Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - one of our local historians was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 55: The Milburn Colonists - Updated

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The Milburn Colonists - Updated

This is an article I (Alastair Robertson) wrote with the title ‘EMIGRANTS FROM ALSTON MOOR’ appeared in the Alston Moor Newsletter of Spring 1999, Issue 30. In the light of the 200th anniversary of the departure of the Milburn Colonists, I edited it for re-publication and public awareness, with the question, “Should we do something about it?” Answer came there none.

Many thousands of people have left Alston Moor over the years, mainly due to economic recession and the decline in the lead industry. Those who left in the early 1800’s must have been among the first to do so. In the archives of the Alston Moor Historical Society the fate of a few of these people can be traced.
After the Napoleonic Wars there was heavy unemployment, and administrators of poor relief urged emigration as a solution. The government responded by reversing its former position of opposition to emigration and gave financial aid to emigration schemes. In 1817 a select committee on the poor recommended, “that all obstacles to seeking employment wherever it can be found, even out of this realm, should be removed; and every facility that is reasonable afforded to those who may wish to resort to some of our colonies”. There followed a lot of propaganda extolling the virtues of emigration and the first national experiment on a large scale was made in 1819, when Parliament voted £50,000 to be spent on sending 5,000 settlers to the eastern section of the Cape Colony in South Africa. As a general policy, government land in the colonies (ignoring the natives’ rights and traditions of course) was sold to settlers at extremely cheap rates to help defray the cost of the scheme.
However, before the South African experiment, in 1818 two groups of Alston men, most of them with their families, had already left Alston. We know something about most of them, in particular William Dixon, a miner of Leadgate, George Lee, a butcher of Sheepriggs, Joseph Lee, a miner and mason of Flatt, Robert Milburn, a miner of High Nest, Thomas Moore of Knarsdale, John Smith, a shoemaker of Alston, Jonathan Stevenson, another miner of Nest, John Walton of Low Leehouse, Robert Walton of Alston, William Walton, a miner of Wanwood and Walton Wilson of Jollyboard House, Alston (note Jollyboard).
The Alston emigrants, who became known as ‘The Milburn Colonists,’ travelled to Whitehaven where they boarded the Jason, “a square-sterned brigantine” with two masts and a single deck. The ship weighed 159 tons, it was only 79ft long and 28ft 8½ inches wide, to accommodate 110 passengers plus the crew. After what can have been at best an uncomfortable voyage, the Jason landed at Quebec on 19th September 1818. The colonists then travelled by flat-bottom boat to Port Hope, Ontario, where the women and children stayed while the men went north to Smith Township to locate their grants of land. There the men built a shanty town in which to live during the winter and then in the spring they located their land grants on either side of what became known as Communication Road. Then they returned to collect their families.
The man who organised it all in Alston was Thomas Milburn, whose occupation or profession is unknown. He was the eldest of four brothers and a sister who all eventually emigrated to North America. Thomas (b.1779) married Ruth Haldon in 1806. He went out to Canada with two servant girls in 1818, to be followed by Ruth and their six children; in Canada the couple had four more children. Only a little is known of the second brother Robert Milburn (b.1781), he married Sarah Walton in 1811 and had three children, John, Margaret and Walton.
The third Milburn brother, William (b.1783) married Mary Varty in 1814 and they had the following children: Robert, John (b.1816) and Mary (b.1817). The family moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne from where, at some point, William left them to sail to the U.S.A. and settled in Bradford, Pennsylvania. In 1827, his wife Mary in Newcastle received a letter from a neighbour of William’s in Bradford telling her that William had married a widow named Polly Millar and they had had four children!
The fourth Milburn brother John (b.1787) and their sister Peggy (b.1794) also moved to Smith Township near Peterborough in Ontario, where John died without marrying.
Colonist John Walton made something of a name for himself in the New World. He was born in 1799 at Low Lee House, Garrigill, and in 1818 he emigrated with his parents Thomas and Jane Walton (nee Wallis). Part of his story is told in the “History of the Township of Scarboro”:
“Having worked in the lead mines in England, he turned his knowledge to account by sinking wells. Many of those sunk in the vicinity of Gooderham & Worts distillery were sunk by John Walton. In 1823 he settled in Scarboro, on lot 35, concession 2, and lot 35, concession 3, for which he paid $1 an acre. He afterwards sold the north half to Robert Oliver, and lived on the south half. He married Mary Thomson, third daughter of the first settler in Scarboro.
“Mrs Walton carried her butter and eggs to York market, a distance of ten miles, by a footpath through the woods. She received fourpence a pound for her butter, or one York-shilling* for two pounds, and the same for her eggs per dozen, taking groceries and other necessaries instead of cash. One takes an interest in learning that at the end of three years the family fortunes had prospered well enough to provide the worthy daughter of a brave mother with a mare called “Kate”, and a side saddle on which she might ride to market. After two years more, the industrious couple procured a second steed, and, with ingenious fingers, fashioned for the team a set of harness, from strips of basswood bark.”
(*York was the original name for Toronto. A York-shilling was a British sixpenny piece, equivalent to seven pence-halfpenny currency, or twelve and a half cents.)

Of course there are more stories that could be told of the Milburn colonists, a lot of research has been done in Canada as to what happened next, resulting in the publication of ‘Peterborough – Land of Shining Waters,’ in 1967, and ‘At the Edge of the Shield – A History of Smith Township 1818-1980,’ published in 1982. On this side of the Atlantic original documents have been copied and transcribed by historian Dave MacAnelly, and investigations into Alston Moor church and chapel registers have been carried out by myself.

In 1993 in Smith Township there was a plaque erected with an inscription that begins;

“Near this site, nine families from Alston Moor, Cumberland, England – in search of a better life – faced the challenges of survival in a remote wilderness that would become Peterborough County in 1818.”

Should we, the residents of Alston Moor, link up with the people of Smith Township in Ontario to commemorate the 200th anniversary of this small exodus?

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About Us
Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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