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Original Issue

When Rebecca Went Fishing

In Radnorshire, Wales the River Wye still tumbles along a rocky course by the town of Rhayader, where the salmon fight their way upstream. There in the misty darkness of an autumn night in 1880 a line seemingly made up of sturdy Welshwomen was strung across the rushing waters by a great fishweir under the shoulder of Plinlimmon mountain. The women (if that's what they were, though indeed their gruff voices didn't sound it) were arranged in pairs, one partner holding a vicious four-pronged spear, the other a long flaming torch, and so on all across the river. Suddenly one of the spear-holders made a great lunge, a gasp of anticipation was heard from the spectators gathered on the riverbank, the spear was held triumphantly aloft and on it gleamed a huge silvery salmon. The "Rebecca" was in action again!

The Rebecca was one of the strongest of all organized poaching gangs, yet its origin had little to do with poaching. In the late 1830s the people of Wales were becoming increasingly angry at the state of the rural roads. Not only were their highways foully surfaced but they were ruinously expensive to travel on. Some towns were entirely ringed by toll-gates, and a traveler often had to pay half a dozen times in a 10-mile journey. A carter paid as much as a shilling a mile, which would be equivalent to a dollar today. Farmers taking their produce to market found they were paying away a sizable percentage of their profits.

Welshmen have never taken kindly to such impositions, especially by the English, so all over mid-and south Wales the countrymen banded together in secret to destroy the tollgates. Bands of rough men, armed with swords, sickles, bludgeons, scythes, pistols and guns, chopped, smashed and burned over a hundred gates and, in a sparsely populated country, the police could do nothing. Even squadrons of English dragoons could achieve little more than an occasional arrest. For disguise the rioters adopted the clothes of women: the leader of a gang was always called "Rebecca," from the verse in Genesis (XXIV, 60): "And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, 'Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.'"

In spite of rewards of up to £500 not one Welshman informed on Rebecca, and her thousands of "daughters" terrorizing the countryside at last made London take notice. In 1844 Parliament passed an act making it impossible to pay more than one toll in any seven miles of roads. Rebecca had won, and at the small cost of only a few light fines and one or two ringleaders transported to Australia.

As the years passed, the Rebecca was forgotten, but a new generation of Welshmen was finding a new grievance. As long as most countrymen could remember, any man who wanted solid and strength-building food could go to the river and find it. And if the man lived near the Wye, the greatest salmon river south of the Scottish border, he never had far to seek. Not for Radnorshire men the finicky methods of rod and line and fly: the more directly a salmon could be procured the better. After all, there were fish aplenty. Then, with the advent of the railway and big Victorian manufacturing fortunes, successful English magnates found they could buy a cheap Welsh estate and reach it quickly for a few days' sport. Gangs of water bailiffs lay in wait to catch Dai or Evan as he carried home his one salmon, possibly the only protein his family ever expected to eat. The magistrates showed themselves to be firmly on the side of law-keeping and the rights of property.

It wasn't as if the poachers were even depriving the landlords of much sport. In the upper reaches of the river, salmon did not arrive until late in September, by which time the legal fishing season was almost over. Fish then were nearly at spawning, and only a man half-starved would eat the lank kipper-colored creatures. Yet magistrates lashed out with savage sentences against any unfortunate poacher who was caught.

Here and there old men began to remember how, 40 years before, organized force had imposed the will of the common people on their rulers, and they told their sons and nephews about it. Notices started to appear in the town of Rhayader, sometimes cheekily fixed to the very door of the town hall: "Rebecca meet tonight at the weir." Young men were instructed in the art of soaking tow in mutton fat and binding it to the end of a pole to make the ball of the torch. Then they borrowed their mothers' and sisters' garments, fashioned themselves rough wigs out of horsehair, blackened their faces and banded together, 20 or 50 or 100 strong to "burn the water."

The weir at Rhayader was a high one: only in the biggest of floods could the fish continue their upstream search for a spawning ground. In the clear water below it was sometimes possible to count from the bank 300 or 400 fish lying as thick as paving stones. By the light of the torches the spearmen could make short work of several dozen, and the next day every family in town would dine sumptuously on salmon.

Extra bailiffs were imported from Birmingham and Hereford, burly men with no local ties. More policemen were drafted, the cost of them being levied on Rhayader and other riotous parishes. But still the mass poaching went on, quite openly—for a couple of dozen lawmen, even armed with cutlasses, did not care to take on the Rebecca's hundred. Any prudent enforcer of the law stayed at home if he glimpsed in the street the ragged army's blackened faces and flamboyant feminine garb.

The main outbreak of the fishing Rebecca lasted from 1878 to 1881. But during the following 50 years, whenever a tyrannical landlord or a savage magistrate acted so as to incense the practical fishing fraternity, it was certain that the custom would be revived—for a night or a week—always late in the year, when the salmon were spawning.

Some 25 years ago, after the release of the movie made from Daphne du Maurier's most successful novel (which had nothing to do with poaching), I met an old man, a fervent chapel-goer from Rhayader, whose life had no room for frivolities like the cinema. But when the movie was advertised, he made sure he had his ninepence ready. "Look!" he said, "making a film of the Rebecca, they are. Daro! Those were the days, when out we went with ball and spear."