'And they blessed Rebecca and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of
thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gates of those who hate them.'
(Genesis, chapter 24, verse 60.)
In 1813, an auction took place at the George Inn, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire where the rights to collect tolls at several tollgates in the county were offered to the highest bidders. These included gates on the turnpike roads at Ffairfach, Llandybie and Llanedy Forest. Ffairfach and Llandybie together collected £640 per annum while, the quieter; Llanedy Forest Gate generated £21 each year.
Since most gates came with a house for the gatekeeper and his family, there was keen interest in all the lots at the auction. At the time Lord Dynevor paid his servants just seven shillings a week (£18 per annum). The toll roads generated handsome incomes and were much sought after. Many tollgate owners lived a comfortable life in London and employed gatekeepers to collect the money from the passing travellers.
The original idea of charging tolls had been to improve the transport system and the money was intended for the upkeep of the road surface. Most of the money, however, went straight into the pockets of the owners who made little or no attempt to carry out repairs. Tollgates proliferated. At one point it was estimated that there was a tollgate for every three miles of road in Carmarthenshire, many of which had been erected illegally. The effect on the ordinary people was devastating. They were being taxed every time they moved. Resentment against the system built up. Something had to be done.
On the 13th May 1839 a group of men disguised themselves as women and attacked the tollgate at Efail Wen, Narberth. It was destroyed. The owner, an Englishman named Thomas Bullin, who owned tollgates throughout England and Wales, had it rebuilt but gave up after two further attacks. He ordered that the gatehouse be demolished and for a while nothing more was heard of the culprits.
Attacks started again in 1842 and it soon became apparent to the authorities that this was a serious threat that had to be dealt with. Bands of men, disguised as women and calling themselves ‘Daughters of Rebecca’, started attacking tollgates throughout Carmarthenshire, frequently burning the gatehouse to the ground. The Daughters of Rebecca were mainly small scale farmers. Farm rents had been steadily increasing for years while poor harvests and depressed prices left many farmers living in poverty. These subsistence farmers were particularly badly affected by the toll charges.
The attacks became more violent and spread though South Wales. In one attack near Pontarddulais, the gatekeeper Sarah Williams was shot and killed. During the inquest doctors confirmed that there were two bullets lodged in her lung. Despite this evidence the jury returned a strange verdict, 'that the deceased died from effusion of blood into the chest occasioned, suffocation, but from what cause is to this jury unknown.’ (sic) There was considerable public support for the Daughters of Rebecca.
Realising there was little chance of convicting the attackers locally, the trial was moved to Cardiff, where the High Sheriff selected his own jury, and five rioters were sentenced to be transported for life.
Back in Carmarthenshire, Colonel Trevor, Vice Lieutenant of the County, had returned home to the family estate at Dinefwr to help his ailing father deal with the rioters. He watched, dismayed, at the Carmarthen Assizes as Rebecca Leader, David Evans, was cleared of destroying tollgates on two different occasions. Each time the jury failed to reach a verdict, forcing the judge to release the prisoner. By now the Daughters of Rebecca had widened their activities and were attacking other symbols of authority. In June 1843 they attacked the workhouse in Carmarthen. The Colonel realised that stronger methods would be needed to crush the Daughters of Rebecca.
A new force, the Metropolitan Police, had been formed in 1829 to suppress political unrest. The Metropolitan Police had already seen action in the Industrial Midlands and Yorkshire. They were effective at riot control and were the first to develop the ‘baton charge’ as a crowd control tool. Colonel Trevor summoned them to Carmarthenshire. In addition to these specialist policemen, a large contingent of soldiers, complete with cannon, were garrisoned in Carmarthen. The 4th Regiment of Light Dragoons established their headquarters at the Cawdor Arms Hotel, Llandeilo and the vicarage was taken over by the 41st Regiment of Infantry. The influx of money and men into Llandeilo had one major benefit. It turned the once quiet backwater into a boom town. Nearly everyone was making money and local traders were happy that Llandeilo remained occupied by the military for two years.
On August 9th 1843, the tollgate on Carmarthen Road, between the town centre and the White Hart Public House, was attacked and the gatehouse destroyed. The audacity of the attack, so close to the town and almost outside Colonel Trevor’s country house was breathtaking.
After recommending that the Metropolitan Police be armed, Colonel Trevor then announced publicly that, if it was appropriate, he would order the troops to open fire on The Daughters of Rebecca. His comments caused further polarisation in the increasingly bitter confrontation.
One morning in September 1843 Colonel, The Honourable George Rice Trevor MP, Vice Lieutenant for the County of Carmarthen was woken from his bed at Newton House. During the night a grave had been dug in the grounds of the house and a notice posted declaring that the Colonel would be buried in it by the 10th October. The Daughters of Rebecca had given him their answer; it was to be a fight to the death.
Each night, mounted dragoons scoured Carmarthenshire searching for the Daughters of Rebecca while the Metropolitan Police were spread across the county guarding tollgates and a contingent of soldiers guarded Colonel Trevor. A letter was sent to the Duke of Wellington requesting more troops be stationed in Carmarthenshire. He dispatched two thousand additional infantrymen commanded by Colonel Love, a man experienced in crushing rebellion. Love had seen action at Waterloo, had crushed the striking mineworkers in Merthyr and successfully suppressed a riot in Bristol.
Colonel Love quickly assessed the situation and found he had some sympathy for the Daughters of Rebecca’s complaints. He wrote accordingly to the Home Secretary proposing that an inquiry be set up to examine the facts. As a result of his intervention a Royal Commission was formed.
Colonel Trevor’s troop patrols and police guards were making little difference. During the whole conflict the soldiers failed to capture a single Daughter of Rebecca. The dragoons usually arrived long after the attackers were long gone and safely home in bed. The Metropolitan Police were equally ineffective. Without local knowledge or intelligence they were always in the wrong place to stop the attacks.
Then Colonel Trevor began to offer rewards for information and immunity from prosecution. Queen Victoria personally signed the proclamation announcing the rewards. A reward of up to £1,500 (£30,000 in today’s money) and the promise of a pardon for information leading to a conviction produced immediate results. At a time when many farm workers were employed on a casual basis for a shilling a day and out of work for the winter, the lure of such a large sum of money was understandable. Now, Daughters of Rebecca were no longer sisters in arms. They were betraying each other. At Carmarthen Quarter Sessions £1500 was paid in rewards on one day alone.
The Royal Commission reported within 5 months of being set up and it supported most of the complaints against the tollgate system. A new ‘Road Bill for South Wales’ was hurriedly passed, sweeping away many of the iniquities and dealing with the complaints of the Daughters of Rebecca. Private Turnpike Trusts were abolished and replaced by elected County Road Boards. The toll on lime, essential for farmers working poor quality land, was halved and the number of tollgates reduced so they only occurred every seven miles. The Daughters of Rebecca had won their demands and the organisation quietly faded away. The conflict was over.
Several thousand Daughters of Rebecca were active during the four-year struggle. Over two hundred and fifty tollgates were destroyed in South West Wales, many of them several times. One consequence of the Rebecca Riots was that the first regular Carmarthenshire Police Force was established in 1843 comprising a Chief Constable, six Assistants, ten Sergeants and twenty Constables.
On 13th July 1844 Colonel Trevor, having survived the threats on his life, wrote supporting the new system of road management and proposed that bridges in the county should be bought under the same type of administration. In 1852 he became the 4th Baron Dynevor and continued to live at Newton House, Llandeilo.