Speaking volumes: David Williams's The Rebecca Riots

March 28, 1997

On David Williams's The Rebecca Riots.

In the summer of 1955, when I had just graduated and was contemplating what to do with my life, I met David Williams and read his The Rebecca Riots, which had just been published. My Damascus road turned out to be the seafront of Aberystwyth. But in my puny cosmos, it marked a crucial turning point. Life would never be the same again.

The Rebecca Riots is a sublime study of a countryside in crisis. When I met Williams he was 55, quiet, slow of tread, soberly dressed. His left eye had a tic that would go into overdrive when some historical curiosity cropped up in conversation. He was a Pembrokeshire Baptist, but the bust of Voltaire on his desk spoke of broader horizons. This placid son of the Welsh peasantry was a mid-Atlantic polymath who had written not only on Wales but on Ben Franklin's political philosophy. At Cardiff in the 1930s, he almost overawed the young Christopher Hill with his learning; Richard Cobb adored him, not least for his "tiny gentle claw of malice". Williams showed me how to be a historian, weighing up evidence, the potentialities and pitfalls of the public records and parliamentary papers and the popular press. He taught me never to be in awe of the past.

The Rebecca Riots describes the attacks by tenant farmers on the tollgates of southwest Wales between 1839 and 1843. It is a faultless work of scholarship, with a rare economy of style. It is subtly crafted. Four structural chapters on the gentry, the fabric of local government, and the economic and social background lay bare a fractured rural society. Then momentum is injected with a study of the "growth of opinion", the newspapers, the chapels, the radicalism generated by the Poor Law and Chartism. The riots are chronicled with irony and insight. Their "tarnished heroes", the bare-knuckle mountain fighter, Shoni Sguborfawr, and the alleged ballad-monger, Dai'r Cantwr, drinking and wenching their way up the valleys, are juxtaposed with complex social movements. The conclusion has an inner strength. The tollgates went after all. The sons and daughters of Rebecca were triumphant.

The Rebecca Riots showed me that the post-union history of Wales could be written. It also suggested this was best done with discipline and restraint, not by over-zealous "roaring boys". It showed too how a local study could anatomise a wider crisis. The early chapters on three counties in southwest Wales are crucial to what the author intends. When a nationalist reviewer attacked Williams for "denying the essential unity of Wales", he showed an almost heroic lack of understanding. The ability to see the wider implications of local records is breathtaking. Here truly was "history from below" , as subtle as the Annales school and reaching a conclusion. It is a masterly study of social dynamics, of a moral economy at bay. There is a tone of gentle irony: Williams was a master of deflation. Yet there is poetry in the prose, a deep humanity for the impoverished farmers of pre-industrial west Wales. The book is dedicated to his own ancestors who were part of them. Against all the odds, Rebecca's children had won social power. They had changed their world.

It is an unassuming book by a gentle man but its significance is universal. That book and that man determined my life. They made me want to be a historian, of Wales and the world. I wanted to write, to see if I could be even half as good as him. Forty years on, I am still trying.

Kenneth O. Morgan is a fellow, Queen's College, Oxford.


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