Plotting the Rebecca Riots

The Rebecca Riots began in Efailwen in 1839, and were at their peak in 1843, when the workhouse in Carmarthen was sacked and the riots moved from predominantly rural locations into industrialised east Carmarthenshire and to the borders of Glamorganshire.

The Rebecca Rioters, Illustrated London News
The Rebecca Rioters. Illustrated London News, February 11, 1843.

The Rioters were initially protesting the taxation of poor farmers who had to pay numerous tolls in order to collect lime to improve poor soil. But the cause soon spread to include wider injustices associated with the new poor law, church tithes (in a nation increasingly dominated by Nonconformity), some anti-colonial sentiment (against absentee landlords), and some areas of social justice such as forcing fathers to take in their 'bastard' children. These causes were depicted in an 1873 edition of Punch as cartoon titled Rebecca and Her Daughters.

The Rebecca Rioters portrayed in an 1843 Punch cartoon
The Rebecca Rioters portrayed in an 1843 Punch cartoon.

The Rebeccaites donned ritual costumes of women's clothes, often white. They blackened their faces and often included other outlandish details. The overall aim was less about disguise and more about the symbolic role that the activists adopted in their costume and their often ritualised, theatrical attacks.

The Rebecca Rioters wearing women's clothes
The Rebecca Rioters wearing women's clothes.

The movement took its name - Rebecca - from Genesis "Let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them". Genesis 24:60 Another story is that the first Rebecca (as the leader of a riot was known), a man known as Twm Carnabwth, borrowed his costume from Beca Mawr (Big Rebecca) of Llangolman and the name Rebecca was thus adopted.

Carnabwth, the home of the first Rebecca
Carnabwth, the home of the first Rebecca, by Aneurin.

Dillwyn's novel became a part of the historical record, and was amongst the list of sources consulted by the historian Henry Tobit Evans while researching his book, Rebecca and Her Daughters (1910). Her novel would be heavily extracted in various discussions of the Rebecca Riots, including in a 1906 series on The Rebecca Riots published by the Daily Post.

According to the historian Prys Morgan, one Esther Arthur, "aged about 13 when the Rebeccaites stationed their horses outside her home … recalled that when Amy Dillwyn's novel The Rebecca Rioter came out in 1880, such was the accuracy of her portrayal of the rioters, that their now respectable descendants demanded an injunction in court to withdraw publication." Prys Morgan, Reviews, Morgannwg LIX 2015, p. 172


Evan visits Carmarthen 'one day at about the end of 1842'. Carmarthen is a market town about 25 miles from his home in Upper Killay. West Carmarthenshire was at the centre of the Rebecca Riots and in June 1842 the workhouse in Carmarthen was ransacked , an event disapprovingly covered by The Spectator.

Carmarthen Workhouse
Carmarthen Workhouse (COFLEIN)

Evan visits Carmarthen on a fair day: 'A fair is a wonderful place for meeting people from all parts of the country', he observes, and he ends up at a secret meeting in a 'small inn' p. 60-61. Here, a man named Beynon makes 'a long speech in Welsh':

What right have the Queen and her Government to put a tax on things that poor people must have? On the things without which they cannot live? And what do they do with the money they take from us? Who has it? Why the Queen has it! She and the people she chooses for her ministers! Are they poor? Or hungry? Or cold? Or naked? Not they! Rolling in luxury and riches – eating and drinking at one meal what would keep a poor man's family in comfort for a month […] Those are the people who are not too proud to take the poor man's money to add to their own wealth – wealth which they fling away recklessly and squander on themselves […] as though no better use than that could be found for the hard-earned pennies and shillings that we have gained by the labour of our hands and the sweat of our brows! p. 62

The novel is highly critical of the ruling classes and represents class war as the inevitable outcome of inequality. But the battle is also conceived in national terms.

Fellow-sufferers! Shall we bear this? England – miserable, servile, down-trodden England – may submit to such things if she chooses; but she is no guide for us. We are not cold-blooded English! We belong to Wales, to that wild Wales, which, in days gone by would be ruled by none other than her own native princes, and long flung back every attempt of the English tyrant to grind her under his heel. Have we degenerated? Have we grown so mean-spirited and tame as to be no better than dogs that cringe and fawn on the master who strikes them? Never be it said of us that we are so unworthy of our forefathers! Let us not endure injustice and insults, but let us rise against our oppressors… p. 65


The violence and class confrontations that are at the centre of the Rebecca Riots are foreshadowed in the novel by another clash over land rights and passage. Evan, like most of his fellow villagers, including the minister, think nothing of poaching a few rabbits or other wild animals. The landowners strongly disagree. When Evan visits Miss Gwenllian for his first lesson at her home at Penfawr (perhaps modelled on Sketty Hall, where Dillwyn's grandfather lived), he first bags a rabbit and then gets into a fight with Squire Tudor as a result. Miss Gwenllian intervenes.

Listen to an extract in which Evan protests against the laws on poaching. It is read by Susan Morris, the great-great niece of Amy Dillwyn.

