London-born comedian Paul Merton was close to his parents.


His mum, he remembers at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are, encouraged him in his career simply by finding his antics funny.

“That joyful sound of your mother laughing is something that’s sort of stayed with me.”

Paul’s mother was fostered and, family stories suggest, her father died at sea.

Paul knows little about his dad’s side of the family.

There are plenty of blanks to fill in.

He begins by visiting his sister.

The two realise that at least one story – that their maternal grandmother, hearing her husband had died, went into premature labour and died in childbirth – isn’t true.

She outlived an infant son, but it seems all three died within a few days of each other.

“Perhaps [the trauma is] one of the reasons why my mother didn’t want to tell us about this stuff,” says Paul.

To learn more, Paul heads to the village of Passage East in County Waterford, Ireland, where his grandfather, James Power, was born in 1889.

The son of an agricultural labourer, James was found guilty of “riotous behaviour” in 1911.

His prospects wouldn’t have looked good.

During the First World War, James enlisted, but his military record suggests indiscipline.

Then, in 1916, he found himself on the streets of Dublin fighting not Germans, but Irish republicans during the Easter Rising.

His regiment, the Royal Irish, were later sent abroad and James fought at the battle of Jerusalem in December 1917.

Records show James returned his military medals.


Probably because he joined the IRA, in the 1920s the military wing of Irish republicanism.

In 1922, Ireland became independent, but there were few employment opportunities.

James left a young family to join the Merchant Navy as a fireman and trimmer, a tough job stoking furnaces.

In 1926, he travelled to South America aboard the steamer Sheaf Lance.

Arriving back in Wales, he disembarked.

There, his maritime records end.

That’s because he died, aged 37, probably of a heart attack, in April 1927, his body discovered in the Glamorganshire Canal.

Paul visits his unmarked grave.

“I’m the first member of the family to find out his final resting place,” he says, and resolves to “install a headstone”.

Paul now investigates his father’s side of the family.

Paul’s 3x and 2x great grandfathers, both called William Simmonds, are listed in records as “musicians”.

Moreover, Paul’s 2x great grandmother, Caroline Plunkett, is listed in the records of a Southwark workhouse, where as a teenager she gave birth, as a “vocalist”.

Caroline, it seems, was probably a busker.

Caroline also turns up in Old Bailey records, aged 14 or 15, as being involved in a street robbery.

Improbably, she was accused of hitting the victim with her banjo.

Caroline was sentenced to six months in Wandsworth Prison.

Visiting the jail, Paul learns she was held under a ‘separate and silent’ regime and, like all female prisoners, had to wear a veil to keep her from talking to or looking at fellow prisoners, a dehumanising experience.

She was released in 1868 and two years later married William.

“It’s great to learn that there’s a performance gene somewhere back in my deep past and I wasn’t the first one to embarrass myself publicly,” says Paul.


“Our family never really had a treasure trove of stories, but now there’s quite a few.”