History’s foot-soldiers

Princess' Theatre, Melbourne, Australia

Princess’ Theatre, Melbourne, Australia

I’m glad I came across the Jason Donovan edition of Who do you think you are? [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tndyd] because it explored parts of Australia I visited a few months ago.

Jason Donovan was born in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern in 1968, the son of an English father and an Australian mother.  The programme set out to explore his Australian roots, and I was interested to recognise location shots of Melbourne and Sydney, as well as footage of Tasmania and the Blue Mountains which I hope to explore on a future visit.

One of the locations I’d visited was the Princess’ Theatre, Melbourne, the one surviving auditorium where Jason’s great-grandmother, Eileen Lyons, had performed.  She was a singer who entered show-business at the age of sixteen (a year younger than Jason when he joined the soap-opera Neighbours).  Here in the auditorium-gallery, he was shown contracts, bill matter and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation audition-review dug out of the archives by a local historian.

Elsewhere, he followed his blood-lines to a Tasmanian convict-settlement and, most intriguing of all, to a connection with Dorset-born William Cox (1764-1837) who reached Australia commanding a contingent of transported convicts and went on to engineer the first road from Sydney across the Blue Mountains in 1814-5.

Jason Donovan is therefore descended both from a transported convict, and from a British army officer in charge of transporting convicts.  He’s a living example of the Australian claim to be a classless society.

Each step of the way, as in each of these programmes, the subject is assisted by archivists and local historians who have undertaken the spadework of detailed research that threads the story together.

Just as volunteer enthusiasts make possible the living-history museums, historical re-enactments, preserved railways and steam and motor-vehicle rallies that offer the general public weekend entertainment, so the nuts and bolts of local- and family-history research depends on individuals quietly beavering away in their specialist patch, building up a body of knowledge that the rest of us can tap into.

Jason Donovan’s realisation of a stronger sense of his Australian identity was made possible because he gained access to detailed information in libraries, archives and the files of people who investigate history for their own interest.

Those of us who explore our local or family history without the benefit of a BBC research team have even more reason to be grateful to the foot-soldiers who catalogue, index and retrieve the minutiae of past lives.


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