Wilkinson, a former editor of Dolly and Cleo, grew up in the working class Sydney suburb of Campbelltown. On her way to school, she’d take a tree-lined path abutting the local cemetery: a chance to be alone with her thoughts. During filming she learned that her paternal two-times-great-grandmother, Ann Beech, is buried there.
Like Beryl, Beech had a tough start in life: by the age of six, she’d moved from England to Australia to India, where she was sent to live with an aunt after her mother died. At 16, Beech married a respected corporal named Charles Wilkinson.
She never gave up on that child despite the brutality of the life she was living.
“From Charles down to my grandfather and his brothers and then my dad, there’s this stream of goodness through the men on that side of the family,” Wilkinson says. “My mum made a very good choice in marrying my father.”
As the episode makes clear, Beryl was the product of generations of trauma.
Wilkinson’s maternal three-times-great-grandmother Eliza O’Brien, for instance, was transported from Ireland to Sydney as a convict after committing a violent robbery. According to one medical assessment, she was of “lamentable” character with a “proneness to filth and a savage disposition”.
At one point, O’Brien was called to give evidence at the inquest into the suspicious death of her infant daughter. (Authorities found the child had died of syphilis, likely contracted during childbirth.) Nine months later, O’Brien was sent to a Brisbane penal colony as punishment for stealing six glasses and a dirty tablecloth. She successfully petitioned the governor to let her young son live with her.
“We’re all born into situations – into families and relationships – that are not of our making,” Wilkinson says. “But she never gave up on that child despite the brutality of the life she was living.”
More than a century later, Beryl became the circuit-breaker, giving her children the kind of life that she and prior generations had been denied. As an adult, she finally learned her father’s identity when a relative let slip at a wedding. His name was Gordon Power, a newspaper journalist and the son of Labor politician Jack Power.
“Once I got the name of Mum’s father, I got ancestry.com to do some digging,” Wilkinson says. “Two of the joys of my life were making Mum a grandparent and being able to find out more about her father.
“Mum was an incredibly generous woman and unbelievably kind. She didn’t see much of [those traits] as a child and yet she had enormous reserves within herself and recognised them in my father … she could see the goodness she’d never really experienced before and it was the beginning of a whole new life for her.”
WHAT: Who Do You Think You Are?
WHEN: Tuesday 7.30pm on SBS
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.