Dark family secret
By Rob Liddle
Family skeletons have been toppling out of closets since the searchable details of more than 200 years of Old Bailey trails went online last month. So how does it feel to idly type a name into a search box and be presented with more than you bargained for
Tracy Lowe knew the Mendays were a clan to be reckoned with in the mean streets of Victorian south London.
Family lore hinted at violent arguments, brushes with the law and men who had to make themselves scarce for a while.
A keen family historian, Tracy had already established from online census records that her great-grandfather Alexander Menday was attending a reform school in 1891, at the age of 17.
She was also familiar with the tale of how her grandmother had come home one day to find her kitchen decked out with improvised washing lines from which were hanging numerous soggy banknotes.
“ I read the next word – ‘killing’. I was so shocked I nearly fell off my stool.”
Menday, a Thames waterman at the time, had the job of recovering bodies from the river, and he and his son had relieved an unfortunate of the contents of his pockets before the authorities arrived – on the basis he didn’t have any more use for them.
“We knew they were rogues, the sort of people you would cross the street to avoid,” says Tracy.
“When I told my mother about his being in the reform school, she wasn’t surprised.”
So when the details of about 100,000 Old Bailey trials were published on the internet recently, Tracy was half-expecting to find her Southwark ancestors named among the records.
“When I typed the surname in, I thought I might find offences like petty theft, breach of the peace, being drunk and disorderly, that sort of thing.”
“First I saw the name ‘Alexander’, and I thought ‘fantastic’. But then I read the next word, ‘killing’. I was so shocked I nearly fell off my stool.”
There on the screen she saw the story unfold of how Alexander Menday had been drinking with friends in a pub near London’s Moorgate in February 1902 when an argument got out of hand.
A man called Dugald McCall came in and accused Menday of using bad language towards the barmaid the night before. Menday followed him outside into the street where they began to tussle. Witnesses described how the pair fought three rounds before the victim said that he had had enough.
George Sneezman, a clerk whose office overlooked the scene, told the court: “The prisoner went after him, and from behind dealt him a terrific blow behind the right ear – the blow was quite audible in our office – he fell directly, and his head struck the kerb.”
McCall could not be revived and Menday was arrested. He claimed that the victim had forced him to fight and denied hitting him from behind. Found guilty of manslaughter, the jury “recommended him to mercy” and the 27-year-old was sentenced to six months’ hard labour.
For Tracy, there were the mixed emotions. She knew her mother’s grandfather had committed a terrible deed in taking a life, but she also recognised that she had been presented with genealogical gold – the sort of detail about our ancestors’ lives that most family historians crave.
“It was amazing to see it all there in front of me, and there’s such a level of detail,” says Tracy, an interior design artist and mother-of-three from Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.
“I suppose the initial shock gave way to a partial acceptance that I knew they were south London rogues and something like this might have happened.”
Others who have made their own surprising discoveries in recent weeks have discussed the dilemmas they are wrestling with – will telling other members of the family cause more harm than good
One person contributing to an online forum has discovered the reason why a friend’s forebears emigrated to Australia was a murder within the family. Would the friend, also an avid genealogist, want to know
But for 49-year-old Tracy, enough time has passed and that part of her family has fragmented to such an extent that she feels she is able to talk about it.
As for her three daughters, one 18 and 14-year-old twins, the revelations have given them some “ammunition for mickey-taking”, but their interest has been short-lived.
“They certainly weren’t shocked as they donÃ‚Â’t see this as ‘real’ people,” she says, “and it is certainly not anything to do with them or their lives.”
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