The Poor Law

The popular protest movements in Wales of the eighteen thirties and forties were to a large extent down to poverty and some kind of material distress. However, there were other factors to consider which among other problems included grievances such as poor working conditions and low wages. One of the largest forms of popular protest during this period came from the 'Rebecca' movement, and was to some extent caused by their opposition to poverty and material distress, but they also had other grievances that they wished to redress.

The Rebecca riots referred to various disturbances in South West Wales between eighteen thirty-nine and eighteen forty-three. The movement was made up of mainly agricultural workers who were protesting over several grievances that arose from their very poor standard of living and material distress. The violence that was adopted by 'Rebecca' seemed to arise from their frustration that nothing was being done to improve their working conditions or standards of living. There were several grievances or "injustices" that 'Rebecca' wished to gain redress for.

The first major grievance that 'Rebecca' wished to redress was that of the friction between tenant farmers and their landlords. Many farmers in Wales at the time did not own the land but were tenants. The landlords were often absent and employed agents to collect rent on their behalf. However, these agents took advantage of their power and forced tenants to pay for more than they had to, to line their own pockets, or face being thrown off their land. The tenants very often had no security of tenure so therefore could be thrown off their land any time, say, for example, if a better offer came in for the land.

This was obviously a huge grievance that robbed tenants of both material property and money. Another huge grievance of the 'Rebecca' movement and Wales as a whole was the Tithe. The Tithe was a payment made by everyone towards the established church (Church of England). This greatly angered the 'Rebecca' men who were largely non-conformists but still had to pay for something in which they did not support or agree with. The Tithe Communication Act (1836) made things much worse, it forced the Tithe to be paid in money, not kind

The Tithe greatly angered 'Rebecca' not only did they not agree with it in principle, it drove them into further poverty, as it had to be paid in money so therefore, unlike before they could not pay with goods they had produced. Another of 'Rebecca's' grievances was Wages and Food prices. The nineteenth century was a time of high unemployment, low wages and high food prices. This was a huge problem and annoyance for 'Rebecca', particularly with a series of bad harvests in the eighteen thirties and forties.

It meant that farmers sold for les and bought food for higher prices, which denied them much needed revenue and meant they went without several basic items of food and drove them into further poverty because they could simply not afford to pay for them. However, the two main grievances of 'Rebecca' were the Poor Law and the Tollgates. The Whig introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) caused widespread distress throughout the country. It effectively abolished the principle of outdoor relief.

It was replaced by a system of workhouses where the conditions were made deliberately harsh to discourage applications for relief. This obviously outraged the 'Rebecca' movement as several of their members were in aid of relief. This system would obviously result in even worse poverty than they were already in. The Tollgates were essentially just gates set up in the road, to which a fee was to be paid in order to pass. These tollgates were set up in 'Turnpike Trusts' that were bought by private enterprisers.

However, these private enterprisers were only interested in profit and quickly forgot the road users, which left the roads fall into a state of disrepair. Tolls were usually valid for twenty-four hours, which often did not let men get back and forth to market to sell their goods in time, which meant they had to pay twice. This infuriated the 'Rebecca' men who began attacking these tollgates in disgust. The most famous example of this occurred in Efailwen. On June 6th eighteen thirty-nine, four hundred men attacked and destroyed the Whitland Trust in Efailwen in protest at the high prices and poor road conditions on the trust.

It is quite obvious that part of 'Rebecca's' protests were against the ever-increasing level of poverty and material distress they were experiencing. However, they were also protesting about several other grievances which the though equally important, such as poor working conditions and high food prices. Another of the great forms of popular protest of this era came from the Chartists. The main aim of the chartists, who enjoyed large support from Wales, was to get the six points of the Peoples Charter incorporated into English and Welsh law.

Chartism in Wales was set up in eighteen thirty-six, many of the founders were also involved in the Rebecca riots, they were both sympathetic to each others cause. Chartism was seen by some as "a movement of a working class which in a variety of ways was too immature to sustain itself" – Hugh Cunningham, Modern History Review, April 1990. The six demands of the Peoples Charter were universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, voting by secret ballot, no property qualifications for M.

P's and finally, payment for M. P's. The main cause of the Chartists agitation was the Reform Act (1832). It was widely expected that the Act would enfranchise more working class males, but although the Act did give the vote to more people, it did not come close to the Chartists expectations. Another cause for the Chartists protest were the Corn Laws. The Corn Laws helped maintain the high price of food, which made it difficult to buy food cheaply, which ultimately led to greater poverty and starvation, as people could not afford to buy food.

Another reason for the Chartists anger was again the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834). The Chartists were unhappy at the poor working conditions and the uncomfortable standards of living. Chartism also produced a series of disturbances. The first occurred in Llanidloes in eighteen thirty-eight when the local handloom weavers fell on hard times after having their wages cut. Men began to collect arms and drill in preparation for a rising. In preparation for this three constables were sent to the area to quell and possible uprising.

The three soldiers were attacked in the Trewythen Arms. After this the three responsible were sentenced to transportation, which further angered people. The Chartists main aim was to get the points of the Peoples Charter into law. However, they did tend to support any protest in which the welfare of the people was involved, therefore there is an argument that Chartism, was in part, at least, born out of poverty and material distress. One of the great moments of popular protest at the time was the Merthyr rising.

According to John Davies in 'A History of Wales', Penguin, 1990, it was "the most ferocious and bloody event in the history of industrial Britain". The people of Merthyr were excited by the talk of new reform initiative, but became angered when William Crawshay, proprietor of the Cyfarthfa ironworks, decided to lower the wages of his employees. This rustled strong feelings among the employees who gathered in large groups outside the Court of Requests, which dealt with small debts. The courthouse was raised to the ground on June 1st and the huge crowds held the magistrates under siege in the towns Castle Hotel.

Eighty soldiers quickly arrived to try and quell the rising, which further incensed the huge crowd, and twenty men were shot dead in the ensuing riot. The troops eventually retook the town and some semblance of order was reinstated. The Merthyr rising almost definitely came about due to poverty and material distress. The workers were already struggling to cope with the meagre wages paid to the by the ironworks. Lowering wages would surely have meant certain poverty for most, so they reacted by rioting to try and get what they wanted, but it did not work.

These main protest movements did however bring about some success. As a result of the 'Rebecca' riots, a Royal Commission was set up in eighteen forty three to consider the grievances of the rioters and investigate the problems of the 'Turnpike Trusts'. In eighteen forty-four the Royal Commission report was issued. As a result of its recommendations many trusts were joined and tolls were standardised and reduced. This somewhat eased the protesters grievances but still did not give relief to all the grievances.

In many ways it could be true to say that many of the popular protest movements of the eighteen thirties and forties were born out of poverty and material distress. Both the 'Rebecca' riots and the Chartist movement had grievances which they felt left them in poverty, such and the Tithe, high food prices, 'Turnpike Trusts' and the Poor Law. However, they both had other grievances that they protested about out of principle, and not poverty, such as the actions of landlords agents and the points of the peoples charter, which they felt equally strong about.