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The Carmarthenshire Antiquary

1943/4, Vol i, Pts 3 & 4

This article has been extracted by Gareth Hicks (July 2004) with the permission of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society from original material provided by Deric John.

The main Rebecca Movement in Carmarthenshire  article is preceded by the Editorial which has commentary on the Rebecca series of articles


The Editorial Board prefaced their last issue of the Antiquary with an apology for its late appearance. On this occasion they have, unfortunately, to repeat the apology with added emphasis. The delay in the appearance of this number is not the fault of any member of the Editorial Board --- the original manuscript was ready for Press early in 1943 but the labour conditions in the printing industry have delayed the appearance of the printed page for a period of over two years --- an unduly long period it must be admitted even in wartime.

When the 1943 issue was planned it was obvious that any historical publication appertaining to our county should be devoted to the celebration of the centenary of the Rebecca movement of 1843 in which Carmarthenshire figured so greatly. We were fortunate in obtaining the co-operation of a number of well known experts on this period Mr. T. H. Lewis who writes the social and economic background, the Rev. J. Dyfnallt Owen who has done so much by his lectures and writings to familiarize Welsh people with this important movement, and finally Mr. E. D. Jones of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, who has given us first priority in printing a newly received and most valuable collection of manuscripts relating to the movement in Carmarthenshire, which have recently been presented to the National Library of Wales. Numerous other writers have contributed to the Appendicies. We apologize to all these gentlemen for the delay in the appearance of this volume.

Early in 1944 when it became clear that there would be considerable delay in the issue of the 1943 volume, it was decided that it would be fitting to print the complete set of Llanelly Rebecca MSS. at the National Library and not a first portion of them as was originally intended. This would so increase the size of the volume as to constitute it a double number for the years 1943-1944 based on the annual ration of paper allowed us. Under the circumstances we trust that members will look upon this as a special tribute to the Rebecca movement which, as we now know, led to the initiation of present social and administrative conditions in West Wales.

There are some things which we would wish to re-emphasize about our publication. As is befitting in Carmarthenshire, we have maintained the bi-lingual nature of this journal. Several members have greatly appreciated this change. Secondly, we feel that within reason each issue should contain substantial articles dealing with one general theme as this issue does with the Rebecca movement. This appears to us to be in keeping with the aims and needs of local societies, although in our case it represents a violent contrast to the earlier Transactions --- where a completely opposite policy was deliberately pursued. We hope that the 1945 volume will deal with painting and sketching in the county. It will be noticed that we are departing from the conventional archaeological, ecclesiastical and constitutional history. This does not mean that we do not consider these as within our scope. On the contrary we feel that they have been overdone in the past at the expense of the social and economic side. We shall return to them in due course.

With the termination of hostilities our society in common with other local societies will have to look to the future. Since the founding of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society and Field Club in 1905 the general position of local antiquarian societies has changed considerably. The whole field of knowledge has been extended greatly and young persons have local history and archaeology well presented to them in school and above all the divergence between the interests of old folks and young folks has become appreciably wider. Local antiquarian societies have to be very careful that they do not constitute merely an old folks society. The attraction of young people into our ranks to take the places of those who have passed on will be a most difficult task but it will be essential if continuity is to be assured. The Executive of the Society have plans in hand for a programme for the coming winter and it is hoped that we shall see in our gatherings not only many old faces sadly missed in wartime but also many new ones both young and old.


Click here to view the original letter (155kb)

Original letter in Welsh, signed " Rebecca," to the Rev. Mr. Hughes, Vicar of Penbryn, Cardiganshire, dated from " Penyrherber," Mehefin 16, 1843, relating to the tithe and other matters, and bearing the post-marks of Newcastle Emlyn and Cardigan, June 22, 1843.

In the National Library of Wales.

(Block kindly lent by National Library.)


Its Social and Economic Background.

BY T. H. LEWIS, M.A., H.M.I.

