Hurbuck and Biggin

On February 4, 1837, 79-year-old Robert Mitcheson, of Hurbuck, County Durham, England, shakily signed his will, splitting his properties between his two sons.1 He died three days later.

The only items he gave them outright were a bed, a bedroll and a chest of drawers each. They could choose the ones they preferred, and they were to divide the other household furniture equally. His other property was more valuable, so he named two friends as trustees.

Robert’s father, also named Robert Mitcheson (1726-1812), had been a farmer in nearby Knitsley. His grandfather, our common ancestor Robert Mitcheson (? – 1784), was a gentleman farmer in neighbouring Lanchester parish. The Robert Mitcheson who died in 1837 was a yeoman farmer, meaning he owned land: two farms and some other freehold land and buildings.

Hurbuck Farm is a grade II listed building in Britain. photo courtesy

This Robert’s wife, Ann Roxby, had predeceased him. He had two sons, Robert and Thomas, and two surviving daughters, Jane and Mary. Son Robert (1801-1883) was to receive the rental income and profits from the farm at Biggin, which the will described as “closes or parcels of land.” Son Thomas (1811-1881) was to get the income from freehold land, houses and tenements at Allerheads, County Durham.

In addition, “all my farming stock crops of hay and corn standing and growing on Hurbuck [farm] and all other my estate and effects” were to be in trust and the two sons would get the profits.

Married women could not own land, so in his will, Robert promised each of his daughters a small annual income. The trustees were to pay Jane five pounds a year from the income from the farm at Biggin, while Mary would get three pounds a year from income from the property in Allerheads. Jane was married to George Weldon and had a son and three daughters. I do not know what happened to Mary.

Intrigued by the information about this family contained in the will, I did further research. Because they were landowners, Robert and Thomas were eligible to vote, and with their names on published lists of voters, it wasn’t hard to find them. Even after they left Hurbuck, it became clear that members of the family continued to farm, and they remained in this northern part of County Durham, within short distances of each other, for decades.

After their father died, Robert and Thomas lived at Hurbuck Farm for several years. The two were listed there in the 1837 Poll Book of voters.2 In the 1841 census – the first UK census to identify individuals – both were still single and living at Hurbuck, along with their 80-year-old Uncle John.3

When the 1851 census taker came along, Robert was living on the farm at Biggin with a live-in housekeeper, a house servant and two farm labourers.He does not appear to have married. The 1858 Post Office Directory shows he was still farming in Biggin,4 but a newspaper notice reveals he put the farm up for sale at auction that year.5

In the 1861 census, Robert Mitchinson, farmer, 56, born Knitsley, was living at Bolton house, Brandon Township along with several employees, including a carter, a housemaid and a dairy maid. After this, his circumstances appear to have changed. Perhaps he ran into financial or medical problems because, in the 1871 and 1881 censuses, Robert was a boarder and agricultural labourer at Broom, near Durham City. He died in 1883, at age 82, and was buried at nearby St Edmunds church cemetery, Bearpark.6

His brother Thomas (whose full name was Thomas John Mitcheson) married Mary Harle (1813-1893) in 1842 at Lanchester Parish Church. In the 1851 census, he was living on Hurbuck farm with his wife, three children and three farm servants. Two years later, the poll book listed Thomas as “farmer as occupier” in Burnopeside, and the 1861 and 1871 censuses counted the family at High Burnhopeside.7 Thomas died in Lanchester in 1881.

A modern map of the Lanchester area, including some of the places Robert and Thomas lived. Source:

His son, John Thomas Mitcheson, born in 1845, maintained the family farming tradition at Park Head Farm, near Annfield Plain. A directory issued in 1894 showed that John was also Assistant Overseer and Collector of Income Tax.8 John and his wife, Barbara Ann Bean, had eleven children, including a son named Robert.

When John Thomas died in 1924, almost two centuries had passed since the 1728 baptism of his great-grandfather Robert Mitcheson at Lanchester Parish Church. In that time, this small corner of County Durham had changed dramatically. All around them, coal mines, collieries, quarries, roads and railroads had sprung up. The area was now an important coal mining area, but much of its farmland survived.  

See also: Janice Hamilton, “The Legendary Robert Mitcheson of Knitsley.” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 15, 2022.


Thank you to the owner of the MitchinsonStubbs public member tree on Ancestry. Not only is the family tree extensive, but it lists many sources so other researchers can easily confirm the information. 

I am not sure what and where Allerheads was. There might have been a spelling error. There was a lead ore mine decades later at Allenheads, near Hexham, Northumberland. 

Photos of High Burnhopeside Farm (grid NZ1846) and Hurbuck Farm (grid NZ1348) can be found on the website Geograph Photograph Every Grid Square,  


1. Search for this will on the Durham University Archives website,, and view it on “England, Durham, Diocese of Durham Original Wills, 1650-1857,” images, FamilySearch ( : 7 July 2014), DPRI/1/1837/M15 > image 1 of 3; Special Collections, Palace Green Library, Durham University, Durham.

2. “UK, Poll Books and Electoral Registers, 1538-1893;” (, database online, for Robert Mitchison, 1837, County Durham, Northern Division, accessed Dec. 30, 2021), citing “London, England, UK and London Poll Books”, London Metropolitan Archives and Guildhall Library.

3. 1841 England Census; (,database on-line, entry for Robert Mitcheson, County Durham, accessed March 26, 2022), Citing: Class: HO107; Piece: 301; Book: 17; Civil Parish: Lanchester; County: Durham; Enumeration District: 16b; Folio: 13; Page: 11; Line: 1; GSU roll: 241348; original dataCensus Returns of England and Wales, 1841. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1841.

