Calverton, Woodborough and Lambley

The stocking frame, from an 18th century print.
A stocking frame, from an 18th century print.

With Calverton, a few miles away, is indelibly associated the history of the invention of the stocking-loom, which has had such important industrial results.

William Lee, to whom the hosiers owe so much, was born at Calverton; and very appropriately the village where the first frame was devised is still a hosiery village. In Calverton and Woodborough, and the immediate vicinity, we may see the knitters with busy hands and skilled fingers deftly guiding the threads which make up the best of hose on the hand frames. If they are not all making stockings, they are equally busy with other articles of attire that can be woven on their looms. Thus, as hosiers, they follow the same useful occupation that their fathers and forefathers have done for generations past—probably since the time when Calverton heard with astonishment that one of its sons had invented a machine that could be made to knit stockings.

It is unfortunate that little should be known of the man who introduced to the world an invention that has had so much to do ever since with the progress and prosperity of this country. In his native village no tablet exists to commemorate his virtues, and the parish registers do not go far enough back to contain the entry of his baptism. We have to look elsewhere for such information as is obtainable; and first of all turn to Thoroton, to see what the great historian of the county has to say on the subject. Thoroton’s book was published about sixty-seven years after Lee’s death, and the historian would be able to gain his information from old people, who would be likely to know something about Lee and his family. He 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.’ The parish register of Calverton, which begins October 6, 1568, contains the entry of the baptism of four sons of a William Lee—Edward in 1574, Robert in 1577, John in 1580, and James in 1582. There is no entry of William ; but as the father is described as William Lee , the elder,’ it is tolerably certain that he had a son William Lee ‘the younger,’ who would be born before the register begins. If we assume that the four sons whose names are inscribed in the register were brothers of the inventor, it is evident he must have been very much older than they were. For on turning to that excellent authority, ‘Athenae Cantabrigiensis,’ we find that he went to Cambridge University in 1579, in which year he was entered as a sizar of Christ’s College. He subsequently removed to St. John’s College, and, as a member of that house, proceeded B.A. in 1582-3.

On designing his frame, Lee sought to enlist the aid of the great, and to receive royal patronage. But Elizabeth did not view the invention with much favour, believing that it would throw many of her subjects out of employment, and Lee felt he had no alternative but to seek in a foreign country the privileges he had been unable to secure in his own. Along with his brother and nine workmen he removed to Rouen, and set up his frames there. The French King received him graciously at Paris, and promises of support were held out to him. It happened, however, that the monarch was assassinated, and his successor feeling no interest in the invention, Lee was left in Paris with ruined hopes and empty pockets. His brother James hastened to the French capital to comfort and assist him, but ere he arrived the ingenious creator of the stocking-frame was dead and buried. Before going beyond the seas he had, according to Thoroton, trained an apprentice named Aston, for some time a miller near Bingham, and that worthy added something to his master’s invention. By degrees the frame grew into popular favour; but as late as 1611, if not later, silk loom stocking-weaving was not permitted in this country for fear of ruining the knitters. There is a letter from Sir Walter Cope in the State Papers, under date August 20, 1611, wherein he says, The English stocking-weavers, after fruitless experiments here, have gone over to Venice.’

Such were some of the disappointments of Calverton’s famous son. A troubled life and a nameless grave were the reward of his genius and industry. No one knows where his bones were buried, and his native place has no relic of him. It may be said that the shops and warehouses devoted to the production and sale of stockings are a constant memorial. The county town itself, owing its vast dimensions in a great measure to the fame of its hosiery, is a tribute to his worth. Anywhere in the vicinity of his birthplace there might aptly be inscribed the words which commemorate the great builder of St. Paul’s: ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.’ But it would not be inappropriate at the same time for some little memorial to be placed in the parish church where he must often have worshipped, and around which his friends and kindred lie buried.

The church itself has been well restored. The work was done in 1881, at a cost of about £1,200, and was carried out with a due regard to the preservation of all that is of historical interest. For Calverton is undoubtedly an ancient village, and its first church must have been erected at a very early period. At the time of the Conqueror’s survey, there was a church and a priest; and ‘here was also a manor which, before the Conquest, Ulvric had.’ The old pillars with rudely-cut capitals at the entrance to the chancel belong doubtless to the Saxon or Early Norman period; and there is dimly visible on one of them the figure of the patron saint, St. Wilfrid. In other parts of the church very old stones may be seen, and there is some quaint carving on several of them, which have been built into the tower, representing shearing, threshing, hunting, feasting, and other subjects. They are clearly of great antiquity, and interesting also, as illustrative of the dress of the period.

From Calverton to Woodborough, where a family of the name of Lee resided at the time when the hero or the stocking-frame was born, the roadway passes over a steep hill. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the name of Jebb occurs in the registers, and the family arms were on the windows of the church before the ruthless destruction attending the Civil Wars. Among those who brought honour on the name were Dr. Samuel Jebb, the editor of Aristides; Dr. John Jebb, Dean of Cashel; and Sir Richard Jebb, who became Physician in Ordinary to George III. Of the two sons of Samuel, one rose to be a judge, and the other was made Bishop of Limerick.

Holy Trinity church, Lambley.
Holy Trinity church, Lambley, is almost entirely Perpendicular in style.

Both Woodborough and Lambley, which adjoins it, are intimately connected with the hosiery trade. Lambley was once associated with the Cromwells, and possesses memorials of them to this day. A chantry chapel which stood on the north side of Lambley Church was founded in 1340 by Ralph Cromwell, and its dimensions may still be traced. Lord Treasurer Cromwell was principally instrumental in the erection of the nave and chancel—the style of architecture being that of the Perpendicular. Some fine marble slabs with their inscriptions almost obliterated are to be seen in the chancel floor, placed there to the memory of members of the family. Leland speaks of the badges of the Lord Treasurer as ‘Bagges of Purses’; and two of these curious emblems of the office of the great statesman are to be seen one on each side of the east window of Lambley Church. His lordship died in 1456, and was buried at Tattershall, where the remains of his great castle are still to be seen. By a codicil to his will, he ordered the rebuilding of the chancel at Lambley, and directed that two images should be placed upon the tombs of his father and mother, who were interred in the old edifice.