Category: Durham England

The Legendary Robert Mitcheson of Knitsley

There’s a local legend in County Durham, England about a farmer who outwitted a would-be robber on his way home one dark night. As the tale goes, farmer Robert Mitcheson, of Knitsley, was at the Wolsingham Fair when he noticed a well-dressed stranger who seemed to be watching him. He became quite concerned when he realized the man’s horse was in the stable next to his own mount, so he mentioned his suspicions to the stableboy. When the man came for his horse shortly after Mitcheson left, the stableboy delayed the stranger as long as he could.

While Mitcheson was still a few miles from home, he heard a horse galloping behind him. His own horse was fast, however, and he managed to stay ahead of his pursuer. He also remained on the main highway, rather than take his usual shortcut through a thickly wooded ravine.

Mitcheson made it home safely, but a few days later, a deep grave was discovered in the woods. The stranger and his accomplices had probably planned to rob and kill him there.1

Knitsley is between Lanchester and Consett; Wolsingham is to the southwest.

When I first ran across this story, I had no idea whether this farmer was related to my Mitcheson family in northeast England. I now suspect he was. Robert Mitcheson (1728-1812), a farmer in the hamlet of Knitsley, in northern County Durham, was the eldest son of my five times great-grandfather Robert Mitcheson, of Lanchester Parish, and he had a son and a grandson, both named Robert Mitcheson, who also farmed in Knitsley.

Initially, all I knew about Robert Mitcheson of Knitsley was his date of baptism: February 1, 1728.2  Now I have discovered a surprising amount of information about this man and his descendants. They are listed in a variety of directories on Find My Past and Ancestry, in the UK census, and in land tax and poll book records.

The first clue I came across was a big one: the transcription of a monumental inscription. It made it clear that Robert Mitcheson of Knitsley lived well into his 80s, and it provided the key to finding his many descendants.

Here is a transcription of that memorial stone in Lanchester parish churchyard:

“In memory of Robert Mitcheson of Knitsley who died November 12th 1815 [sic] aged 87 years. Also Jane his wife who died April 22 1810 aged 86 years. Also Robert their son who died at Hurbuck February 7th aged 79 years. Also Ann his wife who died at Knitsley in April 1827 aged 56 years and was near Roxby’s stone in this yard. Also Ann daughter of the two last named who died in Hurbuck March 26th 1834 aged 28 years. Also John Mitcheson son of the first named who died at Hurbuck June 25 1847 aged 87 years. Also Thomas John son of the above Robert and Ann Mitcheson who died at Lanchester 15th February 1881 aged 71 years. [P.R. – 61 years.]”3

That text is hard to follow, so here is a more complete summary, including several more children for Robert and Ann and three family members named Robert Mitcheson.

1. Robert Mitcheson (1728-1812) of Knitsley married Jane Heppel (1725-1810) in Medomsley Parish, County Durham, 1757.4 
2. Robert Mitcheson (1759-1837) married Ann Roxby (1769-1827) of Biggin, New Brancepeth, by licence in Lanchester Parish, 1795.5
3. Jane Mitcheson (1796-1876)
3. Elizabeth Mitcheson (1799-?)
3. Robert Mitcheson (1801-1883)
3. Ann Mitcheson (1804-1834)
3. Mary Mitchinson (1810-?)
3. Thomas John (1811-1881) 
2. John Mitcheson (1761-1847)

Robert Mitcheson of Knitsley, (generation 1) was a farmer all his life, living a few miles northwest of Lanchester village. Land tax records for this part of the county can be found online for 13 years between 1759 and 1827, and Robert appeared as a tenant in Conside and Knitsley Township in 1788, 1789 and 1795.6 Robert’s name continued to appear as a tenant between 1802 and 1810, and he died there two years later.

Rural scene in Lanchester Parish near Knitsley. JH photo.

