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More About a "Becca" Character

By Dr. Peter M.S. Jones

David Williams' definitive text The Rebecca Riots included a great deal of information about the leading rioters.1 This is certainly true for John Hugh and John Hughes, who were transported for their leading role in the attack on the Pontardulais toll house. Much less is known about David Jones, the third transportee, who died within days of his arrival in Van Diemen's Land.

Williams records his age and his mother's name1; Tobit Evans2 notes the severity of the wounds inflicted on him in the course of his arrest; and Lewis Evans3, wrongly, links his name with Hen Goetre in the parish of Llannon. The purpose of this short article is to fill in some of the missing detail.

David was the son of William Jones, tenant of the 180 acre4 farm at Gelli Fechan (otherwise Gelly Vaughan) which was situated some three miles north of Llanelli. By the standards of the time the farm was quite large5, and had been the seat of John Morris, gent., in the late eighteenth century6. It may also have been the home of Woodford Rice, High Sheriff of the County in 17647.

David's mother, Lettice, was the daughter of William Lloyd who farmed at LLwyn-y-bustach in the parish of Llangendeirne8. She and William Jones were married at Llangendeirne parish church on October 23rd 1812 and moved to Gelli Fechan in Llanelli parish, where their four children were born and baptised: Thomas, the eldest, on 19 July 1818, David on 7 December 1821, and their sisters Margaret on 1 March 1824 and Mary on 10 July 18299.

During David's childhood the family would have been relatively well off and employed farm labourers and house servants. The children would have been educated at home or in one of the schools that existed in the Llanelli-Llannon area at that time10. We know that David himself could read and sign his name and that he had been 'well instructed'11. The ability to read but not write was common among the farmers of the time12.

David would have helped around the farm and we also know that he could plough13, probably using a team of oxen to pull the clumsy wooden plough which was still in common use.

As the younger son he would have expected to remain on the farm to help his parents, with the expectation that he would ultimately take over the tenancy14. His father died, apparently while away from home, on 10 July 1835, and the widow took over the administration of the 200 estate15. She continued farming at Celli Fechan but remarried on 24 October 1836 at Llanelli. David Davies, her second husband, was twenty years her junior16 and could well have been an elder brother to her fourteen year old son.

In February 1840 David's brother, Thomas married Rachel, the daughter of Jenkin Hugh, at Llannon17, and the couple took the tenancy of Lletty, Llannon, a 60 acre farm situated two miles to the north-east of his parents' home in the adjacent parish18. Jenkin Hugh, who was a farmer with small freehold properties at Cae Glas and Llwyn-y-rhos in Llanedi parish19, was the brother of Morgan Hugh of Ty-issa, Llannon, and uncle to John Hughes, the Jac Ty-issa who led the attack on the toll gate at Pontardulais20.

The problems of the farmers in south-west Wales were becoming increasingly difficult, with falling prices for farm produce, fixed rent, and rising rates and tithes. Many farmers were finding it hard to earn sufficient to pay their rent. For this or other reasons David Davies and Lettice moved to the smaller 60 acre farm of Cilwnwg fach, half a mile to the east of Celli Fechan21. Resentment at this time was growing and focussed on the numerous toll-gates which were adding greatly to farming costs, and on the tithe improprietor and landowner, Rees Goring Thomas, who held rights in Llannon, Llanelli and Llangendeirne22.

The pace of events leading up to the attack on Pontardulais accelerated sharply in the summer of 1843. A meeting of 200 parishioners at Llannon on 9 August called for a reduction of tolls, tithes and rents; a call which met with immediate response from the sympathetic William Chambers23. A further meeting was held on 14 August to answer questions concerning the parishioners' demands from a procrastinating Rees Goring Thomas24. His failure to respond led to yet another meeting of 100 to 150 parishioners in the Llannon National School on the evening of Monday, 21 August25. Patience had by this time run out and the following evening a crowd estimated at some 500 strong marched through Llannon village, dressed in white with their faces blackened, to attack the house of Rees Goring Thomas' agent, John Edwards, whose severity in collecting tithes was a source of anger26. The march to Gelli-wernen (home of John Edwards) would have passed within earshot of Lletty, Llannon with horns, trumpets and shouting, and it seems probable that both Thomas Jones and David would have been in their number. Cilwnwg-fach is only a mile from Gelli-wernen and William Chambers noted that 'Dai of Cilwnwg' wanted Dai Cantwr to 'go to Mr. Edwards of Cellywernen'27, presumably to frighten him.

It also seems highly likely that David Jones, his brother and step-father would have joined the crowd of 3000 at the mass meeting on Mynydd Sylen on the following Friday, 25 August, since feelings were sufficiently raised to persuade the farmers to leave their harvesting28. The meeting passed resolutions condemning Rees Goring Thomas for his 'unfair and deceitful' behaviour with regard to the Llanelli tithes, commended the more sympathetic landlords and formulated a petition to the Queen29.

