• Lisa Wilkinson explains why she wanted to appear on 'Who Do You Think You Are?' (SBS)Source: SBS
Lisa Wilkinson says mother’s sadness was buried behind a gentle suburban identity as “a wonderful homemaker and wonderful mother".
By
Sharon Verghis

22 May 2020 - 12:10 PM  UPDATED 22 May 2020 - 12:10 PM

Lisa Wilkinson’s search for her roots took her on a surprising journey. From Roman Catholic orphanages to female work factories, from British military forts in South India to a quiet western Sydney cemetery, her family story winds around the figures of two female ancestors who stood tall amid tragedy.

As part of the new season of SBS’s Who Do You Think You Are?, the veteran Australian television presenter set out to find the missing pieces of her late mother Beryl’s story. 

Her mother’s childhood was dark and sad, casting a long shadow over the family growing up, Wilkinson says. 

Lisa Wilkinson brought to tears as family history is uncovered
Lisa Wilkinson's journey on 'Who Do You Think You Are?' was an emotional one.

The illegitimate child of a neglectful mother, abused by two stepfathers, occasionally farmed out to orphanages, only accidentally discovering her real father’s identity when she was in her 50s – he turned out to be the journalist son of a prominent Sydney mayor and federal politician -  Beryl’s psychic scars ran deep.

Her mother’s sadness, Wilkinson says, was buried behind a gentle suburban identity as “a wonderful homemaker and wonderful mother. She worked very hard to try to mask it, to be stoic and resilient… but her childhood never left her”.

"She worked very hard to try to mask it, to be stoic and resilient… but her childhood never left her.”

Her mother Marie’s own emotional scars made her ill-equipped for mothering.

“She was a shell of sadness, and to some degree, a shell of resentment as well, and I think that carried through to my mother,” says Wilkinson of her maternal grandmother. “I know my mother tried very hard to forgive her mother for all those years when she basically rejected her and made her life a living turmoil. I don’t know if she ever did forgive her - but I know she tried.”

For Wilkinson, her journey for answers meant something far bigger than just a curious trawl through the family tree. 

She went looking to find out not just who her mother really was – but who her mother might have been if she hadn’t been so damaged by her childhood. 

What she found on her journey hit her hard, she says - a pattern of generational neglect, institutionalisation and emotional and physical abuse: the sins of mothers visited on daughters.  

Eliza O’Brien, Wilkinson’s three times great-grandmother, emerges as a central figure in this story. A poverty-stricken Irish convict who came out to colonial Sydney in 1828, hers was a life of bitter tragedy: starvation, venereal disease, arrests for robbery and drunkenness, domestic violence, the death of a baby daughter from syphilis.   

She, like Beryl’s mother Marie, had no real tools to cope with life and motherhood but despite her hardships, Eliza fought hard to survive and protect her son after leaving her violent husband.  

That same tough, resilient streak comes through in another female ancestor on the paternal side, Wilkinson’s two times great-grandmother Ann Beech. 

That same tough, resilient streak comes through in another female ancestor on the paternal side, Wilkinson’s two times great-grandmother Ann Beech.

Ann came to Australia as an infant in 1840 but at age six, was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in India after her mother dies and her father falls into penury. Like something out of a Kipling tale, Ann’s world is transformed almost overnight from destitution in colonial Sydney to a life of luxury in colonial India where her uncle works as an army supplies procurement officer at Fort St George, the historic  military settlement built by the British East India Company in 1640. 

Wilkinson says she was shocked not just to find “a little bit of India in my family” but to be given a plane ticket by the show’s producers out of the blue during filming. 

“Going to Chennai, with all of the incredible kaleidoscope of colours and the heat and the dust…your senses are totally alive. For Ann, to be sent off from poverty in Sydney to live a life of absolute luxury and privilege here…she was so fortunate to have that happen to her.”

At 16, Ann marries decorated army officer Charles Wilkinson. They return to England but Charles and their young son child tragically die shortly after. Left a widow at age 28, Ann returns to Australia, the country she last saw as a little girl. Happily she thrives, living to a relatively old age.

Wilkinson finds, to her shock, that her ancestor is buried in a cemetery in Campbelltown that she used to walk past every day to school.

Wilkinson finds, to her shock, that her ancestor is buried in a cemetery in Campbelltown that she used to walk past every day to school. “It was a large, empty paddock with tall trees and there was something incredibly peaceful about it. All those years, I had been walking past her grave never knowing…”.

A tale of two women, polar opposites in most ways, but sharing that unconquerable instinct for survival: “it just blew me away,” she says. “One of the things that came out of that whole experience for me is that I am so lucky as a woman to be living in the times I do, with the opportunities I’ve been given.”

The biggest gift, however, has been that of forgiveness, she says.

There has been healing, a sense of closure in following the journeys of these women, especially that of Eliza’s. She did her best, against incredible odds, Wilkinson says. That, in the end - as with Marie and Beryl - is enough, perhaps. 

“As a woman in the 1800s, she couldn’t cop a break. She was an absolute victim of what it was to be a woman in those times when you are not born to privilege. And yet she kept going.”

Who Do You Think You Are? season 11 screens on Tuesdays at 7:30pm. You can catch up on episode 1 on SBS On Demand now.

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