Cheryl - Who Do You Think You Are?

Mariner ancestors and a great grandfather none of the family spoke about...

14th December 2016


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Cheryl was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 30 June 1983 and rose to fame on the TV talent show Pop Stars the Rivals where she won a place in the band Girls Aloud. After a series of Top Ten hits, Cheryl joined the judging panel on the X-Factor programme and launched her solo career. Since then, she has become the first British female to have five solo number ones singles in the UK.

Cheryl's birth 1983 from the BMD records on TheGenealogist

Born as Cheryl Ann Tweedy she was her mother's fourth child out of five - though she is the eldest of the two children that Joan Callaghan had with Garry Tweedy. Joan had previously been married and had three children from this relationship whom Garry took on when he and Joan got together. Though Joan and Garry never married they were together for more than a decade before, when Cheryl was eleven years old, they also separated.

Cheryl's parental line is from Tyneside. We can see, from the death records on TheGenealogist, that her grandfather, Brian Tweedy, had died in 1980 three years before she was born. Brian was still a relatively young man in his thirties when he died and Cheryl's dad, Garry, was just 17 at the time. Moving back up the line, we can find that her great grandfather William and great grandmother Nora Kelso had married in 1939 and they appear in the marriage records on TheGenealogist.

Research shows that there were, not surprisingly, a number of coal miners in Cheryl's family. Tracing further back in the Kelso branch, however, reveals several mariners: Cheryl's 4 x great grandfather John Wood Laing – who married Caroline from landlocked Leicestershire – and his brother James. Cheryl admitted to researchers that she dislikes the sea, but she's fascinated by the Laings.

"So there's James Laing, mariner; John Wood Laing, mariner; his wife Caroline; and then the father of those is also a mariner. Two generations (of mariners). I didn't see that coming at all. Not at all. Coalminers, yeah, maybe. I really love that idea about mariners. It's interesting (about my sea heritage) because I hate the sea. I've always been afraid of it. I used to have really bad dreams when I was little about drowning in the sea, being an old woman with a headscarf on and I was the old woman. Isn't that weird?"

Cheryl was astonished to find the 1845 mariner's ticket in the archives of Newcastle's Discovery Museum for her ancestor John Wood Laing. This document reveals that his birth year was 1826 so making him just 19 when he went to sea for a living.

The archives also have a copy of a remarkable photograph of Cheryl's 4 x great grandparents that Cheryl is shown on her visit. It is unusually relaxed and seems affectionate in the way it is posed with John resting his hand on his wife's shoulder and Caroline touches his thigh.

"You just get a real sense they were crazy about each other" said Cheryl.

The programme sees Cheryl heading to North Shields at the mouth of the River Tyne, where John and Caroline lived and worked in the early 1850s. Cheryl's 4 x great grandparents were a young couple living in the crowded "low town" where they would have been in amongst the unsavoury side of port life. Being the wife of a man who was working away at sea much of the time would mean women, like Caroline, had to be strong. We can see that at census time, in 1851, Caroline (misspelled as Cariline) was recorded at 2 Gibson Bank. This was a property with multiple occupiers and there is no sign of John as it just Caroline, her daughter and her visiting 19 year old sister.

1851 North Shields census on TheGenealogist

Following the track of John Laing's career at sea, research shows that his conduct and sobriety were judged by his superiors to be very good. Regrettably this was not the case for his younger brother, James Laing, who went to sea as a ship's carpenter. On a voyage to the Far East he went AWOL and was put in irons for his misdemeanor. On being caught he then struck the ship's mate and called him "a bloody snot." Learning about this Cheryl said:

"James was quite an intriguing character. And obviously he liked a bit of the naughty side. When we were younger, if you know, a friend or a family member got into trouble, you'd say 'you little toe-rag', so James to me seems to be that member of the family. I kind of like him. I've got a little bit of a soft spot for him"

In contrast, to his wayward brother, Cheryl's 4 x great grandfather John rose to the rank of master mariner and so became a merchant ship's captain. The family climbed the social ladder thanks to this promotion and moved house into North Shields' salubrious "high town".

