conducted in a carnival atmosphere (at least for Rebecca and her daughters):

It was about midnight [on 2nd January 1843] when a large crowd, this time all on foot, dressed in a variety of garments, faces blackened, and armed with the usual array of weaponry, walked up to the gate at Pwll Trap. They halted a few yards short, and the lady Rebecca - stooped, hobbling, and leaning like an old woman on 'her' blackthorn stick - walked up to the gate. Her sight apparently failing her, she reached out with her staff and touched it. 'Children', she said, 'there is something put up here; I cannot go on.' 'What is it mother?' cried her daughters. 'Nothing should stop your way.' Rebecca, peering at the gate, replied 'I do not know children. I am old and cannot see well.' 'Shall we come on mother and move it out of the way?' 'Stop,' said she, 'let me see and she tapped the gate again with her staff. 'It seems like a great gate put across the road to stop your old mother,' whined the old one. 'We will break it mother,' her daughters cried in unison; 'Nothing shall hinder you on your journey.' 'No,' she persisted, 'let us see; perhaps it will open.' She felt the lock, as would one who was blind. 'No children,' she called, 'it is bolted and locked and I cannot go on. What is to be done?' 'It must be taken down mother, because you and your children must pass.' …Rebecca's reply came loud and clear: 'Off with it then my dear children. It has no business here.' And within ten minutes the gate was chopped to pieces and the 'family' had vanished into the night.
And They Blessed Rebecca, Pat Molloy, Gomer Press (1983), pages 42 - 43

The acquittal of another Rebeccaite in a different incident disgusted George Rice Trevor, and he revealed his feelings in this letter of 19th July 1944:

I am sorry to say our Petty Jury disgraced themselves most terribly in acquitting a Rebecca leader, in spite of his own acknowledgment of having been present at the time a Tollhouse was destroyed, on which occasion two witnesses swore he was actively engaged. He said: "I did no more that the others" who, however, pulled the house down amongst them.

George Eyre Evans, who transcribed the Rice letters for the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society, describes the incident that so irritated Rice:

A Rebecca leader was David Evans, who at the Summer Assizes, opened before Sir Robert Monsy Rolfe, at Carmarthen on 13 July, 1844, was tried for being concerned in pulling down and destroying Llanfihangel-ar-Arth Gate on 16 July 1843, and found "guilty of being in the company, but not guilty of demolishing." On Wednesday, 17 July, he was again tried for destroying Gwarallt Gate. The jury, having been locked up all night not agreeing, the Judge ordered the prisoner to be discharged, but told him that he might be called again at the next or any Assizes to be tried for the same offence before another jury.

George Rice Trevor took matters so seriously that at the height of the disturbances he ordered a detachment of Metropolitan Police into Carmarthenshire from London, a response which would be repeated almost a 150 years later during the 1984/85 miners strike. The Metropolitan Police had been created as recently as 1829 and, contrary to popular belief, had been formed to combat not crime but political unrest. The new type of mass political demonstrations created by industrialism required a new type of policing and the Metropolitan Police combined riot control (including the recently invented baton charge) with information gathering. By the time Rebecca arrived in Carmarthenshire they had already been used against Chartist demonstrations in such places as Birmingham and Dewsbury. [See 'Crime, Class and Corruption: the Politics of the Police', Audrey Farrell, (1992), pages 52 - 63.] In a letter dated 22nd September 1843 Lord Dynevor issues his instructions on how to deploy these London police:

As you have not mentioned in your letter to me of this day that you are prepared with lodgings for the London police, they must be again delayed, nor shall I send them till I know you are ready to receive them."

Their duty will be pointed out to them by the Magistrates and yourself. I have sworn them in as Special Constables for the county to-day, and I consider they may be employed, if necessary, in watching gates, or in patrols, or in keeping the peace generally; and you may make use of them, if you should have occasion, to disperse any meeting, or in arrests.

