The Surat Weaver

In sorrow and gloom, see her bend o’er the loom,
Her features contracted with hunger and pain,
And the light of her eye, as pure as the sky,
Is dimm’d with the grief which has fallen like rain.
Her movements are slow, her appearance is dull,
Her tears wet the cloth as it slowly rolls on,
And the weight at her heart seems to be at the full,
Nor a snatch of a hymn ever passes her tongue.
Her garments are torn, she looks quite forlorn,
She has mended and patch’d all the clothing she has;
Two years have gone down since she bought a new gown –
She’s now a mere shadow of what she once was.
Though yet in her prime, she looks pallid and old,
Relentless despair broods o’er all things she sees:
What terrible havock reigns over the fold
Since yon war of revenge began over the seas.
Her father and mother, and sister and brother,
Have fall’n from the comfort they once could maintain;
Their family meetings and holiday greetings
Are gone without prospect of coming again.
They cannot indulge the old Whit’tide excursion,
And romp as of yore on the neighbouring coast,
Nor their health renovate by the annual immersion –
A pleasure they priz’d of all others the most.
All things seem to shock her, the birds seem to mock her,
Their warblings no joy to her weary soul brings;
She feels no delight as the sun sinks at night,
In vain his last glories o’er ocean he flings.
The bouquets she wove from the garden hard by
Cast their perfumes no more round her chamber so neat;
In sad desolation she heaves a deep sigh,
As she sinks in her nightly denuded retreat.
But, worse than this, is the sneer and the hiss,
That Dolly, the car-woman, throws at her now –
“Oh, where are you going, you don’t look so blooming,
And where the posies that once deck’d your brow,
“And where your fine dresses and ribbons and bonnet,
“And the shawl that you wore on the tea party night?
“B’ my I believe there’s a ticket upon it;
“When you wear it again, sure it won’t look so bright.”
“Ha, you’ve come to your treacle as well as my Michael,
“And all the bright colour has fled from your cheek,
“And I reckon your fat has all gone in Surat;
“And since the bad times, you’ve become mighty meek;
“Your eyes don’t now sparkle with laughter at me,
“And your skipping-rope’s idle, to boot, my fine girl;
“’Tis something to live your misfortunes to see,
“For you once had the airs of the child of an earl.”
She silently listen’d, a tear stealth’ly glisten’d
Upon the long lashes which cover her eye;
Her pallid lips quiver’d, her sunken frame shivered,
Her bosom expanded, repressing a sigh;
She breath’d a short prayer to the high throne of heaven,
That peace and prosperity soon may return;
She marvels, poor child, that the power is given
To man, which makes millions of innocents mourn.

Title:The Surat Weaver

Author:John Allinson

Publication:Stockport and Cheshire County News

Published in:

Date:May 3rd 1863

Keywords:class, poverty, war


There are several more famous poems characterising the lives of ‘Surat weavers’ (William Billington, Samuel Laycock), but this is fascinating because the subject is female, reflecting the fact that female workers were often vital breadwinners for their families. ‘Surat’ refers to Indian cotton from the Surat region of Gujarat which was imported to replace American raw cotton but whose fibres were short and was therefore harder to work. This was made worse by the fact that many mills were not really designed to weave short-fibre cotton so ran at much lower capacity. As mill operatives were paid through a piece-work system this often meant that even if employment could be found, financial hardship was still prevalent because however hard they worked, they could still not earn enough to live. The word ‘Surat’ became a byword for poverty in the 1860s. – SR