Illustration from Confessions of a Poacher
Illustration from Confessions of a Poacher, ed James Watson (1890)

The landowners and magistrates are aligned with the Turnpike Trusts and the police, and Queen Victoria herself, are simply protecting their own vested interests:

the magistrates, to me and to most poor people, simply meant rich people who were in power, and who made laws to suit themselves, and sent anyone who broke those laws to prison p. 61


The first attack in which Evan participates – after months of impatient waiting – is on the Bolgoed gate, just outside Pontarddulais (which took place on 6 July 1843, though the date is not given in the novel).

Listen to an extract during which the men prepare for the attack. The reading is by Susan Morris, a great-great niece of the author, Amy Dillwyn.

The men travel by pony the eight miles to Bolgoed. The confidence of the Rebecca movement at this time is clear. The men travel freely across the countryside in what was less a disguise than a ritual costume. Though there are coded challenges and passwords, these serve more as ritual declarations of loyalty and allegiance to 'our mother':

We rode on without adventure till we got within about a mile of the rendezvous; and there we saw a woman sitting y the road who called out to us as we were passing her, and said she wondered to see young women out so late, and asked where we were going. I ahdd een told by Morgan that this was the signal of a friend, and also knew what to answer, so I replied that we were going to our mother.
'Is she one Rebecca?' said the woman.
'Yes, sure,' answered I.
'All right then,' returned she, jumping up, 'she do be my mother too, and it is all safe. I was to watch here for you, if so be you from Killay as I do suppose.' p. 82

Evan's first outing with Rebecca is a success, and Dillwyn's representation was quoted and consulted in subsequent historiography. The leader of the Bolgoed party was Daniel Lewis. He was arrested later and tried by Magistrate (Dillwyn's uncle in this case), but released due to lack of evidence.

[W]e all set off at a quick pace to the pike, which we soon reached. Then our orders were short, simple. 'There it is!' cried our leader, pointing to the gate, 'see you that it is not there in ten minutes more!' p. 84

The novel is concerned with barriers and rights of access, about who may cross or occupy places and the barriers erected to ordinary people by those in power. In this quote, the gates are represented as barriers to the Welsh, in a system of taxation and government imposed from without.

We rushed at it furiously. In a minute we had it off its hinges and broken up into small pieces – vowing that it should never again stop the way of a Welshman. p. 84

The topsy-turvey nature of riot is represented in the closing scene of the attack, which reminds the reader of the men's blackened faces (and perhaps recalls slave rebellions) and their female costume:

Then the posts were torn up and demolished, and then we turned to wreak vengeance on the house. … [T]he dry thatch caught file like tinder, and the cottage was soon in a blaze. I do not think I shall ever forget how wild that scene was – what with the burning house, the strange figures with negro faces and women's clothes, the fierce eyes glistening in the firelight, the smashed white gate… p. 84-85
The Rebecca Rioters, Illustrated London News
The Rebecca Rioters. Illustrated London News, February 11, 1843.

Learn more about Bolgoed and the Rebecca Rioters at the Gwlad Nini community heritage project.


By the summer of 1843 the authorities were getting close to apprehending some of the rioters who had been so well-protected by their communities (in part through fear of retribution as well as support for the cause). An attack on Kilvrough gate is aborted when suspicious activity is spotted by Evan.

On the other side of Fairwood Moor, just before you get to Kilvrough, there is a lonely little pike far away from other houses, and this pike we determined to attack. … Having done my work by about six o'clock on the Saturday evening, and feeling restless … I wandered about on the moor, and towards dusk I found myself in the lane that joins Clyne Common and Fairwood Moor together. Here I was standing when I heard footsteps approaching, and as I did not much want to be seen in that direction, I got over the hedge and kept out of sight. p. 86, 90-91

The novel is full of scenes of hiding and watching; Evan knows the landscape intimately and can quickly move to vantage points where he is unseen:

I soon saw three men coming quickly and quietly down the lane, and when they reached Fairwood they turned down to the west, towards the pike we intended to smash by-and-by. They were strangers to me and did not look like the people of the country, and I wondered who they were. As I loitered about I presently saw two more men come along the same way, and also turn down in the same direction passing about half an hour after the first three – and their appearance, somehow, made me suspicious… p. 91

The scenes are based on Amy Dillwyn's father's activities during the summer of 1843 and he even makes a cameo appearance in the novel:

Then it appeared that at about nine o'clock Bill Jones had noticed someone passing y whom he took to be one of the neighbouring magistrates, who had an odd figure and stooping way of walking that made him easily to be recognised… p. 91
Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, MP caricatured as a Spy in Vanity Fair
Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn MP, caricatured as a Spy in Vanity Fair, May 1882
Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, MP
Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, MP c. 1880s. Courtesy of Richard and Susan Morris

They abandon their plans for the Kilvrough gate, but Evan and Bill go down to 'see if our enemies really were there'.

