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Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Tuesday, 6 May 2008 10:43 UK

'Great-granddad was a killer'

By Rob Liddle
BBC News

Tracy Lowe
Artist Tracy says she now wants to find out more about the Mendays

Family skeletons have been toppling out of closets since the searchable details of more than 200 years of Old Bailey trials 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.

Petty crimes

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
Tracy Lowe

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."

'Terrific blow'

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.

Moorgate in 1896 [Copyright Mary Evans Picture Library]

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 don't see this as 'real' people," she says, "and it is certainly not anything to do with them or their lives."

Below is a selection of your comments.

One of my ancestors owned slaves, and in his divorce papers a slave girl was listed as his property. While I find that unacceptable, that's how it was 'back then' and it's got absolutely nothing to do with his descendants. Times change.
Susan, London

These records are of broader interest than to genealogists only. A few years ago I bought an old document known as a 'Tyburn Ticket'. These 'rewards' were given to anyone who successfully prosecuted a felon, and it exempted them from certain parish responsibilities. My document was awarded in 1816 to John Gatward for prosecution of John Barney, who was convicted of stealing a handkerchief. Out of curiosity, I searched the records and found out that he was sentenced to death for this offence after a trial that cannot have taken more than 10 minutes. He was 9 years old...
Graham, London

I have a relative who was a police chief in Northern Ireland but I am not sure when. Family information shows he murdered a man and then, as a policeman, investigated the 'murder'. He was eventually caught and hanged for the crime. I would love to find out more. How wonderful to be able to locate this information about our relatives on line, especially when you are researching from another country.
Gail Dirks, Kamloops, British Columbia

My cousin traced ancestral links to a young girl being deported in 1783. Nobody in the family ever knew of this, but it did leave us wondering what she might have done in those days to deserve such punishment. Stealing a loaf of bread might have been enough to send the poor thing to her fate.
David Joyce, Salisbury

One of my ancestors was arrested for one of the Jack the Ripper killings but never charged because someone provided an alibi for him at the charging hearing... We never did find out just how concrete the alibi was but this and the case mentioned in the article prove that you shouldn't always expect to find out uplifting things when researching family history.
Oll Lewis, Woolfardisworthy, UK

Using the Old Bailey site on Monday was life-changing for my mother-in-law. She asked me to look up her grandfather who her grandmother had evicted for bigamy. The family knew that he'd been tried for it but believed that he'd been found guilty. The records show that he was found not-guilty. It is a story I've heard for many years and it is great to have a confirmed ending.
Simon Rockman, London

It's surely logical that many of us have criminal, rogue or dodgy dealer ancestors. How else do we imagine that most people survived long enough pass on their genes other than by adopting "survival of the fittest" and "kill or be killed" strategies?
Vicky, Germany

Linking this story with another BBC story on the secret tunnels underneath the town of Arras, The Royal British Legion is a great place to start if you're looking at tracing family history- especially if there is a military link. Poppy Travel, the travel arm of the charity, helped me to locate my great-great-granddad's grave located at Tynecot near Ypres. They arranged for me to make a personal visit to the cemetery and pay my respects to a man I may never know, but whom I owe so much to. With their help, I was able to establish where his last moments would have been spent with his comrades 90 years ago.
Amy Smith, Clapham, London

Kill a man intentionally by hitting him a mortal blow across the head from behind as he was walking away and you get six months in jail, by jury "recommendation". If that happened now there would be a public outcry and an appeal. But in 1902 it went unremarked. Yet another good example of how the "good old days" never really existed and, although far from perfect, we have improved.
Des, London, UK

Sorry but I don't see the big dilemma here. If your great-grandad was a killer, what does that have to do with you today. I mean some people would find it interesting but what's the deal about if you can or cannot tell family members.
Lizzie, London

This is a nice piece of reading, its only that I curse why we don't have such details back here and I can assure you we don't have records and if they exist they are poorly kept. I imagine going through a story of my relations over 90 years ago that's an impossibility here. Personally I would really want to know about my grandfather who am just told was a great man and to piece together how I came to be related with some people for I have never had answers. Anyway she was lucky to have the information online.
Opere Ferdinand, Kampala

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