Although considerable doubt exists as to which was the birthplace of the Reverend William Lee --- both Calverton and Woodborough claim the honour --- it is certain that it was in the year 1589 that the poor Nottinghamshire country parson invented the stocking frame, which was wrought such a great revolution in the manufacture of hosiery goods.
The genius of the man has proved beneficial to both his county and the world generally.
The Reverend William Lee was a Nottinghamshire man, a member of the Notts family, and for some length of time he held the living of Calverton. He matriculated as a sitar at Christ College, Cambridge, in May, 1579, subsequently removing to St. John's College, and taking his B.A. degree in 1582 or 1583, and a few years later he proceeded to his M.A. degree. Upon leaving the university, Lee returned to his native place, where he officiated either as curate or incumbent, and occupied the glebe house. The cost of living was at that time described as being of the annual value of 4 pounds. This building was in existence until 1876, when it was sold, and, unfortunately, pulled down, but it had long before ceased to be the residence of the vicars of Calverton. The sketch printed below shows Calverton Vicarage in its latter days. The glebe house occupied by William Lee was the low building next to the open door on the right of the sketch, and abutted upon the Main Street.
The latter days of Calverton vicarage
Lee was not, like Goldsmith's parson, "passing rich with forty pounds a year," the cost of living of Calverton, in his day being only of the value of 4 pounds per annum in the King's books, but probably it was to the humbleness of his circumstances that we owe the invention of the stocking frame. Everybody, we should imagine, is familiar with the print depicting William Lee intently observing the fingers of his wife as she swiftly plied her knitting needles, manufacturing from her ball of worsted the family hose. The popularly-accepted story is that Lee, wishing to spare his wife the monotony of this daily task, "thought out" the machine which afterwards supplanted hand labour and revolutionised the making of goods.
The sentiment is a pretty one, at all events, but it seems very much more likely that poverty was in this case the mother of invention, and that Lee's great invention was the result of the stern necessity that existed in his case to augment his slender income. However that may be, certain it is that the young vicar of Calverton was led to study the movements of the needles when used for knitting, and eventually succeeded in reproducing them, greatly multiplied, in his stocking frame. The work must have required an immense amount of thought, of inventive skill, and of dogged perseverance, but Lee succeeded, and in the course of a year or two Lee's stocking frames were extensively used in the villages of Calverton and Woodborough. His brother James and other members of the Lee family helped him in bringing his invention into popular use, and after two years spent at Calverton he then went to London, where he commenced to manufacture hose, and was brought to the attention of Queen Elizabeth. Her Majesty visited his workshop, but expressed her disappointment at the coarseness of the hose turned out by the stocking frame, and declined to grant a patent of monopoly for the inventor, saying she was not disposed to sanction a machine which might throw many of her subjects out of employment. Although Lee greatly improved the stocking frame, and with it succeeded in making a pair of silk hose which he presented to the Queen, he met with little encouragement from the English Court, and eventually took up his abode with his brother and nine workmen at Rouen in France. He secured the patronage of the French monarch, and appeared to have started upon the highway to fortune, but the king being assassinated and political tumult ensuing, Lee's bright prospects faded away. He went from Rouen to Paris, but failing to make any headway in the French capital, ultimately died there early in the seventeenth century in great poverty, a broken-hearted man. His body was buried in Paris, but the locality of his last resting place is unknown.
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