A family laid bare


When Woodford Green resident Kelvin Bathie approached family historian Linda Gough, his aim was to find out more about his father’s Scottish background, but the outcome was something quite different and proved to be a perfect example of the fascination of family history research

Kelvin knew his family came from Scotland but not much more. When he told me his father’s name was Mensley Bathie, I was intrigued by the unusual first name. Bathie proved a relatively easy name to trace through the public records. I found an agricultural background and, as one relative was an auctioneer in farmland, animals and equipment, Bathie featured in newspaper articles and adverts.

The Bathie name moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the 1870s, where the occupations became industrial: engine fitter, electro-plater, cycle polisher. The family lived in Newcastle where Mensley was born in 1927. Kelvin was born in Cardiff, so the Bathie family went from Scotland to England to Wales.

As I was exploring the Newcastle records, the Mensley name popped up. Kelvin’s great grandfather, William Turnbull Bathie, had married Violetta Selina Mensley in 1898. I took a diversion along the Mensley line and found that Violetta had been one of seven daughters who all married, and so the Mensley name died out with them, explaining why the name was given to Kelvin’s father in 1927; to keep it alive.

Luckily, someone else had done work on the Mensley line on the Ancestry website and this was where things took a surprising turn. Violetta’s mother was Sarah Sayers, who had been only 15 when she married George Mensley. Sarah’s father was Tom Sayers, a famous bare-knuckle prize fighter, who became the world’s first heavyweight boxing champion in 1860. If you have an image in your mind of a bare-knuckle fighter, the chances are you are picturing Tom Sayers.

Tom was an illiterate bricklayer, born in Brighton, who lived in the slums of London. He had his first fight in 1849, aged 22. He was 5’ 8” and weighed around 150 pounds. There were no rules, no weight divisions and no time limits: two men beating each other until one didn’t get up. Tom’s final fight in 1860 became infamous. It ended in a draw – the only fight Tom did not win – after a battle lasting over two-and-a-half hours against a 6’ 2” American called John Camel Heenan. The police stormed the ring and stopped the fight. They shared the purse. According to various stories, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and the Prince of Wales were in the audience.

Tom died in 1865 of untreated diabetes and alcohol. Some 100,000 people lined the funeral route and the procession was accompanied by Tom’s bullmastiff dog, Lion, sitting in a cart. Tom was buried in Highgate Cemetery, where he has a magnificent memorial, which includes a statue of his dog. His daughter Sarah married George Mensley in 1866 when she was 15 years old. George was the editor of Sporting Life and a good friend of Tom Sayers.

For me, the highpoint of the research was asking Kelvin: “Have you heard of Tom Sayers, famous bare-knuckle fighter?” and when he replied yes, I was able to say: “Well, he is your great-great-great grandfather!”

Reflecting on this later, Kelvin said: “I thought I came from a beige line of dour, hardworking labourers and artisans, so your discovery of the notorious prize-fighter has really given me a new perspective on my family history.”

For more information on Linda’s work as a family historian, email lindafamilyhistorian@gmail.com or call 07900 294 681