4. “UK, City and County Directories, 1766-1946,” (, database online, accessed Dec. 19, 2021), entry for Robert Mitcheson), 1858 Post Office Directory.  

5. “Farm of Land at Biggin to be sold at Auction”, Durham Chronicle, March 5, 1858,, (, online database, accessed March 15, 2022).

6. England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991” ( online database, entry for Robert Mitcheson, accessed March 26, 2022), Original data: England Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991. Salt Lake City, Utah: FamilySearch, 2013.

7. “1861 England Census” (,database on-line, entry for Thomas J. Mitchanson, Durham, accessed March 26, 2022), citing: Class RG9, Piece: 3736; Folio: 63; Page: 1; GSU roll: 543179; Enumeration District: 4e; original dataCensus Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office, 1861.

8. “UK, City and County Directories, 1766-1946,” (, database online, entry for John Thomas Mitcheson, accessed March 26, 2022), Whellan’s Directory 1894.

Black Market Baby

In 1984, at the age of 35, Harold Rosenberg discovered he had been adopted. Fourteen years later, he found out who his birth mother was – or so he thought. Today, he is still searching for his roots.

His adoptive parents never told him he was not their natural child, and both were already deceased when he learned the truth. His cousin Dinah, who was almost a generation older than him, could only recall that a Mrs. Baker, a matchmaker in Montreal’s large Jewish community, had done Harold’s adoptive father a favour and found the baby. The Rosenbergs had paid Mrs. Baker $1800 to make the arrangements.

Harold, age 8, in 1957.

Harold, who is my husband, tried to find out more, but there were no official records of his adoption and even the record of his birth kept by the synagogue was fake. He followed many false leads and ran into brick walls everywhere he turned.

In 1998, he opened The Gazette to see a front-page article about a group of women who had gathered in Montreal to search for their roots. All had been adopted into Jewish families, most eventually discovered that their birth mothers had been Catholic.

The article described a black-market baby ring that operated in Montreal in the late 1940s and early 1950s, trafficking about 1,000 babies to adoptive parents in Canada and the United States. A small group of doctors, lawyers and various intermediaries arranged these adoptions for childless Jewish couples who could not find babies through regular adoption channels. At the time, it was illegal in Quebec to adopt a child from another religion, and, while there were no Jewish babies available, there were lots of Catholic ones. Most of these babies were delivered at a handful of private maternity clinics in Montreal.

In 1984, Harold was a new father himself. JH photo

The money went to the doctors and the people who arranged the adoptions, or who turned a blind eye to the transfer of small bundles. The mothers were not paid, but they were able to stay for free at the clinics during their last weeks of pregnancy, and they did not have to worry about medical costs.

When the ring was busted in 1954, The Gazette reported, several lawyers and a woman named Rachel Baker were arrested. Suddenly, Harold realized that Mrs. Baker did not just find a baby for his parents, she arranged for many under-the-table adoptions.

Years later, his cousin Moe told Harold that he had seen a tiny hospital bracelet with the name “baby Boyko” in the Rosenbergs’ safe deposit box, and he recalled that a girl named Mary Boyko had lived in his neighbourhood. Harold checked a list that a volunteer researcher had made of single mothers who gave birth in the late 1940s, and there was the name: Mary Boyko. She must have been his birth mother!

McGill graduation, 1971

Harold asked a friend, a retired police detective, to look for her. It was a challenge because Mary had married someone named Tremblay, and Tremblay is one of the most common family names in Quebec. Nevertheless, three days later, the friend phoned to say that he had found her. Unfortunately, she was deceased, but he had tracked down her husband and her son. They said they had been looking for Mary’s baby for years, and they couldn’t wait to meet him.

Harold became good friends with his new-found half-brother, Sonny Tremblay. All the pieces seemed to fit, except for a few minor details. Meanwhile, he became an unofficial spokesperson for black market babies, participating in television documentaries in English and in French, and being interviewed for newspaper and magazine articles. He hoped to help others adoptees, as well as their birth mothers, learn the truth.

In 2020, our sons persuaded Harold to try to find his birth father. He did a DNA test, and he asked Sonny to do one also. Everyone was shocked when the results came back – they were not related! Just to be sure, Sonny’s cousin also took a DNA test, and it confirmed that the cousin is related to Sonny, but not to Harold. He then hired genetic genealogist Mary Eberle, of DNA Hunters, to help him make sense of his DNA results. He had many matches, but no one closer than a third or fourth cousin. Clearly, Harold is of Eastern European descent, and his birth father was probably Ukrainian. Many of his matches on his father’s side live around Cleveland, Ohio, an area where many Eastern Europeans settled.

Harold in 2022. JH photo

Recently, he made a big break-through and got in touch with Lynne, a woman in Cleveland with whom he shares a whopping eight percent of his DNA. She is probably a first or second cousin and has been delighted to help out. Harold is still not sure who his birth father was, but at least he now has a genuine, close genetic cousin.

As for the identity of his birth mother, that remains a mystery. Was Harold really born at a Montreal hospital, as his cousin told him? And what should he now make of the story of the baby bracelet and the name Boyko?  Hopefully, he will find out some day soon.

This story is also published on the collaborative blog

Further information:

Ingrid Peritz, “’Black-market babies’ seek Montreal roots,” The Gazette, May 9, 1998, page 1,

Adam Elliott Segal, “Black Market Babies”, Maisonneuve Magazine, July 18, 2017,

CTV News Montreal, “Special Report: Black Market Baby”, Dec 18, 2017, This interview was done when Harold mistakenly thought that Mary Boyko was his birth mother. I have included it here anyway because it includes more background on the black-market baby ring.