This site will be dedicated to the furthering and sharing of knowledge of the origins and history of the Knees.
Kneebone (Cornish) , LeKne, O’Niah, McNee or Ne (Irish), Nee, Ney. See also French and German pages on this site.
Origin of the surname
My research suggests that the name may come from one of the skills associated with the process of Weaving, that of the Knee Carder, an early stage in the process of preparing wool for spinning and weaving by dragging it across toothed cards, with use of the knee to facilitate this process.
A 17th century poem by Richard Watts of Shepton Mallet names all the different jobs to do with cloth-making.
At first the Parter that doth neatly cull
The finer from the coarser sort of wool.
The Dyer then in order next doth stand,
With sweating brow, and a laborious hand.
With oil they then asperge it, which, being done,
The skilful hand of Mixers round it run.
The Stock-carder his arms doth hard employ…
Then the Knee-carder doth (without control)
Convert it to a lesser roll.
Which done the Spinster doth in hand it take,
And of two hundred rolls one thread doth make.
The Weaver next doth warp and weave the chain.
…and cries, come boy, with quills.
Being filled, the Brayer doth it mundify,
From oil and dirt that in the same doth lie.
The Burler then (yea, thousands in this place),
The thick-set weed with nimble hand doth case…
The Fuller then close by his stock doth stand,
And will not once shake Morpheus by the hand.
The Rover next his arms lifts up on high
And near him sings the Shearman merrily.
The Drawer last, that many faults doth hide,
(Whom Merchant nor the Weaver can abide),
Yet he is one in most cloths stops more holes
Than there be stairs to the top of Paul’s.
cull= separate out
mundify = purify
asperge = sprinkle
quill=a piece of hollow reed round which the weft (weaving thread) was wound.
Morpheus=god of sleep
Carder=someone who uses two cards (pieces of wood with metal teeth sticking out) which untangle the wool into a roll of fibres lying in the same direction.
Burler= someone who picked out moved tiny bits of twig, seed, grass etc still caught in the cloth
Rover= someone who draws out and slightly twists the fibres to make a ‘rove’.
Brayer(or scourer) = someone who cleans the newly woven cloth to get rid of oil and dirt.
Fuller= fulling was beating the wet cloth to shrink it and make it thicker. It used to be done by stamping on it, but later it was done with big hammers, powered by a water-wheel.
The cloth was ‘raised’ by brushing it with teasels which raised a ‘nap’.
Shearman = a skilled person who used big shears to cut off the unwanted nap from the cloth, making it smooth.
warp. = the arrangement of strong twisted threads hanging down from the warp-beam or roller. The weaver had to weave thinner threads (called weft) in and out of the warp. It was sometimes called a chain.
Bromham, as we know, was the cradle of the Knees. Bromham was a centre of one of the chief areas of the English Cloth Industry, in Western Wiltshire. The origins of this industry can be traced back to Beaker Folk (the builders of nearby Stonehenge and Avebury) and the Iron Age (see above link). The Wiltshire Downs were perfect for grazing sheep and the basin of the River Avon to the west, a source of water.
The most numerous names that spring from the BMD data from the parish records in Bromham are Webb, Hobbs, Knee and Chandler. Webb comes from Webbe a male weaver, Knee probably from the carding process. The relevance of the origin of Hobbs (Celtic priest or son of Robert) is less clear but Chandlers supplied candles and light, which for the weavers tied to ruthless contracts, would have been an essential. A 1723 will for a Benjamin Knee of Chittoe lists him as a Broad Loom weaver. The cloth industry collapsed in the 17th century as I describe elsewhere, and much of the village population had to find work in other weaving areas or adapt to a life of farming and small holding.
The name is has two other possible derivations. Cneo is a medieval term for knee and the name could have stemmed from a nickname for odd shaped knees. Alternatively (or additionally) the name comes from a knee shaped piece of land or a bend in a river. Peter Knee established that the ‘cradle’ of the Knees was Bromham in Wiltshire.
I have to mention Niall Glundubh (Neill Black Knee d 919) High King of Ireland 916-919 (and from this the family name O’Neill) as a counterpoint to the simple origins of Knees as Wiltshire Weavers. There is also a substantial tribe of US K nees derived from Philip Herman Knie who emigrated from Westphalia to Pennsylvania changing the name to Knee.
• Fred Knee (1868–1914), a printer by trade from Frome in Somerset, who became the first secretary of the London Labour Party in 1914 (to be succeeded by Herbert Morrison) and who once shared a stage with Trotsky.
• William Knee who established a Removal firm in Bristol in 1839 and who designed a purpose built removal vehicle – the pantechnicon.
Frequency of the name
From the British Surnames data base:
492 (current) 0.001%
463 (1881) 0.002%
Distribution of the name
In 1881 and in the present day the name is found predominately in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.
Also in the USA today (probably originating from migration in the 19th Century) the numbers are 3038 or 0.001% and Australia (probably from deportation in the 17th,18th and 19th Centuries) 164 or 0.001%
Please refer to:
Knee: Wooden support brace used to strengthen the location where two timbers were joined or crossing. Rising knees supported the connection of deck beams to the hull or frame from above or below, lodging knees strengthened them laterally (sideways). See also crutch and stemson.