Stockings run in our family

Family legend tells us that way back when, a member of our family invented the lockstitch. Well, that would be quite a claim. It seems that the lockstitch made the sewing machine a reality around the world. They say that the inventor of the lockstitch invented the sewing machine without knowing it. Could our grandmother’s grandfather William Brown (our great-great-grandfather) be part of the story?

Could our grandmother’s grandfather William Brown (our great-great-grandfather) be part of the story?

What we do know about William is that he walked for four days all the way from Nottingham to London as a young man, never to return. What was he escaping from? What prospects did London hold that Nottingham lacked? After all, wasn’t it at the centre of the industrial revolution?

William Brown (born in May 1838) came from Radford in Nottinghamshire. His father James Brown was in the business of silk-stocking manufacture. If you were a silk-stocking maker at this time, production would have involved the whole family.

Far from being an unusual trade, the manufacture of hosiery was widespread throughout Nottingham at the time of William’s birth. By the end of the 17th century it was recorded that ‘the manufacture of the town mostly consists in weaving of stockings’. By the first decade of the 19th century there were around thirty thousand knitting frames at work in England, of which 9,000 were in Nottinghamshire. At the centre of the domestic operation was the stocking frame, a hand-operated device about the size of an upright piano that was used to produce stockings, hose and various small items such as hats, gloves and scarves.

Stocking frame at Ruddington Framework Knitters’ Museum

Good light was essential to the stocking frame operator, so James Brown would have set up his frame in a special room (frame shop) at the top of the house with an extra-wide window. In order to make enough money to pay for the rent of the stocking frame, the silk materials and feed the family, the working hours would have extended well into darkness. Candlelight would have been amplified using nitric acid in water underneath the candles. It would have been a family operation with James Brown’s wife producing the yarn, and as William grew up, he would have been responsible for warming the stocking frame by placing candles underneath it early in the morning (about 5 a.m.).

Making ends meet

This was far from being a domestic idyll. Framework knitters were finding it hard to make ends meet. There was increasing competition from overseas, and compromises in quality of materials being produced as merchants sought to secure ever greater profits.  During the Napoleonic wars many of the framework knitters were drafted into battle, leaving a shortage of trained craftsmen. To fill the void, a large number of less skills agricultural workers were brought in and were able to operate wide frames that invariably produced inferior quality materials. Men’s fashion had changed dramatically during the period 1800 to 1850 to devastating effect in the knitting industry. Men no longer wore stockings and breaches – trousers were becoming the fashionable form of dress for men.

John Clark of Nottingham, giving evidence in 1845 stated he paid out 1s 3d for frame rent and standing (for the frame) and 3d for needles. These outgoings consumed earnings from two days of his weekly labour.

Luddites Close to Home

Just 30 years before William’s birth on the very same row of houses (Parsons Flatt) one of the instigators of the Luddite revolt (1817), William Towle assembled a Luddite gang to go about breaking stocking frames. In their attack they destroyed 55 frames in a lace mill in neighbouring Loughborough. A guard was also shot and wounded. In the trial of William Towle at Leicester Assizes he was condemned to death and was hanged on 20 November 1816.

But William’s father was no Luddite. It could be said that he embraced mechanisation wholeheartedly and was keen to experiment with loom design. So maybe that’s where our apocryphal connection with ‘lockstitch’ invention comes in. Rooting around to find out the origins of the lockstitch I was amazed to discover that its invention is largely attributed to the patent of John Fisher and James Gibbons from Carrington in Nottingham on 7 December 1844. This was just 2 miles away from where William Brown was born just six years previously. Fisher’s invention involved an unusual stitch that today is known as the double loop chain stitch (or ‘Grover and Baker knotted’). It has widely been commented that “Fisher & Gibbons invented a sewing machine without knowing it”, combining a needle with a shuttle for the purpose of uniting two fabrics, by means of two threads locked together so as to produce a lasting stitch. But the patent was concerned only with the embroidering of materials, so did not grasp the full application that would eventually transform the sewing machine industry around the world. Exactly where our family involvement occurred will remain a mystery. Perhaps some of the ideas were taken from frame makers working from their own homesteads and sharing them with ‘bag hosiers’ when they collected the frame rents?

In search of better things

So we have the young William Brown at the age of sixteen, standing at the threshold of his family’s home. The home that had become his prison, as the family increasingly struggled to make ends meet. Paying for the rent of the stocking frame was exorbitant. There was an oversupply of frames, a diminishing demand for silk stockings and yet the ‘bag hosier’ was still able to collect their money.  If he was to continue the family tradition of stocking making it would simply add to the renting costs of yet another frame. At the age of about seventeen he stepped out of the door and walked and walked and walked… until he arrived in London. No longer would he be a pauper. He would apply his new found knowledge in automated stitching. The future was the sewing machine.

William Brown circa 1870. Ambrotype photograaph.

By 1871 he was established as an engine fitter in Bermondsey and had married Amelia. Ten years later he had two young daughters, Marie Anne Mathilda (later to become our great-grandmother Marie Anne Finch) and Louise Knight (nee Brown). By the turn-of-the-century he had established himself as a sewing machine maker. It was a tradition that was to carry on down to his son William Richard Brown who was born in 1876..

It seems that the industrial revolution did not free men. It imprisoned them and their families as paupers. Only the ‘bag hosiers’ became rich, forcing the framework knitters into ever decreasing spirals of family poverty. William Brown was simply escaping from a system of entrapment – the industrial revolution that was anything but a revolution. As for the lockstitch, we can say that William was born only a stone’s throw away from where it all began in the county of Nottinghamshire.

William Brown 1911. Colourized photo

I would highly recommend the article Framework Knitters by Denise Amos that documents the plight of the Framework Knitters at the time of William’s birth.

Links related to this story

Grace’s guide to British industrial history – John Fisher of Nottingham

James Towle of Nottingham, University of Nottingham special collection

Knitting Together – 19th century fashions

The Framework Knitters 1821

A Brief History of Hosiery and Lacemaking in Nottingham

Framework Knitters

Operating a Lee Type Frame – Handframe Knitting

Watercolour portraits

Watercolour Portrait of William Brown from Ambrotype Photo circa 1870
Watercolour portrait of William Brown from 1911 photo

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