We are on more certain ground regarding the events which, following a short lull, began on the night of 6 September. A crowd, numbered at 100 to 150 by the police, gathered in Llannon, many dressed in women's white garments with straw bonnets and blackened faces, and set off on some 100 horses, with horns blowing, in the direction of Pontardulais: according to one eye-witness, a most romantic and fearful sight30. They arrived at the Red Lion inn in high spirits between 12.30 and 1.00a.m. on 7 September, firing off shotguns and blowing their horns, little knowing that Captain Napier and his men lay in wait on the Glamorgan side of the Pontardulais bridge whilst William Chambers, the magistrate, was approaching from the Hendy direction31. After allowing the crowd to attack the gate and toll-house, from which the toll-keeper had already removed his furniture, the police sprang the ambush.

According to the evidence of Captain Napier and his men the rioters fired at them and attacked them before fleeing32. About three of the rioters appeared to take the lead and were mounted. They rode at the police and Captain Napier set out to capture them. The Rebecca, John Hughes, had his horse shot under him and was himself hit in the left arm, which was broken. David Jones was surprised in the toll-house, after most of the rioters had run off, by P.C. William Robertson Williams of Merthyr Tydfil, who found him prising up the floor boards33. He apparently struck P.C. Williams with his crowbar and Williams 'immediately put his pistol in his left hand and drew the cutlass with which he struck Jones on the head'. David ran out of the toll-house into the arms of Sergeant George Jones of Cadoxton, whom he pushed away but was again held after a scuffle and taken into custody and handcuffed34. He was wearing his coat which was turned inside out and had a white apron at the front and 'something white behind': he was hatless34. Captain Napier said that he had seen Jones put up considerable resistance and that he had had a stout stick in his hand with which he had struck at Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn. He believed Jones was wearing a white smock-frock35. Henry James Peake who was close by when David was taken believed he had struck him on the head on the bridge but he did not see him with a stick or see him strike Dillwyn36. William Chambers intercepted four fleeing rioters on the Carmarthenshire side of the river and arrived to see Hugh, Hughes and Jones lying on the ground handcuffed. Shortly afterwards they were taken to Swansea in a phaeton with an escort of dragoons37.

This account, based on the formal examination of police witnesses, did not go uncontested. Local witnesses, including a Baptist minister, told reporters that the police had fired first and that one of Napier's party, who was neither a policeman nor magistrate, had shot John Hughes and stabbed one of the other men with a knife. There was concern that this man and others had not been called to give evidence at the examination of the prisoners38.

Word of the capture spread rapidly and a large crowd had gathered in the inspector's room at Swansea when the prisoners were brought in at 5am. on the Thursday morning. David Jones appeared near to death39 and Dr. Bird, the Mayor of Swansea had him conveyed immediately to the infirmary on a stretcher, along with John Hughes. There he did all that 'skill and humanity could suggest to alleviate the sufferings of the wounded men'39. He told the Times reporter that Jones was severely and most dangerously wounded: there were several wounds in his back caused by slugs or shot, also one which appeared to have been a stab. The prisoner also had three wounds on his head, apparently inflicted with a sword. He was in a low and depressed state and Dr. Bird was fearful that some of the slugs might have passed into one of the large cavities in the body although the only evidence for this was the position of the wounds and the exhausted and depressed state of the prisoner40.

Depositions were taken from police witnesses on Saturday 9 Septernber and the prisoners brought into the dock at Swansea on the following Monday. They were provided with seats and David Jones, who had appeared in a dying state on the Thursday, seemed to have recovered surprisingly well41. The hearings were held in private and the press were excluded. The prisoners' legal representatives were not allowed to question the witnesses and bail, which was requested by Hugh Williams, their solicitor, was refused42.

After their examination the three men were committed for trial at the next assizes charged with feloniously and riotously assembling and beginning to demolish, pull down and destroy the toll-house, and Hughes with shooting at Capt. Napier with intent to do him grievous bodily harm. Jones and Hugh were charged with abbetting him on the second count. In the event the second charge was not pressed by the Attorney General. The Government hastily convened a special Commission at Cardiff before Mr. Justice Gurney and a Grand Jury met on Thursday, 26 October. The case proceeded despite counsel for the prisoners challenging that the jury was not chosen indifferently or impartially. Contrary to usual practice, all its members were drawn from the east of the county (Glamorgan) and none were farmers43. After the Grand Jury found a true bill the trial of John Hughes began, at which the same evidence was presented, together with appearances by Llewelyn Dillwyn, who claimed to have struggled with David Jones prior to his capture, and by his brother Dillwyn Llewelyn, who claimed to have helped him44.