At last we reached a hedge very near the threatened gate, and hid ourselves cautiously in a great clump of brambles beside the hedge… We had not been there more than half an hour before the darkness began to lessen, and then, bit by bit, the gray light stole in, and showed us the rough outlines of objects close to us. Then, as t went on increasing, we saw farther, and could distinguish the figure of five men squatting in a hollow of the earth, about thirty yards away from us. … Presently we saw them get up and stretch themselves, and before long other joined them, from various other directions where they had been posted to watch the turnpike on all sides, and give notice of the approach of Rebecca. p. 93

The stiff, cold, damp men decide they were called out for nothing and 'that they did not see much fun in spending the night lying out on the moor and in the fields for nothing.' p. 94

All this was amusing enough to us two, who knew so much more about the matter than they did. They little thought how near two rioters were to them while they were speaking, and how surely the fate of that turnpike would have settled on that night if they had not been there to protect it! p. 94

Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn recorded his part in the event in his diary:

July 22. Saturday 1843

Rainy in the afternoon
I patrolled last night with Captn Napier & 2 mounted police on Fairwood moor as we expected an attack either on Carters ford gate or Kilvrough gate. – all however was quiet, we returned home at day break & I got here [Parkwern] about ½ past 3 A.M. & went to bed – about ½ past 10 I went into Swansea where I attended a Magistrates meeting & returned home about 4½ P.M. I then walked with Bessie to Sketty – I had a bad headache in the evening


The attack on 6 September 1843 on the Pontarddulais gate was a turning point in the history of the Rebecca Riots.

Commemorative plaque on the site of the Pontarddulais gate
Commemorative plaque on the site of the Pontarddulais gate.

Rebecca's plans were betrayed and she was ambushed shortly after the gate had been destroyed by around 150-200 of her daughters. Several of the rioters were captured, including the man thought to be Rebecca – the leader – on that occasion; two were seriously injured. Three would be transported to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).

We went quietly on without interruption till we reached the place where we were to wait till signal rockets should tell us that all was safe… One of the newcomers who came from near Cwmbwrla, said that he had seen a large party of men riding along the Carmarthen Road out of Swansea … But then we knew that Rebecca always had plenty of scouts about the country, and that therefore, even if the police should be out, she would know of their movements… p. 103

The 'enemies' are seen to take the road to Llangyfelach not Pontarddulais, and so Rebecca's daughters are free to do their 'work':

…we – believing ourselves perfectly safe from hindrance or opposition of any kind – hastily put down any guns or other weapons that should be in our way, before we rushed upon the great gate that stood solidly before us in the moonlight, throwing deep black bars of shadow across the road. p. 105

The imagery of the black bars foreshadows the prison that awaits Evan and some of his fellow rioters. But not before a fight.

Dillwyn's novel draws on her father's account of his part in the ambush, but turns the tables considerably. Though prisoners are taken, Evan shoots and kills the magistrate, Squire Tudor, and he experiences a 'savage joy' and 'satisfaction' that he

had rid the world of at all events one of those who defended injustice… p. 111
Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn's handwritten account of the ambush, with Amy Dillwyn’s postscript on the last page. Courtesy of Richard Morris and the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University.

Of the two magistrates who were actually there among the small band of 11 men, one was Amy Dillwyn's uncle, the other her father. Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn’s diary for 7 September reads:

September 7. Thursday

Last night in consequence of information we received of an intended attack upon the Pontarddulais gate I drove over to Penllergare at ½ past 8 o'clock with M Moggridge – there we met Napier with Peake & 5 Policemen – at ½ past 10 J.D.L [John Dillwyn Llewelyn, Lewis's older brother], M Moggridge, Napier, Peake, 5 Policemen & myself set out & went along the common to Pontarddulais when within a short distance of the Gate we waited under a hedge and a little before 1 A.M. a Rebecca mob attacked the gate & toll house – our party upon attempting to seize some of the rioters met with a desperate resistance but soon put them to flight capturing 3 of the rioters – from ½ an hour to an hour afterwards the Dragoons came to our assistance from Swansea, & a party of infantry from Llanelly arrived having taken 4 of the Rioters who were escaping – the 3 prisoners we had taken were after some delay placed in a Phaeton as 2 of them were very badly wounded and escorted by the dragoons into Swansea – I then returned home - between 6 & 7 A.M. I went over to see LWD [his father, Lewis Weston Dillwyn], who started for Cheltenham this morning – at 11 A.M. I went into Swansea to a turnpike meeting – .

Interestingly, Dillwyn’s novel doesn’t reproduce the location of the riots very faithfully. She ignores the River Loughor which was next to the toll gate, perhaps so as not to complicate the drama of the fight.

The River Loughor
The River Loughor

The Traitor's Fate in Clyne Woods

Rebecca was betrayed in September 1843. In Dillwyn's novel, the reprehensible Morgan Pugh receives his comeuppance in the industrial landscape of Clyne Woods.

Clyne Woods
Clyne Woods by Donna Brooke

Listen to an extract which the traitor gets his comeuppance, read by Susan Morris, the great-great niece of Amy Dillwyn.

Tasmania, via Cardiff and London

The Rebeccaites were taken to Swansea and thence to trial in Cardiff (so as to ensure they were not tried before local sympathisers). Despite calls for mercy, particularly in the case of John Hughes (Jac Tŷ-Isha), in November 1843 the judge (Sir John Gurney) sentenced him to 20 years transportation, with seven years apiece for David Jones and John Hugh.

Lady Charlotte Guest records that her husband met John Hughes as he was taken from Cardiff to London, where he and his fellow convicts would spend three months in solitary confinement in Millbank.

