Calverton Village Online

WILLIAM LEE M.A.
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.

Those of you who live in the 20th century are aware of the bare facts of my life. You know that I was born 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.
Queen Elizabeth I and Henry Carey, Lord Hundson
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.

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.