The Workman Family in England, Part Five

by John Sharpe

We turn now to the fifth part of this fascinating post on the history of the Workman family in England, which provides invaluable information and perspectives preceding the remarkable migration of the brothers David (1797-1855) and William (1799-1876) to the United States with both ultimately living in greater Los Angeles at William’s expansive half-share of the Rancho La Puente. John’s research in manorial, parish and other records in Cumbria County, with the area in which the Workmans formerly Westmorland County, takes us back centuries and this part includes important material about the brothers and their leaving their homes, as well as about their parents relocation from southern England, from where their mother hailed, to Clifton after a substantial inheritance. This, in turn, enabled Thomas and Lucy Workman to provide bequests to their sons to make their extraordinary journeys to America. Note, too, the reference to George Washington’s father, uncle and half-brothers and their local connection!

Hastening north with two small daughters to claim their sizeable inheritance, Thomas and Lucy made their home in the pleasant surroundings of Temple Sowerby, where all of their five sons were to be born over the next ten years: Harrison in 1795, then David and William, followed by Thomas in 1801 and finally John in 1805.   How revealing that choice of names and the order of preference.

Inheriting the valuable Harrison real estate made Thomas Workman an appreciable landowner, and he was evidently well able to handle the resulting responsibility.   On the question of his education, he may have attended the village school in his early years at Clifton and doubtless had learned a lot from his academically gifted uncle William at Earsdon.

Formal schooling at this time in rural Westmorland depended on parental ability to pay and was far from universal, but the area had some successful small “grammar schools”, usually run by village clergymen to supplement their income from the church.   One of the most highly regarded grammar schools in northwest England was at Appleby, less than ten miles from the Workman family estate at Brownhow.   This prestigious school was attended by many notable 18th century figures, including four members of an illustrious family from Virginia.   First US president George Washington’s father Augustine and uncle John attended Appleby Grammar School in the early years of the century, and his two half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, spent some nine years there under celebrated headmaster Richard Yates, who had a very high opinion of them both.

Thomas Workman, father of David and William, spent years in London and his wife, Lucy Cook, was from Godalming in Surrey to the southwest (see yellow highlighting at the bottom right of the map of England. The couple later went to Thomas’ home county of Westmorland at the upper left in the far northwestern part of the country, living at Temple Sowerby and Clifton.

It is possible that Thomas – and, indeed, his learned mentor, uncle William – were pupils at Appleby Grammar School, although this can only be conjecture because no 18th century class lists have survived.   However, Thomas appears to have been on very good terms with a leading Appleby citizen called the Reverend John Heelis (1764-1843), who lived in some style in the medieval Appleby castle as agent to the Earl of Thanet, as well as being a man of the cloth.   A prominent member of an old-established local family of lawyers and clergymen, he would almost certainly have been educated at the town’s famous grammar school.   John Heelis and Thomas Workman were only a matter of months apart in age, and it is tempting to think they were old school friends.    In any event, Thomas was a guest at the clergyman’s imposing home in the summer of 1812, as his note to his wife Lucy at Clifton indicates:


          I am at Rev J. Heelis’s  and am used well & you are to save at least 50 Fruits of Damsons (plums) for them & Atkinsons, there being none in the country.   Send a Shirt & Cloaths by the Mail (daily Glasgow-London mail coach) as I think I shall not be at Home for 2 or 3 w(eeks).   To be left at Mrs ………   Notice is sent to M. Birbeck.

          Daddy, Dosy, &c*

                                                                       Thos. Workman

Aug 23 1812

Mr Lumb (Robert, agent to the Earl of Lonsdale) be so good as to let my wife have 30 or 40 Pounds (a large sum at the time) & I shall call & settle as soon as I come from Appleby.   Rachael (Thomas’s sister) will be obliged to come in or you can keep yr …….”

*Children would have been Agnes (twenty-one), Lucy (nineteen), David (fifteen), William (twelve), Thomas (ten), John (seven) and Mary (four).

The hastily scribbled note says much about Thomas Workman, the well-connected businessman with an instinct for the elegant turn of phrase and the generous family man who perhaps enjoyed the occasional “bit of space.”   The letter survived because Lucy passed it on to agent Robert Lumb, who filed it with his estate papers.


A note from Thomas to Lucy, dated 23 August 1812, and the transcription of which is above.

