Criminal records

Every now and again the family historian in me emerges as I investigate a new research resource and type ‘Ming’ into the index. Being an unusual name, there is always the chance I might be distantly related to someone who turns up in the results list. I tried this with the Proceedings of The Old Bailey – and felt a frisson of excitement as a defendant with the same name and of a similar age to my great-grandfather appeared in the results.

The Proceedings of The Old Bailey is one of the most interesting historical resources to be made available online since the census, covering almost 200,000 criminal trials from 1674 to 1913. At our disposal is the tantalising prospect of listening to the voices of ordinary people giving their accounts in cases of highway robbery, pocketpicking and barratry (vexatious litigation) as well as murder, deception and theft. The vocabulary and language alone are worthy of study, as are the accounts of the plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses as they each give their version of the case. Punishments were horrific for the worst offences: death and dissection, drawing and quartering, hanging in chains, and even burning; so many defendants were pleading for their lives.

Thomas Ming, 30, was one of the defendants accused of ‘feloniously forging and uttering a bill of exchange, with intent to defraud’ in a case which went to trial in November 1878. Tales of my great-grandfather handed down through the family of money won and lost, begged and borrowed, made it distinctly possible that he may perhaps have overstepped the mark. Absorbed as I was in reading the account of Ming’s trial I wondered if a spell in prison was the reason my ancestor was missing from home in the 1881 census. Ming and his accomplice were found guilty and sentenced to five years penal servitude. A quick search in the census found that the Thomas Ming in prison in Portsea in 1881 was not my great-grandfather and I admit to being slightly disappointed. However perhaps a former owner of one of my clients’ properties will have made an appearance at The Old Bailey, as a witness of course, and I can use this intriguing resource in the day job as well.

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