After hearing the evidence and summing up, the jury retired for thirty minutes before finding Hughes guilty but recommending mercy. On the following Monday at 9am. the court reconvened to hear the case against Jones and Hugh. Both pleaded not guilty but changed their plea on counsel's advice and the assurance that the Attorney General would not press for an aggravation of punishment44. In his summing up, their counsel stressed that all three prisoners had come from good families and a few months ago could have held up their heads with the proudest in the land. He pointed to the fact that the men had already suffered and that Jones still had slugs lodged in his body that the medical men had been unable to remove44. Gurney, in passing sentence, noted the plea for mercy but remarked that their former respectability and rank of life were reasons why it was particularly necessary to make an example of them. He sentenced Hughes to twenty years transportation and Jones and Hugh to seven44.

Whilst in Cardiff gaol the three prisoners were persuaded to sign a letter of confession and an appeal to fellow Welshmen to observe the law and avoid their fate. The document was printed and published as a letter from Cardiff gaol dated 1 November 184345. Many of their friends were reported to have regarded the confession as a fake, presumably because it accepted that the three had attacked the police. On the other hand some press comment regarded the document as a cynical attempt to gain a remission of sentence and claimed that it showed no remorse for the actions which had led to the arrest46.

There was certainly great sympathy for the three men who, of the hundreds involved, had had the misfortune to get caught and singled out for exemplary sentences. The Welshman called for remissions on the grounds that the 'erring rustics' had been excluded from all sources of knowledge, uneducated, untaught and excluded from the rest of the world by their language47. Further petitions followed from relatives and friends48 and some of their relatives approached William Chambers, volunteering to become special constables to help restore order49.

The men were soon removed from Cardiff gaol and, under the custody of Mr. Woods the gaol's governor, taken by sea to Bristol and on by road to Millbank gaol in London. They were well treated and found the sea passage and the city of Bristol a source of wonder and interest. This kept their spirits up, but they wept on arrival50. They probably expected a solitary and dreary time in a gaol in which the warders were not allowed to speak to the prisoners and where exercise was taken alone in a court 'of small dimensions'50. Their dress was to be a harlequin attire with one side yellow and one blue; one leg white and the other green.

In fact the prisoners received better treatment than they had expected and they were not held in solitary confinement51. Nevertheless, despite further widely supported petitions, they were put on the ship London on 12 March 1844 and set sail for the Antipodes52. The Welshman reported on 5 April that the Home Secretary did not deem it his duty to advise the exercise of the Royal Prerogative and the editor regretted that the poor inoffensive peasant boys could not be given a good whipping and sent back about their business behind the plough55.

When he embarked on the London David Jones' health was described as good. The indents indicate that he was single, a protestant, and 5ft.3ins. tall. The ship's surgeon called him tall, florid and robustly built, but of indolent habit and depressed spirits when he reported sick on 23 May54. He had apparently been having some trouble from the outset of the voyage and sickness and diarrhoea were leading to loss of weight and strength. Despite medication and a special diet his condition persisted. After a brief improvement in mid-June he suffered a relapse and by 10 July, the day before he went ashore in Tasmania, his illness had assumed the character of chronic dysentry. He died a week later on 17 July 1844 at the colonial hospital in Hobart town54.

One of the police constables with Capt. Napier at Pontardulais was a P.C. Thomas Jones of the Glamorganshire constabulary55. But he was not David Jones' brother, although he had abandoned farming to join the Carmarthenshire constabulary56 as P.C.51 in September-October 1847. Like many recruits, he did not survive for long although he was not discharged for drunkeness as were so many of the Carmarthen town and London forces57. His dismissal in July 1849 was for 'having prevaricated very much about the loss of the ears off the skin of the ram produced at the trial of Thomas Richards (and I fear even committed perjury in his evidence at the trial at the last quarter sessions)'56. After his discharge Thomas Jones moved to Swansea where he worked as a labourer58, possibly on the railway which was then being constructed59.

Whatever the views of the compatriots of Hughes, Hugh and Jones, there is no doubt about the satisfaction of the authorities at their capture and punishment. Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, wrote to Sir Robert Peel expressing himself well satisfied and hoping that the sentences would strike terror by example60. He also urged that Mr. Dillwyn Llewelyn and his brother be rewarded for their gallantry and good conduct61. The police in their evidence went to some pains to suggest that David Jones' gunshot wounds were not of their doing but that he was shot by his own people. In view of their severity and the fact that the rioters had fled before Jones was found pulling up boards in the tollhouse, the police account seems improbable. A more likely view would be that he was shot and possibly stabbed during the scuffle which followed his escape from P.C. Williams.

The actions of David Jones and his companions and the many other unknown rioters, though extreme, served to bring the grave injustices of the time to public notice in a manner which previous complaints and petitions had failed to do. The Commission of Inquiry set up by the Government to look into the problems of South Wales found that there were grounds for the grievances and steps were put in hand that eased the lot of the farming community.

Crookham Common, Berks.

Acknowledgement. The author gratefully thanks the following for their assistance in providing documents and information: British Library, Carmarthen Record Office, Tasmanian State Archives, Public Record Office, National Library of Wales, Chief Detective Superintendent Pat Molloy, Mr. R. Baker, curator of the Police Museum, Bridgend, Glamorgan.
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