Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt Disappeared 50 Years Ago Today

“I know this beach like the back of my hand”.

Those words were one of the last spoken by Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt before he vanished while going for a swim off of the shore of Cheviot Beach fifty years ago today.

Hearing that an all-around-the-world-sailor would be arriving on the bay located near his holiday house, the Prime Minister, accompanied by his old friend Majoria Gillespie and house guests, decided to head down to the local beach before lunch to see him. Before the Prime Minister headed into the water for a swim, he and his guests noticed the tide to be unusually high. Mr Holt, being a strong swimmer, was known to love the sea, but (as the result of a shoulder surgery) doctors a few days earlier had advised him to “take it easy”. Accompanying the Prime Minister was also Alan Stewart who, upon setting foot in the water, noticed that the Prime Minister was far away swimming amidst what seemed to be threatening waters. As Stewart returned closer to the shore next to Gillespie, Gillespie noticed Mr Holt was moving further from the shore and into deeper water, until the water “seemed to ‘swamp’ on him” and he was nowhere to be seen.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="400"]Credits: Evening Standard Hulton Archives Prime Minister Holt’s close friend, Marjoria Gillespie, points to she where she last saw him in the ocean.[/caption]

If you think this sounds like some plot that would belong in a movie, you’re not the only one. What followed the Prime Minister’s disappearance, long after the weeks of failed search efforts, was decades of media speculation, conspiracies and an overlook of his game-changing and innovative political career. While the nature of his death is intriguing, for the past few decades it has largely has been at the cost of his achievements and legacy. As executive director of the Menzies Research Centre, Nick Carter, who co-authored a monograph based on Holt, said:

“Inevitably, if you end your prime ministerial career so tragically and so dramatically as that, that is the one thing people remember,”

Photo Credits: Dennis Ould Hulton Archives

Who is Harold Holt?

Harold Holt was born on Aug. 5, 1908, in Stanmore, Sydney to Olive May and schoolteacher Thomas J. Holt. During his first years as a student he met William McMahon, who would go on to later become the prime minister and his future colleague. While attending Wesley College, although he did well academically, his strengths lay more in athletics and theatrical activities. After being admitted to the BAR two years later in 1932, he came to the realization that practicing law in a depression riddled economy was not a desirable career path.  He took his first steps toward a political career when he joined the United Australia Party in 1933.

Achievements

In 1941, the passage of the Child Endowment Act allowed mothers to receive government aid once their children turned 16 — yet, it was declared that children in government-run institutions (including those in orphanages) were ineligible with the exception of those in charities or religious homes. As the Minister for Labour and National Services at the time, Holt’s proposal of the Child Endowment Legislation led to aid being expanded to include children in government-run institutions a year later. His advocation for children earned him the nickname ‘Godfather of a million children’.

As Prime Minister, Holt used his relationship with the US to encourage economic connections with Asia. Through the passage of the Migration Act 1966, his administration contributed to rolling back the White Australia Policy. The original policy put a restriction on non-European immigrants, specifically those with Chinese and Japanese backgrounds, from entering the country. While Holt’s administration did not effectively help Asians during their transition into society, the act did give Asians the same means of getting visas and citizenship as other individuals. His former Press Secretary’s last conversation with him included talk about Asia during which he claims the PM said:

“Not only do we in Australia need to accept that and grow closely to South-East Asia but certainly we ought to get the European countries to recognise the importance of this part of the world.”

Word that the Australia’s Prime Minister Mr Harold Holt [was] missing” traveled across the country when Australians began to hear of the news on their radio and TV sets. At the beach, the alarm of the PM’s disappearance eventually lead to a massive search, but one that was not easy.

“The water was dirty, it was difficult to see and the undertow was extremely strong, we were just getting pushed backwards and forwards by the waves and the undertow was trying to pull us into the channel and out to sea. It was too rough to be able to search properly, the tide had only just gone on the turn”

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="446"]Credits: Evening Standard Hulton Archive Divers take a break during the search for the Prime Minister’s body.[/caption]

After rough ocean conditions forced divers to retreat, the search was continued through the use of helicopters and binoculars to scan the surface. By the time night had fallen that same day, 190 personnel, including the Navy, Army and Coast Guard, were involved in search efforts. It was not until a week later when the conditions became desirable enough for the divers to go in that it was concluded that there was a high possibility Holt’s body had been carried up to 500 yards from the tide; the search went from a rescue mission to an attempt to find the body. With failure to find the body, the search was called off after New Years on Jan. 5.

Conspiracies and Theories

With a tragedy of this nature also came media speculation and conspiracies. From a British journalist writing a book claiming Holt was a Chinese spy being rescued after the end of a mission to media speculation that he committed suicide as a result of his marriage and job, political professor John Warhurst of the Australian National University only had one explanation for all of it:

“None of them have any evidentiary basis whatsoever… they do not hold water…The most simple, straight forward explanation is he just drowned, that’s it, and people thought ‘prime ministers can’t do that’.”
One of the wildest claims of what happened was conveyed to Australian authorities through a letter they received via their Australian High Commission in New Delhi, India, in which a member of the Indian Parliament claimed he was friends with someone who knew where the Prime Minister’s body was. His explanation, as seen in the bizarre letter below, was something the Australian authorities wanted to put aside, but instead decided not to meet it with strong opposition since it came from a government official.
 Credits: National Archives of Australia
On the fiftieth anniversary of Holt’s disappearance, his grandson spoke to Australia’s Nine News about his grandfather, saying, “He was a genuine humanitarian with a profound empathy for others”. Today, Prime Minister Harold Holt’s family, friends and fellows colleagues stood in a moment of silence at Cheviot Beach to remember the passage of the former Prime Minister and the achievements he had made during his time in office.

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