The history of the Rebecca Riots is one of the most dramatic chapters in Welsh history. Against a background of agricultural crisis and grinding rural poverty, associations known as Turnpike Trusts established a network of tollgates on country roads. Whether taking cattle to market or collecting lime to fertilise their fields, hard-pressed farmers had to pay tolls at every turn.
Resentment built up over many years until 1839 when there was a sudden explosion of violence directed at a new tollgate at Efailwen in north-western Carmarthenshire. The attack, led by the stirring figure of ‘Rebecca’ was a man disguised with a blackened face, wig and women’s clothes, astride a white horse and waving a sword.
When the main Trust placed a new tollgate near the Mermaid Tavern in St Clears on 18 November 1842, it marked the start of a four-month battle between ‘Rebecca’ and the authorities. Positioned to make it impossible for traffic to pass through the area without paying a toll, it was pulled down by ‘Rebecca’ and her followers within hours. The Mermaid Gate was smashed a second time on 12 December that year when seventy to a hundred men, dressed in women’s clothes and armed with scythes and guns, descended on the town at midnight. The rebuilt gate was torn down on 20 December and a fourth gate was destroyed in April 1843.
Every area seemed to have its own ‘Rebecca’ who became, and remains an almost supernatural figure - a Welsh Robin Hood. Police and troops were called in to help protect the gates but ‘Rebecca’ and her daughters were usually one step ahead of the law. The protests came to an end in 1844 when a government Commission of Inquiry led to a reform of the Turnpike Trusts and answered many of the grievances of the rural population.