The Workman Family in England, Part Two

by John Sharpe

This second part of a post on the origins of the family of the brothers David and William Workman, who left their native England for the United States in the late 1810s and early 1820s, helps us to understand not just the known background of the family in the remote northern extremity of the country, but the means by which the brothers were able to migrate to America. (You can read part one here.) The beginnings of John Sharpe’s assiduous and astute research in the mid-1990s came at the time that Donald E. Rowland, a descendant of the Workman, Temple and Rowland families, and the Homestead’s Museum Director Paul R. Spitzzeri were completing their manuscripts that led to Don’s 1999 book on John Rowland and William Workman and Paul’s 2008 book on the Workman and Temple families. This trifecta was long overdue and we’re pleased to have John summarize much of his findings—in fact, the next part of this post will include John’s further discussions on Workman family history as well as how we came to embark on this adventure, one of several he has taken on the regional history of Cumbria County in the last quarter century. So, enjoy and check back in with us next Thursday for part three!

Strange things began to happen in the Workman household not long after the death of infant John Harrison. Early in 1774, just over an acre of land near Brownhow came into Workman hands for the sum of £47 – at least a year’s pay for an ordinary working man. Thanks to Sir James Lowther’s manorial records, we know that officially the purchaser was not Thomas Workman, Sr., but his son Thomas, Jr., who was just ten years old at the time! Five years later, in April 1779, fifteen-year-old Thomas’s name went in the manorial records as the buyer of more land near Brownhow for £19. By this time, young Thomas had left home to live with his clergyman uncle William at the village of Earsdon near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In pondering possible reasons for these two unusual land transactions in light of subsequent events, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the first could have been intended as an “anchor” for a little boy who already wanted to leave home, while the second might have been an inducement to the lad to come back to his family.

Just as puzzling is the fact that the elder Thomas seems to have left Brownhow around 1780, not long before his death at the age of forty-eight in February 1781, and his teenage daughter Agnes went off to Keswick. Young Thomas at Earsdon was enrolled in the Clifton manorial records as proprietor of Brownhow after the untimely death of his father, but this did not bring him home to take over the long-held family estate, and indeed he eventually moved south to London.

0819150 Workman Family Home Clifton England
An early undated photograph of the Workman family home at Clifton. The residence, divided into two units, includes a bed and breakfast at the portion at the right.

Thomas and Agnes Workman’s younger daughter Rachael stayed on at Clifton and was on hand when her mother died in 1811, to arrange for the old lady’s tortured epitaph in the village churchyard:

Sacred to the Memory
Of Agnes Workman of Clifton
Sister to the late David Harrison
Of Clifton, she died July 31st 1811,
Aged 78 Years.
A Life of Grief Unknown to Bounteous Fair,
Til Death Releav’d my Agonizing Prayer,
With Future Hopes my Soul in Silence rest,
To Rise again and be a Heavenly Guest.
Sweet is the Day of Sacred Rest,
No Mortal Cares shall Seise my Breast.
O may I wake with Sweet Surprise
And in my Saviour’s Image Rise.
This Stone was Erected by her
Daughter Rachael Workman

What a monument to suffering! Agnes had seen her infant son John Harrison die in 1772 – the first of several instances of Workman bad luck in naming a child after the well-off family that would bring them such good fortune in other ways. As if that had not been bad enough, her only other son and her elder daughter had left home in their teens, and her husband of nearly twenty years had gone to an early grave, yet her poignant memorial by the door of St Cuthbert’s church preserved in stone the desperate truth that, to the last, this “sister to the late David Harrison” could not bear to be remembered as the wife of Thomas Workman.

The mystery deepens with discovery that this forty-eight-year-old man of means, a churchwarden and pillar of the community, died intestate; that is, without a will. Unquestionably, yeoman Thomas, like his landowning forebears at Brownhow (who generally reached their “three score years and ten”) would have seen it as his bounden duty to formalize his last wishes for his substantial inherited estate, had he thought the end was nigh. His death, then, must have been sudden and unexpected. Then it turns out that Thomas must have left Brownhow around the year 1780, and the indications are that he was not living at Clifton when he died soon afterwards but in the neighbouring parish of Brougham (although he was buried at Clifton on February 5th 1781).

St Cuthberts Church Clifton England
St. Cuthbert’s Church in Clifton, home of the Workman family and where many of them are buried in the yard surrounding the stone church, the earliest portion of which, the chancel, dates to the 13th century, although a previous church was on the site. The photo was taken in 1997 by the late Bill and Claire Stone, long-time Homestead volunteers.

We have to conclude that Brownhow was not a happy home by the 1770s. The death of an infant and the departure of two older children (neither of whom were to be remembered in Agnes’s will of 1810) must have been awful for a mother, but even these distressing events surely could not account for the overwhelming sense of remorse that permeates poor Agnes’s heart-rending epitaph. Could her “life of grief”and “agonizing prayer” really have been brought about by the death of a long-gone spouse who did not even rate a mention on her headstone? Surely not – unless perhaps the manner of his passing preyed desperately on her mind for the thirty years she was destined to survive him.