He had two sons, Robert and John. In 1798, three years after son Robert Mitcheson (generation 2) married Ann Roxby, the name Robert Mitcheson appeared for the first time as an owner/occupier of a property in Burnop and Hamsteels Township.7 This was probably Hurbuck farm, which the family appear to have either worked themselves or rented out to tenants while they farmed at Knitsley.

By 1824, Robert (generation 2) also owned land in Knitsley and his son Robert (generation 3), now in his early 20s, was living in Knitsley.8

Over the years, various members of the Mitcheson family owned or rented several farm properties in this area. Farming was hard work, but grain brought high prices during the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815). County Durham farmers also raised cattle and sold milk and meat to feed the region’s fast-growing population of coal miners. Meanwhile, land owners could boost their income from renting to other farmers, and land ownership was of value in itself in that it brought both social status and voting rights.

Map Source:  Ordnance Survey of England and Wales Revised New Series, 1902. Vision of Britain Historical Maps. (accessed Feb 28,  2022)


1. Consett and Derwent Heritage Initiative Facebook page, The Grave Wood, posted Nov. 15, 2016, (viewed March 13, 2022)

2. England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975 (database on-line,, Robert Mitchinson, 1728, viewed Dec. 30, 2021) citing, England, Births and Christenings, 1538-1975. FamilySearch, 2013.

3. Northumberland and Durham Family History Society, “Northumberland and Durham Memorial Inscriptions;” Lanchester, All Saints, Durham, England, database, for Robert Mitcheson, 1815, Find My Past, (, viewed Dec. 30, 2021). Note: This transcription was incorrect about the date of Robert’s death. According to the burial record on Ancestry, he was buried on November 15, 1812, and he was included in the Index to Death Duty Registers 1796-1903 in 1813 on Find My Past.

4. Northumberland and Durham Family History Society, “Durham Marriages,” Medomsley, Durham, England, database, for Robert Mitcheson, 1757, Find My Past, (, viewed Dec. 30, 2021).

5. England Marriages, 1538-1973, Lanchester, Durham, England, database, for Robert Mitcheson, 1795, Family Search Intl, Find My Past, (, viewed Dec. 30, 2021).

6. Durham County Record Office. Quarter Sessions – Land Tax Returns, Chester Ward West 1759-1830,, for Robert Mitcheson, Knitsley, (viewed March 02, 2022).

7. The National Archives, Land Tax Redemption Office: Quotas and Assessments, IR23; Piece: 23 UK, Land Tax Redemption, 1798,, database on-line, for Robt Mitchinson 1798, (viewed March 15, 2022), citing Land Tax Redemption Office: Quotas and Assessments. IR23. Records of the Boards of Stamps, Taxes, Excise, Stamps and Taxes, and Inland Revenue. The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England.

8. Durham County Record Office. Quarter Sessions – Land Tax Returns, Chester Ward West 1759-1830,, for Robert Mitcheson, Knitsley (viewed March 02, 2022).

Robert Mitcheson’s Last Will and Testament

When my husband and I visited County Durham in northern England in 2009, the guide who drove us around for a day handed me a photocopy of my five-times great-grandfather’s last will and testament, written in 1782.1 I was thrilled!

Our guide, retired genealogist Geoff Nicholson,2 was pleased too. He hadn’t been certain that this will had actually been my ancestor’s, but I recognized the names of the sons and daughters mentioned in it.

The ancestor in question was Robert Mitchinson, gentleman, of Lanchester Parish, a rural area west of Durham City. Mitchinson, or Mitcheson, is not a common name, but it was fairly common in County Durham, especially two centuries ago. According to a family story, my Mitchinson family came to County Durham from Scotland, however, when they arrived and where they originated are unknowns.

This historic map on the Vision of Britain website shows part of Lanchester Parish, County Durham. Moorside, where Robert Mitcheson lived in his final years, was near Consett.

Nor do I know Robert’s date or place of birth, or his wife’s maiden name. One son’s baptism record and another son’s burial record indicate her first name was Mary. Someone named Robert Mitchinson married a Mary Thompson at Durham Cathedral in 1723, but this may not be the right couple.

