Path to personal discovery
Actor and beloved children’s entertainer Justine Clarke went on Who Do You Think You Are? to find out her family history. She tells DANIELLE McGRANE what she discovered.
Justine Clarke knew very little about her family history growing up. The actor and children’s entertainer, who became a household name as a presenter on
Play School, was raised in Sydney mostly by her mum. Her parents separated when she was nine months old.
This made her, in her opinion, the perfect candidate for Who Do You Think You
Are?, the long-running factual show that delves into the family history of well-known people.
Clarke had no idea what she would find out in the process of making the show.
“You really honestly don’t know what’s going to happen. By the end of the day you have another document with a clue on it, but you don’t know until the next day what is going to be revealed,” Clarke said.
What Clarke knew of her mother’s side was quite limited, but she knew even less about her father’s family history, which she discovered linked her to the First Fleet.
“That was amazing. It has given me a different perspective, particularly about being a Sydneysider. My mum was from Melbourne and she moved to Sydney when she was quite young and Sydney has always been my home and it just gave me this kind of deeper connection to it as a city,” she said.
She also discovered an interesting love story involving her third great grandmother and an Irish rebel.
Led by the historians in the show, Clarke said she was amazed at how much information is actually available.
“Because we’re a penal colony, there are a lot of records, probably a lot more records than there would have been if we were just free settlers here in NSW. And you can get a historian to do it for you, you can get somebody to go to the archives who knows what to look for to do it for you and that was something I had never considered either,” she said.
Exploring her mother’s family took her on a global tour to her grandfather’s hometown in Belarus and Clarke discovered she has a relative she didn’t know existed living in Moscow.
“It was all brilliant, but that was one of the best parts. Moscow is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, and to go there to find a relative was like an absolute gift,” she said.
It also gave her a greater understanding of the grandfather who she knew so little about.
“I knew that my grandfather had fled Russia, but I didn’t really understand the circumstances around why he’d left and what was happening historically there. I think the last time I saw him he was in his late 90s and I’d only met him twice, so I had no knowledge of his life,” she said.
Being on the show started to connect the dots for Clarke and she began to understand her family and the motivations behind some of their actions. She learnt that her Jewish ancestors on her mother’s side largely turned their backs on Judaism, creating a rift in the family.
“My great grandfather was so ashamed that his son had turned his back on his Jewish faith to such an extent that he’d married a shiksa (non-Jewish woman) and almost had a sort of disregard for it. That was really interesting to me because he’d been so strict with him I felt that that was probably why my grandfather had turned his back on it. I understood,” she said.
In the beginning, Clarke wasn’t sure she wanted to turn the attention to herself, but she realised it was something she could do for her whole family, who are all excited by what she’s discovered.
“As much as you feel like the spotlight is on you, the gift you give everyone else has been great, and it’s connected everybody which is what it should do,” she said.