Millbank Prison in the 1820s
Millbank Prison in the 1820s. Photo is in the Public Domain

The historian Derek Draisey describes their ordeal in solitude in Millbank prison as 'maddening', and Dillwyn imagines something similar for her hero who is plunged into a dangerous and convincingly portrayed 'brain-fever' after his capture and initial confinement in Swansea prison.

Jac Tŷ-Isha was transported on 15 March 1844. Hugh and Jones, and two other rioters Shoni Sgubor Fawr and Dai'r Cantwr, were also transported in 1844, making the four month voyage to Van Diemen's Land. David Jones died on arrival. John Hugh married after his seven years slave-labour, and John Hughes (Jac Tŷ-Isha) was released after 13 and a half years. He married and lived to 80.

A convict record from the Archives Office of Tasmania
A convict record from the Archives Office of Tasmania

Evan finds some mercy in transportation rather than death (he has committed a larger crime than the historical convicts in killing a magistrate). This clemency is arranged through the influence of a sympathetic Miss Gwenllian. He falls ill while still in the convict institution.

EDITOR'S EPILOGUE: I was physician to one of our convict establishments when I made acquaintance with the hero of this story; he was attacked by an incurable disease, and died not long after he had finished dictating to me the foregoing pages. Morganwg p. 178.

The final plotpoint on Evan’s escape

Evan's Escape

Having shot a magistrate Evan has to leave the country. Evan's flight takes him from Upper Killay, across Gower, the Bristol Channel and then in a full circle back to Swansea, where he is imprisoned and ultimately transported to a convict colony on the other side of the world.

As an outlaw, Evan is forced into the marginal spaces of the landscape – a cave, a ruined castle, the moor – from where he comments on social injustice.

The moor
The moor

Upper Killay to Clyne Wood

Evan and his friend Tom decide to escape to America where they hope to build a better life, though they have only the vaguest notion of how to get there. They leave Upper Killay openly by the road to Swansea.

As soon as we were out of sight of houses and people we turned off to the right, so as to leave the road, and buried ourself deeply in Clyne Wood, where we could venture to stop and settle more definitely what we had better do. For though we had made up our minds to try and reach America, yet how that was to be accomplished we had but very little idea, except that people sailed from Liverpool to get there p. 123.
Aerial view of Clyne Woods
Aerial view of Clyne Woods. Photo courtesy of Coflein

Amy Dillwyn's own family had emigrated to America in the seventeenth-century. They were amongst the Quakers to settled in what would become Pennsylvania. Her great-grandfather was William Dillwyn, the American Quaker at the centre of a trans-atlantic campaign to end slavery. William Dillwyn, whose diaries can be read here, bought the Cambrian Pottery in Swansea for his son, Amy's grandfather, Lewis Weston Dillwyn, and thus the family put down roots in Wales.


Gower is a peninsula, and the easiest way to escape is by boat. They decide to try and find a vessel departing from the Mumbles or Oxwich, settling on the latter as being further from Swansea.

We did not leave Clyne Wood, where we could keep ourselves hidden, until it was dark; but from the edge of the wood we were rather alarmed to see a couple of policemen crossing Clyne Common towards Fairwood in the direction that we meant to have taken. 124

The men decide not to take that route after all, and "to give them a wide berth and go to Oxwich by the longest way – round by Carter's Ford and then across Cefn Bryn – instead of going the shortest way by Park and Penmaen." 124

Carter’s Ford
Carter's Ford (or Cartersford on historical O.S. maps) is a bridge on one of the main routes through the Gower. It features a number of times throughout the novel.

This route allows Dillwyn to take her characters to Penrice Castle, a significant location for her political as well as the erotic subtext (see the Evan & Gwenllian plotline).

As soon as it was night we left our hiding-place and crossed Fairwood by Carter's Ford and reached a farm named Killibion, which is on the north side of the hill called Cefn Bryn; as Oxwich Bay is two or three miles on the south side of this hill, we had now only to cross the long ridge and descend into the bay, where we hoped to find a vessel. But the darkness was now changing to daylight, and so we took possession of an old shed that we found near Killibion… 124

A farm house and outbuildings (a private dwelling) at Killibion, still exists – now spelled using correct Welsh orthography as Cilibion.

Cefn Bryn

When Evan becomes an outlaw, he heads for the moors – a space associated from the start of the novel with crime and rebellion. Cefn Bryn is a bleak upland ridge, a wilder extension of the common on which Rebecca's daughters meet earlier in the novel.

Cefn Bryn
Cefn Bryn. Photo by John Finch under Creative Commons

This upland terrain is very similar to the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire, where Twm Carnabwth (Thomas Rees) – the first Rebecca – had smallholding on the slopes of Foel Cwm Cerwyn.

Preseli Hills
Preseli Hills. Photo courtesy Dyfed Archaeological Trust

Though the distance they need to traverse is short, the two men are soon beset by one of the thick mists that often engulfs the summit.