It will be in your discretion whether they are to carry arms or not, as also whether you support them by Troops, both of which I should recommend in any question of doubt.

In addition to the Metropolitan Police, large detachments of troops, including militia, infantry, marines and cavalry - plus two cannons - were brought in to quell the disturbances. By October 1843 there were so many troops garrisoned in Carmarthenshire that George Rice Trevor had to organise the construction of a new barracks at Carmarthen to accommodate them: "The contract for building the Barracks at Carmarthen is now about to be drawn, and the work will be immediately commenced." (Letter of 28th October 1843.) So serious was the threat to the established order that the Duke of Wellington, no less, sent in one of his top army officers to oversee the military operation:

Letters were being dispatched daily to the Home Secretary Sir James Graham by the panic stricken magistrates and eventually he sent a request to the Duke of Wellington, Commander-in-Chief at the War Office, that a company of infantry under the command of Colonel Love be dispatched immediately to Carmarthen; troops that eventually numbered more than 2,000. Colonel Love was a veteran infantry man who had fought in every major battle from Corunna to Waterloo and had a great deal of experience in quelling insurrections in many parts of the country. He had seen action in Merthyr against the ironworkers: had saved Bristol from being destroyed by rioters. And had taken part in the quelling of the Canadian Rebellion of 1831, returning in time to end the Chartists march on Newport. However, the type of 'Guerilla' warfare employed by the Rebeccaites would make this assignment the most frustrating of his career.

Unusually for a military man Colonel Love appears to have had a keen grasp of the political situation in west Wales and in particular the injustices of the Turnpike Trusts. There was a tollgate for every three miles of road in Carmarthenshire, some of which were even erected illegally, and many Trusts collected the tolls but did no repair work to the roads, pocketing the entire proceeds for themselves. Within four days of arriving in Carmarthen on 21st June 1843 Love sent this letter to the Home Secretary:

…sufficient has transpired to convince me that the whole affair of the Trusts demands a strict enquiry. That in general there has been great maladministration is evident, and in very many instances double the toll authorised by Law has been levied by the collectors ... I am strongly of the opinion that a strict enquiry would be beneficial to the public and more than anything else allay the discontent so generally felt by the farmers.
Letter dated 25th June 1843, Colonel Love to Home Office. Quoted in And They Blessed Rebecca, Pat Molloy, Gomer Press, 1983, pages 113-114.

Within fourteen days of receiving this letter the Home Secretary sent two investigators to prepare a preliminary report into the state of turnpike trusts in Wales; a Royal Commission was set up just three months later, whose massive report and collection of evidence reported back just five months after that. Within a year of Colonel Love's arrival in Carmarthen, Parliament had passed a new turnpike road act correcting every one of the defects in the old law which had led to all the trouble. And entirely as a result of Rebecca, the Carmarthenshire police force, the first ever full-time constabulary in the county, was created at the end of 1843, though this was rather too late to do anything about Rebecca. ('And they blessed Rebecca', Pat Molloy, page 156.) This first ever Carmarthenshire Constabulary was made up of a chief constable, six assistants, ten sergeants and twenty constables, and all at a cost of some £5,000 a year. ('The Rebecca Riots - a Study in Agrarian Discontent', David Williams, page 60.). Only two years earlier the first ever Glamorganshire police force had been formed, and in similar circumstances, to curb the activities of the near-insurrectionary Chartist movement.

Interestingly, the 2,000 or so troops riding furiously - and fruitlessly - all over west Wales for almost a year never caught a single one of Rebecca's daughters; what few were apprehended from the thousands who took part were either caught by the tiny local police forces or turned in by informers willing to take advantage of large rewards offered by a Royal Proclamation of 2nd October 1843, issued by Queen Victoria, no less. These rewards, plus pardons for any informant's own involvement, turned the tide and the wall of silence that previously greeted the authorities crumbled as some of Rebecca's daughters came forward to betray their own sisters for gain. During that tumultuous year, from November 1842 to late 1843, over 250 tollgates had been destroyed in west Wales, most of them several times, with the houses that went with them usually suffering the same fate. The riots, by Rebecca in west Wales and the Chartists elsewhere, also had the longer term effect of ending the age-old system of using the army for policing. Instead, permanent constabularies under the control of local authorities were created in their place, which quickly evolved into our modern county-based police forces.

