Injustice, hard work and shock revelations are all part of John Jarratt’s family history.
“If I found out there was a cold-blooded murderer – that would be very upsetting. But I think beyond that, everything should be fine … hopefully!”
So says John Jarratt before embarking on his ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ journey in season 9 of the hit TV show. The iconic Australian actor didn’t know much about his family beforehand, which of course for fans of the show, is all part of the attraction.
The actor has played some pretty tough characters throughout his career, including Ned Kelly in The Last Outlaw, and Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek. But when it came to his own story, was he nervous about what the researchers would discover? Not at all, John says. “I was excited about being on the show. I wanted to find out about my family.”
For John, the great mystery was his maternal great grandmother, who was the product of a Chinese man and an Irish woman. But all he had to go on was a name and a photograph. There the information stopped and curiosity began. Who was the father of this ancestor? Was the name, passed down through family folklore, actually correct? “I knew that we had Chinese ancestry from the photos of my forebears, but I didn’t know how it happened and why it happened,” he explains.
At the start of the show, John takes an AncestryDNA test, which confirms that three percent of his ancestry is indeed Asian. The episode then sees John experiencing an emotional roller coaster as he tracks down this elusive Chinese great great grandfather and uncovers shock after shock as the story twists and turns across the Australian archives.
Was there anything that particularly stopped him in his tracks? “Everything that is in there stopped me in my tracks – all the juicy stuff in the show!” John says. “My mother’s maternal side is a mini-series in itself.”
Part of the journey sees John visiting Bellview, one of his ancestor’s homes – the building is still standing, just. He says it was quite eerie being in the home where his ancestors worked and lived. “All I can liken it to was when I played Ned Kelly in The Last Outlaw. I went to Melbourne Gaol and stood on the trapdoor where he was hanged. It’s very spooky.”
John became used to historians popping up during filming, including social historian Tanya Evans and Chinese expert Kate Bagnall. You just don’t know who’s going to turn up, he says. “Suddenly my cousin [the family historian] is ringing me and he’s been tuned up [to be filmed]!”
There were other strands to John’s family that were uncovered for the first time too. “The connection to the Napoleonic Wars was pretty stunning. My immediate family knew nothing about that.” That branch too, had twists and turns. “It was tough to hear about the injustice they went through. They were just a hard-working family,” John says.
“To go on this show is to go on an adventure,” John concludes. “They don’t let on, they make you go here, there and everywhere and they make you work! They don’t just hand it to you on a plate, they make you try and work things out! And it’s good in that way.”
Cassie Mercer is an editor based in Sydney. She founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010, creating a following of 60,000+ readers and working with Australia’s key cultural institutions to bring the nation’s history to life across Inside History’s multi-channel platforms. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s, one was a highwayman in Dublin and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.