by Bill Carson
William Lee was born around the year of 1560 in the Parish of Oxton, Nottinghamshire. He was the eldest of five sons and four daughters to Yeoman William Lee. Already by the mid 1500s large tracts of Sherwood Forest had been cleared and arable farming was carried on in the rich soil of the ancient forest. Stock raising was important as well, the name of Calverton actually means ‘where calves are kept’. Yeoman William Lee kept sheep, the wool from which he sold in Nottingham. Most of this from Nottingham was then shipped down the Trent to the Weavers in the Low Countries. It is known the Lee family had a loom in their house, the tradition then was that the women spun the yarn and the men wove the cloth. So the young William Lee would have known all about this trade before he reached adulthood. The father being a Yeoman, meant that the family must have been considerably ‘well off’. Father Willaim Lee wanted his eldest son to go into the Church as soon as he was old enough.
It is not recorded where William went to school, but we can take a good guess that it would have been a Grammar school in Nottingham or Southwell. After his schooling, in May 1579, William went to Cambridge and in 1586 he gained his Masters degree. He returned to Calverton as curate at St Swithins at a stipend of £4 and 10 shillings. Not much is known of William’s time at St Swithins. At that time common land was being enclosed by the Yeoman farmers in order to keep larger flocks of sheep. Wool was becoming an important part of a Farmer’s income. William, as the Parish priest, no doubt saw many examples of the poverty that this brought to the country people. There seems to have been an argument in the family between William and his father. Some say the argument was caused by Father Lee’s disappointment in his son for neglecting his job in the church. Not long after the rift William departed for London and was disinherited by his father. In his will, to his eldest son, he bequeathed ‘one ring of gold’, in the value of 20 shillings.
Who knows what prompted William to invent and create his famous knitting machine. The popular story goes that William developed the machine because a woman whom he was courting showed more interest in knitting than in him. We do not know if this story is true, but it always makes a interesting story when told in books.
The art of hand knitting is thought to been brought into Britain from France and Spain. Certianly, by the time William became a curate it had been the ‘fashion’ to teach the orphans and the poor in almshouses to knit, and while he was at Calverton he began experimenting the idea of a knitting machine. It all began with stockings. In the day of the Tudors, hose were cut from material for high days and holidays from ‘taffety’. By William’s day, stockings were knitted very dashingly even shocking to some. In France they even made them from silk. William had many problems to solve when constructing a knitting frame. A circular frame would just not work. Transferring the piece from needle to another (as in hand knitting) would not work. The hooks to hold the loops took endless amounts of experiments. His youngest brother James had been helping him, so when he set off for London with a knitting frame which, in appearance, was very much like a cloth loom, his brother accompanied him.
The teething problems for William, were virtually over regarding the knitting frame, now he had to worry about trying to promote it in the capital. However in London more troubles awaited him, he soon found that the craftsmen in the City were jealously guarding their own interests, so he found himself tenement on the outskirts. The granting of patents was a very haphazard business, it was up to Queen Elizabeth I to grant them, she was very known for often not given them. William needed a patron to gain the Queen’s ear. He applied to Lord Hunsdon, a neighbour in Nottinghamshire. At last the arrangement was made for Her Majesty to visit his workshop. He must have been sure that his troubles would soon be at an end. But when the Queen saw rough woolen stockings, not the fine silk hose knitted in Spain that she was used to, she refused to grant his money or a monopoly or even a patent. After her visit to William’s workshop it is reported that she stated: “I have too much love for my poor peoples who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting”.
For ten long years he struggled to perfect a knitting machine to manufacture silk hose. In 1599 it was ready. But, in 1596 his patron Lord Hunsdon had died. In 1603 the Queen herself passed away. His position was becoming increasingly difficult. He had no patron, no patent and no income.
Influenced by Huguenot acquaintances in London, in 1606 he went to Rouen in France. Henri IV of France was attempting to revitalise industry there, industry which had been severely disrupted by the flight of the Huguenots from France. A contract was signed between William and a French textile manufacturer. Once again, William thought that all of his troubles were behind him. Four years later Henri was assassinated. Under Louis XIII Protestants were again a persecuted people. With difficulty, James and the English workers he had brought with him managed to return to England with their precious knitting machines, where soon they were to prosper. As for William, it is recorded that he died in Paris. The exact date of his death is not known.
The Victorians remembered the debt they owed him. He is pictured on a stained glass window at Christ Church, in his Master’s gown and on his right hand a frame knitting machine.