Although the Rebecca Movement was not wholly confined to Carmarthenshire, it was so closely associated with the County that the contemporary social and economic background in Carmarthenshire must be taken into account in any attempt to assess the significance of the Movement. Hitherto, there has been a tendency to dwell largely on the many dramatic incidents connected with " Beca " and to refer in only general terms to the conditions against which the Rebecca Movement protested.   1

One of the causes of the trouble was the payment of tolls on turnpike roads. As however that system of tolls was common throughout England and Wales there arises the question why riots took place in Carmarthenshire --- a county whose inhabitants were usually regarded as being very law abiding. The destruction of most of the toll-gates in the county need not of itself be construed to represent an exceptionally strong feeling against that particular grievance. As one well-informed witness put it at the Inquiry, " I think the Commissioners are taking for granted that the gates have been the origin of this disturbance. It is no such thing; it is merely the means by which the feeling of the people has become apparent; for the breaking of gates has taken place at Newcastle-Emlyn, where the gates are scarcely paid or felt, and people have been the breakers of the gates who, I am satisfied, never paid two shillings in toll in the course of two years."

The very representative and frank evidence given before the Commissioners of Inquiry (1844) makes it quite clear that no grievance was felt against the principle of paying such a toll, any more than the farmers of Carmarthenshire to-day consider a tax on a motor car to be an iniquitous imposition. There is a lack of perspective in the following description taken from the " History of Carmarthenshire " (II pp. 353-54) : " There is no doubt that this pernicious system of turn-pike gates kept a strangle-hold on the economic development of the Shire, for the exorbitant tolls hindered the full .........


1 Very useful information about the conditions in Carmarthenshire is given in the Report of the Commissioners of' Inquiry (1844). The statements made in this article are, in the main, based on the facts given in the Report.


....... interchange of manufactured commodities, foreign merchandise, and agricultural produce." In 1843, the county was still largely a self-contained rural area, and not a manufacturing district. If the roads had not been constructed by turn-pike trusts the  'strangle-hold on the economic development of the shire' would have been still greater for there would have been hardly any roads at all except the parish roads, which usually were quite unsuitable for any considerable traffic. In any case, the farmers would have had to pay, in money or service, towards constructing and maintaining even those parish roads. Where the parishes were near any lime-works, the parish roads would be used by farmers from other parishes and possibly other counties. In such cases a turn-pike toll was more equitable than a parish rate. Many of the people who had been responsible for setting up the various turn-pike trusts or who were still maintaining them, were Carmarthenshire men who were keenly interested in the general development of the county.   2

Two questions, however, remain to be answered, namely, were the tolls in themselves exorbitant, and were the gates too numerous ? It might be useful, therefore, to refer to the work of a representative selection of these Trusts.

In the Main Trust which was founded about 1762 the annual toll income was £2,720 for its 16 gates and 10 side bars. No money was needlessly spent on elaborate toll houses. The most expensive of its toll houses (£300.) was at Abergwili the  "Trustees wanted something ornamental as it led to the Bishop's Palace." The Trust was £930 in arrear with its interest to the shareholders or, as they were then known, the tally holders. The work of this Trust had enabled communications between London and Waterford to be improved and for the Mails to be accelerated. Although this was for the general benefit of the United Kingdom rather than for the special benefit of Carmarthenshire, the Trust had readily undertaken the work although financial loss had been incurred thereby. The Rhynnws Bridge Trust, established in 1784, charged 3d. a horse (drawing a cart) and 1d. for a riding horse. This Trust, which had only one gate and one bar, was let to the Three Commotts Trust at the time of the Riots. Only seven dividends had been paid by the Three Commotts Trust since 1792 and it now had a debt of £9,463. Its annual income from tolls was £1,421. Money had been spent by it .................


2  The twelve Trusts in Carmarthenshire were Main Trust (along the Vale of Towy), Whitland, Kidwelly, Carmarthen-Newcastle, Three Commotts (including Rhynnws Bridge), LlandoveryLlangadog, Llandovery-Lampeter, Towy Suspension Bridge, Carmarthen-Lampeter, LlandiloLlandebie. and Brechfa.