Robert was probably over 70 years of age when he died in 1784, perhaps closer to 80, and his wife must have also lived a long life since he mentioned her in his will.

When Robert wrote that will in 1782, he was “of Moorside”, and when he was buried two years later, his residence was identified as Manor House. Moorside is near Consett, northwest of Lanchester village. When the children were growing up, the family lived at High Langley, southeast of Lanchester.

He must have been a farmer since he left his milk vessels to his younger son, Joseph. In fact, Robert was probably what is known as a gentleman farmer who hired people to do the farm work and who owned the property, as opposed to being a tenant farmer.

Cemetery behind Lanchester Parish Church. JH photo.

The Lanchester parish records show that Robert Mitchinson (the babies’ mother was not mentioned), of High Langley, had seven children baptized over an 18-year span: Robert junior was baptized in 1728, Mary in 1730, Jane in 1733, John in 1736, William in 1739, Margaret in 1742 and Joseph in 1746.3 All the children lived to adulthood, although William died in 1763, age 23, and was buried in the cemetery of All Saints Parish Church, Lanchester. According to a family story, John was a captain in the King’s Life Guards, although I have not confirmed that. The others married and lived within about 20 miles of each other in County Durham.

Robert must have thought carefully about his children’s needs as he wrote his will, taking their individual circumstances into consideration. His eldest son was a yeoman farmer in the nearby hamlet of Knitsley, married with two grown sons. Robert senior left him the right to collect the repayment of a 300-pound mortgage loaned to an acquaintance, plus the interest due.   

The house at High Langley, where the Mitcheson children grew up in the mid-1700s, is shown on this 1945 map.

The will referred to Robert’s three daughters by their married names: Mary Taylor, Jane Stephenson and Margaret Taylor. He left one pound to each of them. Presumably their husbands were supporting them comfortably.

To his wife, he left ten pounds and all the household goods and furniture, except for one bed and set of bedcovers which he promised to his youngest son, Joseph. Perhaps Mary lived with a family member after her husband’s death.

Joseph certainly benefited from his father’s estate. He was 37 at the time, married and with three young children, so he probably needed the most help. Unfortunately, the will was not specific enough to be a help to me. It simply said that Robert left to Joseph “all other my Real and Personal Estates whatsoever and wheresoever of what Tenure, Kind or Sort soever the same doth or may consist.”

Robert also left 50 pounds apiece to each of Joseph’s children, to be paid to them when they reached age 21, and to be applied toward their maintenance and education in the meantime. These bequests were no doubt good investments as the two oldest grandchildren eventually immigrated to North America: Robert Mitcheson settled in Philadelphia around 1817 and Mary (Mitcheson) Clark and her husband John Clark came to Montreal around 1795. Another of the grandchildren, William Mitcheson, became an anchor manufacturer and sailing ship owner in London.

Notes and Sources

1. Robert Mitcheson’s will is stored at Durham University Archives and can now be viewed online. Search for it at and view it on “England, Durham, Diocese of Durham Original Wills, 1650-1857,” images, FamilySearch ( : 7 July 2014), DPRI/1/1784/M5 > image 3 of 3; Special Collections, Palace Green Library, Durham University, Durham. (accessed Feb. 28, 2022)

2. A former high school teacher turned professional genealogist, Geoff Nicholson was a former president of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society. He was extremely well informed, not only about the families of the area, but also about the region’s history. He generously assisted me with my research for several years after we met, and I was sorry to learn that he died in 2021.

3. The baptisms and marriages of these family members are online on, Ancestry and Find My Past.

Sources of Maps:

Ordnance Survey of England and Wales Revised New Series, 1902. Vision of Britain Historical Maps. (accessed Feb 28 2022)

British War Office GSGS 4127, Ordnance Survey Popular and New Popular Editions, sheet 85-Durham, 1945. (accessed Feb. 28, 2022)