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Red herrings and lucky breaks: researching your family history

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 15:00 UK time, Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Sometimes when researching family history a little piece of luck lands at your feet which can prove to be an enormous help over an obstinate historical hurdle.

When I was asked to research Cilla Black's family history for Coming Home the first thing I did was read her autobiography and learned to my dismay that she was born Priscilla White.

Cilla Black

My heart filled with dread at the thought of working my way laboriously through millions of people with the White surname, trying to work out which branches were red herrings.

But very quickly I realised that it was her first name Priscilla and not her surname that was going to be the key. Following a hunch I ignored her English father's side of the family and focused on maternal research. As luck would have it Cilla Black (AKA Priscilla White) was the not first person with that name but the fourth! Her mother, great grandmother and great x 3 grandmother were all called Priscilla

So breathing a sigh of relief I was able to start filling in the family tree with the vital details which create the depth of information required, not just for a celebrity participating in a TV programme but for anyone interested in their ancestors' real lives beyond the flat 2D tree created on a computer.

I spent may happy hours in the Flintshire archives in Hawarden meticulously working my way through the records searching for evidence. By this stage I had gone beyond the normal birth, death and marriage indexes and needed something to put the flesh onto the bones of Cilla's ancestors.

Imagine the feeling when I stumbled across the admission and discharge records for the local workhouse and learned to my amazement that Cilla's great grandmother Priscilla Simon was born a Tuesday in 1842 and that by the Friday her mother, Sophia Simon, was back earning her keep by earthing potatoes!

It seems as if the whole family was stricken with poverty. On the 1851 census, Priscilla Simon is aged nine living in Mold with her grandmother Priscilla Simon, a 63-year-old former charwoman and now pauper. Incidentally, on the 1841 she is aged 50, yet when she died in 1865 her age is given as 82, which is great example of how not to trust the ages on census records or perhaps simply confirmation that people truly did not know how old they were.

I was able to trace a living first cousin of Cilla's mother and she told us that it was Priscilla Simon's first-born son Joseph who broke the poverty cycle by walking from Wrexham to Liverpool in search of work and a better life for himself and his family - and Cilla is living evidence that his decision was the right one.

Read Cat's earlier blog posts about researching your family tree.

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