Pulling a Holt

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21st Century Jacobsweg: Harold Holt in his first year of office.
Harold Holt in his first year of office.

Australia’s had a lot of colourful people as its Prime Minister (PM).

Bob Hawke (1983-1991) held the world record for sculling 2.5 pints of beer in just eleven seconds.
Tony Abbott (2013-2015) ate raw onions and wore very tight ‘budgie-smugglers’.
James Scullin (1929-1932) entered office just days before the Great Depression occurred in the USA and somehow copped all the blame for it.
John Curtin (1941-1945) led Australia through the worst of WWII.
Robert Menzies (1939-1941, 1949-1966) was the longest serving PM in Australia both at once and overall (18.5 years).

But there’s another PM many Australians will know of: Harold Holt (1966-1967).

Holt succeeded Menzies and led the Coalition to an outstanding electoral victory in 1966. He was a powerhouse in the Liberal party and a well-known personality well before taking the top job.

Holt was born in 1908 in a little place called Sydney. Although his parents moved to South Australia for work, Holt and his brother Cliff were raised by relatives in Sydney. When he was nineteen, he moved to Melbourne and studied Law at the prestigious University of Melbourne.

He went on to become a lawyer in 1932, but this was the era of the Great Depression (which was definitely Scullin’s fault and not the result of global market crashes and financial policies in other countries). Most people were struggling to feed themselves, let alone their families – not many people had money to spare for lawyer fees. He decided to enter politics in 1935 (but still engaged in legal work for several years thereafter).

21st Century Jacobsweg: Just a totally normal stop sign in Sydney, in the area Holt grew up in.
Just a totally normal stop sign in Sydney, in the area Holt grew up in.

He was only twenty-six upon election, so he was a young and vibrant character in parliament. In 1939, at age 31, he signed up to fight in WWII, but in 1940 three Members of Parliament were killed in an aeroplane crash near Canberra. Not wanting more Parliamentary members lost, he had to stay put and participate in parliament (perhaps the deadliest of battlefields – depends who you ask).

Under the mentorship of Robert Menzies, Holt grew into an expert politician and held many positions, including Minister for Immigration, Treasurer and Deputy Leader of the Liberals. Finally, in 1966, at the age of 57, he took the top job of Prime Minister of Australia.

I could describe the various challenges Holt navigated during his tenure, like the switch to decimal currency (February 1966), his involvement in the Vietnam War (“all the way with LBJ”!), or the 1967 Referendums, but people don’t associate him with any of these events. Rather, he’s better known for his love of the outdoors, especially the ocean.

He was an avid swimmer and was renowned for his impressive underwater skills (although his surface swimming was okay at best). This love of the outdoors kept him in good health, especially once he got introduced to spearfishing. He became obsessed with spearfishing and looked for any opportunity to go to the beach to hunt some fish. Sometimes, during parliamentary debates, he would see how long he could hold his breath during the boring bits!

However, it appeared the universe was warning him not to play with fire…well, water, but you know what I mean!

21st Century Jacobsweg: Cheviot Beach, Victoria. An incredibly dangerous area, it's closed to the public for good reason.
Cheviot Beach, Victoria. An incredibly dangerous area, it’s closed to the public for good reason.

First of all, he nearly drowned at Cheviot Beach, Victoria in May 1967. On his 59th birthday, 5th August 1967, he had a health scare while spearfishing in Queensland; he was short of breath and had pain in his chest. Holt also had a longstanding shoulder injury originally sustained from playing footy as a kid. It was flaring up and impacting his fitness levels. Prescribed painkillers also diminished his capacity for exercise. If all that wasn’t enough, premature death was common in his family – his father died at 59 and his brother, Cliff, had died in March at age 57.

Friends, family and colleagues all warned Harold that he was too stressed out, emotionally and physically. Holt, however, refused to listen, even after his multiple close calls. Even his doctor couldn’t get through to him the danger of exercising in his current condition.

But Holt didn’t want to stop. If you love playing sports or doing physical activities, then you know the struggle of forcing yourself to stay put when you’re injured. Some of us (read: me) have learned the hard way of not listening to your body and injuring yourself badly – instead of taking a week off voluntarily, you’re now out for a month!

But hey, he worked hard throughout 1967 and before he knew it, it was the Christmas break. This is the perfect time to sit back, relax, and give yourself a few weeks to decompress before starting the new year. This is important for anyone to do to avoid burnout, and doubly so for a world leader.

Holt welcomed the opportunity to unwind and went down to Point Nepean, Victoria with some of his friends for a picnic in December. He could do some gambling, maybe watch the horse races…and do some spearfishing, of course!

