Actor William Roache, best known for playing Ken Barlow on Coronation Street, remembers his mother, Hester, as loving yet somehow distant. “She talked very little about her own childhood,” Ken says at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? He also recalls how Hester loathed her own father, Albert Waddicor, said to have been a drinker.

To learn more about Hester’s family, William heads to Derbyshire to visit his late cousin’s wife, Peggy, who has an archive of family documents. These include pictures taken between the two world wars at Alton Towers, where William’s grandmother Zillah looked after the catering.

A visit to the former country seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury reveals this meant far more than running a tea shop. After the 20th earl died, the house was sold to a consortium of local businessmen and reopened as a tourist attraction. Upwards of 250,000 day-trippers visited every summer. Zillah’s restaurant offered dining for more than 1,000 people at a sitting. In addition, she owned a café opposite Alton station. Zillah was a successful entrepreneur, in keeping with William’s memories of someone with “a towering personality”.

William’s grandfather Albert, however, seems curiously elusive. He’s absent, for example, from old photographs of Zillah’s foreign holidays. The 1928 marriage certificate for William’s parents describes him simply as a “gentleman”.

The 1911 census tells a slightly different story, showing Albert’s occupation as “ices, & temperance drinks”. More specifically, he and Zillah sold ice creams and pop from a booth-like ‘shanty shop’ on Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Here, it seems, was where Zillah learnt her business skills.

Going back a generation, Albert’s father James was a ‘medical electrician’at a time when the Victorians believed shocks could cure ‘nervous diseases’. He was also a phrenologist, someone who felt the bumps on people’s heads to determine their personalities. Exotic professions, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about James is that he’s listed in the 1881 census records as a quarryman in Darwen, Lancashire. He was a man who saw an opportunity to better himself by moving to Blackpool when it was booming because of the tourist trade.

Like Zillah, he was clearly canny in business because he left an estate worth £4,792, a considerable sum in 1904. Unusually, he didn’t name Albert as an executor in his will, but his wife and entrepreneurial daughter-in-law. In addition, his son didn’t inherit James’s properties, which were held in trust for Hester’s sister, May, although Albert was granted limited access to the rental incomethey generated.

It’s difficult to know exactly why this was, but a clue may lie in the fact that two of Albert’s daughters lived at times with relatives. Could it be Albert was so violent and drunken that his children were sent away for their own safety? Hester, William now realises, went to stay with an aunt when she was a baby.

“I think she didn’t know how to be more openly loving,” says William, sadly, of Hester. “I would say that I love her even more now and I would like to have told her that.”