William Lee

Although contemporary documentary evidence is lacking, the parish traditionally claims William Lee, inventor of the stocking frame, as its own. The Nottinghamshire historian Robert Thoroton asserted in his 1677 history of the county that Lee was a native of Calverton,[125] while John Aubrey in his Brief Lives, written between 1669 and 1693, thought that he was born in Sussex;[126] and Charles Deering in Nottinghamia Vetus et Nova, published in 1751, claimed that Lee was of Woodborough.[127] Calverton’s claim is probably the strongest, as the Lee surname appears in parish registers of the time and a William Lee ‘the elder’, whose death was recorded in 1607, bequeathed a gold ring to his eldest son, William, who may have been the inventor.[128] There is little evidence that William Lee was ever curate in the parish or even in Holy Orders. Aubrey appears to be first to describe him as a ‘poor curate’, while Thoroton only mentions a Cambridge M.A. degree, and even this is disputed.[129] Lee might of course simply have acted as a lay reader as a pragmatic response to staffing needs, and read services ‘plainlie, distinctlie and audiblie’ without preaching or interpreting, as had been laid down by Archbishop Parker in 1561.[130] The vicar of Calverton throughout the period was a James Revell.[131]

The myths surrounding Lee, including the supposed reasons for the invention, a girl-friend or wife and an alleged refusal by Queen Elizabeth to grant a patent, seem to stem from a volume of 1831 called History of the Framework Knitters by Gravener Henson (1785–1852), a prominent workers’ leader of the time. Henson stated that he had got the greater part of his information about Lee from certain ‘ancient stocking makers’ who all gave a similar account, and that the authenticity of the story is ‘in some measure confirmed by the arms of the London Framework Knitters, which consist of a stocking-frame without the woodwork, with a clergyman on one hand and a woman on the other, as supporters.’[132] Some of the myths were made visual in Alfred Elmore‘s familiar oil painting of 1847, The Origin of the Stocking Loom in the Nottingham Castle Museum.[133]

There seems little doubt, however, that a William Lee did invent the stocking frame, since a partnership agreement between William Lee and George Brooke of 6 June 1600 exists in the archives of the Historical Manuscript Commission, and this agreement describes the invention.[134] Failing to find much enthusiasm in this country for his ingenuity, Lee went to Rouen and set up stocking frames there, and is believed to have died in France, in obscurity, in about 1615. By the end of the seventeenth century however, stocking frames, perhaps the most complex piece of machinery employed in the pre-industrial age, were in widespread use in England and elsewhere.

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