............. on repairing roads rather than on paying interest. It had 21 gates including side bars. The charge for a broad-wheeled cart was 4d., and for a narrow-wheeled cart 6d. Corn and hay were free of toll, except for the tithes. No charge was made for manure, although the Act permitted that, if the distance was more than two miles. Potatoes had to pay toll. Although most of the gates of this Trust had been pulled down, " the farmers wished to have them re-erected. They saw the folly in pulling the gates down and letting strangers to be passed toll-free ; they supported the gates now." The Llandovery-Lampeter Trust, Llandovery-Llangadog Trust, and the Towy Suspension Bridge Trust had altogether 13 gates and side bars. The toll was 3 1/2d. a horse for coal and lime, and 6d. for a horse drawing in other cases. These three Trusts had between them an annual toll income of £864. There was a total debt of £5,530. The Towy Suspension Bridge, which was built in 1833, was in lieu of a wooden foot-bridge. Although that earlier foot-bridge had been maintained at much expense (owing to floods) by the County, nothing had been contributed, except a loan, by the County to the Trust. This was the only instance known to the Commissioners of Inquiry in which Parliament " had assisted a County to relieve itself altogether of its liability to maintain an ancient and established bridge." Lime formed the principle traffic of the Llandovery -Llangadog road, much use was made of the Lime Works on the Black Mountain. The farmers " thought at first that Rebecca would repair the roads for them, but now they see the contrary." The Kidwelly Trust had an annual toll income of £2,605. Previous to 1836, all carriages passing between Llanelly and Swansea had to go around by Pontardulais, a distance of 15 miles. But the Kidwelly Trust had built the Loughor Bridge at a cost of £10,000 to shorten that distance. The County had paid nothing towards that undertaking. The Brechfa Trust, which was established in 1809 had only 3 gates and 2 side bars and an annual toll income of £46. Its debt amounted to £2,574.  In the Whitland Trust the tolls were 1 1/2d. for a horse (not drawing), 6d. (spring carriage), 6d. every horse drawing a carriage, and 1 1/2d. for every horse drawing a small normal cart. The Llandilo and Llandebie Trust, which had 5 gates, had a mortgage debt of £4,175 and an arrear of interest £537.

The general impression gained is that the tolls themselves, though perhaps vexatious, were not exorbitant. Lime, which was perhaps the most important commodity for Carmarthenshire farmers, was usually charged half rate. The tolls were let out for auction annually. At the time of the Rebecca Riots, many of them were ................

.................. held by Thomas Bullin of Swansea. In his view the tolls were no higher or more frequent in Carmarthenshire than they were in England, and they were not so high as those between Swansea and London. " The Trusts in Carmarthenshire," he added, " interfere with each other more than in any other part of the Kingdom that I have ever been acquainted with." He gave credit to farmers. The amount of toll to be taken at each gate was limited by Statute.

A succession of wet seasons and unproductive harvests had, however, much reduced the capital of farmers. The price of cattle, butter, etc., had fallen well below the average. This probably caused the farmers to feel. sensitive about payments which in normal circumstances might have been accepted as a matter of course. Some of the Trusts, for example Whitland, Brechfa and Llandilo-Llandybie had been indifferently managed, but most of them had been alive to their public responsibilities, although, as the Commissioners pointed out, certain irregularities had been tolerated. Their financial position shows clearly that they had not been unduly concerned about the interests of the tally holders. Several had, in fact, got into difficulties by undertaking projects which were beyond their resources.

There was no legal limit, however, to the number of the gates or bars which could be set up, and it was probably in this factor that there was a legitimate source of grievance on the part of the farmers. There had been an increase in the total toll income in most parts of the County during the decade preceding the Riots. It was also customary in Carmarthenshire, possibly owing to the hilly nature of much of the country, for two or three horses to be used in drawing a small narrow-wheeled cart, and this meant an increase in the total amount paid as toll. The Deputy-Lieutenant of the County, Colonel George Rice Trevor, pointed out that there were scarcely any stagecoaches on the Carmarthenshire roads, except during the Summer months. He also felt that some consolidation of the Trusts was needed to prevent unnecessary overlapping, especially as regards the Three Commotts, Kidwelly and Llandybie-Llandilo Trusts. Carmarthenshire had well over one hundred gates, and that was far more than the number in some of the neighbouring counties.