"When I first started off researching about John Wood, I was finding out that he, you know, that he lived in a poor area and he wasn't really in a good, good way for his wife and having a young baby, so I was a bit concerned about that and what happened thereafter. And to find out that actually it improved is such an amazing thing to, to witness and to discover. And I feel like in a way that's kind of what happened with me, so I relate to the fact that you have to work, you know, hard work pays off."

In August 1857 John set sail for Quebec on his ship La Belle. As Master he had picked his own crew and Cheryl is not surprised to see that John's younger brother James was on the list.

"It's just typical Geordie mentality to always keep your family involved. I'm sure any other master wouldn't have wanted James aboard given his previous, but I guess that John could have kept James in check... and he'd have liked to give him another opportunity and chance to earn some money, I suppose. And that's very typical still now with the Geordie mentality."

Tragedy struck the La Belle during her return journey from Quebec - she was last seen on the St. Lawrence River in November of 1857. Lost at sea in the icy waters, Cheryl's 4 x great grandfather, his brother James, and all of his crew were presumed to have drowned. The records show that John and Caroline's son was born in 1858 and so Caroline Laing had fallen pregnant just before John sailed for Quebec. Sadly John would never meet their son, Cheryl's 3 x great grandfather John Wood Laing Jr. The census of 1861 reveals the repercussions of her husband's death for Caroline Laing. She was now listed as a charwoman – a dramatic fall in circumstance from the wife of a ship's captain.

1861 census Tynemouth at TheGenealogist

Turning to research Cheryl's maternal line and we find that her grandmother, Olga, had a twin sister called Rene. The twin's mother, Cheryl's great grandmother, was called Edith Annie and Cheryl's mother Joan believed that the twins had a number of other siblings, who could have been adopted. Joan never knew her grandfather and from the information on the girl's marriage certificates Cheryl discovers that her great grandfather's name had been Joseph Wilson Ridley. These records show that his death occurred before 1952, prior to either of his daughters getting married.

Cheryl's family knew little about Joseph. Research has now shown that in December 1914 Joseph Ridley volunteered, at the age of 33, for the Durham Light Infantry and was sent to France.

"I find it like pretty amazing that my Mam's grandfather has been completely forgotten, considering he fought in the First World War. You would think there would be tales and stuff like that passed down but nobody seems to know anything."

We can find, from the military records on TheGenealogist, that Cheryl's great grandfather had fought in WWI with service number 22535. He was promoted from the rank of Private, to Lance Corporal and finally to Sergeant. A search for his medal card shows us his entitlement to the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1914/15 Star.

Joseph Ridley's Campaign Medals in the Military collections on TheGenealogist

The son of a miner, we can see from the 1901 census that Joseph was a Flour Warehouseman at a mill. By the 1911 census, however, Joseph had now become an employee of the Co-op as a Grocery Warehouseman, an occupation he held when he joined the army to go away to war. The 1911 census also gives us the name of his wife, Mary Ann and this is obviously not Cheryl's great grandmother as she was called Edith Annie.

1901 census Durham on TheGenealogist

1911 Durham census on TheGenealogist

We find the reason for this when searching TheGenealogist's death records as Mary Ann Ridley's entry comes to light in the second quarter of 1930.

Death records for district of Lanchester 1930 on TheGenealogist

When Joseph's wife, Mary Ann died in 1930, he managed to obtain the services of a housekeeper. With a family of young children, the arrival of Mrs Edith Burton must have been a godsend for him. At some stage Joseph and Edith got romantically involved and went on to have twin daughters and these are Olga and Renee. From a record point of view Cheryl's grandmother and great-aunt are interesting subjects. Although they were born in 1932, they were only registered with the registrar in 1939 when they appear as handwritten additions to the 1932 GRO records under two different surnames - those of Burton and Ridley. The same double entry of surnames appear again in the March quarter of 1939, possibly the date that their parents got around to registering them. Could this have been connected with the need for ration cards with the approach of World War II? While their mother, Edith's maiden name is given each time as Sanders it brings us to the conclusion that she was still legally Mrs Burton when the twins were born. The officials at the register office would have required that this surname to be recorded.