Did Agnes Workman start to lose her reason at some point – perhaps with the death of her infant son John Harrison in 1772? If so, perhaps she got worse after daughter Rachael was born, when she would have been well over forty years of age. Did things reach the stage where Agnes and Thomas found it impossible to live under the same roof, particularly when their only surviving son Thomas left home? Was young Thomas driven out by parental strife? Did father Thomas seek solace elsewhere? Did Agnes blame him for all her woes? Did she carry to her grave some dreadful secret about the sudden demise of an errant husband?

Whatever the truth of Brownhow’s 18th century torment, it was surely a turning-point in Workman family fortunes. If indeed domestic distress at the old homestead denied young Thomas Workman (and his sister Agnes) a contented childhood there and drove Thomas to seek sanctuary among a growing number of cousins in a Northumbrian vicarage, the harrowing experience must also have bolstered the young man’s self-reliance and honed his sense of adventure. It may also have moved his influential uncle David Harrison to take an even keener interest in his nephew’s welfare than he might otherwise have done. Then again, these sad events of 1779-1781 that presaged the end of decades of Workman prosperity on the land at Clifton would inevitably impel this energetic family to find another outlet for its remarkable talents elsewhere.

St Cuthberts Church Clifton England
Another view taken by the Stones of the picturesque church and gravestones scattered about the yard.

The Workman family’s fortunes had long been bound up with Brownhow and its seventy-odd acres – a sizeable spread by contemporary standards – that straddled the boundary in open countryside between the parishes of Clifton and Lowther; and Brownhow in turn depended on the patronage of generations of the all-powerful Lowthers at their ancient country seat just two miles away. While it is natural to wonder when a Workman ancestor first appeared there, all that can be said with certainty is that the earliest documentary evidence of the family at the farm was on October 18th 1643, when Thomas Workman, son of Christopher of Brownhow, married Elizabeth Martin at St Andrew’s Church in Penrith.

Parish records for Clifton start in the mid-17th century, but the Workman (or Warkman) surname occurs in the records of neighbouring Lowther right back to 1540, when such record-keeping first began at the behest of Henry VIII after the dissolution of the monasteries. It is interesting also that the Christian name shown against Workman births, marriages and deaths in the Lowther church record between 1540 and 1640 is often Christopher or Hugh, which tended to be favoured Lowther family names that contrasted with the more usual working class Thomas, John, William and so on. Although it is not possible now to construct any kind of family tree from the available detail, it seems that at least one early 16th century Workman/Warkman family in Lowther parish enjoyed a degree of affinity with the aristocratic family of that name.

Until the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603, north Westmorland could be a troubled area that would see the occasional devastating incursion from over the Border just thirty miles away. Among the upper classes like the Lowthers and the Whartons of Kirkby Stephen to the south, a readiness to take up arms in defence of the realm was the surest avenue to advancement, while the nobility in turn relied on the loyal support of the lower orders and might be minded to reward those who rose to the occasion.

0819177 Workman Home Clifton England 2000.217.1.18
A circa 1910 image of the Workman House.

It is more than likely that Lowther appreciation of services rendered secured some early Workman his substantial home and acreage at Brownhow, and it is natural to wonder when the family association might have begun. The Metcalfes of Wensleydale in neighbouring Yorkshire really made their mark when James of that ilk joined Lord Scrope of nearby Bolton Castle in the army of Henry V and was at Agincourt in 1415. This won him land on which the ambitious Metcalfe clan built castellated Nappa Hall that would be their country seat for the next three centuries. Brownhow’s Workman family of yeoman farmers produced more than their share of adventurers and entrepreneurs, and it would not be surprising if there was a stalwart Workman or two with the three Lowthers who joined England’s finest on the Hampshire coast in August 1415 for Henry V’s momentous campaign against the French.

Back on firmer historical ground with the monumental Lowther Archive at Carlisle, we find that young Thomas Workman was just past his twenty-first birthday in London when he authorised David Harrison to put Brownhow up for sale by public auction in February 1785. Whatever the nature of his relationship with his tormented mother, the much-travelled young man had made a lasting impression on her brother David, who married twice but did not have any children. In his will he left his wife and his widowed sister Agnes life interest in some of his Clifton properties, but the main beneficiary was Agnes’ only surviving son, Thomas. David Harrison died aged 70 on January 24th 1794 and his widow passed on six years later. On the death of his sister Agnes in July 1811, all the old Harrison real estate at Clifton came into the full possession of her son Thomas, who then moved with his wife Lucy and their seven children into the large house that had been the home of David Harrison.

Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 came just months after the end of the American War of 1812, bringing peace to both sides of the Atlantic for the first time in years. Thomas Workman had a cousin in the Liverpool area who would have been familiar with the resurgence of American traffic through the port and might have acted as a springboard in 1818 for Thomas and Lucy’s son David as the young man embarked on an extraordinary adventure that would try his own endurance to its limits and thrust the Workman saga on to a far grander canvas than before.

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