All in the Family: Mapping William Workman’s English Origins

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Born in late 1799 to Thomas Workman and Lucy Cook, on the eve of what some have called “the British century,” William Workman was raised during a time of great change in England.  Much of his youth came during the struggles the British faced against French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte and some of it was during the War of 1812 with the United States.

In remote northern England, however, the Workman family was quite prosperous, especially after William’s father inherited property from a childless aunt and uncle.  William was the fifth of eight children and his birthplace was the village of Temple Sowerby (the name is a bit ironic, given his daughter later married a man named Temple).  Today, Temple Sowerby, called by some “the queen of Westmorland [an old county designation, today it is Cumbria] villages” has a population of 528, just large enough for a church, hotel, public house, a school, and a village hall among its houses and cottages.

The name, in fact, comes from an association with the Knights Templar, as it is said that a member of the order lived in the village.  “Sowerby” is, evidently, Viking for “a homestead with poor soil.”  Later on, William Workman came upon a homestead in the eastern San Gabriel Valley with remarkably fertile soil!

Read more about Temple Sowerby here.

When William was very small, his family relocated west to the village of Clifton, which several decades before was the site of the last military engagement fought on British soil, between Bonnie Prince Charlie of Scotland and the Duke of Cumberland.  St. Cuthbert’s Church, where most of William’s family are buried, dates back to the 12th century.  Clifton was where William was largely raised and the family house remains standing, though significantly altered.

Information about Clifton is found here.

In 1817, William’s older brother, David, who was the eldest male heir, left home for America, settling eventually in Missouri, the western edge of the U.S.  The Napoleonic wars had come to an end, as had the War of 1812, and the time was right to migrate.  David then returned home in 1822 and convinced William, who was then the eldest male heir of the family, to join him in Missouri.

Later, William left for New Mexico, where he stayed over fifteen years, and then migrated to California, settling on the Rancho La Puente.  He returned home only once, in 1851 during the prosperous Gold Rush, but it seems likely that he retained close emotional ties to his homeland.

Westmorland map
This copy of a map of a portion of northern England includes William Workman’s birthplace of Temple Sowerby, highlighted at right, and his longtime residence at Clifton, highlighted at left.  Thanks to John Sharpe, a resident of Clifton, who has written and published about Workman and his family.

The map pictured here was supplied by John Sharpe, who lives in Clifton and has done considerable research and writing about the Workman family over the years.  The highlight area at the far right is Temple Sowerby, with Clifton directly west across the Whinfell Forest just above the fabulously named “Whinnyrigg” [there has got to be a great story behind that one!]

To the left beyond the confines of the map is the famed Lake District National Park (click here for more), which is England’s biggest national park, has the nation’s tallest mountain and its deepest lake, and was an inspiration for the poet William Wordsworth.

In a sense, Workman left one frontier, that of remote far northern England for another when he came to the United States and settled briefly with his brother in Missouri.  He then was an early user of the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico, a frontier of northern Mexico, before settling in southern California, another Mexican frontier area.

Using maps to show his origins and his subsequent frontier journeys is an interesting way to document and trace a remarkable life that led Workman from the small hamlet of Temple Sowerby to the growing little city of Los Angeles over the course of three quarters of the 19th century.

Check back for more on those journeys in future posts!

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