It was a time of dire poverty in rural West Wales, leading to unrest amongst the farmers and workers when Thomas Rees, also known as Twm Carnabwth, came to the front leading the first Rebecca Riot in an attack on a toll gate in 1839. There had been poor harvests in the years before which were particularly bad for those in the south west of Wales. Here season after season of rain had compelled the struggling farmers to buy corn at famine prices; corn which they used to feed their animals as well as their families and themselves. This situation meant that they were forced to dip into what little capital they may have had, depleting their meagre reserves.
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Thomas Rees aka Twm Carnabwth, was a tough, rough and ready character who was well known to do a turn as a fighter at local fairs when he was in his early 30s. He relied on farm work and so in 1839, after a meeting where he and his disgruntled rural neighbours decided something had to be done, he was selected to lead the assault on the Efail-wen toll gate.
This was to be the first of the Rebecca Riots, a series of protests by local farmers and agricultural workers in response to levels of taxation at a time when they were under severe economic hardship. The Rebecca rioters as they became known, were often males dressed as women who took their actions against toll-gates, a tangible representation of the taxes and tolls that they were subjected to especially as farmers transporting their products to market. The rioters were known by the name of ‘Merched Beca’ which translates from Welsh into English as Rebecca’s Daughters. The reason for the adoption of that name is likely to have been after a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them’ (Genesis XXIV, verse 60). Needless to say that this was a time when knowledge of Bible verses was common.
Tŷ Unnos – the One Night House
Thomas, or Twm would work on the local farms when the need arose. He was, however, recorded in the tithe records as a land owner and occupier. We may think this to be strange but this was because he was considered to be a freeholder of his own cottage having, amazingly, built it in one night! According to a tradition in Wales if the house has a roof with a smoking chimney by dawn, then the builder can live there and may farm the land around as far as they can throw an axe from their front door. Tŷ Unnos (translated into English means One Night House) has become a part of Welsh folklore and, as we shall see later, this very week in October 2023 a group will try to build their own One Night house.
Thomas was a volatile character, indeed in 1847 he lost an eye in a disturbance at the Stambar Inn near Pentre Galar. Two years previously he had been expelled from Bethel Baptist Chapel, Mynachlog-ddu and was not readmitted as a member for 22 years. All was forgiven by the time he died in 1876 and he was buried at Bethel Cemetery.
The One Night cottage in the records
Thomas Rees’ cottage, near Glynsaithmaen farm under the shadow of Foel Cwm Cerwyn, had been known by two names over the years – Carnabwth and Tryal. Using the Welsh Tithes on TheGenealogist we are easily able to find the record for it in the apportionment book, as well see it plotted on the tithe map from 1846.
The apportionment book shows Thomas Rees as a landowner, after the lords of the manor, as well as the occupier of his house, garden and field.
In the 1841 census the house name was written down as Tryal and Thomas and his wife Rachel were living there with four children. Their offspring were Elizabeth who was 13, Daniel aged 10, John 5 and a two week old daughter who was yet to be named. This child would be Anne who is the only child to appear under her parent’s roof in the next census. What happened to the children we do not know, but by the 1861 census only Thomas and Rachel live in the house where he is listed as a labourer. A search forward to the 1871 census we see that at 64 he was now recorded as a farmer of just 4 acres and it is just he and Rachel in the cottage. All the Welsh Tithe Maps are now linked to TheGenealogist’s Map Explorer™ so having found the house on the tithe map we are able to see the same plot over time.
Thomas Rees AKA Twm Carnabwth is regarded as a folk hero on account of his part in the first Rebecca insurgence though he did not take part in any subsequent unrest as the rebellion spread across South Wales.
A 24 hour house built in 2023
A news report online revealed that in the evening of Friday 13th October 2023 a number of young people intend to recreate a bit of Welsh folklore, namely the building a house overnight on Pontypridd Common as part of an art installation. The idea is to build a Tŷ Unnos house on Coedpenmaen Common (Pontypridd Common), but it will only be there as a temporary landmark for 24 hours with events for people to gather, families to play, and for interested citizens to discuss what it means to have a place in the land that they can call home. So this is not quite the same principle as building your house overnight to achieve its freehold, but it is an interesting piece of living history.[1 ]
Pontypridd Common can be located on TheGenealogist’s Map Explorer™ and by using this tool we can see that the common today is a smaller version of its former self. At the time of the Tithe Survey it was recorded as owned and occupied by the Reverend William Leigh (Glebe) from the established church.
The release of all the Welsh Tithe Maps, and their linked apportionment books, now makes it very easy to search by name for any Welsh ancestors that owned or occupied land in Victorian times. We are able to see from the schedules the type of land that they held or occupied, for example whether it was arable, pastureland, meadow and so on. In the case of Thomas Rees we can see that it was solely a ‘house, garden and field’ and in the case of the vicar he held, amongst other church land, Pontypridd Common where this week, over 180 years on the Tŷ Unnos house will be recreated.