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Welsh History Review


Vol. 15, nos. 1-4 1990-91

Rebecca's children : a study of rural society, crime and protest. Book review.

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J. V. Jones. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1989. Pp. xiii, 423. £ 40.00.
In this excellent book, David Jones takes the Rebecca disorders of the period 1839
to 1843 as a way into an exploration of the three counties of south-west Wales in the
first half of the nineteenth century. This was a sparsely populated land and though
much of that which could be farmed was in the hands of great landowners, it was
mostly worked as small farms of less than seventy-five acres by families with one or
two helpers. The traditional view is that this area of Wales was loyal, religious and
virtually crime-free and that Rebecca and her followers were primarily concerned
with iniquitous toll charges on the main roads linking towns and providing access to
the quarrying and mining districts. Once the turnpike trusts which adminstered these
roads had made concessions, the noble Welsh peasant ceased his disorderly conduct;
the more violent disorders, involving arson, animal maiming, cutting down trees,
smashing fences and weirs, as well as physical assaults and even murder, were
symptomatic of a degeneration of the Rebecca movement as outsiders, criminals and
the seditious— 'the lunatic fringe'­took over. This Whiggish interpretation has the
familiar ring of the way that much popular disorder in the British Isles used to be
characterised, and David Jones convincingly explains how this particular myth began
to be constructed even as Rebecca and her children continued to stalk the land.
A thorough analysis of the social and economic structure of the three counties both
before and after the attacks on the tollgates and tollhouses, together with a detailed
study of the disorders at which Rebecca or her daughters presided, presents a different
and far more complex picture. Jones shows clearly that it is not possible to
differentiate between those who attacked tollgates and tollhouses and those who
attacked other property and persons. Nor is it clear that the turnpike riots obviously
pre-dated the other attacks; the former peaked in June, July and August 1843, the
latter in August and September 1843. The two kinds of attacks clustered in roughly
the same areas; moreover there was a spate of mass meetings, hitherto neglected by
the historians of Rebecca, which were held at roughly the same time and in roughly
the same geographical pattern. These meetings were a feature of the late summer and
early autumn of 1843: they drew up petitions to the Queen and to parliament; they
protested about the continuing tolls and sometimes also about the New Poor Law, the
Tithe Commutation Act, trade restriction and parliamentary representation; they
formed farmers' committees to negotiate with landowners and tithe-holders; they
appointed deputations to wait on government commissioners. Rebecca was a people's
redresser; in her own words she was 'adverse to every tyranny and oppression' and
the mass meetings and the direct action were part and parcel of the same response to
discontent. The direct actions against persons and property were not unlike much of
the crime and protest in the three counties before the first appearance of Rebecca,
while the ritual and costume adopted by The Lady, her daughters, and her most active
followers, were similar to those of the traditional Welsh charivari involving the ceffyl
Pren (the wooden horse). Both before and during the Rebecca years, when the
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