IT is nearly 4,000 miles from a boarded up farmhouse on the top of an Aycliffe hill across the Atlantic Ocean to the province of Manitoba in the heart of Canada, but the two places are linked by one family.

Within minutes of an appeal for information about the derelict Hill House Farm, an email arrived from across the pond telling the story – and, as with any family history, it has at least one wholly unexpected tragedy in it.

Hill House is above the service station at Junction 59 of the A1(M) and is deserted prior to its demolition to make way for a business park. It dates back to the early 19th Century and for much of the Victorian era was home of the Robinson family.

In 1888, John Robinson and his wife, Annie Jane who came from Hartburn, emigrated with four of their children onboard the mailsteamer Parisian to Halifax in Nova Scotia.

“They made their way by rail, riverboat and ox cart to Birtle, Manitoba, where they lived and worked on a model farm that was being developed by Major‐General Henry Clement Wilkinson,” says their great-great-grand-daughter Barb Andrew, who still lives in Manitoba. “He had retired from serving with the British Army in India, and had purchased land overlooking the Birdtail River Valley in 1887.

“His model farm, Birtleside, had the very latest equipment for milling and threshing. And he imported stock of cattle, pigs, poultry, bees as well as eight fine draft mares and a stallion.”

Another part of his estate was called “Durham Farm” by the major-general, which is a big clue to his background.

He had spent 30 years fighting around the world in India, Afghanistan and Egypt, and when the Boer War broke out, he came out of retirement to fight in that.

But his father was a Durham vicar, the Reverend Percival Spearman Wilkinson, and he grew up in the family home of Mount Oswald on the edge of Durham City. The vicar had inherited the mansion from his uncle Henry, a former mayor of the city.

Of course, for much of the 20th Century, Mount Oswald was the home of Durham City Golf Club, but in the 21st Century, it is having student accommodation built on its parkland and the mansion itself is about to undergo a £17m conversion into County Durham’s history centre.

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Was it a Durham connection that enticed the Robinsons to start a new life nearly 4,000 miles from Hill House?

“They stayed and worked at Birtleside for about three years, and then purchased land near the community of Binscarth, about 34 km north, and set up their own farm,” says Barbara.

“Their son William farmed in the area the rest of his life raising championship cattle and making cheese.

“Daughter Lucy married a farmer and resided not far away.

“Son George moved west to Calgary, Alberta, and worked for a firm for seven years before purchasing it. He served as an alderman for the City of Calgary for two years.

“And daughter Mary married Robert Lane and moved to Brandon, the “Wheat City”, where Robert had a number of business interests.”

This is where the family tree takes an unexpected twist into tragedy.

Mary had four children and was five months pregnant with their fifth when, on July 5, 1899, she was murdered. “She was shot by their maid while in the middle of spring house-cleaning, as the four children played in the back yard,” says Barb.

Mary, 32, who’d been born at Hill House, died in the street while her maid, Hilda Blake, 21, bathed her face and told aghast onlookers that a tramp had shot her.

Hilda came from a troubled background: she’d been orphaned and grown up in a workhouse in Norfolk until she’d been sent to live with a well-off family in Manitoba and act as their unpaid domestic servant – this was a fairly common way of English communities relieving themselves of the financial burden of raising a child with no family.

Hilda had run away from her fostering family and had become Mary’s maid – a mark that Mary and Robert were doing well for themselves.

But Hilda’s story about the tramp quickly unravelled, and when it became known that she had bought a pistol just days before the shooting, she confessed. She claimed she had bought the weapon to commit suicide but had turned it on Mary in a fit of jealousy.

She was sentenced to death on November 16, 1899, and she hanged in Brandon gaol on December 27.

As soon as Mary had died, John and Annie Jane had travelled to Brandon to comfort their grandchildren and son-in-law. They remained with them until a month after the execution when he died, aged 69, of a heart attack.

He was buried in Brandon cemetery in the plot beside his daughter, and a large marble monument was erected over them.

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One of the inscriptions on it reads: “In loving memory of John Robinson, late of Hill House, Aycliffe, England.” Twenty years later, Annie Jane’s name was added to the monument when she died.

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Barbara says: “I think John always considered Hill House to be his home, as that is the inscription on the headstone.

“When my husband and I visited England a number of years ago, Vivien Ellis, of Aycliffe Local History Society, was a gracious tour guide and took us to see the house from a distance – there were even then signs saying ‘no admittance’.

“I am very proud to be one of the hundreds of descendants of John and Annie Jane Robinson who are spread all over Canada and the United States.”

Many thanks to everyone who has helped with this story: John Morris, Paul Dobson, Vivien Ellis and, of course, Barb Andrew.