BATHURST has played a key role in award-winning Australian actor Toni Collette’s search for information about her family’s story, which is filled with heartbreak and loss.
Ms Collette came to Bathurst to film part of an episode of the SBS program Who Do You Think You Are?, centred on the story of her maternal grandparents.
She said she didn’t expect it would be such an intense and emotional experience.
Ms Collette is the recipient of an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress, and has been nominated for both an Academy Award and a Tony Award.
Early in her career she won hearts with her portrayal of Muriel in the classic Australian film Muriel’s Wedding. Other acclaimed movie performances were in The Sixth Sense, About a Boy and Little Miss Sunshine.
While she had a great upbringing and is now at the top of her field, her family story had its roots in tragedy and misfortune.
“There’s a lot of sadness, especially in mum’s part of the family,” she said.
“It was very hard to learn about that stuff, but I keep coming back to the thought that it’s better to know than not.”
At the time she made the documentary, all Ms Collette really knew was that when her mum was very young her grandmother died giving birth.
The episode began with her mum showing Ms Collette a photograph of herself and her siblings with their mum (Ms Collette’s grandmother) at the Bathurst Show. Ms Collette’s mother Judith Cook was born in Bathurst in 1947 to Joseph William Cook and Ivy Myrtle Fowler.
Ms Collette’s mum was six when her mother died and her father abandoned the children.
The documentary revealed that her maternal grandparents were married in Bathurst in 1941 – he was 26 and she was 22.
Within months Joe was called up to serve as an infantryman with the 54th Battalion based in Bathurst.
After a short stint in the army that was plagued by illness and desertion he was finally deemed ‘totally unfit for army life and should never have been enlisted’.
However, the war historian told Ms Collette that he was entitled to the British War Medal and the Australian Service Medal but they had never been claimed.
Ms Collette was presented with her grandfather’s service medals on the steps of the War Memorial Carillon by Regimental Sargeant Major Kellie Brett.
“They’ve just been sitting there since the early 40s – no one even knowing he was owed them for his funny little stint in the army where he didn’t do much,” Ms Collette said.
Ms Collette then visited Bathurst Court House where she sat in the courtroom where the inquest into her grandmother’s death was held.
She was shown documentation that Ivy and her baby died in childbirth on March 2, 1953 at Bathurst. Ms Collette’s grandfather gave evidence in the coroner’s court about their deaths and she was given a transcript of his evidence.
It was revealed that after a bad night with dysentery, Ivy remained at home while her husband went to work. When he returned he found her laying unconscious on the floor. When he lifted her, he saw the baby dead on the floor.
Ivy died later that night after a desperate search for a doctor. She was 36 years old.
The coroner’s verdict was that the baby had died from suffocation when Ivy fainted from the stress of giving birth alone and fell on top of it.
Still reeling from the terrible story, Ms Collette went to Bathurst cemetery where she laid flowers on her grandmother’s unmarked grave.
“This is as far as I’m going to get in Bathurst,” Ms Collette said sadly.
This episode of Who Do You Think You Are can be viewed online at www.sbs.com.au/programs/ who-do-you-think-you-are.