On we went […] with nothing to guide us except the knowledge that we ought to keep going up hill continually until we should get to the top. But the hillside was covered with great pieces of rock, which often made it difficult to know with any certainty know with any certainty whether we were going up hill or down. Streams and small bogs abounded also, and we remembered having been told that on Cefn Bryn were one or two deep bogs which anyone who got into would have a difficulty in getting out of again. We heard the water gurgling and bubbling around us, and felt the soft ground shake and quake under our footsteps when we passed over the wettest parts; but whereabouts we were we had no idea as we floundered and struggled on at random in the intense darkness.
All of a sudden, Tom, who was close to me though I could not see him, called out; and at the same moment there was a great splash.
"What is it, Tom?" cried I. But no answer did I have, nor did I hear any further sound. p. 125

Tom is fished out of the water and saved from drowning, but their food is lost. Fearful of travelling further by night, they wait for morning when they walk to the top of the hill.

Listen to an extract read by Susan Morris, great-great niece of Amy Dillwyn.

View from the top of Cefn Bryn
View from the top of Cefn Bryn

Penrice Castle

They seek a hiding place in Penrice Castle, which gives Dillwyn the opportunity to frame Evan's escape in terms of the wider radical politics of the novel. Here Rebeccaism is implicitly linked to Chartism, as indeed historians have suggested was the case as key leaders moved between Rebecca in the west and Chartism in the south east of Wales.

The two men hide in the castle secretly observing the wealthy inhabitants of the mansion below.

Evan’s hiding place
Evan’s hiding place as seen from the new mansion.
Penrice Castle
Penrice Castle: the old medieval castle overlooks the 18th century house. Photo by Ben Jones

Listen to an extract read by Susan Morris, great-great niece of Amy Dillwyn, in which Evan muses on class injustice.

This theme of social justice is repeated throughout the novel. As Evan wishes to tell Miss Gwenllian "the magistrates were trying to support what was wrong and unfair, and to crush down those who only wanted justice" p. 121.


They arrive at Oxwich to find no boats due to leave for several days and to learn that a schooler loading with limestone for Devonshire' had left only the day before. The importance of limestone quarries and ports along the Welsh coast is testimony ot the importance of the rock in industry and, of course, agriculture. It was the necessity of buying crushed limestone for the poor soil of upland Pembrokeshire that prompted the first Rebecca protest in Efail Wen in 1839.

Gower lime kiln
A Gower lime kiln

Three Cliffs Bay

They decide to head for Mumbles along the coast, but must lie low to avoid pleasure parties on the beach. They eventually find shelter in one of the caves Evan has 'heard' are common on this part of the rocky coast. Evan may be recalling the discovery in 1823 of 'The Red Lady of Paviland' in the Goat Cave, a little further west. Amy Dillwyn's grandfather, the eminent naturalist Lewis Weston Dillwyn had excavated the cave in 1822, with Miss Talbot of Penrice (Mary Theresa Talbot 1795-1861; Olive Talbot's aunt). William Buckley, a mutual friend and frequent guest of the Talbots and Dillwyns, returned to the cave in 1823 where he found the skeleton.

Goat's Hole Cave
Goat's Hole Cave. Photo courtesy Coflein
Consequently, soon after we had crossed Three Cliffs Bay, we began looking out for some cave in which to pass the night, for I had heard that there were several big caves along the rocks at that part of the coast, and unless we found a cave we had no chance of shelter without leaving the edge of the sea and going inland, where we should be sure to meet people p. 131.
After hunting along the cliffs for some time, and peering into every chink and cranny, Tom, who was a little below me, said he had found a hole, but that it was too small for anyone to walk in at, and that the entrance was almost choked up with stones p. 131.

The cave is large on the inside and they evade detection by a search party, before leaving and crossing Caswell Bay and Langland Bay, "reaching Mumbles Hill" soon after dawn.

They hire a skiff, for a day's sailing at Mumbles.

What if us was to hire one of them oyster-dredger boats for a day's sail? So soon as we do be safe away from land us can pretend to change our minds and say as us do want to go to Devonshire and get the boatmen to take us there. p. 135

They change course for Devonshire. The boat is beached and broken and they are washed up on an unknown shore. This transpires to be near Bridgend, possibly Merthyr Mawr. Amy Dillwyn's older sister Minnie married into the Nichols family and lived in the mansion at Merthyr Mawr, so Amy would have been very familiar with this stretch of coastline.

Sand dunes at Merthyr Mawr Warren
Sand dunes at Merthyr Mawr Warren. Photo by Nick Smith under Creative Commons
For a time that seemed almost endless we tossed and struggled on in the rain and waves and darkness; and then at last the end came. The skiff was driven upon a sandy beach, the sea broke furiously over her directly she struck, and I found myself washed overboard into the foaming, raging waves, which gave me no chance of helping myself by swimming, but dashed me along like a cork, and flung me upon the shore […] p. 143
we had not the very least idea of where we were — we might be in England or in Wales, or on Lundy Island for all we could tell. However, our shipwreck seemed to us very much in our favour, for thus we had escaped from our own neighbourhood and had left absoutely no trace at all by which we could be followed. p. 144
View across the sand dunes at Merthyr Mawr
View across the sand dunes at Merthyr Mawr. Photo by Nick Smith under Creative Commons
we […] began walking away from the sea over the sand-banks, hoping soon to meet with someone to tell us what part of the country we were in.
The extent of those sand-banks was wonderful, and we thought we should never get to the end of them. As fast as we reached the top of one sand-hill, we saw another and another before us and on all sides of us; and they were all so much alike that we soon got quite confused as to which way was the sea and which way was the land likely to be, and several times came to places which we were quite sure we had passed over before, so that we became disheartened, thinking that we were walking round and round in a circle. p. 145
After long wandering we at last got away from that hateful fiand, and had the satisfaction of again treading on firm ground, that did not let one sink in over the ankles at every step. We soon came to a road, and had not gone far along it before we met with a boy, from whom we ascertained that we were about three or four miles from Bridgend, and who told us the way to get to that town. p. 146


