Thomas Birkby was born in England in 1778 and emigrated to the United States around 1800. Birkby was both a craftsman and a minister in Leesburg, Virginia. Birkby’s primary source of income came from building and repairing coaches and carriages. According to the Mason account book, Birkby had been practicing his craft since at least 1815. In 1823, Birkby purchased property in downtown Leesburg, from which he operated his business and established his family residence. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Birkby sold and repaired gigs, harnesses, coaches, and carriages, boasting in his advertisements that he was "well supplied with good workmen and the best materials.” Among his workmen was a bound-out or indentured child named Charles Fenton Harris, a white fourteen-year-old taken in by Birkby to work with him in carriagemaking.
In addition to his carriage business, Birkby served as a Methodist minister. While the historical record is silent on his sermons and specific religious beliefs, Birkby frequently served as the officiant of weddings and funerals throughout Northern Virginia and in Maryland.
By the 1820s, Birkby had established a reputation as a leading member of the community. In 1830, Mr. and Mrs. Wickes listed Birkby as a character reference in an advertisement for the Wickes’s Female Academy they had established in Leesburg. The following year, Birkby joined the Board of Directors for the Leesburg and Snicker’s Gap Turnpike Company, for which he sold stock and helped determine the exact course of the road. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Birkby was regularly elected to Board of Common Council for the Town of Leesburg. In 1837, he served as the Council’s Recorder under William Temple Thomson Mason, then mayor of Leesburg. The following year, Birkby became mayor of Leesburg.
Birkby and his wife, Sarah—also from England—had at least ten children together. By 1850, Birkby and his family could be considered middle-class, with modest property holdings in Leesburg. Their estate included six slaves—five women and a young boy—at least some of whom the Birkby family likely used as house staff. Sarah died on 13 November 1850, at age 63, with Thomas Birkby dying four months later on 16 March 1851. Birkby’s house still stands today in downtown Leesburg at the corner of Loudoun and Liberty streets.
By David Armstrong