As part of the new season of SBS’s Who Do You Think You Are?, the veteran Australian actor set off last year on an epic ancestral trail that took him from the cobblestoned backstreets of Sydney’s The Rocks to the Tasmanian hinterland to the small towns, churches and historic castles of the Channel Islands in search of ancestors ranging from pardoned convicts to immigrant bootmakers to European nobility going back to William the Conqueror.
The catalyst for this epic genealogical detective hunt? A longstanding mystery around the provenance of the family’s unusual surname.
"It was sort of the joke – where the hell are you all from?"
“We never knew where Daddo came from, so that was part of it,” he says. “No one in our family could give us a definitive answer. Mum has this idea that we were Spanish pirates! Who knows?...Also, being in the entertainment business for so long, people were always saying, so how many bloody Daddos are there [brothers Andrew and Lachlan are also famous Aussie showbiz names], it was sort of the joke – where the hell are you all from? So, yes, I was definitely curious.”
Daddo began his journey with the story of his maternal ancestor Elizabeth Bradshaw, a married English free settler who struck up a clandestine shipboard romance with a convicted curtain thief, Robert Gillet, who was being transported to Australia in the late 18th century.
History is written by the victors, and Bradshaw’s is the kind of extraordinary story that so often slips through the crack of our male-dominated colonial narrative.
Entrepreneurial, feisty, and resilient, her “colonial, renegade, can-do spirit” lives on the family DNA, Daddo says, from his mother and grandmother to his youngest child Bodhi: “it’s basically all about taking an opportunity…and always looking to make the best of something.”
Elizabeth’s outsized footprint is all over the family story.
In 1803, Gillet was sentenced to death for the theft of a barrel of pork; as he was trundled, weeping, in an open cart on his way to the gallows for a humiliatingly public execution - up to 80 people were hanged this way in Sydney each year - he was saved at the last minute by Elizabeth’s dramatic 11th-hour petition to the NSW Governor: “it was real edge-of-my-seat stuff,” Daddo says.
Her sale of their home for 27 pounds allowed them to seed a new, prosperous life on Norfolk Island: when the British closed down the fledgling colony, transporting 51 islanders on the Lady Nelson to Van Diemen’s Land in 1808, her business acumen saw them once again rebuild their lives as successful landowners.
Walking in their footsteps, Daddo pays a visit to the still-standing family home in the Tasmanian midlands, an old stone cottage with a date – 1825 – carved into the wall above the hearth. It was an emotional moment, he says; their whole hardscrabble journey has deeply resonated with his own experiences of rising from the ashes and having to rebuild a life after a setback.
As a child, his family moved to the United States where his family had to start from scratch; their return to Australia was similarly an uphill struggle to re-lay foundations. In the early 1990s, he and his wife, then Australian model Alison Brahe, moved to the US for his acting career. All three of their children were born there and they built a good life, but then “we went through the global financial crisis, we lost our home, lost our 401(k) retirement, and we got smashed.”
After some years of rebuilding, they decided to move back to Australia, “and we’re rebuilding again now. It’s on a different scale and level of what [my ancestors] went through but it’s why I relate to them, through my own feelings of how scary it is to rebuild - and how it’s happening again now with COVID-19.”
Daddo found himself drawing unexpected strength from his paternal backstory as well. His journey began on the island of Guernsey, where a pair of his ancestors had gotten married in 1860. Third cousins, they shared the same Daddo surname (“I was seeing banjos and buckteeth,” he jokes) and hailed from a line of Daddos originally from Cornwall and seeded in the Channel Islands by a pair of entrepreneurial boot-making brothers.
Here, Daddo, astonished, watches as a local historian carefully unrolls a scroll containing his family tree – 34 generations encompassing a thousand years of English history going back to William the Conqueror. From convict stock to landed nobility in a blink of an eye: “It was… wow,” he says, laughing. “A shock. I couldn’t believe it.”
At the nearby island of Jersey, he meets a distant cousin, Ned de Carteret, who tells him of another great love story: that of ancestor Phillip, wrongly accused of treason and imprisoned by a villainous local governor, who is saved at the last minute from a duel to the death by wife Margaret after she makes an emergency petition to the English king.
The parallels with another eleventh-hour reprieve brokered by another feisty female ancestor are inescapable.
Resilience, courage, the power of love and family bonds – those are some of the key lessons he’s gleaned from these two great love stories separated by geography and time. “It shows what love can do, and just reminds me that when I am in a place of difficulty, there’s always a way,” he says quietly.
“I’ve learnt to never discount the possibilities. It ain’t over til it’s over.”
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, starting 19 May and at SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #WDYTYA