Thomas Workman (1763-1843): Well-Connected Glazier Who Turned Family Disaster Into Spectacular Success

by John Sharpe

We are very happy to have John Sharpe, local historian and resident of Clifton, England, the home of William Workman during most of his early years, contribute another well-researched and excellently written post on the story of the Workman family in that area. This time, John looks at the life of William’s father, Thomas, and how tragedy was transformed into success for himself and his family, including his two sons, David and William, and daughter, Agnes, who migrated to the United States between 1818 and 1822. Because this is the bicentennial of William’s move, joining David, to America, this is an especially timely post from John.

George III was King of England from 1760 to 1820.   That long reign set the stage for Britain’s emergence as a military superpower and an industrial colossus that belied the nation’s modest size.   It also spanned events leading up to an enterprise that would take two intrepid brothers from the little green fields of an old English village to the vast plains and deserts of the early American West – and produce a mayor of Los Angeles and a Hollywood star of the silent screen—while their equally feisty sister settled in Baltimore.   

The three Workman emigrants came from a long line of successful farmers at Clifton in north-west England some three hundred miles from London and thirty miles south of the Scottish border.   The family’s fortunes had long been bound up with Clifton’s sizeable Brownhow farm which depended for its existence on the patronage of the aristocratic Lowther family at their ancient country seat just two miles away.   The astute Workmans always enjoyed a close association with the all-powerful Lowthers.

Insurmountable setbacks at Brownhow in the 1770s presaged the end of centuries of Workman prosperity on the land at Clifton and impelled this enterprising family to find another outlet for its remarkable talents elsewhere.   The lynchpin of this seismic change of direction was a teenage boy who would be the father of the three US emigrants.                                                        

Born in December 1763 at Brownhow, Clifton, young Thomas Workman was the eldest of four children of a yeoman farmer, also named Thomas, whose wife Agnes Harrison came from a leading local family of lawyers and landowners, and his future should have been assured as heir to a substantial landholding.   But fate had something very different in store.

First-born Thomas was followed by a sister Agnes in 1767 and then by a brother John Harrison who lived only a few days in February 1772.   Thomas and Agnes Workman’s fourth and last child was Rachael in March 1776, by which time there had been a dramatic reversal in Workman family fortunes.  

The baptismal record for Lucy Cook Workman at St. Peter and Paul Church in Godalming, Surrey, England, 9 September 1764. In the 1850s, her son David, in Los Angeles, recorded property in Goldaming left to him by her.

Early in 1774, an acre of land came into Workman hands for a quite substantial £47.   Surprisingly, the purported purchaser of the land was not farmer Thomas but his ten-year-old son!   Five years later, fifteen-year-old Thomas Workman’s name went in the local manorial records as the buyer of more land near Brownhow farm for the sum of £19.

By 1779, however, Thomas had left home at Brownhow to live with his clergyman uncle William, younger brother of his father at Earsdon near the busy seaport of Newcastle-upon-Tyne some eighty miles north-east of Clifton.   Farmer Thomas himself evidently left Brownhow in the year 1780, not long before his death at the age of forty-eight at neighbouring Brougham in February 1781, and his teenage daughter Agnes also had left home by then.

Seventeen-year-old Thomas Workman of Earsdon was duly enrolled in the Clifton manorial records as proprietor of Brownhow after the untimely death of his father, but this did not bring the young man home to take over the long-held family estate.   His sister Rachael remained at Clifton and was on hand when their mother Agnes 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 an infant son die in 1772; her only other son Thomas 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 memorial in the village churchyard preserved in stone the desperate truth that, to the last, this “sister to the late David Harrison” would not be remembered as the wife of Thomas Workman.

The mystery deepens with discovery that this forty-eight-year-old man of means, a churchwarden with a brother in the clergy 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,” or age of 70) would have regarded 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 was sudden and unexpected.

The marriage record of Thomas Workman and Luck Cook at St. Dunstan of the West Church, Fleet Street, London, 5 April 1789.

