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Paul McDermott’s family discovery

Monday, August 11, 2014
“I think all people need to know their history, and if it’s taken from you, or there’s deception in it, you want to solve it regardless of the emotional or personal cost because you need to know.” – Paul McDermott

Entertainer Paul McDermott found fame with The Doug Anthony All-Stars and Good News Week. In more recent years he has stepped out of the limelight to pursue his passion for art. But Paul’s family history remains something of a blank canvas.

Paul knows that his mum, Betty, was adopted and raised by relatives. But mystery surrounds the circumstances, and Betty’s adoptive parents died without leaving her any information. In the new Australian series of Who Do You Think You Are? Paul travels to his birth place in Adelaide, and follows the trail back to the early 20th century and a family torn apart by poverty and a decimating epidemic.

Paul’s quest begins with a trip to Canberra to visit his mum Betty. Her childhood was one of secrets and whispers. Betty shows Paul a photo of her as a child with two older women – her Aunt Hilda and the woman she knew as mother, Teresa Thomson. Teresa was in fact her great aunt. When Betty reached early adulthood she received an inheritance from her biological grandfather’s estate. It confirmed Betty’s adoption and revealed that her birth family surname was Williams. The only other thing Betty knows about her birth parents is that they met in an infectious diseases hospital for people with tuberculosis.

To find out more about his maternal grandparents, Kathleen Riley and Harold Williams, Paul travels to Naracoorte in regional South Australia and the home of second cousin Carol Bennier, Aunt Hilda’s daughter. Paul reads a recount written by Aunt Hilda of her early life which reveals the hardships the Riley family faced. Their father died young at 42 of an industrial disease and just two years later the State removed the children from their mother Edith.

Paul travels to Adelaide, where Under the Freedom of Information Act, he accesses documents relating to his grandmother Kathleen’s time as a state ward. He reads, in the punitive language of the time, about how Kathleen, not yet 6 years old, was “charged” and “convicted” of being a neglected child. He also learns that she and her siblings were sent to a place called the Edwardstown Industrial School.

At the South Australian Genealogy Society, the birth, death and marriage records show that in 1933, just over five years after she returned to her family, Kathleen Riley, then aged 22, married 25 year old Harold Williams. But a search of the death register reveals that Kathleen and Harold had very little time together. In 1936, three years after they were married, Harold died and three months later so did Kathleen leaving Paul’s mum, Betty alone in the world at the age of three. Paul reflects, “just seeing this cold information it seems like a very hard, sad existence. And cruelly brief as well.

In the grounds of the former Adelaide Tuberculosis Sanitarium Paul meets medical researcher Carol Putland to learn more about the effects of the “White Plague,” as TB was known. Tuberculosis was the leading killer of young adults in Australia from early settlement to the 1930s. Some patients responded to treatment, but many more succumbed, spending their final days gasping for air and coughing blood.

Paul’s grandmother spent much of her last few years in and out of the TB clinic. Within a few weeks of giving birth to Betty, Kathleen was back in hospital for a further three months. Discouraged from contact by the authorities and often absent anyway due to illness, Kathleen and Betty would have been virtual strangers.

Paul reads the death notices of Harold and Kathleen in the newspapers and is particularly moved by the reference to his grandmother Kathleen as “mummy of Betty”. Paul understands the potency of being a parent. 

“It took me a long time to come to the decision of actually having a child. It connected me in a way that I hadn’t been connected before to my past and also to some aspect of my future. The blood relatives, the people that are part of your blood history, they’re the final result of the all the pain and suffering and joys and sorrows that people have endured for centuries.” – Paul McDermott

Who Do You Think You Are? is produced by Artemis International and Serendipity Productions
for SBS.

The sixth series cast also stars Andrew Denton, Rebecca Gibney, Jacki Weaver, Richard
Roxburgh, Amanda Keller, Adam Goodes and Lisa McCune.

Twitter: #WDYTYA

For further information please contact:
Jessica Parry PH: 02 9430 3786 E: jessica.parry@sbs.com.au