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The Bizarre Vanishing of Australia’s Leader, Harold Holt

In 1967, the 17th Prime Minister of Australia headed to Cheviot Beach in Victoria to swim in the ocean. A keen swimmer, Harold Holt waded into the – often unforgiving – water and swam off into the distance.

He was never seen again.

The story of Harold Holt and the mystery surrounding that fateful day in December 1967 persists. Why did he decide to swim when the high tide and the undercurrent was especially powerful? 

Harold Holt photographed during his younger years in 1940. Image via National Library of Australia

This question has since developed a considerable amount of conspiracy theories surrounding Harold Holt’s disappearance.

Some people believe the prime minister tragically drowned that day, but others believe something more sinister was at play.

The Early Years

Harold Holt was born to Olive May and Thomas James Holt on August 5, 1908, in Stanmore, New South Wales. Two years later, the Holts welcomed younger brother Clifford to the family. For a while at least, the Holt clan was the epitome of a picture-perfect family.

In 1914, the Holt family moved to Adelaide, where Thomas ran a hotel. Clifford didn’t join the family during the move; the youngster stayed behind to live with his uncle while he finished school.

However, a few years after the move, the Holt parents split up, and Harold went to boarding school in Melbourne.

Here, Harold’s adventurous spirit earned him many friends, and the teenager was admired by his peers and teachers alike. As well as being popular, Harold was also an A-grade student, which saw him graduate second in his class.

Sadly, in 1925, his mother, Olive, passed away. However, since attending boarding school, Harold had become distant from his parents.

His father worked away a lot, and Harold often chose to spend time with friends instead of returning home during the holidays. He didn’t attend Olive’s funeral.

By the time he was 18, Harold had enrolled at the University of Melbourne on a scholarship. Here, the law student was heavily involved in sports activities, he was president of the social club, and was a member of the debate team.

As well as excelling socially, Harold exceeded academically, too. In 1930, he graduated with a law degree.

While at university, Harold was in a romantic relationship with Zara Dickins, a fellow student. The pair would lose touch over the years until 1940, when Harold was reintroduced to his former girlfriend.

The pair quickly resumed a relationship, and Harold adopted Zara’s three children from a previous marriage.

Harold embarked on a career in politics, becoming a member of the United Australia Party, and by 1945 had joined the newly formed Australian Liberal Party.

He would go on to become the party’s Minister for Immigration for seven years, as well as the Minister of Labour and National Service.

He was a widely respected politician, both within his party and with the general public.

In 1956, he was elected Deputy Leader of the Australian Liberal Party. After a decade in this role, the party’s leader, Robert Menzies, resigned.

This led to Harold’s nomination as the new leader. From here, his political career would soar.

Harold, The Prime Minister

After 32 years as a parliamentarian, in November 1966, Harold won a landslide victory to become the 17th Prime Minister of Australia. He was 57 years old.

He was a popular politician, exuding charisma and charm, which saw him endear himself further to the Australian public. However, his political career wasn’t without its rough patches.

In 1967, his popularity waned after what’s since been named the “VIP aircraft affair.” The scandal saw Harold being asked questions about the misuse of Royal Australian Air Force VIP aircraft, and his answers were either vague or inaccurate.

This led to more scrutiny of the misuse claims, in turn leading to accusations that Harold had purposely misled the parliament. This also led to members of his own party losing faith in their leader.

Harold’s personal life also came under the microscope. Although he was married, it was heavily speculated that the Prime Minister was having an affair. The alleged mistress was called Marjorie Gillespie.

Harold Holt with bud wife Dame Zara Holt in Canberra, 1960s.

These rumors would later be confirmed as true, although it seems his wife knew about his infidelities. “He loved women,” Zara would later say in an interview. Speaking of Marjorie, Zara would comment, “She was one of the queue formed on the right. It went on all the time.”

However, tragedy would overshadow all of this when Harold and four companions went swimming on Cheviot Beach in Victoria. December is the first month of summer in Australia, and the weather was just heating up when the group made their way into the ocean.

However, on this particular day, the weather was uncommonly windy, and clouds mostly hid the sun. The weather was so unpleasant that the nearby beach at Portsea was closed due to safety concerns. This wouldn’t stop Harold from heading into the water.

The Fatal Walk Into The Waves

Harold’s friends noticed the water was especially choppy and were hesitant to go for a dip. They stayed close to the shore, splashing around instead of going swimming, deciding that the water was too wild and turbid to venture into.

Still, after changing into his blue swimming trunks, a confident Harold told the group, “I know this beach like the back of my hand,” before making his way into the water alone.

Photograph of Harold Holt swimming. Image via YouTube.

The rest of the group – including Marjorie Gillespie – remained on the beach. She watched Harold as he went further into the water until she could no longer see him.

Suddenly, she spotted bubbles surrounding the area where she last saw Harold, but there was no view of him as there had been just moments before. Marjorie informed the other members of the party that Harold had disappeared from sight.

The group was immediately alarmed when they found their friend was no longer visible, particularly due to the water’s choppiness that day. While Harold was an experienced swimmer, he wasn’t an overly strong one.

He was known, however, to be able to hold his breath for longer than most people. Harold would often practice holding his breath in the bath or even when he was sitting in parliament on occasion.

He did this in order to help him on his snorkeling trips, a hobby he took up frequently. The group hoped this ability would help him endure the rough undercurrent he’d found himself in.

Some of the group headed to the nearby cliffs to see if they could get a better view and potentially spot Harold. When this proved fruitless, one of the four friends sought help from scuba divers to help them search for their missing friend.

The divers agreed and, upon making their way into the water, struggled to manage the undercurrent, which saw them quickly retreat from the water. Even for experienced scuba divers, the water was just too dangerous to venture too far into.

It seemed as though the group’s worst fears had materialized: Harold had drowned.

The authorities were informed, although Majorie’s presence at the beach was not reported right away, and it was alleged that she had been bundled into the back of a car and driven away from the scene to avoid media scrutiny.

Subsequently, a search operation ensued, which was – and still remains – one of the largest in Australian history.

The search enlisted the help of the Army and the Navy and utilized helicopters to aid in finding the missing prime minister. Days passed without a sighting, and as they did, any hope of finding Harold Holt alive diminished.

Though there was no body recovered, Harold was presumed to have drowned. The month after the tragedy, in January of 1968, Victoria Police released a statement that said there was no indication that Harold’s vanishing was anything but accidental. 

However, that didn’t stop people from developing their own theories about what happened.

Conspiracy Theories

As you may expect, with a high-profile case like this, theories and conspiracies were bandied around as people digested the shocking news that the prime minister had vanished.

Some people suggested that the CIA assassinated Harold. Others believed that the prime minister took his own life. Then, there was the notion that Harold had faked his death to escape from the media scrutiny he’d been put under recently. 

Then, there was the idea that a Chinese submarine had found him as he floundered in the water and had picked him up. The theories – no matter how far-fetched – were endless.

The fact that there had never been a body recovered allowed people to speculate wildly about what may have really happened to Harold Holt.

However, Harold’s son, Sam, rebuffed these conspiracies. He remembers his dad as a “risk-taker” and says his decision to swim in dangerous waters wasn’t out of character for his thrill-seeking father.

He said Harold never “feared for his personal safety,” which leans into the tragic truth: that Harold Holt was a victim of extremely hazardous waters.

In memory of the late prime minister, the City of Malvern Olympic Swimming Centre was renamed the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre. The renaming has been described by some as a nod to dark “Australian humor.”


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