By using the marriage records on TheGenealogist we are able to track Edith's marriage to Joseph E Burton in 1915 but not a marriage to Joseph Ridley. When it came to the time for the girls to marry, the surname that they both used, however, was Ridley.

GRO Registration of the twins, Olga and Renee via TheGenealogist Birth and Baptism records

Known in later life as "old man Ridley", Joseph reputedly got angry easily, was troubled by his experiences in the war and drank to forget.

"…that explains so much…why he was never talked about. And he had, in the end, eleven children – which is what my mum said. And yeah, my great nanna must have been the young housekeeper that got involved with Mr…old man Ridley."

A photograph of Joseph Wilson Ridley, in his First World War army uniform, revealed a good looking man. The collar badge tells researchers that he was a Pioneer and so would have had the job of building roads and railways and digging trenches, often without cover so risking the fire from enemy snipers as they dug. Many of the Pioneers had been miners before being called up and so were used to hard physical labour. Joseph was a former grocery warehouse man, but by rising to be an NCO shows he could cut it in their world.

"I always heard about trenches and how they were used but I never really thought about how they were made. And knowing that Joseph was part of the labour of that is a big deal…helping the soldiers survive."

The Pioneers didn't just perform engineering and construction tasks, they also fought the enemy. In September 1916, Joseph and his battalion headed towards the Somme. In the BBC programme Cheryl meets a battlefield guide near the village of Guillemont, which the British had already tried three times to take from German control – failing in each attempt. She learns that in that month in 1916 Joseph's battalion took the village, suffering nearly 2,000 casualties in the process, but defending it against enemy recapture.

"It's actually surreal to think that we're stood here like a hundred years later with the luxuries we now have because of their sacrifice."

After this battle, Joseph was given a promotion to Lance Corporal in the place of a man who'd died.

"He would have had to have proven himself and worked hard to do so and I find it really…quite lovely, under the circumstances. I'm really proud of him."

The show sees Cheryl visit the Pozières memorial and pay her respects to soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry who never made it back home. Thinking about her great grandfather's reputed temper and troubled soul she says:

"Back in them days nobody knew about post-traumatic stress or really understood or even cared really about the aftercare for soldiers that survived. So I'm, I'm really not surprised that he was drinking excessively. He probably needed some form of escape. And I'm sure that you would become quite an angry person after you'd experienced some of the horrific things they did here."

Discovering what she has, including the fact that he and Edith Annie had had children without marrying, has made it clearer to Cheryl as to why her great grandfather was such a mystery in the family.

"It really makes sense now, it all comes together as to why nobody really spoke about Joseph and he was a kind of a mystery in the family. He may have had a bit of a reputation afterwards of being a little bit disturbed and he probably didn't want to talk about his war stories. I think there was a lot of men who didn't really talk about their war experiences and therefore nobody else did either. And I would guess part of it was because my great-grandma was his housekeeper and in those days having children out of wedlock was seriously frowned upon. So he was always a mystery and now I can put a man to that mystery."

Joseph Wilson Ridley death occurred in 1951 and he had been almost forgotten about in the intervening years by Cheryl's family - with her mother Joan, born eight years after his passing, not even being told his name.

About the family history that she has discovered in this investigation Cheryl says:

"This whole experience has really told me that it's true when they say Northerners are made of tough stuff. There's just a great sense of resilience and strength there, and the fact that I'm from the North East all that time ago on both sides just is proof to me that what I thought and what I felt is the truth."

Press release from IJPR on behalf of the programme makers
BBC images

14th December 2016


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