The Black Block in Bonnets: Rebecca disturbing the social order in Punch, 1843

Ein Gastbeitrag von Ruby Ellis (Universität Heidelberg) für  das Themenportal Caricature & Comic

In a history of protest generally littered with defeat and failure, the Rebecca Riots in Wales mark something of a success. The colourful, iconic image of Rebecca seized national attention, both in the press and in parliament, thereby securing her place in Welsh history and folk tradition. Raging against the injustice of the introduction of toll charges on the roads of south-west Wales, farmers dressed in outlandish female dress launched moonlit attacks on the toll gates. Bubbling to the surface in 1839, the protests dispersed following government intervention via the Turnpike Act in 1844.

Although deeply bound up with the imposition of toll charges, Rebeccaism was more than cross-dressing hill-farmers smashing up tollgates. Using a broad range of symbolism, costume and ritual, topics such as land ownership, poverty, social tension, the New Poor Law, and the payment of Church tithes, were all confronted by the Rebeccaites. The movement’s growing demographic complexity and collaborative nature also undermines the existence of a simplistic description of the Rebeccaites as middle-class farmers.

This is a population coming to terms with a fundamental shift in society - from the paternalist obligations and the authority of popular custom (what E.P Thompson calls a pre-existing ‘moral economy’) to an economy, politics and society shaped by early industrial capitalism. At the top of the social pyramid in the depopulated south-west Wales were a handful of great landed dynasties. The absence of either an assertive middle class or an organised working class had left the landed gentry’s control over the area virtually unchallenged; this did not however alleviate the need in local politics for personal popularity, vigorous campaigning and tactical alliances. Even those without the right to vote were roped in to the process as the elite recognised a need to obtain the sanction of a whole community for their election. The attendance at nomination meetings and hustings, the wearing of partisan colours and the distribution of propaganda were all part of the political life in this part of Wales. Individuals were also involved in a wide range of civic, religious and recreational activities which increased their chances of social contact with those above and below them in the social hierarchy. The dependence of much of the region on a narrow agricultural base enabled the creation of intense and intimate social groupings and strong local and community allegiances, despite the high degree of economic stratification.

The impact of the French Revolution resulted in a fundamental shift in the way the British landed elite interacted with the poor of their communities. The previously active collaborative paternalism was replaced by paranoid and repressive withdrawal. In Wales, this rescinding of the gentry’s former paternalist duties eroded the community respect they had formerly been able to rely upon. As the country became drawn into an expanding capitalist system, its ruling class became increasingly integrated into the world of the English aristocracy. A number of landlords withdrew to London, leaving their estates in the hands of farm agents or estate managers, who were generally not Welsh by birth or by culture. This physical distancing was exacerbated by another drift towards Anglicanism and the English language, which distanced them further from the Welsh-speaking, non-conformist majority. The gentry’s paternalistic image was further damaged by the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834, which lessened their ability to engage with and intervene in the lives of those affected by its changes.

From this soil Rebeccaism sprouted, generated by the combined effects of population growth and rapid industrial expansion upon an oligarchic machinery of government that was both unable and disinclined to adapt at an equivalent rate. Clad in their bonnets, petticoats and patched skirts the protesters started by attacking toll-gates in Carmarthenshire in 1839, and the movement spread to neighbouring towns before the riots gave way to local and open protest meetings.

So, what has this got to do with Ireland? In its caricature from 1843, towards the end of the main events of Rebeccaism, Punch depicted Irish catholic campaigner Daniel O’Connell as Rebecca, with his followers of the Repeal Association playing the role of the Rebeccaites, their burly arms contrasting with the feminine bonnets upon their heads, their trousered legs peeaking out from underneath patched skirts. Here we see how Rebecca’s challenging of the gender norms through her dress had already become a metaphor for the breakdown of social order and the questioning of authority.

The nature of womanhood was a topic of conversation in both working- and middle-class circles in Rebecca’s time. Debates on the moral character of women and the proper nature of their work infiltrated political, religious and scientific discourses as well as the fields of literary and visual representation. The presentation of Rebecca as a symbol or an allegorical figure slots into wider currents of early nineteenth-century politics. The female body was present at state and civic occasions, featuring in national and local celebratory parades and ceremonies, including the coronation and opening of Parliament, dressed to represent allegorical virtues or symbolically to evoke purity and reproductive power. As Nicolas Rogers argues, the female body ‘served as the symbol of the nation’s health and, indeed, in the figures of Britannia and Liberty, as the symbols of national unity, patriotism and independence’.

