Popular uprisings against the forces of the English establishment have long been an essential part of the stories we tell ourselves about Welsh history. 

A brief period at the height of the industrial revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century gave rise to some of the country’s most iconic moments of class struggle, part of a wider pattern of social unrest across Europe that was also specifically related to local circumstances. 

The 1831 Merthyr Rising, 1839 Newport Rising and Rebecca Riots of the early 1840s have all passed into something like legend in Wales, with figures such as the working class martyr Dic Penderyn and exiled Chartist leader John Frost celebrated in the names of squares and annual commemorative events in the towns most associated with their actions.

The National Wales: Mynydd Bach. Photo: Discover Ceredigion/Ceredigion County CouncilMynydd Bach. Photo: Discover Ceredigion/Ceredigion County Council

But one conflict, which erupted in the Mynydd Bach area of central Ceredigion in the 1820s, has received far less attention than the later predominantly urban riots of the south, despite the fact that its root causes remain a feature of Welsh life – and a hot topic of intense debate – today.

Known as Rhyfel y Sais Bach, or ‘the War of the Little Englishman’, this long series of incidents of violent direct action were aimed at Augustus Brackenbury, a wealthy gentleman landowner from Lincolnshire who bought up 345 hectares of land in the Llangwyryfon area with the intention of developing a hunting estate.

Brackenbury’s ability to purchase such a vast swathe of land – which had formed the basis of subsistence for the rural poor of the area for centuries – was related to the passing of a series of acts of parliament known as ‘Inclosures’, which enabled landowners to enclose land, thereby also removing to commoners their ancient rights to access.

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Between 1793 and 1818 almost a hundred such measures were passed in Wales, converting more than 80,000 hectares of common land into enclosed, owned land. Within decades many wild heaths in the uplands of the country were criss-crossed – as they remain today – with networks of stone wall boundaries.

On 2 May 1815, one such act paved the way for ‘inclosing [5,000 acres of] lands in Gwnnws and several other parishes therein mentioned in the township of Llanrhistid Mevenidd in the County of Cardigan’. 

Many changes to the way peasants had lived their lives in the uplands of Wales for centuries went ahead uncontested, but in Mynydd Bach, locals took a stand – and did not back down until victory was achieved. 

Augustus Brackenbury made several attempts at erecting a manor house in the area, but each time that building began the local peasantry would gather to damage and destroy it, often in nocturnal attacks.

The National Wales: Image from page 220 of "Gossip in the first decade of Victoria's reign" (1903)Image from page 220 of "Gossip in the first decade of Victoria's reign" (1903)

And as in the more famous Rebecca Riots – violent protests against the toll gates and taxation that exacerbated the plight of west Wales’ poor farmers and agricultural labourers in the early 1840s – the predominantly male participants of direct action often disguised themselves by wearing their wives’ clothing.

After six years of antagonism between the new landowner and the local community, Rhyfel y Sais Bach came to a head on the night of May 14, 1826. 

Reputedly a crowd of more than 600 were involved in the total destruction of Brackenbury’s house, leading to his final flight back to England – where he changed his business plan and became a salt merchant.

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In 2007, author and researcher Eirian Jones published The War of the Little Englishman, the most comprehensively researched guide to date of the events sometimes described as ‘Ceredigion’s Rebecca Riots’.

The book contains descriptions of ‘a dreadful insurrection… in the mountains surrounding Llanrhystud in consequence of the attempt made to enclose the common’. 

Despite that nobody was killed, as were more than twenty in Merthyr and Newport – and, less well remembered, in Hendy, when a young gatekeeper named Sarah Williams was murdered as part of the Rebecca campaign – the threat to Augustus Brackenbury’s life was very real.

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Eirian Jones’ book reports suggestions that the destruction of Brackenbury’s house was carried out by ‘twenty to thirty men bearing firearms’ and that the landowner was on one occasion ‘held by the locals and half roasted over a fire’.

Such was the sustained violence and threat of violence during the campaign against Brackenbury that even the gentry of Ceredigion did not support the English landowner, a situation that eventually led to his selling up and abandoning all plans for a home and hunting estate in the area.

Although in some respects Rhyfel y Sais Bach seems like an outlandish story from long ago, its provenance is as relevant as ever.

Contemporary debates about Airbnb and second homes in Wales are inevitably shadowed by a more recent history of direct action – the 228 arson attacks on properties across the country in the twelve years after 1979. 

But the central issues of who owns our land, who has the right to use it and for what, have been burning since at least 1066 when William the Conqueror introduced the feudal system – to a large extent still in place today, with financial agreements having replaced the ‘service’ medieval peasants ‘owed’ to the Crown through working the land.

While for the most part the story of land ownership in Wales and across the island of Britain is a story of rights being stripped from ‘commoners’ to directly benefit an establishment elite, The War of the Little Englishman is a rare example of a victory for the little people – and therefore deserves to be much more widely known.

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