Brownhow must have been an unhappy place by the 1770s.    Even the death of an infant and the departure of two older children (neither of whom was remembered in Agnes’s will of 1810) 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” have been caused by the death of a long-gone spouse who did not rate a mention on her gravestone?   Surely not – unless perhaps the manner of his passing had preyed on her mind for the thirty years she was destined to survive him.

Were Thomas and Agnes Workman estranged and no longer able to live under the same roof?   What drove young Thomas away from home?   Did father Thomas seek solace elsewhere?   Did Agnes blame him for all her woes?   Did she carry to the grave some dreadful secret about the 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 distress at the old homestead denied young Thomas Workman a contented childhood there and drove him to seek sanctuary in a Northumberland vicarage, the harrowing experience may have bolstered the young man’s self-reliance and honed his sense of adventure.   It may also have moved his influential uncle David Harrison, his mother’s brother, to take an even keener interest in his young nephew’s welfare than he might otherwise have done.

Thomas, however, abandoned the farming of his forebears for a very different life at industrial Earsdon.   Reverend William Workman (1744-1811), youngest of three sons at Brownhow, had taken advantage of a small legacy and boldly left the family farm as a very young man in 1763, going into the Church and soon becoming curate of the Northumberland coal-mining village of Earsdon.   With high academic ability and personal qualities that appealed to the Church hierarchy, the learned yet worldly clergyman would have made a profound impression on his similarly adventurous young nephew Thomas.

The reverend was vicar of Earsdon for 43 years, but it was his chaplaincy to the all-powerful Delaval family at their palatial country seat near Earsdon that gave the enterprising young cleric the highlights of a long and eventful Northumberland ministry.   The elegant Sir John Hussey Delaval (later elevated to the peerage as Lord Delaval) was the local power in the land for many years and clearly held Reverend William in high personal regard.

The various industrial enterprises that flourished under Delaval influence included not only the local coal mines but also the well known Royal Northumberland Bottle Works at Hartley, which grew to become the largest of its kind in the country.   Within walking distance of Earsdon, it employed many apprentices who would have included young Thomas Workman, henceforth to be identified as a glazier.

Lord Delaval built a North Sea harbour at Seaton Sluice near his Delaval Hall and it was from there that the bottle works sent monthly shipments of its products three hundred miles down the coast to London – and also to European ports.   But Thomas Workman’s ambitions extended far beyond Earsdon and the bottle works.   By the age of twenty-one in 1785, he had moved south to central London and was living in Flying Horse Court, just off the Strand.   This intriguing address was within walking distance of the celebrated Whitefriars Glass, world-famous specialists in high-quality stained glass.   Employment there naturally would have been Thomas’s objective.

Thomas Workman’s listing in the poll book for the electoral register at Clifton, 1818. Note the name of Richard Temple, though there is no known connection to the Los Angeles Temples.

It was from London that Thomas authorised his Clifton uncle David Harrison to sell the family farm he had inherited on the death of his father and this raised a four-figure sum for the well-travelled young glazier.    Thomas by now had met a young lady named Lucy Cook from Godalming in Surrey, southwest of London, and they were married at the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street, London, on April 5th 1789.   And fortune truly favoured Thomas early in 1794 when childless David Harrison died at Clifton and left him all of his extensive estate in the village.

Hastening north from the capital with two small daughters to claim their sizeable property windfall, Thomas and Lucy Workman made their home in the leafy village surroundings of Temple Sowerby in north Westmorland, where all their five sons were to be baptised over the next ten years: first Harrison in 1795, then David in 1797, William in 1799, followed by Thomas in 1801 and, finally, John in 1805. 

Just four miles from Clifton, Georgian Temple Sowerby was a self-sufficient community with a wide range of business activities, including its own tannery and an assortment of allied trades such as four shoemakers and two saddlers.    It was no coincidence that two Workman brothers, David and William, who spent their formative years at this bustling Westmorland village should set up in business as saddlers in Missouri – or that a Workman saddlery should eventually prosper under the ownership of David’s sons, Elijah and William Henry, in Los Angeles..

But restless Thomas never really settled at Temple Sowerby, perhaps seeing the village as a temporary “stop-gap” before permanent residence at Clifton, where his properties were situated.  Thomas was busy with his occupation as a glazier and business commitments elsewhere were often taking him (and his family) away from home for a matter of months at a time.

