Mary Workman: Talented Georgian Lady Kept Home Fires Burning as Siblings Strayed

by John Sharpe

This Sunday the 21st at 2 p.m., the Homestead will present a virtual talk by Museum Director Paul Spitzzeri and Workman family in England historian John Sharpe called Rescuing Remnants: The Life and Art of Mary Workman. She was the sister of Homestead founder William Workman and was a very talented amateur artist with some of her work recently donated to the museum by Jon and Elaine Krebs, descendant of Elijah H. Workman, the son of Mary’s brother David. This post by John Sharpe about Mary will, we hope, intrigue enough of you so that you’ll join us for the presentation.

Mary Workman distinguished herself from the great majority of women in 19th century England as an accomplished writer and artist, and might conceivably have qualified as a schoolteacher in somewhat different circumstances. A lifelong spinster who impressed her Victorian family’s lawyer as “a bright little lady,” she spent her early years at a comfortable village home with her parents and later with her remaining siblings.

Born on 26 June 1808 at Bowes, Yorkshire – thereby contributing to the air of mystery that surrounds so many aspects of her astonishing family story – Mary was the eighth and last child of well-travelled glazier-turned-businessman Thomas Workman of Clifton in Westmorland (now Cumbria) county and his Surrey-born wife Lucy nee Cook. Producing not only the versatile Mary but also an elder daughter who married her long-time English beau on the Missouri frontier, as well as two utterly indomitable sons who put their inimitable stamp on the early American West, the Workmans of Clifton were no ordinary English country family.

A listing for the baptism of Mary Workman at Bowes, Yorkshire, England, 26 June 1808.

Mary’s father Thomas was born into a long line of self-employed ‘yeoman’ farmers who occupied a larger than average-sized spread called Brownhow at the parish of Clifton from at least the early 17th century – and probably appreciably before that – under a feudal system of land tenure that vested ultimate authority in the lord of the manor. As eldest son, in the normal course of events he might have expected eventually to inherit his father’s estate and continue the established farming tradition, but fate decreed that his fortunes would not be as straightforward as that.

Evident unhappiness with life at Brownhow in the 1770s led twelve-year-old Thomas Workman to leave home and join his clergyman uncle William at coal-mining Earsdon near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The sudden death of doughty Thomas’s father at Clifton in 1781 did not bring the young man home, although he did inherit the substantial proceeds of sale of the family farm; and apparent alienation from his widowed mother Agnes caused him to avoid the village of his birth until after her death thirty years later – when he moved his wife and family into her house at Clifton, which he had inherited from her late brother David Harrison.

Meanwhile at Earsdon, young Thomas had become an apprentice at a prestigious glass works belonging to his clergyman uncle William’s flamboyant patron, Lord John Delaval of Seaton Delaval. This skilled occupation under an aristocratic employer with wide-ranging business interests later took him nearly 300 miles south to central London, where in 1789 he met and married Lucy Cook from Godalming in Surrey.

A portion of a transcript by the late David A. Workman of a letter from Mary to her brother and David’s great-grandfather, also David, New Year’s Day 1829.

Thomas Workman’s already eventful life altered yet again in 1794, when his well-off maternal uncle David Harrison died at Clifton and left him his village estate consisting of his own large house and several farms. Hastening north with his wife Lucy and their two young daughters to claim his Westmorland inheritance, Thomas took up residence at the prosperous village of Temple Sowerby, a few miles from Clifton but close enough to enable him conveniently to manage his Clifton properties while possibly also maintaining his glass-working interests.

Five more children were born to Thomas and Lucy Workman at Temple Sowerby before Mary was born on 26 June 1808. Surprisingly, her birthplace was not Temple Sowerby but thirty miles to the east, over the county boundary at the isolated moorland village of Bowes in Yorkshire. How this came about remains unclear, but it is possible that her father’s glass-working interests took him and his family to wind-swept Bowes. Alternatively, the Workman family may have been bound for a more distant destination when baby Mary’s imminent arrival interrupted their progress eastwards and obliged them to stop at Bowes.

The early 19th century “road” from Temple Sowerby to Bowes formed part of an ancient but still used stagecoach track first laid down near two millennia before by Roman legions moving between their garrison at York and Emperor Hadrian’s Wall north of Carlisle. Road maintenance was minimal over the boggy high moorland stretch for some miles each side of Bowes, and the dreadful surface of the track would have been a trial even for a young stagecoach passenger in the best of health, let alone a woman in her forties who might well have been heavily pregnant.

Another transscript of a letter from Mary to David, 12 September 1834.

