Since rising to fame with girl group Girls Aloud, Cheryl has gone on to become a platinum-selling solo artist, judge on The X Factor, and one of the most photographed women in the world.
Cheryl grew up on a Newcastle housing estate as one of five children. She now lives in London but feels like she is deeply rooted in the North East, with her paternal side “Geordie to the core”. She begins her episode of Who Do You Think You Are? by meeting her dad back in Heaton, who reveals that there were several mariners in her family.
To learn more about her seafaring connections, Cheryl heads to the Discovery Museum in Newcastle, where she is presented with a record for her 4x great grandfather John Wood Laing, showing that he became a mariner’s apprentice in 1845.
She also finds an old photograph of John with his wife, Caroline, in an unusually relaxed pose for Victorian times. They were married in 1849 in North Shields, which Cheryl visits and sees they lived in the ‘low town’ – a rough area. However, from the photo, John looks like he was doing well, and concludes it was probably taken to celebrate his ‘graduation’ to Master Mariner at the age of 29.
Through various documents, Cheryl discovers that John became the captain of the ship La Belle, sailing to Quebec in 1857. He even took along his troublesome brother, James (also a mariner), who had previously been “put in irons” for punching one of his superiors while serving in Hong Kong.
Sadly, Cheryl sees a crew list for the voyage to Quebec, revealing that La Belle sank on the way back home to England, never to be seen again. Caroline was left a widow at 29, and forced to become a charwoman doing odd jobs – a huge step down in status and financially.
It marks a sad end to a branch of her family that Cheryl found herself able to relate to – particularly the hard work John must have put in to succeed.
Moving on to her mother’s side of the family, Cheryl decides to investigate her elusive great grandfather, who was never mentioned while she growing up.
By ordering the marriage certificates for his twin daughters, Cheryl discovers that his name was Joseph Wilson Ridley, a grocery warehouse man. She also finds that he was a soldier during the First World War, serving with the Durham Light Infantry. However, various records indicate that Joseph’s wife was a lady named Mary Ann – not her great grandmother, Edith Annie.
While heading across the Channel to learn about her great grandfather’s wartime experiences, a letter from a distant relative reveals that Edith had actually been Joseph’s housekeeper, falling pregnant with Cheryl’s grandmother and sister shortly after Mary died. The couple never married, causing great scandal within the family.
Arriving in Ypres, Cheryl speaks to military historian Dr Helen McCartney, who explains that Joseph served within the 11th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, a pioneers battalion mainly tasked with digging trenches. Although 95 per cent of the men were miners and used to the backbreaking physical work, Joseph wasn’t and would have had a tough time “proving himself”.
During the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, the pioneers were ordered to prepare the ground for one final push to take the village of Guillemont – extremely dangerous, harrowing work.
Although Joseph survived, eventually returning home in 1919, he would have experienced untold scenes of death and destruction during his five years of service. Cheryl says this explains why relatives had often viewed him as an angry old drunk, who was never spoken of. Despite this, she still feels proud of her great grandfather’s wartime service.
After paying her respects to the men of the Durham Light Infantry at the Pozièrs Memorial, Cheryl reflects on what she has discovered during her Who Do You Think You Are? experience. Overall, she is delighted to have unearthed such strong Geordie characters in her family tree.
“My journey has taught me that it’s true that northeners are made of tough stuff and there’s a great sense of resilience,” she says. “What I thought and what I felt was the truth.”