Just over 38 years ago my great friend and former colleague Rhiannon Murphy had a new baby girl and a lovely – and significant – name in mind.
“She was to be called Rebecca because we were very aware of how the name had been used as a collective for the struggle that poor tenant farmers had in the early 19th century against wealthy landowners,” Rhiannon explains.
“The Rebecca Riots took place between 1839 – 1843 and highlighted the struggle to survive and pay tolls to take cattle to market. My family are farming stock, and the Rebecca Riots had a stronghold in the area where they lived at that time. But I had no knowledge of any family connection with ‘Merched Beca’.”
But there was a link. A strong one that resonated so much with the older members of Rhiannon’s family that calling the new baby Rebecca was a controversial choice.
“When we told my mother that we had decided on the name, she was really disappointed and kept suggesting ‘Angharad’ as being such a nice Welsh name instead. This went on for several weeks, until we had registered her, and then nothing more was said.
“Some time after this, we were surprised to find out from my mother that her great-grandfather Thomas Powell had in fact been very involved with the Rebecca Riots – and that she was ashamed of him and thought he’d been killed at some point during one of the regular altercations between poor tenants and wealthy landowners.
“We didn’t talk about him again, as I could tell it was something she was not comfortable with discussing further. Gradually, she accepted it and Rebecca and her Mamgu became the closest of friends. They would love spending time together, and Beca learned a lot of her baking skills from my mother.
“Whenever I went away working she would come to stay and they would bond by baking together – making bread was one of their favourite things to do.”
Indeed the culinary knowledge Beca absorbed from her Mamgu would take her all the way to the quarter-finals of The Great British Bake Off and a career as a television chef and cookery writer, but that’s another story.
The tale of their ancestor and his part in the Rebecca Riots would take Rhiannon to the other side of the world as 176 years after Thomas Powell donned women’s dress to do battle in one of the most iconic class struggles in Welsh history she discovered what really happened to him. It is a story of intrigue, heartbreak and adventure spanning two hemispheres.
The journey of discovery began with a serendipitous auction prize. At a fundraiser at their children’s school, Rhiannon and her husband Gerald bid for the services of a genealogist.
“We gave her all the information we had about our families, because we were also interested in Gerald’s ancestors and their struggle to come over to Wales from Ireland. I thought my family would be fairly straightforward as they had lived in the same area of Carmarthenshire for generations – as they still do.
"We were very surprised and delighted when she came back with some information that showed my great great grandfather hadn’t died but had in fact been sentenced for rioting and stealing and transported to Tasmania – or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then known. That came as quite a shock, but she failed to find out any more information as she said that the records held in Tasmania were not very well maintained and had probably been lost.
“We tried to make contact with various organisations in Australia over the years but didn’t get very far. And we didn’t think we’d ever get to Australia let alone Tasmania, to try to follow up on his story so we concentrated our searches in the UK and came across quite a lot of information that enabled us to build quite a good picture of what had actually happened to him.”
Among the documents was a record of the Carmarthen Spring Assizes held on March 16, 1844, detailing how Thomas Powell along with five other named men were charged with “...having on the 11th day of August last, at Pantyfen in the parish of Llanfihangel-ar-arth, in this county, unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled with divers other evil-disposed persons, and then & there unlawfully entered the dwelling house of one Daniel Harries, and feloniously stolen, taken and carried away therefrom one current coin of the realm called a sovereign, of the value of one pound, the property of Daniel Harries.”
The accompanying newspaper report added sensation and comment, describing how Thomas Powell and his co-defendants “being in disguise and several of them armed with guns, pistols and other offensive weapons and in the most terrific and intimidating manner they took the law into their own hands, thinking that all laws but those of Rebecca had been repealed.
“Such a gross instance of the defiance of the law could not be endured.
“It was a lamentable thing to contemplate that this act was committed by men who had hitherto borne good characters.”
History has judged the Rebecca Rioters more kindly – “good characters” driven to violence by the desperate inequalities of Welsh rural life in the mid-nineteenth century. As academic Neil Evans has outlined, while the toll-gates were the flashpoint for attack, the Rebecca incidents that spread across the old counties of Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire were a more general protest against the economic conditions of the time and the one-sided power dynamic between farmers and landlords, and the church.
“The name ‘Rebecca’ was that of the mythical leader,” Neil explains.
“The name came from the Bible which Welsh chapel-goers had learned to read in the previous couple of generations: ‘And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, by thou the mother of thousands of millions and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them’ (Genesis 24 Verse 60).
"The toll gates were seen as the property of the gentry (‘those that hate them’) as they were often the trustees of the turnpikes. The gates became a symbol of many different discontents about the land and the church (which was also seen as the church of the gentry). The rioters wore women’s clothes for disguise, but also perhaps to suggest the idea that women were entitled to act to defend their families. Normally respectable people may have felt that in disguise they were symbolising their community rather than breaking the law as an individual.”