These reflections on the possible effect of the rough track on Mrs Lucy Workman’s health are prompted by the knowledge that her eldest son Harrison, an apprentice carpenter, caught scarlet fever and died aged fifteen in June 1810 in industrial Darlington, around 20 miles farther east along the same road. Were Thomas and Lucy Workman in 1808 taking their then thirteen-year-old son to begin his apprenticeship in Darlington when an emergency arose and Lucy gave birth at Bowes or on the road nearby? Whatever the circumstances may have been, Mary had the doubtful distinction of being born some distance from Clifton.

Mary, then, was two years of age when she lost an older brother; just three years later another brother died at Clifton at the age of eight, and she was destined by the age of fourteen to see the emigration to America of two older brothers, David and William, and her eldest sister Agnes. The Workman family of eight at Clifton was down to three by 1822.

Mary remembered David and William so well and always lamented their never-ending absence from home. Touching letters that somehow defied the vast expanse of ocean and prairie between the old village of Clifton and the ever-expanding American West of Kit Carson and ‘Pathfinder’ [John C.] Fremont would be preserved over the years to display Mary’s literary prowess to great effect as well as her remarkable skill at drawing.

A transcript of a letter from Mary to David and William, 21 December 1835.

It was New Year’s Day at Clifton in 1829 when twenty-year-old Mary begged her brother David in New Franklin, Missouri, to “know by an English pen the state of your Mother’s health, and her great wish to see you all once more.” Sadly, mother Lucy’s heartfelt wish went unfulfilled for she died in October of the following year.

In the fall of 1834 the Workman family at Clifton received from New Franklin a drawing of David with his wife Nancy and their two-year-old son Thomas Harrison Workman but “not a word of intelligence how they came to England; not a word or line concerning either yourself, brother or sister! How we have groped that tin case (the Penrith mail drop) and newspapers, and one after the other giving up the fruitless search”, as Mary told David in her anguished reply to him dated September 12th 1834. She went on to tell her brother that his old master and mistress from his days as an apprentice in Penrith “ . . . came to see you and were highly gratified, drank your health and rejoiced over you . . . . his favourite apprentice, David Workman.”

Mary ended her long letter by saying, “Brother, it is now 4 years since either we have heard from you, William or Agnes. It is extremely strange. If you do not write, you will see some of us soon. We are all in the enjoyment of good health. Remaining your affectionate sister, M. Workman.”

The enumeration of the Workman family at Clifton, Westmoreland [now Cumbria], England in the 1841 census, including father Thomas and children Thomas, Lucy and Mary, along with servant Margaret Bell.

Mary followed up this despairing appeal to David with another one to William around a year later, in which she expressed the grievous sense of loss that still afflicted a family so long separated by an ocean and half a continent, as well as letting her exasperation surface:

“For the future let me entreat of you not to write such a distance to friends without tenderness. Come William, my bonny boy, you have lived in the world a little longer than I have (though you may not explore the minds of men so much as the outside of the globe), yet you cannot be without the experience that tenderness begets tenderness . . . Give us the trial another time and you will find the difference.”

The youngest Workman and the most accomplished with a pen, Mary’s remarkable facility with the English language is the more extraordinary in light of the fact that she was writing at a time when little importance was attached to the education of young women, even in families that could afford the necessary tuition fees. While there was an early 19th century school for young ladies at Appleby, around twelve miles from Clifton, Mary’s father Thomas would have learned a lot from his clergyman uncle William while he lived at Earsdon vicarage in his youth, and as a man of intelligence he would have taken a keen interest in the education of his children. But the most likely explanation for Mary’s extraordinary literary virtuosity was that she was tutored to great effect by a local clergyman who had recognised her outstanding academic potential.

A transcript of a letter from Mary to David, 3 December 1849.

Thomas Workman died at Clifton aged seventy-nine in 1843, leaving thirty-five-year-old Mary at home with her older sister Lucy and her brother Thomas. Sadly, Lucy fell ill in 1850 and she died aged fifty-seven on 30th December of that year.

Knowledge of his eldest sister Agnes’s death in Baltimore in 1848 and news of Lucy’s declining health at Clifton two years later may well have been factors in influencing their irrepressible younger brother William, by now a high-profile Gold Rush rancher in California, to embark on a truly monumental journey to see Lucy before it was too late. Probably setting off from Los Angeles in late 1850 and travelling via Vera Cruz in Mexico to New York and across the Atlantic by steamship to London, William reached his old home in England around 20th March 1851 – too late to see his sister Lucy alive but just in time to have his arrival at Clifton confirmed by the 1851 national census enumerator who called at the Workman family home by the village’s new railway bridge on 30th March.

