Romanticising Rebecca: Reinterpreting the Mid-Nineteenth Century Revolts of Mid and South-West Wales

The nineteenth century was a time of significant change across rural Wales. Plagued with socio-political unrest, a series of factors laid the foundations for a series of uprisings known as the Rebecca Riots. The upper classes controlled all government and local parliaments, allowing for oppressive laws to be introduced and passed without resistance. The Turnpike Act of 1781 granted local elites the right to maintain roads by levying tolls through independent turnpike trusts. Naturally, these were most resented by farmers, who passed through the same tolls multiple times a day in their line of industry. Toll payments became an intolerable burden upon agricultural workers; their wrath mainly directed towards the toll-gates dotted across the rural Welsh countryside.

Though the first Rebecca riot occurred at Efail-Wen in May 1839, it was not until 1843 that the authorities took them seriously. By then, local protest had turned crucial revolution, cementing the Rebeccaites into history as the Welsh Robin Hoods. Bigger than just a wave of revolutionary action, the riots can be credited with the development of a collective identity that is still present throughout Welsh social consciousness.

It is this characterisation that I chose to focus on when writing my dissertation. Specifically, my two main objectives were as follows: to identify the romantic model by which the Rebecca Riots have been recorded, and how this has contributed to the construction of a national identity still embraced by many Welsh people today.

Romantic narration first became clear to me when reading the topic’s historiography. David Williams’ The Rebecca Riots: a Study in Agrarian Discontent provides a detailed study of the political position of Wales at the time. Less concerned with the act of revolution, Williams instead focuses more on the socio-economic conditions that bred revolutionary ideas. Though invaluable to the historical study of Rebeccaism, sensationalised accounts are more appealing as they cater to a wider demographic of people. These accounts include Rhian E. Jones’ Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest in the Rebecca Riots and Henry Tobit Evans’ Rebecca Riots! True Tales of the Transvestite Terrorists who Vexed Victoria. Both have romantic titles – ‘petticoat heroes’, ‘transvestite terrorists’ – and focus on the performance of rebellion.

Nevertheless, it is clear that insufficient attention has been directed toward the riots themselves. Of interest to me was the use of revolution in building a national identity. A key feature of this includes direct English responses to Welsh unrest. Though scholars like Lowri Rees have explored these, none have drawn explicit links between them and the formation of a Welsh defensive strategy. Thus, I dedicated my dissertation to developing this observation.

After identifying romantic habit across the topic’s historiography, my next step was to explore contemporary attitudes of Rebecca. Specifically, I sought to understand when exactly this habit began by reading the riots from an English perspective. Through the use of various primary sources – including newspaper articles, political proclamations and official letters addressed to the Rebeccaites – a clear pattern of prejudice against the Welsh people became clear. For unrest represented more than a specific grievance; it highlighted the already existing tension between both nations. Deemed wild and uncivilised, the Rebeccaites actions were considered a consequence of their inherently rebellious nature.

These damaging stereotypes were only reinforced by a subsequent education report. Later referred to as the ‘treachery of the Blue Books’, this 1847 investigation into education in Wales, was an explicit attack against the Welsh culture. Ultimately, it concluded that the Welsh language was backward, and a threat to the socio-political assimilation of Wales into the superior England. This interpretation caused outrage and marks the beginning of romantic habit. Instead of arguing against it, the Welsh instead embraced these supposedly damaging characterisations and formed an identity to be proud of – ‘y werin’, translating to innocent and cultured. The Welsh used this shared identity in both defining themselves against the English bourgeoisie, and in re-writing their history. This resulted in the romantic narrative through which Rebeccaism has since been recorded. 

Having established the existence of such a model, I then aimed to identify this in practice. Politically, the riots have been used as a means of comparison. In his 1997 House of Commons speech, Rhodri Morgan makes an association between nineteenth-century revolution and contemporary efforts to gain political devolution from Westminster. In doing so, Rebeccaism is moulded to fit a nationalist interest; through which modern-day grievances are considered a continuation of past frustrations. United by a shared experience, such political parallels reinforce a collective identity inherited across generations.

Historical fictions are also perpetrators of romantic habit. The use of Rebeccaism as an exotic backdrop to lively storylines further perpetuates the stereotypes seemingly inherent with Welshness. For example, English author Alexander Cordell continually centred his works around Wales’ revolutionary past. Whilst Hosts of Rebecca explicitly refers to the Rebecca Riots, other publications involve the Merthyr Uprising of 1831, the Penrhyn Quarry Lockouts of 1896-1903 and the Tonypandy Riots of 1910. In using such events to historically validate otherwise fictitious tales, Cordell exploits the harsh realities of rebellion in favour of a thrilling story. This is especially damaging when considering his audience; for his works remain popular among the Welsh masses. No doubt, this further contributed to the romantic notions associated with the Welsh character and history.

Such notions become particularly apparent when analysing Rebeccaism in popular culture. Influencing the general public in ways scholarly works do not, popular culture also plays a crucial role in constructing both individual and collective identities. Of interest here is music; for this industry has been used to reflect broader socio-political themes. In this case, idealistic notions of Wales can be found woven throughout the lyrics of many Tecwyn Ifan songs. ‘Ysbryd Rebeca’ specifically forges a link between past and present – uniting all people through the Rebeccaites cause.

Documentaries can also serve as examples of romantic narration. Both Huw Edwards’ History of Wales and Gwyn Alf Williams’ Welsh Trilogy: Who was Rebecca? defend the Rebeccaites in their criminality. Painted as passionate, driven and loyal members of society, they represent the stereotypical Welsh character. The consequences of disorder, unrest and violence – including the murder of Hendy toll-keeper Sarah Williams – are either disregarded or deemed collateral damage in aid of a greater cause. The juxtaposition of Rebecca as both victim and assailant not only undermines the entire model by which our history has since been recorded, but reinforces the aforementioned narrative of the Welsh as barbaric and uncivilised. Driven by this interest, popular culture continues to paint the Rebeccaites as national heroes.

In summary, my ultimate goal was to explore the various ways in which Rebeccaism has been romanticised across history. Through the use of scholarly, political, cultural and literary sources, explicit ties between nostalgia and nationalism can be made. Contemporary English responses mark the foundations of a romantic model used in cementing the riots into Welsh history. Built from the negative stereotypes perpetuated at the time, a collective identity to be proud of was established. Instead of unruly and wild, we are passionate and loyal. Political parallels reinforce this stereotype, as do historical fictions. As a result, general attitudes towards the riots across social consciousness are positive. Through popular culture, Rebecca is made a myth; her defiant and spirited nature used to represent the mutual qualities shared among all Welsh people. As a result, criminal actions are either dismissed or justified. In highlighting this romantic habit, I hope to not only spark an entirely new conversation surrounding the events of 1839-43, but also the matter of Welsh nationalism and the way in which we record our history on a holistic level.

Bethany Davies

Bethany Davies is a recent history graduate, advancing onto a Masters in Archive and Records Management at Aberystwyth University. Born and raised in South Wales, she is especially passionate about the preservation of local history. Currently undertaking placement at the Glamorgan Archives, she hopes to continue exploring this interest whilst also serving the community in their exploration of the past.

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