David Williams, National Library of Wales journal Vol VIII/2 Winter, 1953.
Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales
This is a complete extract of this article by Gareth Hicks [16 July 2002].
Among the Harpton papers recently deposited in the National Library of Wales there is a copy of an important report of forty-nine pages on the turnpike trusts of the three shires of West Wales, of which the original is in the Public Record Office.
The Rebecca Riots, it will be remembered, began with attacks on the Efailwen and Llanboidy gates of the Whitland Turnpike Trust in May and June 1839. These gates were not re-erected and the rioting subsided. It broke out again in November 1842 with the destruction of the Mermaid gate of the Main Turnpike Trust at St Clears. During the winter and early spring of 1843 it spread along the roads of the Whitland Trust into Pembrokeshire. In June it moved up the Towy, and also became concentrated in the lower Teifi valley. It was the attack on Carmarthen workhouse on 19 June, that attracted the attention of London newspapers and of the nation generally. Thereafter the centre of the rioting changed to the area between Carmarthen and Llanelly.
It was to be expected that the government should institute an enquiry into the rioting. Edwin Chadwick, the secretary of the Poor Law Commission, who had paid some attention to conditions in Wales in preparing a report in 1839 on the best means of establishing a constabulary force, wrote to the home office on 11 July 1843 to suggest that an enquiry be held. On the following day a number of Carmarthenshire magistrates drew up a memorial which they submitted to George Rice Trevor, who was acting as lord lieutenant in place of his father, Lord Dynevor, expressing the opinion that an enquiry should be made into the accounts and administration of each turnpike trust in the county. This memorial was sent by Trevor to the home office. He appreciated, he said in his accompanying letter, that some of the rioters had motives other than the destruction of turnpike gates in mind, but he thought that an investigation of the trusts would pacify the country and detach the more moderate rioters. At the same time, the home office received a letter which made the same suggestion from Edward Crompton Lloyd Hall, the heir to the Cilgwyn estate (who later took the name of Fitzwilliams). He sent numerous reports of the rioting to the home office, but little attention was paid to them for he himself was being carefully watched by the authorities. Yet his letter is of importance, for he suggested a commission to enquire into general grievances and another to investigate the turnpike trusts; he felt that it would be inexpedient to combine both purposes.
It was the memorial of the Carmarthenshire magistrates which decided Sir James Graham, the home secretary, to take action and institute an enquiry. His choice fell oupon T J Hall, the stipendiary magistrate at the Bow Street Police Station, and with him was to be associated G H Ellis of a firm of solicitors, Messrs Lyon, Barnes and Ellis, which had experience in handling the affairs of turnpike trusts. The choice of a police magistrate seems to indicate that the authorities suspected the rioters of subversive intentions. The mission was in fact a secret one, and the investigations were made in private, which is probably the reason why they have not been noticed by any historian of the rioting, but knowledge of them soon leaked out. Trevor was embarrassed when a person inquired of the investigators at the inn where they were staying. The Times, when it learned of the mission, thought that a Bow Street magistrate was not the most suitable person to investigate rural grievances, and the radical Carmarthen weekly, The Welshman, was disparaging of the value of an enquiry 'by a magistrate, a barrister and a brace of accountants'.
The home office informed Trevor on 22 July of the appointment Hall and Ellis, and at the same time sent similar letters to the lords lieutenant of Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire, Sir John Owen of Landshipping and Colonel Powell of Nanteos, as well as to Colonel Love, the officer commanding troops in West Wales. They were asked to afford the investigators all facilities. The two men were expected to leave London on Monday, 24 July. This, however, they were unable to do, for Ellis's preparations necessarily took some time. He had attended with Hall at the home office on Saturday, and he spent the whole of Monday in consultation with Hall. On the next day he was occupied in obtaining copies of all returns regarding the turnpike trusts, and their respective acts of parliament, as well as maps of their roads which had to be sent on afterwards to Carmarthen. It was not until Wednesday, 26 July, that they set out, returning to London on Saturday, 12 August, their mission having taken eighteen days.