Some parts of the County were more unfortunate than others in respect of tolls. Five different Trusts led into the town of Carmarthen and " anyone passing through the town in a particular direction would have to pay at three turn-pike gates within a distance of three miles." The Rev. Herbert Williams, curate of Llanarthney, complained that his parish of about 11,000 acres, had three turn-pike gates. Some years previously, Llanarthney had been obliged to give..........

............. one-third Statute labour upon the turn-pike roads. One Llanarthney farmer who had a 100-acre farm stated that he could not go anywhere without paying a toll. Going to market or getting lime cost him about fifty shillings a year in tolls. The curate said he remembered the parish toll-gates bringing in an annual income of about £500, but that income was now £1,500. The toll had been raised from 2 1/2d. to 6d. Another Llanarthney farmer suggested that if the local gates had been let to farmers for 4d. " every gate would have been standing now." Another said that more was paid by him for tolls than for lime. The price of lime was 2 /6 - 3 /- according to the size of the cart ; tolls would be from 5/- - 6/- in travelling 8 miles. According to another Llanarthney farmer about 37 cartloads of lime were used annually on his farm. Yet although it is clear that Llanarthney felt that the tolls at their present rate were a burden, some of the local witnesses pointed out that it " would ruin our parishes, which were near the lime kilns, if the gates were knocked down. If they destroyed all the gates in our parish, our parish would be £300 a year the worse for the maintenance of the roads." Edward Jones, the Clerk of the Peace for the County, emphasised that it would be " cruel if the parishes of the County took over the turn-pikes.

The total amount of toll money collected annually in the County was round about £10,500, and this sum included tolls paid by farmers from other counties as well.

In 1841 Carmarthenshire had a population of approximately 106,000. The total rental value of the County in 1840 was £324,100. Quite apart from the advantages which accrued from having better roads (for example, the use of fewer horses for drawing carts) it is difficult to regard the turn-pike tolls as a major item in the total cost of farming. The sum of £10,500 must, however, be related to the financial position of the County at the time. The total County rate amounted to only £4,070, the product of a 3d. rate. The new system of Rural Police was estimated to cost an additional £4,700 for the year, i.e. to double the total County rate. As the County rate was paid by other sections of the community besides the farmers, the turn-pike toll money did appear a substantial item to the farmers in 1843. Local Government, as the term is now understood, had barely started in Carmarthenshire in the year 1843, and the community had not become accustomed to paying substantial rates for Local Government purposes. Although the County had many bridges it had no Bridge Committee. There was an order that no sum beyond £40 could be laid out on a bridge without a special order of the Court at Quarter Sessions. A bridge might be prepared...........

............ immediately on getting the consent of the neighbouring Magistrates, provided the sum did not exceed £20. The Justices of the County had only just appointed a Committee to superintend the finances of the County, which was usually in debt to the Clerk of the Peace. Money was not plentiful and widely spread in the Carmarthenshire of 100 years ago, and the antipathy of the Rebecca Rioters to the Tolls is partly explained by that fact.