In its caricature Punch shows a nation in need of a doctor. Rebecca/O’Connell and his followers in female dress are shown to be more masculine than Robert Peel as Rebecca takes control of the scene, destroying policies with her saw and commanding more authority than the prime minister. In their transgressing cross-dressing, the Rebeccaites become a metaphor for the breaking down of the social order similar to the liminal space of carnival, showing both the Rebeccaites, Daniel O’Connell and the members of his Repeal Association as destabilising forces for the nation.

Despite being clothed in female-coded dress, Rebecca and her daughters can still be seen to represent or possess an actively aspirational form of masculinity. The sleepy Peel, caught napping in the toll booth, cowers from the rabble - we see only his worried face topped off with a nightcap peaking around the door. In contrast to the passive Peel, Rebecca and her daughters are active, wielding saws, burning torches, stones, sickles, pitchforks and axes to bring down the hurdle of the bars of the gate, each representing an ‘evil’ protested against by the movement - church rate, union, tithes and poor laws. Her burly forearms and those of her followers demonstrate their superior strength. Her seemingly unlimited authority over her followers and over the viewer as she takes centre-stage further emasculates Peel, who stands alone stranded. The gatekeepers are similarly emasculated, depicted merely as gateposts unable to act to defend themselves or their gate/their social order.

As previously mentioned, however, in the caricature the artist has made it very clear that we are not viewing women, but men in women’s clothing. The deliberate mixture of masculine and feminine signifiers - the bonnets and the burly arms - make visible a number of boundaries and emphasise their blurring and transgression. The symbolic instability and uncertainty thus created turns the world upside down, and shows the liminal space created by this cross-dressing.

Costumes and masks formed a customary part of European festivals and carnivals. Their use could signal the lifting of inhibition and acceptance of folly through the reversal or subversion of the natural order of things, thereby allowing their wearer to disguise their normal, everyday self and to evade personal responsibility for their actions. Natalie Zemon Davis suggests that themes of inversion, polarity, and transitional boundary-blurring - including cross-dressing - were used during carnival, festival and collective violence, to express visibly a situation’s removal from familiar social structures and to enable its participants to carry out actions which would be far less feasible when in their ordinary, everyday guises. The use of feminine dress by male Rebecca protesters, then, was related to the customary use of cross-dressing to enable misrule and subversion during charivari, carnival and festival.

The caricature’s depiction of the male protesters in women’s clothing makes visible this liminal state in which these protests took place. By presenting a transitional identity which symbolically blurred the boundaries between dichotomous genders, the artist shows how Daniel O’Connell destabilised the social order. As well as challenging the authority of prime minister Robert Peel, the protesters in the caricature are challenging the norms of gender and the boundaries between them, and thereby the gender order. This deliberate clash of performative signs shows the suspending of normality, the creation of a liminal space which invests actors with enhanced possibilities for action - in this case a lawlessness and destruction abstracted from their everyday, ‘respectable’ selves. The suspension of normality created by Rebecca’s dress was a useful metaphor for the artist to show the liminality of protest and the chaotic disorder created by Daniel O’Connell and his Repeal Association.

As in the reactions to the international financial crisis in 2008, the links between the Rebeccaites were forged by their resentment of remote, incompetent or corrupt elites, social inequality, and the growing distance between themselves and those with decision-making power. The problems of Rebecca and her daughters in the 1840s - poverty, high rents, unemployment, privatisation of common space - are hardly unfamiliar today. As the black costumes of the Black Block are today symbols of chaos, protest, riots, an alternative morality and the suspension of the social order, so the dress of the Rebeccaites was a symbol for a liminal space - the flouting of social and gender norms and an alternative locus of authority.

Suggested reading:

  • Jones, Rhian E.: Petticoat Heroes. Gender, Culture and Popular Protest in the Rebecca Riots, Cardiff 2015.
  • Thompson, E.P.: Customs in Common. Studies in Traditional Popular Culture, New York 1993.
  • Zemon Davis, Natalie: Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Eight Essays, London 1965.


Ruby Ellis
Universität Heidelberg

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