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Woodborough’s Heritage

Woodborough, an ancient Sherwood Forest Village recorded in Domesday



Buckland’s 1896 Book - The History of Woodborough etc.


Buckland ~ CHAPTER X

WILLIAM LEE AND THE STOCKING FRAME


Authorities:  Woodborough and Calverton Registers.  Thoroton's Notts.  Felkin's History of Hosiery.


THE dissolution of the religious houses in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI had a most disastrous result for the poor. Thousands of men and women who had lived in the religious houses returned penniless to their native villages, and the poor widows and orphans, aged and sick, who had been maintained by the charity of the religious houses were reduced to starvation. The labour market was glutted; gangs of robbers terrified the counties; and "sturdy beggars" stripped travellers on the high road. But while the magistrates were hanging thieves by scores the government of Elizabeth devised wiser measures. The first poor law was passed in 1572; each town and parish was made responsible for its own poor; paupers were distinguished from vagabonds; owners of property were assessed and poor rates levied; overseers were appointed to relieve the aged and sick and find work for the able-bodied. A later act passed in 1601 was the basis of our Poor Law administration till within living memory.

But the condition of the people gradually began to improve; better methods of agriculture were introduced; manufactures were developed; spinning, weaving, dyeing, mining and fishing found work for thousands and trade was pushed into foreign lands. So the food and comfort of the people improved. The Norman Castle gave place to the Elizabethan Hall; farmhouses were built of bricks and stone; chimneys and chimney corners were made; glass was used in the windows; carpets, sheets and pillows superseded rushes and straw, and solid and costly furniture was bought. Education also improved; people learned to read and write; books were printed and sold at reasonable prices, which were easily read.

In the general improvement Woodborough played her part, for it was in the reign of Elizabeth that the Stocking Frame was invented. Before that time cloth hose were worn by the wealthier classes, even by Henry VIII, who however obtained a pair or two of silk knitted stockings from Spain. The first pair of worsted knitted stockings worn in England were made by William Rider, a London apprentice in 1564, and the art of hand knitting spread rapidly through the country.

The Stocking Frame was invented by the Reverend William Lee, about whom there is little certain information but a vast amount of tradition. Dr. Thoroton in his history of Notts., published in 1677, says: "At Calverton was born William Lee, Master of Arts in Cambridge and heir to a pretty freehold here; who seeing a woman knit invented a loom to knit, in which he or his brother James performed and exercised before Queen Elizabeth, and leaving it to one Aston his apprentice, went beyond the seas, and was thereby esteemed author of that ingenious machine, wherewith they now weave silk and other stockings. This Aston . . . . added something to his master's invention. He was sometime a miller at Thoroton, nigh which place he was born."

As Thoroton's History was published only 67 years after the death of William Lee, it is probable that Thoroton is right in stating that he was born in Calverton, but most later writers and Woodborough tradition state that he was born at Woodborough and was Vicar of Calverton. The evidence of the Parish Registers is indecisive. The Woodborough Registers begin in 1547, but mention no William Lee till 1592, which was after the invention. The Calverton Register begins in 1568, just 21 years before the date of the invention and so too late to contain an entry of his baptism, but it contains entries of the baptism of four sons of a William Lee, viz., Edward in 1574, Robert in 1577, John in 1580, and James in 1582, who were probably the younger brothers of William Lee the inventor. In the burials of 1595 we find the burial of his father, viz ., "William Lee, the elder, was buried the first day of Marche, ano. din. 1595, and reginæ xxxviii." and in 1607 "William Lee the elder was buried the xxviii day of May, anno prædicto." Whether this second entry refers to the Inventor, no man can tell. If it does, it confirms the Calverton tradition that Lee married and had children and died at Calverton, which is confirmed by the following entry made in 1755, "Buried, Joseph Lee, Stockinger, the last of the family of Stocking Frame Inventor Lee in this Parish, 17 April 1755," and by the will of Mrs. Margaret Oliver in 1565 which appointed "My son-in-law William Lee" to be trustee to her grandson. If so Lee married a Miss Oliver, and the above Mrs. Oliver may have been the widow of the Rev. William Oliver, who was Vicar of Calverton in 1536. Nothing definite can be decided about Lee's birth, marriage or burial, and Deering's History of Notts., Ree's Cyclopædia, Blackner's History of Nottingham and Cooper's Athenæ Cantabrigienses all favour Woodborough as his birthplace.

In May 1579 he matriculated at Christ's College Cambridge, but removed to St. John's and took his B.A. degree in 1582 and his M.A. in 1586. One story says he was expelled the University for marrying contrary to the College Statutes and was reduced to living on what his wife earned by knitting; that by watching her knit he conceived and carried out the idea of the Stocking Frame. This story was illustrated in 1847 in Elmore's picture called "The original of the Stocking Loom," of which a print is now (1896) in the possession of Mrs. Willis, the blacksmith's wife, at Epperstone, and also in a novel called "The Nut-Brown Maid," of which I have not been able to see a copy. The other story is that Lee fell in love with a lady of Woodborough, who was always more intent on knitting stockings and teaching her pupils than upon the intentions of her lover; so he resolved to invent a machine which would enable her to have leisure to listen to him. This he did in 1589. But the lady preferred another and the perfection of his machine is said to have brought her to poverty. This story is adopted in one of the publications of the S.P.C.K. written by Rev. E. M. Hoare and called "A brave fight, being a narrative of the many trials of Master William Lee, Inventor," where the lady's name is given as Janet Thrushton, which is a pure invention.