The recent changes in the administration of the Poor Law was another cause of the Rebecca trouble. According to the Poor Law Act of 1834 the Poor were to be housed in workhouses. One of the most spectacular, and possibly one of the most significant, episodes of the Movement was " Beca's " attack on Carmarthen Workhouse. There was much complaint about the increase in the Poor rate and particularly about the high salaries paid to Poor Law officials. Although much of this was ill-founded it was nevertheless very strongly held by the followers of Beca who thought that a high proportion of that Rate went to pay the salaries of Poor Law officials. The Parochial Assessment Act which was passed soon after the new Poor Law Act directed that a valuation should be made on which the Poor Rate would be based. A committee of Magistrates went round the County, and the valuation could be regarded as reasonably accurate. This new system called for a payment of money whereas under the " lax and irregular " system which formerly prevailed in the rural districts of the County, the Poor Rate had frequently been paid in grain. Under the old system a person could claim outdoor relief from the parish if his wages were not sufficient to support his family, but such a family would now normally have to go to the workhouse. There was much objection to paying a Poor Rate in regard to persons from whom no quota of work was given in return. The farmers disliked " seeing the relieving officers coming about the country with staves in their hands, great gentlemen ... " Under the old arrangement a father had been called upon to support the mother of his illegitimate child but under the new arrangements the mother, if unable to keep herself, might be required to go to the House. The Poor Law Act had abolished the power of imprisoning the father in the last resort and it required the mother to corroborate her allegation of paternity by other evidence than her own. This, it was asserted, led to an increase in bastardy and even to infanticide. Under the old practice nine out of ten of such parents in the County had subsequently married but under the new Law thirteen out of fifteen did not do so. At the previous Spring Assizes of the County a woman indicted for the murder of two illegitimate children was ............

................ acquitted by the jury, one of whom afterwards said, " How could we do otherwise when the new Poor Law acts so hardly against the poor woman." The people had such a horror of the Workhouse " that they would almost starve in our country rather than go in. They were obliged to get rid of their cow and their little garden." According to one important witness, the Poor Law had " created more dissatisfaction and disaffection in this country than any other Law that had been enacted for this century." As things were " much cheaper in this country " it was felt that the medical men at the Workhouse " did not require the salaries they would give in English counties." Colonel Rice Trevor said he would prefer to see the money go to the poor rather than go as salaries for the officials.

The New Poor Law Act, however, had been passed to remove some of the abuses which had been fairly common under the old system. According to one important witness there had been a material financial saving in the Town districts but there had been an increase in the expense in rural districts. In the County as a whole, there had been a slight financial saving. The salaries of the officials did not take up anything like the high proportion of the Poor Rate as the followers of Beca imagined. The highest relieving officer at Carmarthen got only £60 a year and the highest salary for a medical officer was £80. These salaries may have appeared somewhat high at a time when the wages of the labouring classes ranged from, say, 9d. a day for farm labourers to 3/- a day or less for miners. On the other hand, the Poor Law Authorities felt it necessary to employ efficient medical officers whereas it was still the practice for the people of many rural areas in Carmarthenshire to rely on uneducated village practitioners.

The farmers also complained of the payment of tithe. By the Commutation Act of 1836 a money payment for tithe was paid compulsory. There was a strong feeling among the followers of " Beca " that this change had brought gain to the tithe owners and that the average price of corn in Wales and not the combined average for England and Wales should have been taken as the basis for the payment of tithe. As the work of collecting tithes in kind in some of the thinly populated parts of Carmarthenshire had necessarily been a relatively expensive task, a money payment had doubtless proved beneficial to some tithe owners. The detailed figures given at the Inquiry on this somewhat technical problem show clearly that the charge then fixed upon the land, taken generally, was not excessive in amount as regards the value of the tithe. Much voluntary commutation had already taken place. As the position of the farmers..........

................ had deteriorated since the passing of the Commutation Act, the payment of tithe tended to be felt more heavily. The Vicar of Llandilo had, for instance, accepted a reduced tithe payment because of the depression.

The followers of " Beca " complained also about the magistrates of the County and in some instances urged the need for a paid magistracy. According to the correspondent of The Times, the Carmarthenshire magistrates " look upon the people as if they were beasts and not human beings . . . ; with a paid magistracy I am convinced Rebecca would not have been heard of in South Wales." The same correspondent also quoted a statement by Sir James Williams (Edwinsford) at the Quarter Sessions that peace would not be restored to the County until stipendiary magistrates were appointed. Though The Times reports were interesting and in some respects valuable, they were no more than the impressions of a distinguished stranger who was not conversant with the Welsh language and who had no intimate knowledge of Carmarthenshire. It is known, however, that in 1837 Lord Cawdor had interfered to such a degree in a Carmarthenshire election to support his candidates that the matter was brought to the notice of the House of Commons as a breach of privilege on the part of a peer.

