Who Do You Think You Are - Season 8, Episode 8 recap

John Newcombe


Season 8 of the popular family history show Who Do You Think You Are? screened over several weeks during 2016. Here at State Records of South Australia we recapped each episode at the time and highlighted any records in our collection relevant to topics covered. Now on our blog for your reading pleasure are all of our recaps. 

This final episode of Season 8 followed tennis legend John Newcombe, who with six grandchildren of his own has become more interested in learning about his family’s history, in particular the first generations of his family to arrive in colonial Sydney. Newcombe approached this search as a detective living his own adventure story. Be careful what you wish for when starting your family history journey!


On his father’s side, the first Newcombe to arrive in Australia was his great-great-grandfather, free settler George William Newcombe and his wife Harriet in 1826. George was a clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s Office. Established in 1821 the Colonial Secretary was the powerhouse of the government, and working as a clerk in the office was a prestigious position with George receiving a good salary and a chance to improve his social status by becoming a landowner. During his time working at the office he was called as a witness in the Supreme Court trial of a newspaper editor who was an outspoken critic of the autocratic Governor of the day and who had been charged with seditious libel. George’s scrupulously honest evidence played a part in the jury finding in favour of the editor, with the case being regarded as a landmark in establishing democracy and freedom of the press in New South Wales (NSW).

An additional perk of working in the Colonial Secretary’s office was the opportunity to get ‘first pick’ of domestic servants from recently arrived transported female convicts. In 1827 Newcombe’s great-great-grandmother Mary Warner arrived in Sydney on the ‘Princess Charlotte’, sentenced to 7 years’ transportation after being convicted of embezzling from her employer. The ships’ indent revealed that Mary went into the employment of George Wiliam Newcombe on arrival. After the death of his wife Harriet in 1828, William and Mary went on to have 9 children, eventually marrying in 1841. The delay in the marriage and the fact that she married using a false surname probably reflected the social stigma attached to female convicts, even once their sentences had been served.

A land grant in Paddington in 1840 was the first step in George building a large portfolio of properties. However, changing economic conditions in the Colony saw his estate becoming insolvent in 1851 with all the land being sold off to pay off debts of £2000. The only remaining mark of his estate is Newcombe St in Paddington, named after him when the land was sub-divided in the 1860s.

Turning to his mother’s side of the family, Newcombe found many of the same themes when finding out about his first maternal ancestor in Australia, Thomas Harper his great-great-great-grandfather. Thomas and his wife Mary Anne arrived in Sydney on the ‘Countess of Harcourt’ in 1828. A carpenter by trade, Thomas built a business portfolio by buying a shipyard in Darling Harbour and operating a private hotel. Mary Anne died in 1833 and Thomas remarried in 1834 to Frances Hopkins with whom he had 4 children. In 1841 during the worst financial state of the Colony of NSW in the 19th Century, Thomas lodged an Insolvency petition in the Supreme Court and his short-lived business empire collapsed.

In 1843 Thomas was recorded in newspapers as leaving his family and travelling to New Caledonia. Following his footsteps, John Newcombe headed to Noumea to learn more about his ancestor’s attempts to revive his fortune in the South Seas. In the 1840’s the lucrative sandalwood trade increased contact between the local Kanaks who produced the material and Europeans who sought to trade it with China. Memoirs of a missionary on the island record the fate of Thomas Harper and his shipmates on the ‘Sisters’ on their visit to the island of Maré. Following their Captain’s disrespectful response to an introductory trade, all 11 members of the crew were attacked and killed, with 4 being cooked and consumed.

While a local historian explained that traditionally cannibalism was not just vengeance but was a spiritual act that enabled the participants to take on the strength of their vanquished enemies, John Newcombe was understandably left stunned by this turn in his quest to find out more about his family’s history. However, in keeping with his viewpoint at the start of this episode to be prepared for anything and not to be upset by surprises, even this revelation was met with a preference to know the whole truth and face it head-on.

Newcombe’s family history turned out to be a real-life adventure story with unexpected twists and turns – but one which will stay with him forever.

Although Newk’s story didn’t bring him to South Australia, if you are researching an ancestor in colonial South Australia, we hold records similar to those he viewed.

  • The Colonial (later Chief) Secretary was the lynch-pin of government in the early days of South Australia. Correspondence held in Government Record Group GRG24 Chief Secretary’s Office (CSO) gives us a glimpse into the lives of individuals and the development of the colony.
  • Insolvency Court records (GRG66) in our collection will assist in finding any ancestors who may have declared for insolvency. These records include GRG66/5 Sequestration Files and GRG66/6 Schedules of Estates, and are indexed by GRG66/3 Index to insolvencies (1841 – 1923).
  • Passenger lists from 1845 to 1886 can be found in GRG35/48/1 Official assisted passage passenger lists - Crown Lands and Immigration Office. Further information can be found on our immigration fact sheet.
  • Birth, Death or Marriage (BDM) certificates: State Records holds copies of the indexes of Births Deaths and Marriages from 1842 to 1928 (for births), 1937 (for marriages) and 1972 (for deaths). An online version of the indexes is available for searching via Genealogy SA.
  • Supreme Court records including writs, indictments, depositions and petitions are held in GRG36 - Supreme Court of South Australia. Further information about court records can be found on our Courts fact sheet.
  • Records relating to early purchases of land as well as the development of the sandalwood industry in South Australia are held within Government Record Group GRG35 Lands Department.
  • Records of the Licensing Bench are held within Government Record Group GRG67 Licensing Branch.

If you’re just beginning your family history research, it’s also worth checking out our webpage on Family History Research.

More WDYTYA Season 8 recaps can be found on the State Records blog.

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