• Julie Bishop appears in Season 11 of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' (SBS)Source: SBS
As Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop lived a life as smoothly organised as a military operation where everything was scheduled down to the last minute.
Sharon Verghis

SBS Voices
25 Jun 2020 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 25 Jun 2020 - 9:36 AM

Julie Bishop visited a hundred countries in the five years of her foreign ministry tenure and says she "enjoyed every minute of it." In her search for the roots of her own story, however, she finds herself well and truly in uncharted territory. Her ancestral detective hunt across England for SBS’s Who Do You Think You Are? takes her from the 19th-century anti-slave trade movement to historic maritime battles to peculiar Victorian social codes governing illegitimacy. She finds herself, as she says ruefully later, well outside her comfort zone.

It was expected she would stay and work the land according to family tradition but “I wanted an adventure,” she says.

Born the third of four children in 1956, Bishop was raised on an Adelaide Hills property farmed by five generations of her family. It was expected she would stay and work the land according to family tradition but “I wanted an adventure,” she says. From a young age, she would wonder what lay beyond the boundaries of the family farm. In the figure of her two-times great-grandfather on the paternal side, John Brock Fry (J.B. as he was known), she would find another great wanderer and adventurer seeking a big life out in the world.

Bishop’s hunt begins in Broadstairs, Kent, where a young J.B. worked in a local bakery and “almost certainly” delivered bread to a holidaying Charles Dickens when he was in town. Dickens, it turns, out, is Bishop’s favourite author and possibly her ancestor’s too; she later discovers J.B. had a full set of the author’s novels, a rare asset for a poor young man of those times.

At 16, Fry joins the navy, and a big life unfurls on board the Athol, part of the West African squadron of the Royal Naval fleet fighting the transatlantic slave trade. Following Britain’s passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, almost 60 years before the US abolished slavery, Royal Navy squadrons patrolling the West African coast helped rescue more than 200,000 Africans en route to the Americas. “I’m fascinated by history and knowing he was part of the British effort to stamp out slavery is a source of pride for me.”

Fry’s heroics continue on his next ship, the Colossus, where he is part of fierce sea battles in the Baltic following the eruption of the Crimean war in 1853 (he later earns a medal for bravery). He joins the merchant ship the Orient, travels to Turkey and India, and then jumps ship when it arrives in South Australia in 1857, going on become a respected teacher. “He was such an intriguing man,” she says. “He went through events that turned the tide of history.”

Her maternal line is seeded in grimmer ground. In Wiltshire, Bishop picks up the trail of her four times great-grandmother, Dinah Dalimor, born in 1765 into penury and later imprisoned for the crime of having too many children – she had four – out of wedlock.

Bishop, to her surprise, here learns of a curious Victorian social phenomenon, one which social historian Peter Laslett dubbed ‘the bastardy prone sub-society’ where illegitimacy was tolerated and even encouraged in poorer communities as children were seen as an economic asset and proof of fertility before women married. Dinah, however, transgressed this social code by having one too many children.

Her granddaughter Jemima is born, too, into desperate poverty and social disadvantage (Victorian social chronicler William Cobbett would later describe the Wiltshire working class as “the worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth. Dogs and hogs and horses are treated with more civility”) but she and her labourer husband Thomas manage to reinvent their fortunes after securing passage in 1846 to South Australia in a government emigration scheme for labourers and domestic servants “of good character.”

Standing on a serene patch of the South Australian countryside which Jemima and Thomas bought and which served as their base for prosperity, Bishop ponders her family history of risk-taking and restlessness, “one of not always conforming, being absolutely determined to do better -  and that’s what I always did, especially in politics.  As my mother always said, ‘you go this way but once’.”

If this journey has taught her anything, it is how strongly her private beliefs, echoed, as she learns to her surprise, by family experience over generations, have shaped her public life.

If this journey has taught her anything, it is how strongly her private beliefs, echoed, as she learns to her surprise, by family experience over generations, have shaped her public life.

In Dinah’s granddaughter Jemima, she sees the roots of her own belief in the power of enterprise, effort and social mobility that underlies Australia’s egalitarian ethos. In sailor, teacher and adventurer John Brock Fry, she sees the antecedents of her drive for social justice through her work on various global humanitarian initiatives as Australia’s Foreign Minister.

She is fascinated, particularly, by the parallels between his time fighting the slave trade and her own work with the Walk Free Foundation while in government. “I was deeply involved in the initiatives that sought to eliminate modern slavery, and I was instrumental in the passage of the Modern Slavery Act through our Parliament in 2018.”

“I can’t help but think that JB Fry would be shocked to learn that so many years after his heroic actions, there would remain millions of people in what we would consider modern slavery so many generations later.”

Her takeaway lesson from the journey?

“I think I observed that people all over the world and throughout history cannot accept injustice where the system is designed to deprive them of the same rights that others enjoy.

“People can accept reasonable levels of inequality but they cannot accept injustice.”

“Learning a little about [my] history …has reinforced my belief that individuals can make a difference to the life of their times.”

A timely lesson about the power of individual action in these troubled times? “Indeed it is.”


Sharon Verghis is a writer and editor. Find her on twitter @sverghis

Who Do You Think You Are? airs weekly at 7.30pm Tuesdays on SBS and SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #WDYTYA