21st Century Jacobsweg: Point Nepean, as seen from Queenscliffe. This thin peninsula is where Holt decided to spend Christmas break 1967. Cheviot beach is just over the other side.
Point Nepean, as seen from Queenscliffe. This thin peninsula is where Holt decided to spend Christmas break 1967. Cheviot beach is just over the other side.

But Holt also made a fatal, spur of the moment decision on 17th December 1967 – to swim at Cheviot Beach, the beach he nearly drowned at just seven months earlier.

Cheviot beach is rough at the best of times, and on this day it was incredibly hazardous. There’s no ‘good time’ to swim here: high tides hide the sharp reefs that reach the shoreline and low tides produces incredibly strong rips amongst these reefs.

In fact, the name itself is a bad omen. The beach’s namesake is the SS Cheviot, which sank here and killed thirty-five people in 1887. It is such a dangerous place and thus always closed to the public. But Holt, being the PM, had special permission to access the beach.

Holt’s friends thought he was nuts, except Alan Stewart who decided to join him. However, Stewart immediately reconsidered his decision when the undertow violently dragged him away from the shore. Luckily, he was barely in the water and was able to escape to the safety of the sand, but Holt swam further out. With every crest of the waves, Holt was sucked further from the shore. Soon, he disappeared from view.

It only took a few hours for the news to hit every corner of Australia: The PM had disappeared. One of the largest manhunts in Australian history began. Over three hundred people took part and involved helicopters, boats, diving teams from the navy and police and professional divers.

21st Century Jacobsweg: The Prime Ministers' Garden in the Melbourne General Cemetery. Holt's "grave" is visible on the left.
The Prime Ministers’ Garden in the Melbourne General Cemetery. Holt’s “grave” is visible on the left.

Severe weather and raging seas reduced the efficacy of the search teams from the start. By the time the calm weather returned, the chance of finding Holt (alive or otherwise) was zero. His body was never recovered.

Some people have theories about what happened to Holt. One that’s picking up steam is that the drowning was all an elaborate suicide, claiming he was depressed and afraid of his political career being over. While Holt was always unfairly compared to Menzies and could never live up to those expectations, Holt was nowhere near a position of political jeopardy. Sure, he cheated on his wife a lot, but she knew and tolerated that and so did everyone else, it seems.

And while Cliff’s death was devastating to him, Harold came to terms with it pretty quick. In fact, he was said to have had an immunity to sadness as nothing seemed to faze him. And after his mother’s death as a teenager, the Great Depression sullying his career prospects in law, and several automobile accidents (one of which killed his chauffeur and severely injured him), Holt appears to have built a strong ability to withstand hardship and roll with life’s punches.

There’s been some other hypotheses over the years. Some say his medication was tampered with because of supposed links to organised crime. One guy claims he was picked up by a Chinese submarine because he was a spy for Maoist China (Yeah, and a guy rode around on an ostrich robbing people in the Coorong). Some people think he was abducted by aliens! Some actually believe that not only did he survive, but he is still alive! If that were the case, he would be 115 years old, aka the oldest man on Earth!

21st Century Jacobsweg: Harold Holt's "grave" in Melbourne General Cemetery.
Harold Holt’s “grave” in Melbourne General Cemetery.

Of course, the most likely explanation remains that Holt simply drowned at Cheviot Beach, possibly sustaining severe injuries from the reefs in the process.

Holt was the third PM to die in office (after Lyons in 1939 and Curtin in 1945). The sudden nature of it so close to Christmas rocked the nation. His death instigated a brutal tug-of-war within the Liberal party that ended up weakening the behemoth. Gough Whitlam (Labor) finally broke the Liberal streak in 1972 (and then got sacked in 1975 – a crazy event in Australian political history).

Harold Holt has many memorials dedicated to him. One is a sombre reminder near his watery grave at Cheviot Beach. Another is a symbolic grave in Melbourne General Cemetery’s Prime Ministers’ Garden, where other legendary PMs like Hawke and Menzies are buried.

But probably the most memorable one is in Glen Iris within his seat of Higgins. It is a dedication to his love of swimming and all things water: The Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Pool. It was only after it was revealed that people remarked that this was like opening up a John F. Kennedy Memorial Shooting Range or a Princess Diana Memorial Tunnel.

Doesn’t help that it advertises you can learn ‘how to swim’ (unlike Holt…?). But Australians don’t hold politicians in high regard anyway, so maybe they knew what they were doing…

21st Century Jacobsweg: The Harold Holt Memorial Swim Centre in Glen Iris, Victoria. I understand what they were trying to do, but they unintentionally created the quintessential example of Australian gallows humour.
The Harold Holt Memorial Swim Centre in Glen Iris, Victoria. I understand what they were trying to do, but they unintentionally created the quintessential example of Australian gallows humour.

And so, that’s what Harold Holt is known for: Disappearing. All of his actions, achievements and accomplishments have been overshadowed by going for a swim and never coming back.


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