Evan and Tom visit a pub for food. Pubs are moveable feasts in Dillwyn's writing and impossible to match to real locations, though she did use real pubs as inspiration. In the mid-nineteenth century a public house serving ale could be anything from a bustling coaching inn to a front room. In the novel, they are key locations of community life. Near Bridgend, Evan and Tom find out the identity of the man Evan shot as a literate regular reads from The Bridgend Packet to a crowded room of eager listeners. Though it may not be the actual location. The Pelican in Ogmore was certainly open in 1843.

The Pelican In Her Piety
The Pelican In Her Piety. Photo by Andy Dolman under Creative Commons

The other pub of interest in the novel is the White Swan in Upper Killay (could this name be a play on the Black Boy in Killay which was trading in Dillwyn's day, if not in 1843 when the novel is set). This is where the activities of the Rebeccca Rioters are analysed and evaluated by the locals. The portrait of the abusive father and landlord of the pub is taken from Dillwyn's own day, as she records in her diary.

Anne Bowen told me about a trouble at the Plough and Horsses – that the land lord will beat his crippled & half-idiot daughter Mary. Must talk to Papa about it. 25 September 1871
Went to school in the morning [where she taught] & then Harry [her brother] came with me up to the Plough & Horses to see poor Mary James. I promised Anne Bowen on Monday that I would go & see her though I'm afraid it could be of no use beyond possible a few kind words giving pleasure to the poor girl. We must try & get her removed from the reach of her wretched father. It is horrid to think how he may ill use her & half kill her again next time he is drunk. Harry saw about the case & helped me & I hope we find out the best thing to do as quickly as possible. 27 September 1871
Drove to Kilvrough after lunch & saw Mr Penrice who says the guardians can do nothing to help about Mary James. Also saw Anne Bowen & Mrs Rees about it. They say now that Harry's blowing up quite frightened Silvanus James yesterday & that the whole party now wish to go on living together as before & the man says he will never touch beer again. I suppose there's nothing for it but to try for a bit like this & hope the man may keep his promise for a time at all events. 28 September 1871

Diary extracts courtesy of David Painting and the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University.


Having discovered he has shot Squire Tudor, the father of his beloved Miss Gwenllian, Evan decides to risk all in order to see Miss Gwenllian and explain he had not intended to hurt her. He walks back to her estate, Penfawr, only to be apprehended as a poacher – again! The first time he ever visited Penfawr, for his first lesson at Miss Gwenllian's home, he kills a rabbit and gets into a fight with Squire Tudor who discovers the rabbit. Evan promises not to poach on his land again, but he decries the poaching laws. Listen to an extract in which Evan protests against the laws on poaching. It is read by Susan Morris, the great-great niece of Amy Dillwyn.

I kept my promise about the poaching – because he was Miss Gwenllian's father – and never after touched fur or feather belonging to him. But all the same, I never can see that a man has any right to preserve hares and rabbits. When God made the land He put them into it just like the blackberries and mushrooms, for the good of everyone who lives there, and I cannot see what right any man has to take possession of them and call them his own. Why they are common property – just like any moor or common is common property on which the neighbours may turn out their horses, cows, geese, donkeys, pigs, and sheep to graze as they like, and which no man has the right to enclose and shut up from the rest. And don't the hares and rabbits belong to everyone in just the same way? And what right has a man ot say they belong to him merely because they happen to be on his land? Therefore I never could see that it was setealing of a hare or rabit happened to be on someon else's fild when I took it, and no more did anyone else in Killay call it stealing either – no – not even the minister. His flock paid him as much in food, or clothes, or work, or such things as they did in money; and if every anyone brought him a pheasant or a partridge he made a fuss and did not like to take it, saying that he was afraid it had been stolen and that he did not like to receive stolen things. But with hares and rabbits it was quite different nad he would take as many as were brought him without saying a word – which shows what he thought about the matter.
How odd it is that people should be so different in their ideas; for if any one had said such things to Squire Tudor I do suppose he would have broken the man’s head, there and then. 23-24

Poaching is thus a key battleground between rich and poor, a battle focused not only on land-rights, but on claims to possess wild animals that cross or live on that land.

When Evan returns to Penfawr at the end of the novel he approaches across a field and jumps over a hedge (not the most legitimate way for a person of his class to arrive on the estate).

