Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lee, William (d.1610?)

LEE, WILLIAM (d. 1610?), inventor of the stocking-frame, a native in all probability of Calverton, Nottinghamshire, where he is said to have been heir to 'a pretty freehold,' was matriculated as a sizar of Christ's College, Cambridge, in May 1579. Subsequently he removed to St. John's College, and proceeded B.A. in 1582-3. It is probable that he commenced M.A. in 1086 (Cooper, Athenæ Cantabr. iii. 38). In 1589 he was either curate or incumbent of Calverton, and invented the stocking-frame there. One of the traditions is that he acquired an aversion to hand-knitting because a young woman to whom he was paying his addresses at or near Calverton seemed, when he visited her, to be always more mindful of her knitting than of his presence. He taught his brother James and others to work under him, and for two years practised his new art at Calverton. He then removed the machine to Bunhill Fields, St. Luke's, London, and Queen Elizabeth, to whose notice it had been brought by Lord Hunsdon, came to see it in action. She was, however, disappointed by the coarseness of the work, having hoped that he would make silk stockings, and refused to grant the patent of monopoly which Hunsdon asked. Lee now altered the machine, and in 1596 produced a pair of silk stockings, which he presented to the queen. But both Elizabeth and James I feared that the invention would prejudice the hand-knitters, and it was consequently discouraged. Henry IV invited Lee to settle in France, promising him great rewards. Accordingly, he, his brother, and nine workmen established themselves with as many frames at Rouen, where they carried on the manufacture of stockings with success and approbation, under the king's protection. The assassination of Henry IV and the troubles which ensued in France disappointed Lee's hopes of obtaining promised privileges; and he died of grief at Paris in or soon after 1610. Uponhis death seven of his workmen returned to England, and they, with one Aston of Calverton, who had been Lee's apprentice, laid the foundation of the manufacture in this country.

In the Stocking Weavers' Hall, Red Cross Street, London, there was formerly a picture, by Balderston, representing a man in collegiate costume in the act of pointing to an iron stocking-frame, and addressing a woman who was knitting with needles bynand. It bore this inscription: 'In the year 1589 the ingenious William Lee, A.M., of St. John's College, Cambridge, devised the profitable art for stockings (but being despised, went to France), yet of iron to himself, but to us and to others of gold; in memory of whom this is here painted.' The original picture seems to be lost. An engraving from it is in the 'Gallery of Portraits of Inventors, Discoverers, and Introducers of Useful Arts in the Museum of the Commissioners of Patents at South Kensington.'

The 'Origin of the Stocking-Loom' formed the subject of a painting by Alfred Elmore, A.R.A., exhibited in 1847 at the Royal Academy. The picture has been engraved by F. Holl.

[Cornelius Brown's Lives of Nottinghamshire Worthies, pp. 121–7; Beckmann's Hist. of Inventions (Francis and Griffith), ii. 368–76; Cat. of Gallery of Portraits of Inventors, &c., 5th edit. pp. 16–18; Deering's Nottingham, pp. 99, 303; Henson's Hist. of the Framework Knitters, i. 38–52; Hunter's Hallamshire, p. 141; Illustrated Exhibitor, p. 107; Letters written by Eminent Persons, 1813, ii. 432; Seymour's London, i. 603; Shuttleworth's Accounts, p. 1017; Thoroton's Nottinghamshire, p. 297.]

T. C.