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EXCLUSIVE: "I miss dad every single day": Liz Ellis embarks on emotional journey to learn about her birth father

While hoping to uncover a family secret, she came away with an even greater appreciation for the man who had raised her.

By Tiffany Dunk
The year was 1982 and Liz Ellis, her younger sister, Kath, and their parents, Margaret and Ralph, were taking to the road. Jammed into a caravan, the family would explore Australia for a year, the girls doing school remotely in order to have the adventure of a lifetime while learning more about our wide, brown land.
For Ralph, who worked in a timber factory, it had meant years of working overtime, weekends and taking a second job. But he knew the struggle would be worth the reward."Dad worked really hard to give us the opportunities that he could," Liz, 49, recalls.
"He was committed to helping us have the best experience we could and spending as much time with us as possible. He used to tell us every day that we could be whatever we wanted to be. That we could achieve whatever we wanted to achieve."
Liz is sharing this story 40 years later as she and her husband, Matthew Stocks, embark on a similar journey. They are currently in Bitter Springs in the Northern Territory, a remote natural wonder where their children Evelyn, 10, and Austin, six, are having a late afternoon dip.
Liz Ellis, AO is a retired Australian netball captain. (Image: Supplied)
The plan is to spend most of 2022 on the road. And it's from this remote location that the acclaimed netball champion calls The Weekly to chat about another journey she undertook recently – an emotional episode of genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?.
It was an opportunity, she says, not only to find out about her ancestors in the long distant past but also to hopefully unravel a more recent family mystery – who was her dad's birth father?
It was a secret that Ralph's mother, Daisy, had taken with her to the grave and one that Ralph himself hadn't been keen to uncover, believing that both he and Daisy had been knowingly abandoned.
However, not long after Ralph – who had been christened Walter Ralph – passed away in 2008, a family member came forward to say Daisy had once privately revealed that Ralph's father was an Australian artist, Ralph Warner.
Liz with her dad, Ralph, has been on a journey of discovery about her father's background. (Image: Supplied)
Finally, Liz felt, it could be time to hunt for the truth. And when the SBS series came knocking, she eagerly embraced the chance to delve deep into the past in the hope of finding out more about the father she adored, who believed that girls could do anything they set their minds to.
"Dad found out a little bit later in life that he had been adopted," Liz says now, adding that Daisy's second husband, Alf Ellis, had given Ralph his name before the pair went on to have a son of their own, Jack.
"He'd always thought there was something wrong with the relationship he had with his stepfather, who went out of his way to be cruel to Dad. His mum did her best, but she had her own challenges.
"Dad didn't like the fact that there were arguments between her and Alf. He always felt very protective of her. He had an upbringing that was marked by a really close relationship with his mum but also by poverty, neglect, and certainly physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather."
Daisy had married for the first time at the age of just 18 to Raymond White, her first son, Lawrence, arriving shortly thereafter. But Raymond sensationally accused her of adultery less than two years later – a charge which was splashed across the front pages of the newspapers as their divorce went to trial.
Liz, her mum Margaret and Kath with Ralph. (Image: Supplied)
Despite Daisy counter-charging Raymond with cruelty, he would win the case and was granted custody of their son. To make matters worse, during the trial Daisy was pregnant with Peter – a child that Raymond refused to acknowledge. Daisy was left on her own holding the baby. And with the Great Depression raging, she was struggling to make ends meet doing housekeeping and laundry work in hotels.
Then came another hurdle – she found herself pregnant again. For a long time, Ralph thought he was Daisy's third child. However, after Daisy passed away, he found out the truth: Before he was born, Daisy had her third son, Wally, who she sent to live with another family so she could continue working, sending the majority of her wages for the boy's upkeep despite her own dire circumstances. She never told anyone that Wally existed. Ralph arrived two years later.
"Dad learned of the anguish she went through and never spoke about," Liz says of his father's shock at finding he had a half-brother he'd never known existed. "It made him respect her even more. He understood how strong his mum was."
Daisy passed away when Liz was five years old. She remembers her Nan as being "old and frail. I have memories of holding her hand and getting cuddles". As Liz learnt her story during filming, however, she reshaped that view.
WATCH: Liz Ellis' emotional pregnancy announcement. Article continues after video.
"I came to see her as a real heroine," she says with a smile. "She worked really hard to be with her sons and to provide for them and that was something that, during the Depression, women either didn't or couldn't do. But she found a way by sheer hard work. I feel that her work ethic is something I got from her. But I don't know if I would have been as resilient."
Her televised search took Liz across Australia, retracing Daisy's steps. And when she finally learnt the truth of her paternal line – the result of which we won't spoil here – it was a bittersweet moment knowing the father she adored wasn't there to hear it too.
"I miss Dad every single day," she admits. "I felt he was with me all of the way. I would certainly love to be able to sit down with him and have a beer and get his take on it. I think that he would have found it difficult, but I think he would have eventually appreciated the knowledge. To understand where he had come from."
Her sister, Kath, is based in Hong Kong but, says Liz, she was holding her hand from afar through her search. And while she also dug into her mother's family history during the show, Margaret was far more interested in learning more about her husband's backstory.
"She loved Daisy and was really close to her," Liz says of Margaret's reaction upon learning the news. "She really appreciated the different spin on the story. Because my dad used to always talk about how hard Daisy's life was, but to see her as a bit of a heroine; someone who paved the way for her sons to be good men … it sort of justified everything she went through."
Certainly, Ralph's admiration for his mother spurred him to become the best father and husband he could be. Before he met Margaret, he had been a confirmed bachelor, a wild child who loved racing cars and had the nickname "Wrecker".
But after wooing his wife-to-be at a local dance and marrying in 1965, that all changed."Seeing such a stable relationship between my parents set the scene," Liz says of how her own happy home saw her seek the same in her own life partner.
Ralph tauht Liz and Kath to believe in themselves. (Image: Supplied)
"It showed me what relationships should look like and what good parenting looked like. Dad always had this theory that, when kids are born, they are a blank page and how much time you spend with them determines what their life looks like. He lived that with my sister and I and we both do that with our kids now.
"When I was born, people would go, 'Oh, bad luck, you'll have a son next time,' and it would make him angry. Then when Kath was born and people would go, 'Oh, no', he'd say, 'I don't want boys. I want girls.' He had a strong mum, he understood what girls could achieve and that's what he instilled in us. We were never in any doubt about how committed he was to us and our dreams."
Who Do You Think You Are? airs Tuesdays, 7.30pm on SBS. Liz's episode airs August 2.
"Dad learned of the anguish she went through and never spoke about." (Image: Supplied)
You can read this story and many others in the July issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now
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