Thomas Campbell Foster was a Times reporter who'd been sent from London to cover the disturbances. Writing his dispatch in Carmarthen on the night of Wednesday 19 July 1843, he added his view of how the military were coping with the task of supporting this frail civil power':

Although the Dragoons are in the saddle every night scouring the country here and there, they happen to be always in the wrong place, and the work of outrage continues not only undiminished but with increased and increasing audacity. This is the state of things here and there will not be a single gate standing in the country if a different mode be not adopted to put an end to it. The government are pouring in troops. A detachment of artillery are marching by way of Brecon; a detachment of artillery are marching to Carmarthen by way of Swansea; the whole of the 4th Regiment of Light Dragoons are to be stationed in South Wales; three companies of the 75th Foot are to arrive in Carmarthen within the next two or three days; the Yeomanry [volunteer cavalry troops] are kept on permanent duty, and every military appliance of the government is exercised, yet not a single outrage has been stayed nor a single Rebeccaite captured.

They laugh at the display of power by the government.

The Times, 22 July, 1843. Quoted in And They Blessed Rebecca, Pat Molloy, Gomer Press 1983, pages 139-140

Rebecca in Llandeilo and the Walk tollgate

This tollgate stood at the roadside leading from Llandeilo town centre towards the White Hart on Carmarthen Road. The 1 st edition, 6" Ordnance Survey map, shows that it was located between the Walk and Lower Walk, at a position that now corresponds with the entrance to Lôn Rhys. The Walk gatehouse was destroyed on August 9th 1843 by Rebecca rioters. The following account of the affect Rebecca had on Llandeilo is provided by William Samuel in his "Llandeilo Present and Past" (pages 69-70) published in 1868. He gives a vivid description of the speed with which Rebecca rioters swooped on a tollgate and then vanished into the night before the troops could even get out of bed. Curiously, he seems to have welcomed the military presence in Llandeilo as a business opportunity for the town:

Our sires, and even ourselves, have vivid recollection of the time when the Cawdor Arms Hotel was the head-quarter of a troop of her Majesty''s fourth regiment of light dragoons - kept ever on the qui vive by the "Flying Dutchman", the invisible Rebecca - nevertheless, here, there, and everywhere, like Sampson at Gaza carrying off the gates, but suddenly, rapidly, and no more seen than a clap of thunder, and infinitely less audible. Before the trumpeter could rouse to horse, or indeed before he could be roused himself, the deed was done, and behold, all around was still as night long before the cavalry could come to the charge - the assailants had not only been dismissed but had dispersed; many in their beds, the rest wending their way unconcerned in safety to their homesteads. The dragoons, thus constantly done, had only to face about and go to bed, too. The horse having failed, recourse was had to the foot; and the present vicarage became the barracks of a portion of the 41st regiment for about one year. Llandilo thus for nearly two years was a military station, and had for the time ten percent added to its population, the addition consisting, of course, of gentlemen of independent means so far as resources of the locality were concerned. Therefore the riots, as they were called, was a wind that brought much money to Llandilo.

But these riots had a very considerable amount of reason on their side, fully appreciated by the Parliamentary enquiry, which consequently reflected by implication on the laxity of the local management of turnpikes. The upshot was the adoption of that excellent piece of legislation known as "The South Wales Act.

