“Great Cry and Little Wooll …”

Former Theatre Royal Dublin (photo: Marcia Stubbeman (CC))

One of the joys of looking through editions of early eighteenth-century newspapers is finding the unexpected. Only last week, I was browsing through the pages of the Ipswich Journal for April 15th, 1721, when I came across this gem: the verse prologue attached to a performance of Shakespeare given at the Theatre Royal in Dublin on April 1st of that year, and written by no less a person than Dr. Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), the author of Gulliver’s Travels.

On the 1st of this Month the gentlemen of the Theatre Royal in Dublin acted the Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, for the benefit of the Weavers; when a new Prologue and Epilogue was spoke … suitable to the Occasion, which were receiv’d with great Applause there, as written by the celebrated Dr. Swift, we here present our Readers with the Prologue,as follows:

It’s too long to reproduce in full here, but I’ll give you some excerpts.

Great Cry and Little Wooll— is now become,
The Plague and Proverb of the Weaver’s Loom.
No Wooll to Work on, neither Weft nor Warp,
Their Pockets empty, and their Stomachs sharp.
Provok’d in loud Complaints, to you they cry,
Ladies, relieve the Weavers, or they Die.
Forsake your Silks for Stuffs, nor think it strange
To shift your Cloaths, since you delight in Change.
One thing with Freedom I’ll presume to tell,
The Men will like You ev’ry Bit as well.

Thus it continues, stressing the beauty and utility of woollen clothing and even trying to convince people that silk or calico (cotton now being imported from India) are inferior thanks to the dubious sources of their fibres.

Our Wooll from Lambs of Innocence proceeds,
Silk comes from Maggots,
are Weeds.
Hence ’tis by sad Experience that we find,
Ladies in Silks to Vapours much inclin’d,
And what are they but Maggots in the Mind?

The prologue ends with a burst of heartfelt praise directed at women who choose to dress themselves in wool, thus providing much-needed work for the weavers.

How Sweet and Innocent’s the Country Maid,
With small Expence in Native Wooll Array’d!
Who Copies from the Fields her Homely Green,
While by her Shepherd with Delight She’s seen:
Shou’d our Fair Ladies dress like her in Wooll,
How much more Lovely, and how Beautiful,
Without their Indian Drapery they’d prove,
And Wooll wou’d help to warm us into Love,
Then like the Famous Argonauts of Greece,
We’d all contend to gain the Golden-Fleece.

The article ends by reporting that, in addition to the ticket money raised by the performance and given to the weavers, a further £200.00 was collected for them “at the Church Doors”. Since that equates to some £450,000 in today’s purchasing power, it suggests that having Dean Swift as your advertising copywriter was a shrewd move on someone’s behalf.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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2 Responses to “Great Cry and Little Wooll …”

  1. Lorrie Eastwick says:

    The history geek/nerd is thriving! Just received this missive this morning…remember visiting churches where the wealthy wool merchants had the beautiful memorials…or the villages in the Cotswolds where wool was King and the sheep were driven down the alleys? Well, the bit below ties into that…how fascinating….maggots and weeds indeed!

    Sent from my iPad



  2. What a great, oblique insight into the textile workers woes: stuffs vs silk. Hard not to transpose it to the Norwich clothworkers.


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