Wales during the first half of the nineteenth century brimmed with protest movements – often clandestine in nature – employing direct action, written threats, and physical attacks to achieve their aims. The names of these movements, some of their leaders, and the places associated with them, are etched into our historical memory: the Chartists, the Scotch Cattle, the co-operators led by Dr William Price in Pontypridd, the Merthyr Rising, the Newport Rising, the Rebecca Riots. Like the Luddites of northern England or the Swing rioters of southern England, these were regional protests, similar but different at the same time. And they have captured the imagination of some of the greatest historians of popular movements: Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, Dorothy and Edward Thompson, Gwyn A. Williams, David Jones, and David Williams. Their interpretations still have much to tell us, indeed, as Gwyn A. Williams famously wrote: ‘The history of the Welsh working class in the frontier years seems familiar’. But, of course, he also insisted that ‘the familiarity is false’. It is with these sentiments in mind that Rhian E. Jones’s book on the Rebecca Riots encourages us all to look again at the familiar. Drawing on the insights of gender and cultural history, Jones offers a fresh, theoretically sophisticated take on the events that shook south-west Wales in the 1840s which will be welcomed by historians of both modern Wales and Britain.
Through eight chapters (including the introduction), a conclusion, and a contemporary epilogue, Jones reorients the Rebecca Riots focusing our attention on the symbolism, ritual, and costume involved, and on the role of gender in framing the movement’s ideas and activities. The Rebecca costume was not merely a disguise, she suggests, but was, in fact, linked to the ‘contemporary experience and performance of masculine identity’ and that ‘the contrast of feminine and masculine was intended to express a further binary, as part of a ritual intended to create a liminal space for participants to carry out extraordinary actions’ (p. 7). Readers familiar with Jones’s earlier study of the Scotch Cattle will note a similar reading of the act of donning spectacular costumes to effect a diminution of the individual’s identities and the assumption of the transgressive identity of Rebecca or the tarw scotch. This is of particular novelty because previous historians of both movements have tended not, in Jones’s words, to ‘regard it as significant enough to merit consideration on its own terms’ (p. 60).
Jones’s argument that the Rebecca Riots coincided with – and provide insights into – the restrictions of female agency and independence that resulted from the New Poor Law is well made and will serve as a valuable point of comparison with later instances of protest and direct action in which women took leading roles, such as the act of white shirting during agitation over universal membership of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in the early twentieth century, or the role played by women in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Anxiety about the ‘unruly woman’ was hardly limited to the 1840s. Indeed, the congruence between the early nineteenth century and our own times forms the basis of the book’s fascinating epilogue in which subsequent acts of costumed-protest are explored (there are similar points of comparison woven throughout). What Rebecca was to the 1840s, Jones argues, tantalisingly, so has become the Guy Fawkes mask designed by David Lloyd for the comic book V for Vendetta but now regularly employed by anti-austerity protesters. History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme, as the old saying goes.
The cultural approach to the past, with its emphasis on symbol and meaning, and at times dense language, is not to everyone’s taste and is generally absent from Welsh historiography. Andy Croll in several articles over a decade ago endeavoured to discern the reasons why this might be the case, reaching similar conclusions to those historians who have observed the ‘congeniality’ of the small group of Welsh historians. Whilst this can be prone to exaggeration – there were certainly battles aplenty in the late-1970s and early 1980s – for the most part there has tended to be a common ethos and a common pursuit of social and political history (and in more recent times women’s history). This mismatch between what has happened in Wales and what has happened in England is evident in the bibliography to Petticoat Heroes which is populated with famous works from the ‘cultural turn’ which took place beyond the Severn Bridge in the late-1980s and early 1990s.
But as so often happens in the rush to embrace new ideas fundamentals are lost, not the least of which are the friendly societies. This is a particularly curious absence from the book given the emphasis on ritual and popular organisation – and one that does not inconsiderable damage to its efficacy. Friendly societies, as Gwyn A. Williams and Dot Jones have demonstrated, enabled and were a direct expression of popular politics – their meeting places were identified by friend and foe as sites of radicalism, they had their own rituals and costumes, and whereas some may have stood aghast at the destructive capacity of Rebecca and her host, the interrelationship between the more radical friendly societies, the Chartist movement, and the early co-operative movement, all of which was evident in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, begged comparison with what was going on in the south west at that time. But cultural history is too often blind to such things, so dazzled is it by theory and implication, and that was certainly the case here.
This is, then, an ambitious attempt at revising the familiar, although it does not succeed entirely in its aim. The distinctiveness of the approach employed in Petticoat Heroes – at least in Wales – will hopefully ensure a wide audience. Indeed, in encouraging us to look again at the gender implications of the Rebecca Riots, Rhian E. Jones has surely earned her place in the pantheon of historians of Welsh popular protest.
[Note: This review was originally published in the Welsh History Review.]