There were fourteen Petty Sessional divisions in Carmarthenshire and according to the Commissioners' Report there was not an adequate number of " resident justices required by law to justify the formation of separate divisions." Moreover, the Clerk in some of the divisions was a person of scarcely any education and quite incapable of explaining the law to others and performing the responsible ministerial duties which attach to his office; whereas by reason of the imperfect knowledge of the Welsh language commonly possessed by the magistrates, it would seem especially necessary that the Clerk should be competent to explain a way out, as far as may be, in misconceptions . . . Yet in more than one division in Carmarthenshire, the sessions appeared to be held chiefly with a view to the convenience of the justices themselves who have not therefore any great right to complain if other even reprehensible motives be assigned to them . . . In the last three years for instance at Llandilo, one of the most populous towns in Carmarthenshire, petty or special sessions were adjourned not less than thirty times for want of a sufficient attendance of justices. This is severe criticism, especially when it is remembered that the magistrates at that time constituted the backbone of local administration and that Carmarthenshire magistrates usually showed a deep interest in the general welfare of the County. This difficulty.........

..................... of getting a quorum of justices meant extra expense of time and money to the litigants concerned. One witness at the Inquiry asserted that " if such practice took place in England as takes place in the County Courts here, the attorneys would be struck off the rolls." It is not quite clear what this witness had in mind. It could hardly have been the matter of fees for those were in accordance with the tables of legal fees fixed by an Act of Parliament (1818).

Finally, how far were the Rebecca Riots in Carmarthenshire a phase of a wider democratic movement ?

The evidence at the Inquiry tends to support the view of The Times correspondent that " it is difficult to stuff the head of a Welsh farmer, who speaks and reads only Welsh, with the political crotchets of Chartism . . . All he knows and grumbles at, is that he cannot live and pay the sum he is rented at." What was probably the only reference made at the Inquiry to external influences was that of Colonel Trevor who referred to Merthyr and Chartist emissaries. Mass meetings, where speeches were made on general political questions, were held in various places, such as Cwmifor, Llanfynydd and Mynydd Mawr. The political aspect certainly received much attention in the periodicals Seren Gomer, Diwygiwr and Yr Haul, all of which were, at that time, published in Carmarthenshire. Despite the allegations made by The Times correspondent and Brutus (who edited Yr Haul), no support to violence was given in the Diwygiwr and Seren Gomer. The Rebecca movement lost much support from " moderate " opinion in Carmarthenshire after the attack on Carmarthen Workhouse which, according to Seren Gomer, was worse than anything that town " had seen since the time of Oliver Cromwell." It was difficult to get the people to enrol as special constables to guard the gates. Most of the grievances of " Beca " concerned the farmers directly and only indirectly the farm labourers. As most of the farms in Carmarthenshire were small, there was not as much differentation between farmers and labourers as there was in many English counties. The attacks which were made on the property of some of the landed gentry were not primarily outbursts of the " proletariat " against the capitalists, but they were actions designed against particular individuals. Some of the hayricks of Colonel Rice Trevor and Williams Chambers (Llanelly) were burnt because the former had expressed his readiness to use the military, if necessary, and the latter had led the military against the rioters at Pontardulais. Those landowners, who had reduced the rents on their estates, were singled out for praise by the followers of " Beca." In the main, the Rebecca movement in Carmarthenshire was an outbreak of men who............

............were disturbed by practical everyday difficulties and not a movement of political idealists. As is usual, in such cases, the movement got somewhat out of hand and was supported by some who, from the standpoint of the movement, were undesirable elements.

Carmarthenshire was experiencing a difficult period of transition and depression just before 1843 and the Rebecca movement, within its borders, was a result of the many difficulties which faced the County about that time.