The movements of the investigators were sufficiently secret to make them difficult to trace. Trevor wrote to the home office regretting that their arrival was delayed, for this meant that he would, himself, have left for London, and he advised that they should start in Cardiganshire, where the lord lieutenant was in residence. This they may well have done, for Ellis begins his report with the Cardigan Trust, and by 31 July his firm were already attending on the speaker of the house of commons to enquire as to the possibility of an immediate change in the act relating to this trust. This was in order to remove the toll levied by the trust if a cart passed through a gate for the third time on the same day (that is to say, in addition to the toll paid on passing for the first time through a gate, which covered the return journey). They seem to have visited Newcastle Emlyn, but did not come into the Aberystwyth district, which was, in any case, free from rioting. On Wednesday, 2 August, they were at Haverfordwest, holding a detailed enquiry into the chaotic affairs of the Fishguard Trust. They arrived at Carmarthen on the next day, and on Friday they began their enquiries in private at the Ivy Bush hotel. They listened to the grievances of 'numerous respectable farmers', and received a petition from the upper and lower franchises of the borough of Carmarthen. This petition expressed the opinion that gates within the borough were illegal. It complained that areas outside the town had to contribute to the cost of paving and lighting the streets. It considered that the toll on lime was oppressive, that the commutation of the tithes had increased the amount which had to be paid, that income tax was too heavy, that landowners oppressed their tenants, and (a local grievance) that the regulations with regard to the shape of butter casks were an annoyance. Where the investigators spent the remaining week is not known. Both men travelled together throughout their journey, though it was agreed that Ellis should report on the turnpike trusts and Hall should deal with all other matters. The bill covering the expenses of Hall and his clerk, including the conveyance of Ellis to all places after their arrival in Carmarthen, was £59.16s.5d. Ellis charged £94.10s for his services for 18 days, together with £22.10s for his expenses, and these two items, together with some minor charges by his firm amounted to £126.8s.1d. The total cost of the enquiry was therefore £186.4s.6d.
The Times considered that the visit was too short for the investigators to master all the facts, and The Welshman continued to condemn 'the mysterious mission of Mr Hall into Carmarthenshire, to pacify a people whose grievances he did not enquire into, with whose habits he was not familiar, whose language he did not understand, to whom he presented himself in the mere aspect of an upper constable police magistrate'. On the day on which they left, the Aberystwyth turnpike trustees, unaware of their movements, sent a request to the home office that they should attend a meeting on 26 August to investigate conditions in the Aberystwyth area, and were dismayed to learn that they had already departed. They still requested the home secretary to send Hall or some competent person to examine the accounts of their trust. When a fortnight had gone by without any report the lords lieutenant became anxious. They had delayed taking action about the gates which had been destroyed in order that they might act in concert on the basis of any recommendation by Hall. Unless he produced a plan with regard to the tolls, said Trevor, his visit would have been useless. Even the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, had doubts whether Hall's enquiry was an adequate fulfilment of the government's promise to investigate 'the causes of insubordination in Wales'. Sir James Graham replied that the continued disturbances were a cause of great anxiety to him. He therefore sent Peel a copy of Hall's report, and announced his intention of sending a letter to the three lords lieutenant based on this report. But he also felt that Hall's enquiry should be regarded merely as a preliminary investigation, that it was necessary to appoint a commission under the Great Seal to report on the disturbances. The composition of this commission was a matter of difficulty. The obvious chairman was Lord Cawdor, but he was too mixed up in the local disputes. Graham was therefore approaching Thomas Frankland Lewis of Harpton in Radnorshire.