The tradition of the Stocking Frame-knitters is that Lee spent three years in anxious and costly experiments before he completed his invention; that he sold his "pretty freehold" and resigned his position as Curate of Calverton, so that when misfortunes came upon him he had neither means nor trust in God to persevere. His younger brother James helped in the invention and the method of working was first taught to his relatives in Calverton and Woodborough in 1595. Thence it was adopted in London and at Godalming and an Incorporated Company of Frame-work Knitters was formed, among whom a traditional account was handed down about the course of Lee's inventions.

His first idea was to make the web flat and then join the selvage by seaming; then much time was spent in making the long-bearded hook or needle; with these fixed in a frame he made a succession of loops and his first production was a pair of garters. The presser was his next need, a wooden bar to press all the barbs of the hooks down at once into the grooves, using one hand to bring fourth the loops, while the other puts the beards down into the grooves. The next difficulty was to get a length of yarn in each loop. It was solved by the marvellous device of the "Jack" and sinker. The Jacks were kept from falling forward by light springs, which were forced down by the "Slurcock," which was pulled by a string attached to the treddles. The final difficulty was the peculiar shape of the heel and foot of the stocking, and it is said he spent many months before he devised the method of working them.

Full of hope Lee and his brother started for London, when the whole country was delirious with joy at the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He was introduced to Queen Elizabeth by her cousin Lord Hunston and was allowed to work his machine before her in Bunhill Fields. The Queen was pleased with the invention but expressed her disappointment that it produced coarse worsted stockings instead of silken hose and refused to grant a patent of monopoly. It is not known what other reasons influenced her, but the reasons she gave to Lord Hunsdon was "My Lord, I have too much love for my poor people who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting, to give my money to forward an invention that will tend to their ruin by depriving them of their employment. Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I should, I think, have been somewhat justified in granting him a patent for that monopoly, which would have affected only a small number of my subjects; but to enjoy the exclusive privilege of making stockings for the whole of my subjects is too important to be granted to any individual."

So Lee received neither money nor protection for his invention. Even Elizabeth failed to understand that machines which produce cheap articles for the millions must be adopted even though temporary distress is caused to hundreds who may be thrown out of employment. Doubtless Lee's frame at first caused distress among hand-knitters, just as now the Steam-power Frame is causing distress among the Frame work knitters.

However Lee, disappointed but not daunted, proceeded to construct a machine which would turn out silken hose and in 1598 he presented the Queen with a pair of silk hose, who accepted them graciously, but gave him no patent nor money. At her death Lee had hopes of help from James I., but though James is said to have set himself up in hose for his progress to London, he gave no help to Lee. Lee then accepted the invitation of Sully, the French envoy, to go to France and was presented to Henry IV. at Paris; but hardly had he started work at Rouen, when his hopes were dashed by the assassination of Henry IV. by Ravaillac. Lee's position as a Protestant was not a safe one and he consequently lost heart and gave way to profound melancholy; a message to summon his brother James was sent too late; James arrived to find his brother dead of the plague in poverty at Paris in 1610, not the first nor the last of those whose names will be handed down to posterity as the makers of England.

After his death, James Lee brought all the frames back to England save one, and found that Aston, a miller at Thoroton but formerly an apprentice to Lee, had improved the machine. They entered into partnership, improved the frame, reduced the cost and set up many in Calverton, Woodborough and Thoroton, the population of which villages much increased. But the Stockinger then, as now, was not much of a Church goer, for Thoroton complained in 1677, "Calverton, like Woodborough, is a great populous village, with an empty Church for the most part."

The invention was next taken to Venice, for the Venetian ambassador took one of Lee's apprentices named Mead and a frame to Venice where it was worked, but the scheme failed as the Venetian smiths failed to construct others and Mead returned to England.

Meanwhile at home the trade rapidly extended in the Midlands and in the district between Chesterfield, Market Harborough, Newark and Ashby-de-la-Zouch. In 1657 the framework knitters petitioned Oliver Cromwell for their company to be incorporated by Charter, in reply to which he issued letters patent incorporating the company of framework knitters. At that time there were 650 frames in England, of which 400 were in London. This Charter was renewed by Charles II in 1663. In 1695 there were 1500 in London alone. In 1727 there were 2,500 in London and 5,500 in the provinces, and the hands earned 2s. 6d. to 3s.6d. a day on plain work and 3s. 6d. to 5s. 0d. on embroidered, but only made 4 days a week with an average weekly wage of 10s. in the country and 15s. in London. In 1765 the trade was much depressed as is shown by an entry made by Rev. Maurice Pugh on a fly leaf of the Calverton Register. "The stocking manufacture very bad last year and this. Scarce half work to be got or half bellies to be filled. The Lord have mercy on the poor." Again in 1811 the exhaustion of the country by the wars of Napoleon so raised the price of bread and depressed the trade that the "Luddite Riots," so called from Ludlam, the ringleader, took place in the Midlands in which many frames were wantonly broken. In 1844 there were 16,382 in this county, of which Arnold had 1397, Calverton 409, Epperstone 30, Lowdham 94, Lambley 381, Oxton 56 and Woodborough 191, but the wages were very low. In 1870 the trade was excellent, as the Franco-Prussian war stopped the German trade, and hands averaged £1 a week, while first class hands earned 25s. to. 30s. But since 1875 the trade has been gradually depressed owing to the introduction of steam power, which is gradually being extended to the best work. Finally the American protectionist Tariff of Mr. McKinley has almost ruined the trade. Work is so scarce that men sometimes go for weeks without any and it is impossible to say what the average wage is. The number of frames at work in Woodborough at the present time is about 70.

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