From Llandeilo Present and Past, William Samuel (pages 69-70), published in 1868

The End of the Affair

Another one of George Trevor Rice's letters, dated 29th April 1844 (by which time the disturbances had ended), gives a list of rewards to be paid to individuals who gave evidence enabling the authorities to bring convictions for crimes relating to the riots. (This list is 14 pages long.) The rewards offered were as much as £500 for a conviction at a time when wages for many of the demonstrators were just a few shillings a week so the incentive to turn someone in was great indeed (as was the pardon for an informant's own involvement). A typical farm labourer's wage could be as little as a shilling a day, with no pay at all for several weeks during the winter months.

It is well known there is £500 reward under Queen's Proclamation for the conviction of any one of the offenders and a pardon for any accomplice not being the person who actually set fire to the premises, who shall give such information and evidence shall lead to the same result.
Letter of 14th January 1944

(According to Bank of England figures, the pound in 1843 had a present day purchasing value of £52.40, so a £500 reward represents £26,200 at 2003 prices.)

On one day alone £1,500 was paid in rewards:

At the Carmarthen Quarter Sessions of 5th March 1844 no less than £1,500 was distributed, of which £120 was paid to one informer, Richard Williams, but what his services were does not appear.
The Rebecca Riots, David Williams, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1986, page 286

After the workhouse at Carmarthen had been attacked on 19 June 1843, Rebecca attracted the attention of the editor of The Times in London:

He sent the talented journalist T. C. Foster to west Wales. Foster spent six months among the rioters; he won their confidence and his reports provided a valuable analysis of their motives.
John Davies, A History of Wales, Penguin 1994, page 380

The government, perhaps influenced by this sympathetic Times correspondent as much as the unusually astute military commander Colonel Love, were ultimately forced to respond to Rebecca's undeniable grievances. As a result of the report of a commission of inquiry into the riots, tolls on lime were reduced by half, with others standardised to cover seven mile lengths. County Road Boards were also established who took over the running of the tollgates from the much hated private Trusts. The Rebecca Riots had achieved their purpose. (In 1846, just two years after Rebecca had ceased her roaming, The Times sent T. C. Foster to Ireland, where his devastating coverage of the Irish Famine caused a sensation.)

So by July 1844, with the troubles now behind him, George Rice Trevor is busying himself with these more mundane, but no less important, matters. However, as a letter of 13th July 1844 shows, he is not too enamoured of the idea of electing the District Boards to replace the Trusts. The reasons he gives against elections, while not particularly convincing, are less significant than that he raises the matter at all: throughout Britain at this time militant Chartists were making significant political demands for democracy at all levels of society. As a member of the Tory squirearchy George Rice Trevor would certainly not have countenanced power being handed over to elected bodies, preferring the new road Boards to be run by what looks suspiciously like a forerunner of our modern Quangos:

I have received your letter and the suggestions you have made with respect to he new Road Bill for South Wales and will communicate them to Mr. Saunders Davies.

There is one amongst them, however, I think, we are not likely to adopt, namely in respect to the election of the district Boards, as I cannot think it advisable to revert to the principle of a popular election in that matter.

The ratepayers are no wise interested excepting as Toll-payers, and they are prohibited by the power of the County board, being restricted to the imposition of a maximum, as shewn in the Schedule, at the end of the Bill, and which if exercised even to its fullest extent is but a reasonable amount of Toll.

I think, and have before thought, it a good suggestion that the County Bridges should be brought under the same management, and will see what can be done in that respect. I hope we shall meet on Monday.

Believe me, very truly yours,
Geo. Rice Trevor.

The George Rice Trevor letters are held in various archives in Wales and can be found on the excellent website 'Tlysau' (Welsh for Jewels ), with images of over 20,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts relating to Wales. Facsimiles of the Rice Trevor letters with transcriptions of their contents can be found on The Peoples Collection. Type Dynevor into the site's search box and 35 screen pages of letters will appear. In the meantime, see twenty of the letters and more about the Rebecca Riots

The letters, transcribed with explanatory notes by George Eyre Evans, were initially published as 'Rebecca Riots: Unpublished letters, 1843-44', The Transactions of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society and Field Club, vol. XXIII, 1932.