Although he was born in Melbourne, actor and singer Jason Donovan has strong connections with the UK. His father, wife and two children were all born in England and he lives in West London.
But what about his Australian ancestry? While Jason has long heard stories about his father’s forebears from Notting Hill and Kensington, he knows little about his mother’s side of the family. “Maybe this is the opportunity in my life to go back a bit to my roots,” he says at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, “but I’m going to this pretty blind and that’s maybe one of the reasons why I’m doing it.
First, Jason flies to Melbourne and a meeting with his father, actor Terence Donovan. Although Jason is estranged from his mother, actor turned TV presenter Sue McIntosh, Sue’s mother Joan was an important figure in Jason’s life and helped look after him when he was growing up. Joan put together a file of information on her family history for Jason, which Terence now keeps.
For a man from a showbiz family, the first figure that captures Jason’s imagination is his great grandmother, Eileen Lyons, “Australia’s charming soprano”. Visiting his mother’s cousin, Judy, he sees an early contract. In the early 1900s, she earned £2 a week with impresario JC Williamson, performing in musical theatre, and she also trod the boards in vaudeville. Her career ended with her marriage in 1913. She curtailed a comeback in 1941 because her eldest daughter’s marriage failed and Eileen stepped in to raise her granddaughter, Judy.
Going back further, Jason learns that, like many in Australia, he’s partly descended from convicts sent to the continent when it was first being colonised. Eileen’s grandfather, Joseph, was an East End scrap metal and junk dealer transported to Tasmania, an island off mainland Australia, for handling stolen goods.
Unusually, at a time when transportation often signalled the end of relationships, Joseph was eventually joined by his wife, Rosetta. Jewish, he was helped out by a Jewish family and eventually earned a pardon in 1849. Joseph and Rosetta eventually returned to London. Jason is both pleased to confirm family stories of Jewish roots and moved by the “camaraderie of the community” that helped Joseph re-build his life.
Next, Jason turns his attention to the family of his maternal grandfather. Going back seven generations, Jason’s forebear William Cox, who was born in Dorset in 1764, came out to Australia on a convict ship. The scene seems set for another tale of bad behaviour harshly punished.
But that’s not how things turn out. William, records show, was a military man who volunteered to go to Australia. On the ship Minerva, he was responsible for guarding and looking after the convicts. When he arrived in New South Wales, William became an important man, a landowner, property developer and magistrate.
He was also a central figure in one of the most important episodes in Australian history. In 1814, the colony in and around Sydney faced a huge problem. Rapidly growing, it was hemmed in by mountains, yet good farming land that would enable the colony to expand further lay beyond. The colonists needed to build a road across the formidable Blue Mountains, sandstone highlands. William headed the team building the road.
Jason gets an idea of the task when he visits the area. “To attempt to actually build a road across this landscape is absolutely awesome,” he says. “It absolutely takes your breath away.” William not only succeeded in his task, but he did it in six months without losing a man despite facing such obstacles as the 1,000m sheer drop at Mount York. A route to open up the wider continent for colonisation had been established. “I have to say this journey has made me very proud to be an Australian,” says Jason. He’s also pleased that it’s a story that originates from his mother. “That’s a good thing,” he says.