Th’ Surat Weyver William Billington
Title:Th' Surat Weyver
Publication:Manchester University Press
This poem adheres very closely to traditional ballad metre (iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternated) and its six octet verses have ABABCDCD rhyme schemes. In keeping with its song-like rhythm the poem begins with a familiar Lancastrian collective voice which utilises the common ‘lads’ motif and the most recognisably Lancastrian adjective ‘gradely’ (which actually derives from the Old Norse term ‘greidligh’). The orthography (spelling system) employed here is exaggerated even for dialect poetry and there is a darkly comic effect to some of the terms used and the way they are presented. This is one of eleven Cotton Famine poems which feature in Brian Hollingworth’s Songs of the People: Lancashire dialect poetry of the industrial revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), the most significant anthology of such works during the twentieth century.
This poem rails against the consequences of the use of Surat cotton for weaving in Lancashire mills. Surat was an Indian cotton variant named after the region in northwest India, and its use increased substantially when American cotton became unavailable. The problem was that Surat (sometimes known as ‘Shurat’ in Lancs dialect verse) had shorter, weaker fibres and was often unsuited to the types of machinery already installed in cotton mills. Weavers were on piecework so the result was more, harder work, for much less pay. For this reason Surat became a kind of by-word for the industrial effects of the Cotton Famine. In this poem, description of its use is placed alongside examples of deprivation and hunger, and is also the basis of invective against Americans for their war. As Dr Owen Clayton (University of Lincoln) has observed, the use of the term ‘Yankee’ at this point might not have referred exclusively to the North, so this poem might not be taking sides in the Civil War as it appears.