In 1843 the whole of west Wales was gripped in the civil disturbances known as the ‘Rebecca Riots’. Aimed mainly at the unfair tolls that were charged for the use of the turnpike roads, the rioters disguised with blackened faces and attired in women’s clothes would attack and destroy the offending tollgates and their attached gatehouses. The town of Llanelli and its district did not escape this turmoil, for its roads were under the control and management of the ‘Three Commotes’ and the ‘Kidwelly Turnpike Trusts’. These trusts had been described by a government solicitor as being the most ‘odious’ and ‘obnoxious’ than any others. Old plans show that the town’s roads were secured by at least 15 tollgates and ‘toll-bars’. It was probably for this reason that both the Furnace and the Sandy tollgates were destroyed at the beginning of August 1843.
A watershed in the disturbances came at the later end of August, following the ‘Great Meeting’ on the slopes of Mynydd Sylen under the chairmanship of the Llanelli Magistrate, William Chambers. It was resolved that a petition laying out the local grievances would be sent to Queen Victoria with a pledge that there would be no more ‘nightly meetings’ – But some of Rebecca’s daughters had different ideas!
Rumours that the landlord of the Bear Inn at the village of Felinfoel was about to inform on the rioters had reached the ears of Rebecca, and so on the night Monday 4th of September, along with her ‘daughters’ she rode into the village to confront the host of the Bear Inn with these allegations. Contemporary documents describe the incident….
“On their arrival, they halted before the public house called the Bear, when they called out to the landlord, ‘David Williams, David Williams, come downstairs, come downstairs’, he instantly made his appearance. Rebecca, who was on horseback, told him they did not wish to hurt him, and asked him if he knew any of her daughters, and whether he did not say to some person he did? At which he replied he did knot know any of them. Rebecca then strictly charged him not to make use of her name, or any of her daughters, or else she would certainly punish him the next time she heard of it”.
The rioters then terrorised the village by discharging their guns in a volley and disappeared into the mountains.
A few days later on Wednesday the 6th September 1843 after attacking the Llanelli Harbour Master, the Rebecca rioters headed for the Copperworks and fired a number of rounds into the factory where over 300 men were working. Once again they then headed up to the village of Felinfoel where they fired off a volley of guns and threatened the local publicans into giving them beer and according to the Victorian historian John Innes, they ‘had a big drink’. By about 3 in the morning they had adjourned to the parlour of the Farmers Arms in the village of Five Roads to pick up their ‘wages’ from the landlord William Jenkins.
Probably the last of Rebecca’s attacks in Llanelli came on Saturday 30th September 1843, when she removed the Tyrfran Tollgate on the road to Felinfoel and dropped it down the shaft of a nearby coal pit. According to old documents and newspapers the gatehouse and gateposts remained untouched. ‘When the Dragoons reached the spot not one person was to be seen although they were billeted within 200 yards of the gate’ . Old town plans show that the site of the tollgate was at the corner of Felinfoel Road and Parc Howard Avenue. Some of the troops were billeted at the Union Workhouse, lately Bryntirion Hospital.
But by this time the tide was turning, probably as a result of the resolutions passed at the Great Meeting on Mynydd Sylen and probably because of Williams Chambers’ influence, about 40 local farmers recovered the gate from the Dimpath coal pit and returned it to its hinges the following Monday morning.