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Tracing my roots: Debtors, 'lunatics' and sailors – meet my family

The sale of ancestry.com for $1.6bn demonstrates our appetite for Genealogy. And when researchers from the TV show Find My Past offered Ian Burrell the chance, he couldn't resist

I was at school when I sat down with a note pad and asked my grandfather about his life. Decades later there remained something disturbing and unexplained about one of his hazy childhood memories.

As a small boy in Lancashire he had briefly been taken to meet his grandmother in an unnamed and plainly forbidding institution. Until last week, the reasons for her separation were allowed to remain as one of those dark, family mysteries.

Genealogy has become a modern-day fixation, a once painstaking process that has been propelled by the internet and a hunger to see if our family trees could be as fascinating as those of famous personalities featured on programmes such as the BBC1's Who Do You Think You Are?

My own search for rich ancestral stories was to be aided by Megan Cherie Owens, a genealogy expert from Find My Past on Yesterday TV, a show that takes a back-to-front approach to the subject by taking famous moments in British history – such as the Great Fire of London – and tracing the living descendants of the principal characters.

Megan had only a couple of days to trace my roots and she managed it from her computer keyboard, a feat unthinkable a decade ago when long journeys to thumb through dusty archives or squint at fading tombstones in country churchyards were the dedicated genealogist's lot.

My chief clue for her was my unusual middle name, Merrick, most commonly associated with the Elephant Man, John Merrick, (thanks for that), but also the favourite Christian name of a long line of Burrells stretching back to a Sir Merrick Burrell (b 1699), who merits an entry in Burke's Peerage, no less. As my father and grandfather were both called Merrick it stood to reason, I thought, there was a drop or two of blue blood in the veins.

But as Megan explained, it doesn't quite work like that. Apparently, Pocahontas is the ancestor most commonly claimed in erroneous family folklore. Although we found a long line of Merricks, Merrics and even a Merrie (minor variations in spelling and literal errors are a genealogist's bugbear) dating back to 1807, there was no connection to the Burke's Peerage line. Instead, they were cotton-mule spinners, reelers and weavers from the mills of Oldham, where my grandfather was born and where his father married into a line of pub landlords from nearby Bury.

The online archives are extraordinary. It's not just the births, marriages and deaths listed on findmypast.co.uk and rival site ancestry.co.uk, there are military records, travel documents and work files that are searchable. The British Newspaper Archive is another rich source.

So I found in Perry's Bankrupt Gazette of 1832 that Merric Burrell, a waiter from London, had gone to Oldham to form a wine-dealing partnership, got into debt and ended up in the mills. His son – my great-great-great grandfather Charles Merric – born in St Mary's, Kennington, London, in 1830 would have been a baby when the family trekked north. He became a "maker-up" in the cotton factories.

I knew from my childhood interview that as an eight-year-old boy my grandfather had headed in the opposite direction with his family when the naval dockyards were expanding ahead of the First World War. They set up home in Sackville Street, Portsmouth, and my grandfather married the daughter of a skilled labourer from Portsmouth Dockyard from nearby Elm Street.

With Megan's help we traced back through a line of bosun's mates, naval mariners, and Royal Marines. It appeared that my ancestors worked as clerks in Portsmouth Dockyard in the early 19th century at the same time as John Dickens, whose novelist son Charles was born at that time. An entry in the 1851 census gave insight into the living conditions of the time, with three branches of my family living only three doors apart in the same Portsmouth street, Park Lane.

Unusual names are a wonderful thing for genealogists, so the maternal Brown side of my family represents a major challenge. Alfred Brown, my great-grandfather, produced 47 matches on our first search. He was a father of 13 children, of which only eight survived. He was also a man of the sea, a "yacht captain" as he styled himself in the 1911 census, a noticeable upgrade from his entry as a Portsmouth-based "mariner" in 1891. The yacht belonged to the estate of Balnagown Castle, ancestral home of the Ross Clan in the Highlands of Scotland, where several of Alfred's children were born.

I was able to trace details of girls pictured in fading photos in the family album, such as great-great aunties Martha and Rose, who went into nursing and domestic service. Intriguingly, the name Brown turns out to be not so common-or-garden after all but a corruption of Le Brun, via Le Brown, relating to my ancestor Louis, an umbrella maker from Lisbon, who in 1851 was living with his wife, a London-born staymaker, in a sidestreet behind the Guildhall in London.

A few hours at the computer, combing these family history sites, can teach us so much. Not just about how different things were but also how similar we are to our ancestors. Any genealogist will find that the prevalence of "illegitimate" births and multiple generations living under the same roof shows that the so-called modern family is no new invention.

New Zealander Megan can trace her roots to William Purss, a Surrey petty thief who was deported to Australia in 1849. She has become so immersed in her work that she has written Genealogy: the Musical about her singing ancestor Annie Curling.

But she is equally enthusiastic following my family tree. "You're really seafaring!" she exclaims at the discovery of yet another sailor. Not surprising for a Portsmouth boy, I suppose, but the frequency of references to beer sellers, wine dealers, and licensed victuallers was also remarkable, she told me. Destined to work in journalism, some might say.

And as for the mystery of my grandfather's grandmother – my great-great grandmother – we solved it. Mary Hannah Burrell, a fustian weaver (maker of corduroy) was admitted to the county asylum in Prestwich near Manchester in 1891 at the age of 36. We found that in the 1911 census her husband Merrick recorded that he had four children, of which only one survived.

We dug deeper and found references to a succession of Burrells who had died in Oldham in infancy in the years before Mary was admitted to the asylum. In that same census of 1911 she is registered, aged 56, among a long list of women of all ages, all branded with the description "lunatic". She died in 1921 aged 66, long after the family had moved south, having been locked away for 30 years. That was how society then dealt with post-natal trauma. Megan seemed more upset by the story than I was and encouraged me to head to the Greater Manchester County Record Office to find Mary's file.

Mary probably deserves that. And I have so many other leads to follow up that don't even require me to leave home. Genealogy has become easier thanks to the computer search, so that on every family tree there's plenty of low-hanging fruit, ripe with interesting stories that might make you reconsider what you're made of.

'Find My Past' airs on Yesterday TV, on Tuesdays at 9pm