Those of you who live in the 20th century are aware of the bare facts of my life. You know thatI was born in Calverton towards the middle of the sixteenth century, the eldest son of a prosperous yeoman farmer. You may also know something about my education at a local school and later at Christ's and St. Johns College, Cambridge where I received a thorough grounding in languages, theology and the classics to prepare me for my proposed vocation as a clergyman. You will almost certainly know how I strayed from this intended path to become an inventor and how this new career took me to London and to France in order to promote the stocking frame. But I wonder how many of you understand what all this meant to me and to my family - to reject the settled and respectable life of a clergyman in a sleepy English village in favour of the life of an inventor and pioneer with all its risks, hopes and misfortunes. I would like to share with you my own view of these strange and unpredictable events.
After obtaining my Bachelor of Arts degree in 1582/83, I returned from Cambridge to the bosom of my family. My hope was that I could help with the Church services and also be of use to my father William about the farm. How I looked forward to wandering once again in the lanes and hills of my native Calverton.
Many historians, I know, have written about my supposed romance at about this time with a lady who knitted incessantly, and have accorded this a certain significance in my future career. I can assure you that this rumour quite false. To have watched even the most beautiful woman knitting constantly would have annoyed me to distraction, and in fact I frequently pondered upon the burden placed upon womenfolk in the village by the requirements of hand-knitting. Queen Elizabeth had issued an edict that "her people should always wear a knitted cap".
Knitters were the only means of producing such garments but it took so long to finish the article. I began to think. I watched my mother and my sisters sitting in the evening twilight plying their needles. If garments were made by two needles and one line of thread, why not several needles to take up the thread? I discussed this with my young brother James whilst we tied up the cows or rounded up the sheep. He was a good and patient listener, young as he was, and the only one of my brothers not too busy to pay attention to my lofty ideas. My mother and sisters were intrigued by the notion of a "loom to knit" releasing them from the slavery of spinning and knitting which had occupied womenfolk from time immemorium, but they refused to take it seriously. After all, was it not a woman's job to knit by hand? As my ideas and enthusiasm grew, my poor father was annoyed beyond belief that I should "waste my time" and energies on a "woman's work". He considered that my time which had been spent in learning ought now to be devoted to work in our Church of St. Wilfrid.
I retorted that the Protestant system of moral principles, which I upheld, was not opposed to working for trading purposes, as well as for the services of God. Despite my vehemence. I was rent in two. My duties to Church and family I began to neglect. The idea of my machine and the creating of it ate into my heart and brain. I set aside the notion that my loom would do harm to the poor who were set to work with pauper children and the infirm to produce garments which only required two pins and a skein of wool. All the necessary requirements for my contrivance were to hand - wood from the forest which edged my father's farm;coal which had recently been found near Nottingham. I would go and get acquainted with our village blacksmith and the carpenter, visiting their abodes and learning from them as I had learned from the thinkers and dreamers in Cambridge.
My sister Isabel sat with me in the garden one evening and taught me how to use the knitting pins and then I had a clearer idea in my mind. I could picture my machine. Perhaps a long bar which could hold the row of stitches, as knitters held them on the pin in their left hand. Another bar to oppose the one with the row of stitches. Somehow each loop had to be picked up and transferred to the first bar. Suddenly as a bolt of lightening, the solution came to me. Why not a piece of wire formed as a loop to pick up the thread and cause it to form a loop and somehow cast it off? At church services I was as one bewitched - the words in the psalter became hooks picking up lines of print as if it were thread. The chanting and plainsong and the rhythm of my frame as it shuttled back and forth along the rows of knitting. My fellow worshippers wondered and complained about my far-away mind. At eventide my candles burnt low whilst ideas came and went in the dim light . I was tortured, a long drawn-out agony but this dream of mine just had to become a reality. Sometimes as I worked on my father's farm,I whittled sticks hoping to form hooks to pick up my thread. I watched the thrush wresting and tugging with a worm reluctant to leave the soil. All these activities became my machine. Gradually, but with surety, I worked out all the complicated movements and with patience my frame came into being. I swayed between heights of excitement and the lowest depths of despair as I laboured to produce some fabric - slowly the results were becoming more recognizable as a piece of material. Soon I could bring the frame to the notice of the citizens.
James and I were quite devastated! Imperiously she cried, "Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars."Turning to Lord Hunsdon, she declared, "Had Mr Lee made a machine which could have given me silk stockings, I would perhaps have been justified in granting him a patent". Looking down at me she declared, "To enjoy the privilege of making stockings for everyone is too important to grant to any individual." I was devastated and humiliated. All my hopes and dreams collapsed in that instant. Lord Hunsdon was less cast down than James and I. If silk stockings were what was required instead of woollen ones, then my noble Lord was quite sure that I could improve my machine and make them. William Carey, son of Lord Hunsdon, also believed in my ability to improve the frame. It was agreed that I should teach Sir William the "arte and misterie" of framework knitting. Thus a Knight of the Realm became my apprentice. James also encouraged me to devote all my energies to perfecting the loom. The task of supporting James and myself was a growing problem. We had no rich patrons. It was necessary to try and sell the woollen stockings while at the same time trying to improve the frame. I needed Guild membership to sell my goods openly on the market. This was yet another mountain to climb. Many customs and regulations had to be obeyed before one was admitted to the Weavers Guild. I was sworn to pay £3. With great difficulty and given time, I paid. Now I was qualified to obtain the Freedom of the City. It took me about 10 years to perfect the frame and produce silk stockings but it was by then too late. My sponsor and friend Lord Hunsdon died in 1596. Lord Burghley, Adviser to the Queen, died nearly two years later. The Queen herself died in 1603.
