William H. Workman and His Visit to England, 1912

John Sharpe is a resident of Clifton, England, where William Workman spent most of his youth and from where he migrated to America in 1822 in company with his older brother, David, who’d gone to the U.S. four years earlier and settled in central Missouri.  John took a special interest in the Workman brothers and spent years scouring archival records in Cumbria (formerly Westmorland) County, unearthing a wealth of material about them and their family.  Without his assiduous research skills and remarkable ability to craft a narrative, we’d only have the barest of outlines about the Workman family in England.

John has been very generous in sharing the results of his in-depth research and has published a book, The Workman Brothers: English Pioneers of the American West (2013), as well as several articles on this subject, including some for the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald newspaper.  His latest work to appear in that paper was just published on Saturday and concerns the visit to Clifton of David Workman’s son, William Henry Workman, the subject of a post on this blog last week on the centennial of his death.

Here is John’s article in the Herald, with thanks to him and the newspaper’s publisher for permission to reprint the work (incidentally, Penrith is a larger town near Clifton, where the paper is published):


WHAT POSSIBLE LINK could old Penrith have with Los Angeles, America’s second biggest city, that phenomenal urban sprawl half a world away by the Pacific shore in sunny California; home of Hollywood and the world’s show business capital?   But there on the street map is Penrith Drive in LA’s inner city district of Boyle Heights – along with nearby Clifton Street and Workman Street.                                   

It was all down to an influential American who passed away in his home city a century ago, in February 1918, the very embodiment of his young nation’s “can do” pioneer spirit.   Despite his success in business and public life in burgeoning California, he never forgot his family origins in England’s far-off Eden Valley.  

William Henry Workman was born at Boonville, Missouri, on 1st January 1839, youngest of three sons of frontier trader David Workman and his wife Nancy.  Early in 1854, as the Plains Indian Wars loomed and Civil War storm clouds gathered over Missouri, Westmorland-born pioneer David set out to move his family west to gold-rush California, where his enterprising brother William had acquired a vast ranch near Los Angeles in the 1840s when California was still a province of Mexico.

WH Workman dag 1854
A daguerreotype photograph of William Henry Workman, taken in 1854 before he and his family left central Missouri to come to live with his uncle and aunt, William and Nicolasa Workman, at the Homestead.

That 2,000-mile trek by wagon train over Indian country of the Great Plains and the mountains and deserts of the California Trail to Sacramento, followed by 400 miles by sea down the Pacific coast to Los Angeles, took six months and left indelible memories for fifteen-year-old William Henry, who wrote about it fifty years later.

 Robbed of their food by hungry Sioux and Cheyenne on the prairies of Nebraska, the Workman party re-stocked at Fort Laramie in Wyoming and met legendary Mormon prophet Brigham Young, who wanted them to stay on in Salt Lake City.  Hundreds of miles of barren desert in Utah and Nevada had been followed by formidable obstacles amid the Sierra Nevada’s forests and rocks, where there was no time to lose before winter snow closed the high passes into California.    

 The Workman family had been living at Rancho La Puente near the tough little cow town of Los Angeles for less than a year when 57-year-old father David died in a tragic accident in the goldfields. Though he had often been away from his Missouri base on trading expeditions that took him right across the continent and even over the Chihuahua Trail down into Mexico, he had left young William Henry with a lifelong ambition to visit Penrith in England and see the old Workman home at nearby Clifton.

WH Workman 1870s
Workman in the 1870s.

William Henry worked as a Los Angeles newspaper printer before joining his energetic older brother Elijah in the family saddlery business in 1860.  Tragedy struck again three years later when their 30-year-old brother Thomas was killed in a steamship explosion in nearby Wilmington harbour.

William Henry Workman was twenty-eight when he married Maria Elizabeth Boyle from New Orleans in 1867 and inherited extensive landholdings from her wealthy father.  He served several terms on the Los Angeles City Council in the 1870s and founded the residential area of Boyle Heights in 1876.  He also ran a successful real estate office and was president of the American Savings Bank.

William Henry was Mayor of Los Angeles in the years 1887 and 1888, in the period known as the “Boom of the 80s”, when several public parks were laid out and a new city hall was built.  New railroads from San Francisco and Chicago reached Los Angeles, and at nearly 50,000 the city’s population by 1890 was five times what it had been in 1880. By 1904 it was nearly 200,000, despite a chronic water shortage.

WH Workman 1880s
Workman about the time he was mayor of Los Angeles in 1887-1888.

 As city treasurer from 1901 to 1907, William Henry Workman was concerned with transfer of the municipal water supply from private to public ownership, and he initiated the financial planning for the early stages of the monumental LA Aqueduct Project.  This would bring Owens river water 250 miles into Los Angeles from the Sierra Nevada mountains by November 1913, setting the stage for the rise of the motion picture industry and the city’s most phenomenal growth.

Having inherited the insatiable Workman appetite for travel, William Henry was 73 years of age when he left Los Angeles by transcontinental train for New York in June 1912 with his wife and daughter Mary Julia, and crossed the Atlantic for a fabulous three-month tour that would take in Paris, Lucerne and London.  But, as William Henry said in a graphic account of their European experiences, “the chief objective of my trip was to see the early home of my father.”

Taking the train from London to Penrith, they met the old Workman family solicitor, Mr Fairer, who accompanied them to Clifton.   In the village churchyard they saw the graves of William Henry’s grandparents and other English forebears, before walking over the railway bridge to the old Workman family home, then occupied by the agent to the Earl of Lonsdale, where they were well received by the lady of the house.   

WH Workman ca 1900s
Workman during his tenure as Los Angeles city treasurer, ca. 1901-1907.

Deeply moved, William Henry “roamed about the old place and felt that one great desire of my life, to see my father’s birthplace, had been gratified.”   It was fifty-seven years since he had seen his father David alive, just months after they crossed the plains from Missouri to California, and over ninety years since 21-year-old David had left home at Clifton in 1818 on his great American adventure.

 A distinguished and towering presence, William Henry Workman was a remarkable man of culture and intellect who remained active until his death in Los Angeles aged seventy-nine on 21st February 1918.

This summer, we’ll look to publish a post prepared by John and telling how David and William Workman received the financial windfall that enabled them to make the journey to America some two hundred years ago.

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