I jumped over a hedge and found myself face to face with one of the Penfawr gamekeepers. 155

Naturally suspicious, the gamekeeper refuses to believe Evan wants to see the mistress:

A likely story for me to believe!...People as wants to go to the house to see the young lady goes there by the proper roads instead of coming across country and breaking down fences like this! 'Tis a deal more likely that the rabbits and rabbit-holes be the business as brings you here. Stop you a moment for me to see how many rabbit-wires you have about you. p. 155

Evan's comes a full circle and the issue of patrolled boundaries, class relations and criminality/power are again brought to the fore. Legitimate people stay on the road. Law-abiding people don't break down fences (or toll gates). Thus Evan's outlaw status, his work with Rebecca, and his class relationship with the Tudors, are represented via these poaching scenes which emphasise physical boundaries and a law that favours the wealthy.


Evan is transported rather than hanged for his crime, as described in the Plotting the Rebecca Riots plotline. But he pines for his home, symbolised by the view from a hill that might be located just above the author’s own home at Hendrefoilan.

Listen to the last lines of the novel being read by Susan Morris, great-great nice of Amy Dillwyn.

Lesbian Subplot

There is a strong autobiographical underpinning to this historical novel. Amy Dillwyn draws on her own diaries and an emotional geography that underpins the plot, as we shall see.

Critics have remarked that Miss Gwenllian embodies some of the author's own attributes. Dillwyn invited local villagers into her home at Hendrefoilan for literacy classes. She took food to the sick and generally tried to interest herself in the welfare of the poor in her vicinity. But if we are looking for the author's double, we find much more of her in Evan Williams, the labourer. In particular his infatuation with Miss Gwenllian echoes Amy's feelings for her beloved friend, Olive Talbot. In geographical terms, we can trace Dillwyn's emotional ties in a plotline that begins at the emotional centre of Dillwyn's world – her home, Hendrefoilan – and ends at Penrice in Gower, one of the homes of Olive Talbot. This plotline does not precisely match the sequence of events in the novel, but does reveal the autobiographical underpinning of Evan's character.

Olive Talbot
Olive Talbot (1843-1894), Courtesy of Richard Morris and the Richard Burton Archive, Swansea University

Dillwyn used a rough male character both as a means of vicariously imagining the outdoors adventures she missed as a semi-invalid, confined to her couch during much of her late twenties and early thirties. Evan was also a disguise through which she could represent her love for Olive. In the novel, Evan is kept apart from Olive by the gulf of class. In life, Amy's deep feelings for Olive were not matched by Olive's 'ordinary' affection for Amy.


The Dillwyn's mansion at Hendrefoilan (now a grade II listed building, sliding into dereliction) was built in 1854 by Amy's father.

Hendrefoilan c. 1860. Courtesy of Richard Morris and the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

The mansion didn't exist, therefore, in the period when the novel was set, but Dillwyn's intimate knowledge of her home is nevertheless reflected in the novel. The Amy-Olive plotline begins here, then, because Hendrefoilan is the imaginative centre of Evan's (and Dillwyn's) attachment to Wales.

Here is one of the passages in which Evan describes the view from the site on which Dillwyn's home would later be built. He is on his way to Miss Gwenllian's home at Penfawr for a reading lesson. The extract is read by Susan Morris, Dillwyn's great-great niece.

This sense of hiraeth, of longing, is repeated as the closing note of the novel. Again the extract is read by Susan Morris.



The novel begins in Killay, and this was the location of much of Dillwyn's charitable work. Her diaries record her teaching music and other lessons in the school, a reading class and a Sunday school. She was doubtful of her success as a teacher, and recognised that a different kind of leader was needed.

Listen to Sue Morris, Dillwyn's great-great niece, reading an extract from Amy Dillwyn's diary, written in August 1868.

August 30th. Sunday. 1868
Went to Church in the morning & to school in the afternoon – small school - not much over 50 I think & my class only numbered 6. Why don't some one rise up with a vocation for Killay. I mean for doing what's wanted there. Some one is wanted there to know Welsh & to work hard & to know how to work so as to get hold of the people & keep the men from public house by giving them some harmless & equally amusing place wherein to spend their evenings instead - & some one to teach well – in fact a volunteer Welsh genius is required but I'm afraid I don't see much chance of his turning up just at present.

Despite her reservations about the effectiveness of her teaching, she found common ground with the men and women of Killay in their shared love of music and she supported the autodidactic aims of a new working-class Reading Room set up in Killay. Her diary for Friday October 16th 1868 reads:

Went to school in the morning & taught the new song. Its worth while doing it almost to see the delight of all those small faces when the song is unrolled & is still an unknown delight. In the afternoon I walked with Minnie to see the Perkin's & the Williams' baby. In the evening Papa & I went to Killay to a first meeting about establishing a Reading Room there. Mr Brown attended & there were 7 of the men; some rules were made & committee was fixed on & I was appointed treasurer. Every thing said appeared to require immense consideration before its enunciation so there we all sat for several minutes at a time without speaking. When any of the men did speak it was mostly very good sense. They seemed to wish Papa & I to stay & take part in it se we stayed more than an hour & then left them to finish any thing they had to say further. I was a good deal amused at it as it was quite a new experience.

And later in November she wrote:

Went to Killay & my girl's class this evening had 10 girls. Then followed penny bank & then I stayed nearly half an hour to make myself agreeable at the Reading Room & played an accompaniment to a song for one man.

Quotations from the diaries are courtesy of Dr David Painting and the Richard Burton Archive, Swansea University.

