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Former Prime Minister Harold Holt in his snorkelling gear (Photo: National Archives of Australia).

On this day: Harold Holt disappears

  • BY Amanda James and Marina Kamenev |
  • December 17, 2010

17 December 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt goes missing whilst swimming at Portsea, Victoria.

THE TURBULENT OCEAN should have been an adequate warning on Sunday afternoon, 17 December 1967. But Australia's 18th Prime Minister, Harold Holt - known for his adventurous, outdoor spirit - didn't let that stop him entering the water at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria.

He never made it back to the beach, and one of the most intriguing mysteries of modern Australia was born.

"He had a real spirit of bravado and it's likely he was trying to impress his mates," says Mark Connellan, former lecturer at the University of Sydney, who now teaches an Australian culture course at Boston University's Sydney campus.

Harold, who was a keen snorkeler, had travelled to his beach residence in Portsea for the weekend.

According to detailed police reports - now declassified and available online at the National Archives of Australia - on the Saturday afternoon he played tennis with mates and listening to music on the radio at his neighbours' home; on Saturday night, he made plans to go fishing the next day at nearby Cheviot Beach.

"I know this beach like the back of my hand," Harold said to his four friends on Sunday when they arrived. Though the strong currents kept his friends in the shallower water, Harold paid no heed to their warnings.

The Prime Minister was swept away by the undertow and disappeared from the view of his companions (Marjorie Gillespie, rumoured to be his lover; her daughter; her daughter's boyfriend; and Alan Stewart, a family friend), despite exhaustive searches his body was never found.

Conspiracy theories

Even though it was witnessed by four people, Australians had trouble accepting that their head of state was gone. "The atmosphere was bizarre," says Dr Norman Abjorensen a lecturer in political science at the Australian National University, in Canberra, who watched on as the search party looked for the Prime Minister's body. "There was this real sense of disbelief. Everyone was speaking in hushed tones. You sort of just expected him to come out of the water."   

Two days later, on 19 December, the government formally announced the death of the Prime Minister and a high-profile funeral followed on 22 December.

A joint report by Commonwealth and Victoria Police, submitted in January 1968, concluded that, "... there has been no indication that the disappearance of the late Mr Holt was anything other than accidental." The report did not officially determine the cause of death.

With no body ever recovered, many conspiracies theories developed in the years that followed. There were tales of his faking his own death and UFO abductions. The most bizarre rumour was spread by a British journalist who published a book in 1983, which claimed that Sydney-born Harold was a Chinese double-agent, who was picked up by a submarine and taken back to China. His wife Zara famously retorted that "he didn't even like Chinese cooking."

Formal inquiry

Another report suggested that the Prime Minister was depressed prior to his death. His supposed mistress, Marjorie, was going to name him as the "co-respondent" in her divorce proceedings, which would have destroyed Harold's political career. His popularity within the Liberal Party was also falling, despite his landslide win a year earlier.

However, his family and many of those that encountered him have vehemently denied that his state of mind played a part in the disappearance.

A formal inquiry into the death did not take place until 36 years later in 2003. With no evidence to support any elaborate theories, the State Coroner concluded that Harold drowned while swimming in the surf.

"No one believed at that time that [the lack of an inquiry] was anything other than routine," says Tom Frame, a lecturer at St. Mark's Theological Centre in Canberra and author of the book The Life and Death of Harold Holt. The coroner's act in Victoria didn't allow a coroner's inquiry to investigate cases where no body was recovered. When the coroner's law changed in 2003, the coroner was then empowered to look into such cases.

Somewhat ironically, the Harold Holt Swimming Pool was opened in 1969 in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Iris to honour the late Prime Minister.

Find all our 'On this day' stories here.

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