In 1843 a series of popular uprisings swept through west Wales and into Glamorganshire. Farmers and labourers dressed in women's clothes and other ritualised costumes smashed the hated toll-gates which added an unbearable burden during an agricultural depression. The novel, written in 1880, is based on these historical events and in part on the account penned by the author's own father, Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, a magistrate, who had been amongst 11 men who ambushed Rebecca at Pontardulais in 1843, two years before Amy was born.
The novel is a radical retelling of the riots from the point of view of the rioters. Evans realises that the poor are taxed to support the wealthy ruling classes and is enthusiastically outwitting and fighting the police, who are 'the natural enemy of everyone' p. 70 and magistrates who, 'to me and to most poor people, simply meant rich people who were in power, and who made up laws to suit themselves, and then sent anyone who broke those laws to prison' p. 61. The enmity between ruling classes and the poor are exemplified in the act of poaching which the landowners and magistrates regard as a great crime and the ordinary villagers regard as a natural right.
While the main plot revolves around the riots and eventually Evan's forced flight as an outlaw, the second plot rests on Evan's relationship with Miss Gwenllian and his growing feelings for her, despite the barrier of class. The novel begins with his rescuing her from a carriage accident, during which he breaks his arm - a foreshadowing of the greater sacrifice he will make for her later in the novel.
The novel is subtitled 'a story of Killay life' and the principal setting is Upper Killay, near Swansea, and the commons, moors and woods to the west. The two main tollgate scenes are based on historical events and are set in Bolgoed and Pontardulais, eight miles to the north of Upper Killay. Evan is radicalised at a meeting on fair day in Carmarthen, a large market town serving a predominantly rural area, about 25 miles from Evan's home. When Evan goes on the run, he heads west in a carefully plotted escape across the mountainous spine of Gower, Cefn Bryn, down to Penrice Castle and thence to Oxwich. Finding no boat available, the pair make their way along the coast to Mumbles and then by sea to Merthyr Mawr near Bridgend. Eventually, Evan is transported and tells the story retrospectively from a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). Key locations in Evan's emotional geography correspond to those of the author, and so the area around Dillwyn's home at Hendrefoilan are described in detail. The traitor Pugh Morgan is thrown to his death in a disused mine working which pepper the Clyne woods, just to the south of Hendrefoilan.
The story is told in the first person by Evan Williams, a young labourer from Upper Killay. Like his fellow villagers, his language is Welsh, though due to having mixed English-Welsh parentage Evan also knows English and is therefore able to communicate easily with Miss Gwenllian Tudor, and he is instantly smitten. Miss Gwenllian is the Squire's daughter who befriends and tutors Evan after he saved her from an accident in a runaway carriage (at the costs of breaking his own arm). Miss Gwenllian's humanity is contrasted with the narrow-minded class consciousness of her English aunt, Miss Elizabeth who is inclined to treat the working-classes as disease-carrying reprobates. Home life is peopled by Evan's sister and two suitors, Tom (with whom Evan eventually escapes en route for America) and the unpleasant Pugh Morgan. On a trip to Swansea market, Evan picks up Bill – a boy who has escaped a cruel captain on board one of the many boats that bring ore from south America to the enormous copper-works at Swansea. Bill's friendship means much to Evan, but it transpires that Bill isn't quite the boy both of them believe him to be. The Rebecca Rioters are led in Carmarthenshire by Thomas Beynon, a fine speaker in the mould of a non-conformist preacher, who recruits Evan to the cause and who plays the role of Rebecca during the Pontardulais and Bolgoed riots.
There are four plotlines to explore for The Rebecca Rioter :