The Rebecca Riots from 1839 to 1843 got their name from the fact that many (male) rioters dressed as women. Carmarthenshire was at the center of the action. The riots were protests against tolls that seemed to penalize agriculture in favor of distant investors.
Tolls were levied throughout England and Wales – so why the uprising in normally law-abiding Carmarthenshire?
A Commission of Inquiry in 1844 heard that toll gates were not the real target of the rioters’ anger but simply easy to hit. A witness said, “If the gates were the cause of the trouble, those at Newcastle Emlyn would not have been attacked because toll gates are not a problem there; they have been broken by people who haven’t paid two shillings in two years by way of toll.”
The Inquiry found that, had the turnpike roads not been built, the farmers would have had to pay even more to get their produce to market to build and maintain roads belonging to the parish. Turnpikes were actually more equitable. So the real questions are: were the tolls too high; and were there too many gates?
There were twelve Turnpike Trusts in the county and, viewed dispassionately, the evidence suggests that the tolls were an irritant but not unreasonable in amount. Farmers, in fact, wanted those that had been pulled down to be rebuilt, so that strangers who used them paid their fair share towards keeping them maintained.
So what was really the problem? At the time of the riots, there had been a series of wet seasons and poor harvests. Farmers were feeling the pinch and they felt it even more because prices had fallen. More than one horse was needed to pull loads up the hills and more horses meant higher tolls. Finally, the number of different Trusts mean that, for example, five different turnpikes led into Carmarthen town and someone going through in one particular direction might have to pay at three different gates within three miles.
Whatever the reasons, the troubles died down as soon as people felt their grievances had been heard.