Not long after the youngest son, John, came on the scene, the family was on the move again, this time for about thirty miles to the moorland village of Bowes in Yorkshire, just over the eastern boundary of Westmorland, where the eighth and last child, Mary, was born in June 1808.    Tragically, it was only two years later that the eldest son, Harrison, who was learning to be a carpenter, caught scarlet fever and died at the age of fifteen.  This was in the industrial town of Darlington, county Durham, an overcrowded place with most unhealthy living conditions.   The Workman family was soon back in rural Westmorland, this time settling for good at Clifton in the house inherited from David Harrison.

The year 1811 saw the demise first of Thomas’s long-widowed mother, Agnes, at Clifton and then of his uncle William, the distinguished Northumbrian clergyman.    Agnes was seventy-eight and the Reverend William some years younger.   Thomas and Lucy soon had to face the sad fact that being very young in the early 19th century was itself a serious health risk, even out in the countryside, for in February 1813 they lost their little son John, who was just seven.   Two years later, they were saddened again by the death of Thomas’s thirty-nine-year-old spinster sister Rachael, who had been living with them since their mother died.

Thomas and Lucy would soon lose other members of their family as well.    What can only have been the most earnest discussions about long-term family interests culminated dramatically in November 1814 with Thomas and Lucy selling some of their inherited real estate to make a settlement on their children.   The very large sum of £800, which would have been nearly half a lifetime’s pay for an ordinary working man, was set aside with trustees, ostensibly for the maintenance and education of all six children but ultimately to be divided equally between the three surviving sons (David, William and Thomas, by now aged seventeen, fourteen and twelve, respectively).   The arrangement was to have the most far-reaching consequences.

The church at Temple Sowerby where David and William were baptized.

David would have just passed his fourteenth birthday when the family moved to Clifton, and it was probably at that time that he began his apprenticeship with a tradesman in Penrith, three miles away.    Even if he lived with his kindly employer, who would always remember him as his “favourite apprentice,” he would often have walked that muddy track into town with only his thoughts for company for the hour or so it took.

He probably realized that his home life differed rather significantly from most of his contemporaries’ lives at sleepy old Clifton.    His parents’ house, with its large garden and coach-house with stable, was grander than most of the other properties strung out along the single main street of the village.    He would have heard about his father’s early life on the family estate at Brownhow and about the events that had taken him as a youth across the country to Northumberland and then down to London, the far-off city that was beyond the experience, perhaps even the imagination, of most of the worthy people of Clifton – and for a northerner to have parents who married in the capital was surely the preserve of the aristocracy.

The aristocracy itself was personified in some style by Sir William Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale, lord of the manor of Clifton and many other places as well, and the largest landowner in northwest England.    The latest of a resilient and resourceful line dating back to the early Middle Ages, the earl owed his 1807 elevation to the peerage to great wealth and political connections at the highest level in the land.  By authority inherited from his notorious electioneering predecessor at Lowther, he had the power to fill nine seats in the House of Commons, second only to the Duke of Norfolk with eleven.   The right to vote depended on ownership of property.  Though the nature of the earl’s regime was paternalistic rather than oppressive, any doubts among the local populace as to its permanence would have been dispelled by the sight of the vast Gothic castle that dominated the skyline not three miles south of Clifton.  Completed in 1814 and run by dozens of domestic staff, the palatial residence was Earl William’s public proclamation of his personal power and prestige.    It was there to stay, like the social order it represented.

A map of Clifton and parcels of land, including three owned by Thomas Workman (#s 47 at center right, and 170-171 at lower center left.

David might have thought about unhappy neighbours, like John Noble.  John had arrived at Clifton in 1803 as a young man with cash to spare, but by 1818 his money and his luck had run out.   A tenant farmer working land owned by the earl and not long married, with two small children, he complained to the earl that he was near starvation, blaming mildewed crops after all the rain that deluged England that spring of 1818 and exorbitant land charges imposed by Robert Lumb.   With his duty to maximize his lordship’s income from the land, agent Lumb was unlikely to be a popular figure, although the Workman family got on well enough with him; indeed, he acted as a sort of banker for them when ready cash was needed and he was one of the two trustees who had put their names to the family settlement document.   David Workman was destined not to hear the outcome of John Noble’s story, for he would be far from Clifton when John was rescued from his plight by the all-powerful Earl of Lonsdale himself and given a job elsewhere.

