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The Rebecca Riots

Cause and Effect

Written and read by Colin Wheldon James

In the 1830s and early 1840s, the farming communities of south-west Wales were gripped in grim poverty, and it was in these circumstances that the Rebecca Riots had their genesis.

Much of the popular fascination with the riots lies in the manner in which they were carried out: men dressed in women’s clothing and frequently having their faces blackened or wearing masks, attacking toll-gates at night to the accompaniment of much noise and, in the early stages, holding a mock trial before beginning the work of destruction.

In the unsophisticated agricultural world of 19th-century south-west Wales, people were generally God-fearing and law-abiding, but when the law oppressed them, when it deviated from God’s law to incarcerate them in workhouses, to support avaricious landlords, to impose on poverty-stricken chapel-goers the burden of supporting an alien Anglican Church, and when rapacious toll-farmers erected toll-gates where none had previously existed, the people looked for justice. And when the law refused them, they turned to their traditions of natural justice, and looked to their Bibles to justify their actions.

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