But from local magistrates to Turnpike Trusts and Poor Law Officials, the English-speaking Anglican gentry dominated public life and held the power over Welsh-speaking, non-conformist tenant farmers and labourers. The authorities eventually suppressed the Rebecca Riots using troops and the full force of the law.
And Thomas Powell was among the rioters caught and sentenced to the harshest of punishments – transportation. Though his sentence was 10 years he would never see Wales or his family again.
He was transported from Woolwich Docks on July 8, 1844 - initially to Norfolk Island, a small island penal colony between Australia and New Zealand. The journey on board SS Agincourt took 125 days in terrible conditions.
“He was only 23 years old at this time, and probably couldn’t speak English very well if at all,” says Rhiannon. “He also left behind his new wife Margaret who was by this time heavily pregnant. His son was born in August 1844, just one month after he left.”
After two years on Norfolk Island – which had been designated by the British government as a place to send “the worst description of convicts” – Thomas was transported to Tasmania to another notorious penal colony, Saltwater River. It was known for the hellish conditions of its coal mine and the tough gang labour of its agricultural settlements.
The family he left behind in Carmarthenshire could never have known how his life unfolded on the other side of the world but 176 years after he left these shores his great great grand-daughter was determined to discover his fate.
“In January this year, we were lucky enough to travel to Tasmania to try to find out more about where Thomas had lived for most of his life,” says Rhiannon.
With the help of historian Susan Hood at the Port Arthur Research Centre, Rhiannon pieced together her ancestor’s journey from colonial convict to free man. “He was at Saltwater River for a year before becoming a passholder, meaning he had completed his term of probation as gang labour. He was transferred to the prisoners’ barracks in Hobart arriving on December 13, 1847.
"Two days later he was sent to the north of the island to work for James Grant at Tullochgoram Farm in the Fingal Valley.
"He gained a Ticket of Leave – similar to parole – in 1849. He was given a Conditional Pardon in 1852. This allowed him to leave Tasmania, but not return to Europe. He was finally given a Free Certificate in 1854, which confirmed his term of transportation had ended – he had served the full 10-year sentence for his crime."
He may have been a free man, but Thomas could not return to Wales to his wife, and the son he had never seen.
“We spoke with a local historian Dr Ian Broinowski who believed Thomas would have been treated as a political prisoner, following his conviction relating to the Rebecca Riots, as his treatment in captivity was harsh compared to many convicts transported to Tasmania,” Rhiannon explains.
“Most convicts arriving from the UK would have been given their freedom within two years of arriving and encouraged to bring their families out and settle in order to populate the country. Even though all his convict reports say he was quiet, well-behaved and didn’t reoffend, Thomas had to serve his full 10-year sentence and was not allowed to return to Europe.”
Rhiannon’s detective work in Tasmania’s Fingal Valley included asking local shopkeepers if anyone in the area had any information on its convict history, and in particular the farms – Tullochgoram and Eastbourne – where Thomas had worked, initially as a shepherd. They were shown around the former by the current owner and the latter by Frank O’Connor a direct descendant of the family who owned Eastbourne when Thomas worked there.
“It had not been lived in for decades and is in need of much TLC, but it was fascinating to walk around the farm and the barns that had probably changed very little since Thomas was there,” says Rhiannon.
It was to prove a poignant visit too as Rhiannon discovered how the life Thomas began in Tasmania as a political prisoner ended in a tragic accident on the farm that had given him a new start as a free man.
“We found a reference to Thomas Powell in the archive of the local paper, the Launceston Examiner.
"It read: 16th April 1880...The inquest on the body of Thomas Powell, who met his death by falling off a stack at Eastbourne was held last Saturday. There being nothing of a mysterious nature in connection with his death, the proceedings were of a simple form. The evidence of Mr Hewitt and one of his men went to show that they were in the yard, where Thomas Powell was thatching a stack, when suddenly they heard him exclaim Oh! and saw him fall from the stack. On going to him they found that the poor fellow was quite dead. Dr Hoskins held a post-mortem and found that death resulted from two bones of the neck having been broken. A verdict of accidental death was therefore returned.”
He was 59. Now that his great-great granddaughter has made a round trip of more than 20,000 miles to bring his story back to Wales perhaps Thomas Powell can finally rest in peace. It is a pilgrimage that will live with Rhiannon forever.
“I remember driving three hours north from Hobart to Avoca and wondering how my great-great grandfather had made that journey and how long would it have taken. The landscape was stunning and I hoped he was able to enjoy it. It felt really emotional walking around the yard and the barns where he had lived and I imagined what his life was like.
"I wish he could have known that I had made the journey to find him, and that he was forgiven for what had happened and how proud I am of the small part he played in fighting for the rights of poor tenant farmers in Wales early in the 19th century.
"There have been several generations of strong women in our family, and I’m sure my great-great grandmother was no exception. Life was tough for her left behind with a new baby when her husband was transported to the other side of the world never to return. I’m not sure she ever forgave him. I know Beca will ensure his memory lives on and will remember the hardship and heartache he endured too.”