Evan's home, Upper Killay, is right on the edge of the moor and this wild border location is represented as forming the characters of the people who live there. Listen to Susan Morris read an extract abote how the local climate affects its inhabitants.

Upper Killay is portrayed as a wild 'poaching village', a place where common laws are set and observed by the people and there is a general disregard for the laws of the land.

Carriage Accident

Evan first meets Gwenllian when she is trapped in a runaway carriage and he chooses to rescue her.

"I was between fifteen and sixteen years old" he recalls (the same age at which Amy fell in love with Olive), "when first I fell in with Miss Gwenllian Tudor". The carriage is driver-less and Gwenllian and her elderly aunt "were coming over from Fairwood moor and going towards Swansea, and were just beginning to descend the first easy slopes of the long Killay hill" p. 5. Normally he would have watched the drama unfold, but he is moved to intervene: "For a moment her large dark brown eyes looked full into mine, and seemed to be asking for help, and in that moment a curious change came over me" p. 6 and he dashes to help, breaking his arm in the process when he trips on a stone and "rolled over the road like a shot rabbit" p. 6; notice those poaching similes. This is the start of the 'strange attraction' p. 30.

Evan describes his longing in terms that Amy uses in her diary to describe her feelings for Olive and other writing by women who articulate same-sex desire in terms of spiritual union:

I had a queer kind of fancy that at some time or other she might quite suddenly be able to see me or know what I was doing when I least expected it; and I used to like to think that if so, she would find me just as anxious to please her as if I knew she was there […] I wonder whether my worship of her and longing for her gave my mind any sort of influence over hers - whether my thought was like an invisible thread, and moving at one end when pulled at the other; so that at the moment that I thought most intensely about her, she would also have some passing recollection of me? p. 45


When Evan goes on the run, he and Tom head across Cefn Bryn towards Oxwich Bay where they think to get a boat (see the Evan's Escape plotline). Tom and Evan get lost in the mist on Cefn Bryn, fall into a pond. They seek a hiding place in Penrice Castle.

On the bare side of Cefn Bryn, however no shelter at all was to be had, so we made our way down as fast as we could to the old castle of Penrice p. 127.
Cefn Bryn
Cefn Bryn, Photo courtesy of One Foot

Tired, wet and hungry they spend the day watching the inhabitants of the modern house just below the castle walls. Here there is yet another of the scenes of secret observation which are so common in the novel. It is an opportunity for the expression of some more radical politics. Listen to an extract read by Susan Morris, great-great niece of Amy Dillwyn.

Penrice Castle
Penrice Castle: the old medieval castle overlooks the 18th century house. Photo by Ben Jones

On the one hand this is a straightforward piece of political rhetoric and an important part of the adventure story. On the other, we can read this choice of location – home of the Talbots of Margam and Penrice – and the theme of one-sided observation in biographical terms. Talking of a day spent with Olive at Margam, Dillwyn would record how:

When she's in the room with me I can't do anything hardly because all my senses seem given up to attend to her – not outwardly – outwardly I sit quiet & pretend to read perhaps, but really I know every movement & every word of hers the whole time. Six years is a long while to love like this – to go on loving & yet to behave much like other people to the individual I love... Amy Dillwyn's journal, 7 January 1867, courtesy of Dr David Painting and the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

Thus the emotional geography of Penrice includes Dillwyn's association of the place with Olive, and the watching of her alter-ego Evan overlaps with her own hyper-awareness of Olive and, arguably, locations associated with Olive.

Swansea Market

Bill Jones is a sailor, picked up by Evan at Swansea Market and taken home to Upper Killay. Evan hides Bill from the police and the captain of a boat, and the two become good friends. Evan is attracted to Bill because he reminds him in some way of Miss Gwenllian (and the attraction is similarly instant): "I had taken to him from the first moment I had set eyes on him" p. 51. But Evan is frustrated that Bill's affections are fairly ordinary. Here again, Evan's sentiments echo Dillwyn's own diary entries. The gender and sexual confusion that is so central to the novel is played out here: Bill is Gwenllian's lost brother and therefore Evan sees Gwenllian in Bill; yet Bill is given attributes Amy Dillwyn described in Olive Talbot, and Evan's feelings for Bill – described as the two lie in bed together – are modelled on Amy's feelings for Olive.

Dillwyn & Co.

As well signaling the homoerotic foundations of the novel, Bill emphasizes the global connections of Swansea and the novel.

Bill's travels mirror Swansea's global metal industry in which Amy Dillwyn's father was actively involved. Dillwyn & Co. was a spelter works on the banks of Landore (where the Liberty Stadium now stands) and produced zinc and some silver. Zinc ore from Brittany and copper ore from South America would have been imported in ships like those crewed by Bill.

South America

Swansea’s copper industry demanded vast amounts of copper ore, some of which came from South America. From his modest home in Neath and then Swansea, Bill had become a "cabin-boy on board the Nancy Jones, a brig trading to Havre." p. 54. Later Bill went to sea on "a barque, called the Pride of Towy, which was bound to Coquimbo. The captain of the vessel was rough, brutal, tyrannical fellow, who treated Bill so badly that he ran away from the barque the instant she got back to Swansea harbor." p. 54

Eventually, Bill's true identity is discovered.