The Rebecca Riots

During the nineteenth century, when smock frocks were commonly worn by many men, they could also be used by those engaged in ‘criminal’ activity to prevent easy identification and facilitate a disguise of sorts. The Rebecca Riots were a series of protests against tolls charged to use local roads, as well as general poverty and poor conditions, in rural west Wales.  Protesters called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’ probably after a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them’ (Genesis XXIV, verse 60). In 1843 the Rebecca Riots were reported in the Gloucestershire Chronicle.  A mob of around a hundred people had assembled in Nantgarredig, near Carmarthen.  They were disguised, with their faces blackened, and wearing smock frocks, carrying implements to use as weapons.[1]  The smock frock had almost become a uniform so that the members of the ‘mob’ were no longer individuals but could act as one to carry out their aims.  It was also reported that a group of twenty-four men, some ‘dressed in smock frocks’, came down the Fishguard Road to over-run and destroy the Prendergast Toll near Haverfordwest, demolishing the gateposts and signboard.[2] 

The ‘riots’ have become infamous as the men who took part were often reported to have dressed as Rebecca, that is in women’s clothing. This ‘cross-dressing’ was also commonly used to take part in popular customs, part of the carnival ‘world-turned-upside-down’ order. Popular custom and popular protest shared characteristics such as disguise, using masks or blackened faces, and the transvestitism of men dressed in women’s clothes. Politics and protest could be integrated into customary celebrations, for example, mumming plays, May Day, Plough Monday and Whit week[3], the processions and gatherings of local communities giving an opportunity to air grievances, even if underhand and not overtly displayed.  However, in reality, the white gowns that many of the Rebecca rioters were said to have been wearing were probably smock frocks, which were widely available in Wales, especially in Cardiff and in the border region.[4]  The smock was white, loose, cheap, could stand-in for female dress and was usually commonly to hand for male labourers.  It was also symbolically complex, it’s meaning dependent on who was reading it.  As a symbol of rural poverty and oppression for some wearers, it is not unsurprising that it was used for popular protest.


[1] Gloucestershire Chronicle, 15 July 1843.

[2] Worcestershire Chronicle, 26 April 1843.

[3] K. Navickas, ‘”That sash will hang you”: Political Clothing and Adornment in England, 1780-1840’, Journal of British Studies, 49, July 2010, pp. 559-64.

[4] For example a smock frock was stolen from a house at Tredegar, see Hereford Times, 3 October 1863; and another similar case  at Llanddewi Rhydderch, near Abergavenny, see Hereford Times, 12 December 1857.  Smock frocks and hats were raced for at Abergavenny when waiting for the first sod of the Newport, Abergavenny, Hereford railway to be cut, Hereford Times, 31 January 1852.  See also M. G. Rees and C. Stevens, ‘Smocks in the Welsh Folk Museum Collection’, Medel, vol. 3, Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, one in the collection from the Dolgellau region, worn by a farmer and made by his daughter, p. 35, no. 45327/1. 

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