Clearly, however, Thomas and Lucy preferred their children to be baptised at Temple Sowerby and were prepared to defer such an important family event if they had to.   Youngest child Mary, though, for reasons best known to themselves, was baptised in June 1808 at the village church of Bowes, a few miles over the eastern county boundary in Yorkshire.   Sadly, eldest son Harrison died of scarlet fever two years later.

Thomas’s long-widowed mother Agnes died at Clifton in July 1811.    She had been living for many years in the house that had been the home of her late brother David Harrison, who had left it to her son Thomas but provided for his sister to occupy it for her lifetime.    When Agnes died, Thomas and Lucy were able at last to move with their family into the quite-imposing early Georgian house at Clifton which would be a comfortable home for the rest of their lives.      

David Workman’s listing as a newly minted Freemason with the Lodge of Unity, Penrith, near Clifton, 14 July 1818. Shortly afterward, David left for the United States, settling in Missouri, the western edge of the country.

A year later, in August 1812, Thomas wrote to his wife Lucy at Clifton from Appleby ten miles away, to say he was staying with Reverend John Heelis and was likely to be away from home for two or three weeks.   The clergyman also acted as local agent to the Earl of Thanet and often occupied Appleby’s medieval castle.   The enormous building had its fair share of stained glass windows, and at this time Thomas may have been working on them – or possibly at one of the town’s two ancient churches.

In February 1813 Thomas and Lucy lost their little son John, aged 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 her mother died.

But Thomas and Lucy Workman would soon ‘lose’ other members of their family as well.   What must 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 three of their children.   The huge sum of £800 was set aside with trustees, eventually to be divided equally between the three surviving sons David, William and Thomas.   The arrangement was to have far-reaching consequences.

David just passed his fourteenth birthday when the Workman family moved to Clifton, and it was probably about that time that he began his apprenticeship as a saddler with a tradesman in nearby Penrith.    By early 1818 he was approaching his twenty-first birthday and, whatever his feelings about his comfortable village home or the employer who held him in high regard, 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 clergyman uncle William to leave home when he was much younger than David, and Thomas’s return to Clifton in middle age had brought him full-circle, with little prospect of further progress.   His frustrated instincts for adventure surely found expression in the aspirations of his offspring, such that he was prepared to finance their ambitions from the proceeds of his own good fortune.

David was twenty-one on July 14th 1818, and a few days later his parents unlocked the family trust fund to advance him £100.   This was well short of his full one-third share of the trustees’ £800 but still a tidy sum for a young man of rural Clifton and quite enough to send him on his way to Liverpool with his mind set firmly on the New World.

The listing of Agnes Workman as a passenger on the “Liverpool Packet,” sailing from that British city to Philadelphia, 23 August 1820. The same vessel carried her brothers William and David to the U.S. two years later.

Probably travelling via New York with a Penrith man named John Nanson, David by early 1819 had reached the rough little settlement of Franklin in the new territory of Missouri on the western edge of the United States, where he went into business as a saddler.   Franklin was then at the end of the trail from St. Louis up the Missouri river, two hundred miles above its confluence with the Mississippi.   To the west lay the Indian country of the Great Plains, and beyond that were the northern departments of Mexico.

David had not long left Clifton when he was followed by another adventurous Workman, his twenty-seven year-old sister Agnes.   She apparently left home to join her ex-County Durham fiancé John Vickers in Maryland, but it was not until June 1824 that they were married at Franklin, Missouri.    There had been no provision for Agnes in the 1814 family settlement and her father Thomas did not approve at all of Vickers.

By June 1821, David dissolved his business partnership with John Nanson and needed fresh capital.   And he knew what he had to do, daunting prospect though it was.   In the spring of 1822, he was back home at Clifton, where he signed a receipt for a cash advance of just over £166, in full settlement of his one-third share of the original £800 trust fund.   On the same day at Clifton, his twenty-two-year-old brother William drew his full share of that generous fund, at just over £266.

Emotions must have run high in Thomas and Lucy Workman’s close but dwindling household as the dynamic young brothers left home that spring day for Liverpool and Philadelphia 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.

