The Eighteen Hundreds were hard times, particularly for the agricultural community of South West Wales.
Extremely bad weather had caused successive seasons of failed harvests and to compound their plight, market prices for livestock were in severe decline..
The greed of ‘the gentry’ inflicted further hardship by increasing rents and taxes on the farmers and their tenants. They did n’t stop there, as wealthy landlords they enclosed the common land around villages, where the locals had freely grazed their livestock and collected firewood.
The “Poor Law” was passed at this time under which, if you did not have enough money to support yourself, you were obliged to go into a workhouse. Here conditions were unbearably bad, and often families were split up.In the past, farmers had provided food and fuel for the poor. Now with little spare cash, they were expected, via new taxes to pay for the building of these new workhouses.
With the hardships and conditions of these times, with the poverty that prevailed, disturbances were inevitable.
The trigger was the introduction of the Toll Gates. As a remedy to improve the poor roads, turnpike trusts were established to collect charges from road users by erecting toll gates.
Farmers were the worst hit as the main users of the roads transporting livestock as well as large quantities of lime to improve their soil.
In 1839, when a new gate was erected at Esailwen, to catch the farmers that were evading the tolls, it was the last straw.
Nobody knows who called the meeting in the barn of Glynsaithmaen Farm, nobody knows who attended but the man chosen to lead the assault on Esailwen Toll Gate was certainly Thomas Rees.
Thomas Rees or Twm CARNABWTH as he came to be known was an agricultural worker. He had built his cottage in one night and by tradition he thus assumed the freehold and ownership of his home. Hence his nickname Twm Carnabwth(Tom Stone Cottage)
Besides being a hard worker, the red headed Tom was also a bit of a bruiser and more than a bit of a boozer.
He was also something of a Jeckyll and Hyde, he was renown for his fists and with a warming drink inside ,he would take on and beat all comers at country fairs. Yet he was the chief reciter of the ‘Pwnc’, the catechism of the scriptures in his local chapel on Whitsunday Morning.
He was also a keen participant in the traditional justice of the “Ceffyl Pren” (literally Wooden Horse) A form of public humiliation by which adulterers, harsh landlords or even wife scolderers were made a laughing stock within the local community. Often the victim was paraded through the streets on a wooden pole or ladder, accompanied by ribald descriptions of the crime by men disguised in women’s clothing. Later the so called Wooden Horse was used to hold to ridicule people who had ‘betrayed the common folk’ like the Turnpike Owners and unjust landlords.
The first attack took place on 13th May 1839. Twm never afraid to stand up for the rights of his neighbours, led his band of righteous rebels right up to the gate of Esailwen, the first of the the Toll Gates to be destroyed. Some say that these lowly workers were put up to it by the larger farmers, who paid their tenants and labourers a going rate for appearing in women’s clothing at particular gates on particular nights.
This may well be true but it can never distract from the image of the first Rebecca leader well versed in scripture, well able to recite the lines from Genesis that became the rallying cry for the impoverished country folk


  1. Stephen Delwyn says:

    An excellent post. With toll roads being talked of once more, maybe another Twm will arise.

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