The present writer had been entirely unable to trace the report which Graham forwarded to Peel. Its content is no doubt incorporated in the letter which he sent to the lords lieutenant on 15 September 1843. He admitted that the complaints of occupiers of land against their landowners were well founded in many instances, but this was difficult to remedy by legislation. The objections to the commutation of the tithes was due, not so much to any defect in the law, as to the fact that tithes had hitherto been much lower in Wales than in England, and that the burden in Wales fell entirely on the occupier and not on the landowner. The trusts were the primary cause of complaint. Side bars had been greatly multiplied, so that the cost of conveying lime had greatly increased. It was possible that the abuses of the trusts had been exaggerated, but it was necessary to examine them and restore confidence through publicity. It was difficult to legislate without a detailed knowledge of the finances and management of all the trusts, and he was therefore advising the crown to issue a commission for that purpose. He would seek to bring the perpetrators of outrages to justice, but he relied on the exertions of the magistracy and landed proprietors in co-operating to recover the good will of the community and 'restore peace by a kind consideration of the wants and feelings of those who are dependent upon them for protection and for the fair reward of honest industry'. This was a generous acknowledgment of the existence of grievances, and it set the tone for the subsequent Report of the Commission of Inquiry for South Wales. Trevor replied to the home secretary agreeing that it would be well to make landowners responsible for the tithe rent charge. He was disposed to defend the record of the turnpike trusts, but he welcomed the appointment of a commission, and hoped it would pay special attention to the poor law which was the subject of much antipathy. The commission, consisting of Thomas Frankland Lewis, Robert Henry Clive, and William Cripps, was established on 10 October. It began its public enquiry at Carmarthen on 30 October.
Ellis did not submit his own report till 2 November. He began with certain general remarks about the motives which led to the establishment of trusts and the rivalry between them. Often roads specified in the turnpike trust acts were not completed, and their surveyors were sometimes unable to identify their own roads. The money expended on them was inadequate, and trustees who had undertaken to improve roads were said to have made a profit thereby, although Ellis thought it just as likely that they had lost money. The accounts of several trusts were in a poor state. He regarded the multiplication of catch gates as oppressive, and thought that the system of tolls should be overhauled. It was equally important to revise the general law regulating the affairs of turnpike trusts. He then proceeded to examine each trust in turn, starting with the Cardigan Trust. Here the chief grievance was the 'third toll' already mentioned, and the existence of a gate on the road leading to Aberystwyth which was a great burden since it was within the town, as the town had grown beyond it. The finances of the Fishguard Trust were beyond explanation. Here also there was a gate at Prendergast within the town of Haverfordwest. There was little objectionable to report on the management of the Tavernspite Trust, except the existence of a 'plague spot' at Robeston Wathen, where it joined the Whitland Trust. It was on the roads of the latter that rioting had begun in 1839. There was a suspicion that money had been laid out in improving roads to gentlemen's houses. The Main Trust was thriving and well managed, but had incurred an expenditure of £18,000 in repairs which had nearly ruined it. The Three Commotts Trust and the Kidwelly Trust had been the subject of more odium than any others because they were rivals and their roads intersected. Their administration had become mixed up with local politics. The Llandilo or Rhynys (sic) Trust, which controlled a bridge across the Towy, had become the sole property of John Jones of Ystrad, the late member for Carmarthen. The Llandilo and Llandebie Trust was objectionable only in the number of its gates, and this was also true of the Llandilo and Llangadock Trust and the Llandovery and Lampeter Trust, which was under the same management as the last. The finances of the Carmarthen and Brechfa Trust were chaotic. The clerk of the Carmarthenshire and Lampeter Trust was illiterate. Finally, the Carmarthen and Newcastle Trust had increased their tolls, with the exception of tolls on gentlemen's carriages, conduct which Ellis designated as 'a fraud' and 'glaringly partial and unjust'. One trustee had undertaken to improve the road, and was said to have made a profit by it. Part of this 'improvement' was the building of a wall at Talog (which was pulled down in one of the incidents in the Rebecca Riots).
Ellis's report in the Public Record Office is endorsed 'copy sent confidentially to the Rt Hon Frankland Lewis, 3 November 1843'. That copy has now reached the National Library of Wales