In desperation, I began to look towards France as the land where my dream might be realised. At this time many French refugees were living in London, seeking safety from the frequent religious conflicts in their country. Among their number were excellent artisans, clockmakers and weavers skilled in the handling of silk yarns. I became particularly close to Pierre de Caux and some members of his family. They had taken refuge in Spitalfields. Pierre's brother Salomon, eminent architect, inventor and author, served whilst in England as tutor to Henry, son of James 1st. At this time, every effort was being made to introduce new industries to France. Henry IV was actively involved in every aspect of economic life.
James and I were particularly intrigued by stories of life in Rouen. It was a town renowned in France as an important city, famous for its arts, commerce, printing and textiles. And textiles was my business. So persuasive were the entreaties of my friends the De Caux brothers, I was moved to load my nine hand frames onto conveyances and ship them by river and sea to Rouen where we arrived in a state of high excitement and trepidation. A very complicated but precise contract was drawn up between De Caux and myself. "For the manufacture of Stockings of Silk and wool on the machine at present introduced in the realm by the inventor Lee."
My association with the De Caux brothers led to a direct introduction to the court of Henry IV where I became a protege of his prime minister, Sully. Sully was the most impressed with the knitting frame and proved an invaluable ally, offering funds for me to build more machines and successfully petitioning the King for a monopoly for my invention. James and I felt peace, hope and confidence in our new surroundings.
So many exciting things were happening in England now. Our trouble with Spain. New plays by a new poet. The science of astrology was commanding the attention of Queen Elizabeth. Could I journey to London town and present my machine to her? If I could only shape a pair of woollen stockings - would her Majesty deign to look at them? I was no courtier versed in flattering and honeyed expressions. Would she even consent to see me? Would she grant me the patent so necessary to me in my work? Our first sight of London town was momentous. After the quiet of Calverton and the countryside through which we had journeyed, it was hard to understand the tumult and shouting of the throngs in the narrow and smelly streets. The rows of shops and houses from which the cities of traders came, deafened us. The filth we had to wade through was indescribable. We eventually found a wooden building which would serve as a workshop - it was near to the river and to the edge of the countryside. I immediately set up the frame and made plans to see the Queen to persuade her to see my products and grant me my licence. I realised that my engine might take away the need for hand knitting but people at court would be bound to appreciate the advantages of a hundred needles rather than two. Richard Parkyns, our member of Parliament for Nottinghamshire, arranged for me to meet Henry Carey, Lord Hundson, a member of the Queen's Privy Council. Lord Hunsdon seemed the perfect sponsor in helping me to get my patent since he was a cousin of the Queen. The great day dawned at last. James and I were beside ourselves with trepidation. This was that day when we must perform and exercise the invention of a "loom to knit" before her majesty. Accompanied by Lord Hunsdon and others, she arrived to inspect the frame. I bowed and handed her the woollen stocking.
1889: Painting, housed at Leicester Polytechnic, to commemorate the 300th centenary of the invention
Our friends identified themselves with the Protestant religion which was of comfort to me. I was now set to fulfil my obligations to the contract which was to supply new machines and "to teach the operation of the loom, to teach how to build and dismantle the loom, and to teach others how to teach." But our settled and busy life was to be suddenly threatened by a horrifying event which took place in Paris. King Henry IV was cruelly assassinated and the accession of Louis XIII revived the religious intolerance which was terrifying to my brother and myself.
Scenes in the streets of Rouen were upsetting. My fears for my English workers grew. Higher and higher fees were demanded for registration with the Guilds. Restrictions were imposed on national origin and religion. Quest for work wasthwarted from all sides. So discontented were the workers, the value of the livre having disappeared to the level of a sou. The prevailing conditions were giving birth to revolt. Secret associations were being formed and those measures which were taken to ensure the protection of the English workers were unavailing to us. Voices of workers were being raised against the long-endured injustices. More frightening, the handcraft workers agitated for the return of the old ways of working by hand. Cruel episodes were enacted in the towns. These conditions led me to believe in the heartbreaking thought that it would be well to return our men and looms to England. So ended my earlier dreams of additional frames being built and worked, but intuitively I knew this was the end of my long travail. Loyal James did get our machines back into England and was able to set up workshops in Bunhill Row London, from whence we had set out such high hopes.
With James gone, I am now quite alone in a hostile land, miserable and ill. Often I think of the tranquil and uneventful life that could have been mine had I chosen to remain in Calverton. I have had my share of excitement and drama along with many cruel disappointments but I often ask myself whether my invention will be a worthwhile legacy to future generations. Perhaps you in the 21st century will judge.