Their boundless Workman self-confidence was a measure of the secure home life these two young men had enjoyed with parents Thomas and Lucy. That strength of character would be tested to the full as they re-crossed the Atlantic and trekked back to their Missouri saddlery.   Never for a moment were the brothers forgotten by their family at Clifton, who always clung on to the hope that their absence would not be permanent.

William soon headed west on the Santa Fe Trail for exotic New Mexico, where he lived for sixteen years and had a wife and two children. In 1841, the family migrated to Los Angeles with a party of Americans, Europeans and New Mexicans which Workman co-led with John Rowland and became half-owners with the Rowlands of the enormous Rancho La Puente.   The brothers kept in touch with each other (as well as with Agnes in Baltimore, where she died in 1848, and the family at Clifton) as best they could and were reunited at La Puente when David led a wagon train across the Great Plains from Missouri in 1854.  The reunion was short-lived, however, as David died the following June in an accident while driving stock to the California gold mines for his brother, who lived more than two decades longer, dying in 1876.  

A typescript of a record of deaths during the first three months of 1843 showing the passing of Thomas Workman, as a resident of the West Ward registration district, including his town of Clifton.

Typical of the many letters that passed between Clifton in Westmorland and errant siblings in Maryland, Missouri and New Mexico was twenty-year-old Mary Workman’s emotional plea to her brother David at Franklin on January 1st 1829.   By then their mother Lucy was seriously ill and deeply depressed by their prolonged absence from home, and their father Thomas was “a shrivelled old man” (he was sixty-five) who was “as bitter as ever” about Agnes’s husband John Vickers.

Not quite two years later, at the end of October 1830,  Lucy died without knowing anything about the spectacular achievements of David and William in the American West.    Thomas lived on at home until his death on March 19th 1843, and was aware of much of his sons’ lives in America, if perhaps not William’s migration to the Los Angeles area.

America’s 19th century expansion westward from the Mississippi river to the Pacific coast was a defining time in the nation’s turbulent history, and few can have had a bigger part in that process than the brothers David and William, while their brave sister Agnes played her own special part away from the limelight.    Thomas and Lucy Workman’s unswerving devotion to family life and their extraordinary generosity made it all possible, and they would have been intensely proud of what their ambitious offspring did.  

NOTE: This profile of Thomas Workman is based on many years’ research into the Workman family story in the US and the UK.   Background sources include the monumental Lowther Archive at Carlisle, parish church records in Cumbria, Northumberland and Surrey, and diocesan records at the city of Durham.   Local history societies in Missouri and New Mexico were very helpful.

In the United States, the many people to whom my thanks are due include the late Judge David Workman of Los Angeles (great-great-grandson of the subject) and his cousin, the late Josette Temple of LA.   I am particularly indebted to Paul Spitzzeri, Director of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in California, for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Workman story in the US and his scholarly enthusiasm.        

I am extremely grateful also to my Bournemouth cousin Derek Sharpe, whose deep knowledge of the geography and history of London recently enabled him to establish Thomas Workman’s central London address in the late 18th century and place it in relation to the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West and the old Whitefriars Glass.

4 thoughts

  1. A very scholarly article, written by an enthusiastic historian who has intimate knowledge of the Workman family. Mr Sharpe, once again, demonstrates his ability to convey to the reader his deep interest in a subject of which he is undoubtedly a true expert.

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for the comment, which we’ve passed on to John, and we are very glad to be able to share some his deep knowledge of the Workman family in England through the blog. If you haven’t seen the two recent presentations in which John took part, one on the family generally and the other on Mary Workman, you might enjoy seeing those on our YouTube channel:

  3. Has anyone made a list of all the Workman’s who have lived in California/

  4. Hi Brady, not that we know of, though a quick check of censuses from 1850 to 1940 (excluding 1890 which was lost to a fire) shows 1,729 people with the last name in the state, so it would be a big list just to that point (the 1950 census will be released this coming April and will likely add from 1,000 to 1,500 more Workmans)! We do have the genealogy of the David and William Workman families well in hand, though.

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