The (notional) leader of a movement whose supporters attacked and demolished turnpike toll gates chiefly in south and west Wales in the period between 1839–44 in protest at high tolls; (also) a member of such a group of protesters. In later use applied to similar groups carrying out other acts of social protest, especially organized salmon-poaching raids.
Although mostly male, the leaders of such groups frequently disguised themselves in women's clothing, blackening their faces, and sometimes also wearing horsehair wigs or beards.
Mid 19th century; earliest use found in The Times. From the name Rebecca, probably used in allusion to Genesis 24:60 ‘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’. Compare Welsh Merched Beca, lit. ‘daughters of Rebecca’, plant Beca, lit. ‘children of Rebecca’, names for the rioters.