David was nearly twenty-one years of age.    Whatever his feelings about his comfortable village home or the employer who held him in such high regard, and however affected he was by the family bereavements he had seen or outside influences like the patently iniquitous political system and prevailing social structure, there was something in his make-up that would not let him settle for a future as a Penrith tradesman.   In spite of an ancestry firmly rooted in the land, his father had followed in the footsteps of that enterprising uncle William to leave home when he was much younger than David, and his return to Clifton in middle age had brought him full-circle, with little prospect of further progress.    Thomas’s frustrated instincts for adventure surely found expression in the aspirations of his offspring, such that he was ready to finance their ambitions from the proceeds of his own good fortune.

On July 18th 1818, David persuaded his parents to unlock the family trust fund and advance him £100.   This was well short of his full share of the trustees’ £800 but still a tidy sum for a young man and quite enough to send him on his way to the busy seaport of Liverpool, with his mind set firmly on the New World.  

Beginning his extraordinary adventure with a day’s journey by stagecoach from Penrith through the Lake District to Whitehaven, David would have taken ship for the eighty-mile overnight trip down the west coast to the growing emigrant port of Liverpool.     There, he would have paid no more than £10 for his three-thousand-mile Atlantic crossing, with no need for a passport or any other documentation. 

A portion of the will of Thomas Workman, dated 22 December 1814. A separate bequest of 800 pounds, a substantial sum, was set aside for three surviving sons (two others having died in childhood): David, William and Thomas. The first two took their money to America, while Thomas remained in England, though he was institutionalized before his death in 1884, being the last of his family line.

David survived his storm-tossed weeks at sea to make his transatlantic landfall amid the bustle of New York’s waterfront before moving on west, far west to the little settlement of Franklin in the new territory of Missouri, where he went into business as a saddler with a partner called John Nanson.    There is some evidence that Nanson was a Penrith man with family connections in the saddlery business, and that he accompanied David on that epic journey from England to Missouri.

The Missouri that David found in the year 1819 was on the western frontier of the United States, and Franklin was at the end of the trail up the Missouri River, two hundred miles above its confluence with the Mississippi in St Louis.    To the west lay the Indian country of the Great Plains, and beyond that were the unfriendly northern provinces of New Spain [Editor’s note— the Spanish did not permit outside contact with the northern departments of Mexico, then on the verge of independence from Spain after a decade-long brutal war.]

David had not long left Clifton when he was followed by another remarkable Workman, his twenty-seven-year-old sister Agnes.    Having endured her Atlantic crossing under sail to land at Philadelphia on August 23rd 1820, the spirited Agnes moved on to Baltimore and married life as Mrs John Vickers. [Editor’s note—Agnes died there on 26 June 1848 and housed her brother William’s son José or Joseph for several years, presumably for better educational advantages than he could receive in Mexican California.]

By June 1821 David had dissolved his business partnership with John Nanson and frontier Missouri had seen a couple of lean years, but things were looking up and people with capital were best placed to take advantage of new business opportunities that beckoned.   Not quite twenty-four years of age, and not about to give up on his American adventure, David knew where the cash was to be found – and probably a fresh partner as well.   He knew what he had to do, daunting prospect though it was.

A map of Clifton from the 1850s about the time that William made his only return home after making substantial sums selling cattle for beef in California during the Gold Rush. At the upper left is the location of the Workman family residence, which still stands today. The thick line running from center right to upper left is the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway line, which opened in 1846, through town.

By the spring of 1822 David had retraced his steps of four years earlier and was back home at Clifton, where on June 3rd he signed a receipt for a cash advance of 166 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence in full settlement of his one-third share of the £800 trust fund.    This was not all the intrepid David collected at Clifton, for on the same day his twenty-two-year-old brother William drew his full share of that generous fund, an astonishing 266 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence (in the old English currency, there were twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound; to fix a modern equivalent it is necessary to multiply by at least eighty, so David and William Workman had a very large amount of cash, indeed an unheard of sum at the time for young villagers of Clifton).

Emotions must have run high in the close, but dwindling, Workman household that early summer day in 1822 when the dynamic young brothers left home for the New World.   They were two of the fifty-three passengers who disembarked from the four-hundred-ton ‘Liverpool Packet’ in Philadelphia on September 3rd 1822, with all that cash, a trunk, a box of wearing apparel (as the ship’s manifest put it), a box of carpenter’s tools, bed and bedding.

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