The occupants of the Workman house that day were 42-year-old “head” Mary, her brother Thomas aged 49, and a 30-year-old servant called Margaret Bell. Though seven years younger than Thomas, she would have been in possession of her full faculties while her brother perhaps was showing signs of the mental decline that would affect him so badly in later life and lead to his confinement in the Garlands mental institution at Carlisle. Californian rancher William’s details were recorded simply as “William Workman – proprietor of land – aged 51 – born Temple Sowerby”, with the addition of a scrawled abbreviation for “Visitor.”

The listing of Mary, Thomas and their visiting brother William, along with servant Margaret Bell (also present in the enumeration of a decade prior) in the 1851 British census at Clifton.

What an emotional experience it must have been for the two brothers and their sister who gathered round the fireside in the fine old Harrison family residence which all those years earlier had been home to their parents Thomas and Lucy Workman and their eight children. And what family loyalty and strength of character had come through in Mary’s moving letters to her errant brothers so sadly missed.

How much was William able to tell Mary about his extraordinary life since leaving home at Clifton with David just a few days before her fourteenth birthday in 1822? Their saddlery business in frontier Missouri where they took on apprentice Kit Carson, and young William’s departure over the Santa Fe Trail for exotic Nuevo Mexico long before it became American territory? His perilous time as a fur trapper with America’s original Wild West pioneers, and then store owner in lawless Taos before civil insurrection and accusations of treachery in siding with neighbouring Texas in its supposed designs on New Mexico?

Did he tell Mary about his hurried desertion of New Mexico in 1841 to lead an American settler party on a two-month trek over the Old Spanish Trail and the Mojave Desert to the little Mexican pueblo de Los Angeles? His close association with the last Mexican governor of California and ownership through him of a 50,000 acre ranch and other real estate? The turmoil in California that led up to American invasion and the 1849 Gold Rush that generated so much of his own wealth as a cattle rancher?

A transcript of a letter from Mary to William, 21 January 1856, noting the funeral of their brother David a couple of months prior. At the bottom she wrote “I have a variety of moral pieces drawn for life now ready for the press,” which seems to refer to some of her art work and which were “for the uncorrupted reward, the desire of imparting good to my fellow man.”

William would have told Mary about Nicolasa Urioste of Taos and their two children Antonia Margarita and Joseph Manuel. His daughter went with him and Nicolasa over the Old Spanish Trail to California in 1841 and played a much bigger part in William’s life than his son Joseph, who went east and was shuttled for years between Taos and his uncle David in Missouri and then to his ex-Clifton aunt Agnes’s home in Baltimore, Maryland (where he ran away aged eleven in 1845, barefoot and with a burn scar on his face). Later back in Missouri, he was twenty-one when his trader uncle David reunited him at last with his father in California.

Meanwhile back at Clifton and perhaps after discussion with William, Mary made out her will in September 1851. Though much younger than her brother Thomas, she was the one who made the important decisions in the household and looked after administrative issues affecting her late father’s estate, no doubt acting in consultation with the family lawyer in Penrith. Still hoping that her emigrant brothers might one day come back for good, she provided for the house she and Thomas then occupied to go to William while David would have the house next-door.

During his few months at Clifton, William no doubt walked several hundred yards up the road more than once with Mary and Thomas to St Cuthbert’s Church, and discussed with them the fact that there was no memorial to their late parents and the four brothers and sisters who had already passed away. William commissioned a new family headstone behind the church, and Mary did a remarkable drawing of it for sending to their American relatives [the drawing is in the Homestead’s collection.]

The end of the 21 January 1856 letter added that Mary had “one spiritual piece, or rather a work” which she wanted to dedicate to William along with “your handsome portrait,” again showing her art interest.

William entertained the possibility of making another visit to Clifton, with hopes of bringing along his long neglected son Joseph from Baltimore, and correspondence in furtherance of that prospect passed between Mary and Joseph, like this letter of 1852 in which she went into ‘schoolteacher mode’ for her young nephew’s benefit:

Clifton, November 1st 1852

My dear Nephew,
I am most happy to hear from you, as also your uncle Thomas. We hope by this time you have had a letter from your father relative to his joining you to proceed forward to England. As the winter is closing in upon us, we cannot forbear thinking of him and his projected visit to us.

I am very pleased with the general tone of your letter. There is an absence of vice which is the greatest charm, and communicative, and written in a handwriting that would upon practical study be perfect; but I cannot but remark the total disregard to all grammatical arrangement of the words; it looks to me a method you have fallen into yourself without a teacher, and as we received an account of my brother engaging a teacher for you before his departure for California, he must be very inadequate to his task to inform you no better.

Mary Workman never married. She died at Clifton on December 17th 1868 and her brother Thomas died aged eighty-two in 1884. Her brothers David and William died in California and neither returned to Clifton. Her American nephew Joseph never made it to Clifton.

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