Category: Robert Mitcheson

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. www.visionofbritain.org.uk/maps/sheet/new_series_revised_medium/sheet_04 (accessed Feb 28,  2022)

Sources:

1. Consett and Derwent Heritage Initiative Facebook page, The Grave Wood, posted Nov. 15, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/groups/213017885386150/permalink/1252654144755847/ (viewed March 13, 2022)

2. England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975 (database on-line, www.Ancestry.ca, 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, (www.findmypast.com, 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, (www.findmypast.com, viewed Dec. 30, 2021).

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

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

7. The National Archives, Land Tax Redemption Office: Quotas and Assessments, IR23; Piece: 23 Ancestry.com. UK, Land Tax Redemption, 1798, www.ancestry.com, 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, www.durhamrecordsoffice.org.uk, for Robert Mitcheson, Knitsley (viewed March 02, 2022).

Fanny in Philly

Fanny MacGregor Mitcheson

There is a big gap in my three-times great-grandmother’s story. Mary Frances (Fanny) MacGregor was born in Scotland around 1790, and she lived her adult life as a wife and mother in Philadelphia, so when did she come to America, and why?

Fanny was born in Port of Menteith parish, Perthshire and, according to family lore, she finished her education in Edinburgh. She was then said to have come to the United States with her brother John. I have not, however, been able to confirm that she had a brother named John, and I have not yet found Fanny’s name under any spelling on a passenger list arriving in the United States.

One possibility is that she was with “Mrs. McGreger and family,” arriving at the Port of Philadelphia in 1815. Or perhaps she had married in Scotland, came to America with a first husband and then found herself a widow. If she came with her brother, family members probably felt they would have a better future in America than in Scotland and arranged for their passage.

I have not yet found her marriage record, but she was married by 1818 when her eldest child was baptized. Her husband was Robert Mitcheson, born in 1779 near Durham, England. He had started his career in England as an iron manufacturer and came to the United States by way of Antigua. In his 1820 application for naturalization, he described himself as a distiller, but by the mid-1830s he was a “gentleman.”

Philadelphia city directories indicate the Mitcheson family lived on Coates Street (later called Fairmount Avenue) in Spring Garden, a primarily rural township north of the city. They owned a large lot, about the size of half a city block, and called their home Monteith House in memory of Fanny’s birthplace. But Philadelphia was quickly becoming an industrial powerhouse, and Spring Garden’s population grew from 3,500 to 28,000 between 1820 and 1840. A huge penitentiary and the Fairmount water reservoir were constructed near the Mitcheson home, and railroads and paved turnpikes appeared.

Fanny was in her late 20s when she married, and Robert was 10 years her senior, but that did not stop them from having a large family. According to the records of St. John’s Episcopal Church in neighbouring Northern Liberties township, their oldest child, Robert MacGregor Mitcheson, was baptized in 1818. Catharine, my future great-great grandmother, was baptized in 1822. Sarah Frances, born in 1826, was very ill when she was baptized and died shortly thereafter, aged four months. Duncan MacGregor arrived in 1827, Joseph MacGregor (who later reversed his given names and went by McGregor J. Mitcheson) was baptized in 1830, and Mary Frances in 1833. One last child, Virginia, born in 1836, did not survive.

I have the impression from reading their wills and other documents that the Mitcheson children had strong personalities and that sibling rivalry extended into adulthood, but that is another story. In her portrait, Fanny has a bit of a twinkle in her eye, so perhaps the children inherited their spirit from her.  

This painting by Catharine Mitcheson, Fanny’s daughter, portrays the family home, Monteith House, Philadelphia.

Robert Mitcheson died in 1859. Fanny died three years later of “valvular disease of the heart,” according her death certificate. They are buried together in the family plot at St. James the Less Episcopal Church.

Photo credits: both are in private collections. The caption was updated April 11, 2020, confirming that the painting shows Monteith House.

Edited June 3, 2014 to correct Catharine’s year of birth.

Research Remarks:

For my blog entry about researching the Mitcheson family on historic maps, see http://genealogyensemble.com/2014/03/29/mapping-the-mitchesons-of-philadelphia/

The port of Philadelphia was an extremely busy place, although New York outstripped it in the early 1800s. Located on two navigable rivers, the Delaware and the Schuylkill,  Philadelphia’s merchants traded with Europe, China, the West Indies and other east coast ports. Philadelphia passenger arrivals are listed on Ancestry.com.

Robert Mitcheson’s family appeared in the U.S. Federal Census in 1830 in the Spring Garden district, but the census does not reveal much information about them. City directories are more helpful, listing the head of the household, address and occupation. Directories generally appeared every couple of years, and they can be searched by street address or by family name. They also included advertisements for local businesses and often listed government officials and people involved in community organizations. Some digitized Philadelphia directories are available on the http://www.philageohistory.org/geohistory/website, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) has a collection of specialized directories: http://hsp.org/collections/catalogs-research-tools/subject-guides/philadelphia-city-directories

I could not find the baptisms of the Mitcheson children online. Finally, I found them when I visited the HSP library. The children were all baptized at St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church, Northern Liberties, Philadelphia. The HSP has the church’s records for Births 1815-1917, Marriages 1815-1916, Deaths 1851-1916. The church, designed by architect William Strickland, was constructed in 1815. Today it houses Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I have been deliberately vague about Fanny’s age. There is a baptismal record in Scotland indicating that Mary Frances MacGregor was born in 1789, but according to her headstone, she was born in 1792. Either she lied about her age, or a first child died and my Mary Frances was another child given the same name. She died Sept. 29, 1862.