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.