Harold Holt’s disappearance

Harold Edward Holt, 1908–67

Harold Edward Holt was born in Sydney in 1908 and was elected to the Federal seat of Fawkner in 1935. He became Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party on the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies in January 1966. Holt's term as Prime Minister was characterised by strong support for United States’ involvement in the Vietnam war, and a stunning 1966 election win on a pro-Vietnam platform. 

The disappearance – 17 December 1967

Harold Holt disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria on 17 December, 1967. His body was never recovered. Without determining the cause of Holt's death, 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 (see copy on file A1209, 1968/8063) found that his last movements followed a routine domestic pattern, his demeanour had been normal and despite his knowledge of the beach, the turbulent conditions (high winds, rough seas and rip tides) overcame him. The explanations put forward for a failure to find the body included an attack by marine life, the body being carried out to sea by tides or becoming wedged in rock crevices.

While a variety of theories have been expounded about Holt's disappearance, the Commonwealth Government did not deem a formal inquiry necessary, accepting the conclusions of the Police report.

Records relating to Holt's disappearance

The National Archives holds a range of records relating to the disappearance of Holt, and the events that immediately followed: the unsuccessful search for his body; the memorial services and the mourning at the loss of a national leader; the caretaker Prime Ministership of John McEwen; and the selection of a replacement for Holt. Examples of the types of records held are listed below. Unless otherwise indicated the records are held by the National Archives in Canberra.

Records of the disappearance and search

Among these records are the contents of Holt's briefcase, which provide an insight into his work at the time he disappeared, and a silent film made by the Victorian Police re-enacting the movements of witnesses at Cheviot Beach and the conditions that Holt encountered. A key Prime Minister's Department file (A1209, 1968/8063) containing police reports, correspondence, maps, photographs, press releases and documents suggesting a key witness withheld information, also provides a comprehensive coverage of events.

Title or description of record Date range Series, item number
Disappearance of Prime Minister 1967–68 A463, 1967/6732
Prime Minister Holt – disappearance and search 1967 A4940, C4711
Film (black-and- white, silent) re-enactment of disappearance 1967 B6330, 1
Mr Holt's disappearance 1967–68 M58, 88
Mr Holt's disappearance 1967–68 M58, 153
Death of Mr Holt 1967–69 M1499, 51
Documents from the briefcase of Holt 1967 M1945, Item 1
Press conference Canberra – TV/radio statements 1967 AA1971/178, 12/1
Search for Mr Holt – Prime Minister and Cabinet 1968 A1209, 1968/8063
Indian mystic's claim to knowledge of body 1968 A1209, 1968/8146
Original manuscript of report of disappearance 1968 A1209, 1968/8570
Cabinet Minute – Abandonment of Portsea search 1968 A5840, 770/EC

Records of sympathy and the memorial services

These records reflect the profound international reaction to the disappearance of Holt. They include condolence messages from the Queen and other world leaders, the planning for memorial services in Melbourne and London, and the itineraries of dignitaries such as US President Johnson, British Prime Minister Wilson and Prince Charles, who attended the Melbourne service.

Title or description of record Date range Series number
Visit of overseas dignitaries for memorial service 1967–68 A446, 1967/73018
Condolences – Heads of State, diplomats 1967–68 A463, 1968/1195, Part 1
Condolences – Heads of State, diplomats 1967–68 A463, 1968/1195, Part 2
Condolences – Heads of State, diplomats 1967–68 A463, 1968/1195, Part 3
Memorial service for Holt – financial 1967–68 A463, 1967/6783
Memorial service – representatives from UK 1967 A1209, 1968/8027
Condolence letters and books 1967–68 M2655
Photographs of Melbourne memorial service 1968 A1200, L68652
Photographs of Melbourne memorial service 1968 A1200, L68543
Photographs of Melbourne memorial service 1968 A1200, L68653
Memorial service – representatives from NZ 1968 A1209, 1968/8045
Holt memorial services – London 1968 A1209, 1968/10013
Lyndon B Johnson's arrival for Prime Minister Harold Holt Funeral (audio tape)  1968 C102, POO134
Harold Holt Memorial Service – program file for radio and television 1968 C1986, Box 1

Records of the political events following Holt's disappearance

These include personal papers of Country Party leader John McEwen, who was sworn in as caretaker Prime Minister on 19 December 1967, until the Liberal Party could elect a new leader. Papers of McEwen held in series M58 deal with the critical questions arising from the death of a Prime Minister, the visit of President Johnson, and the meeting of Cabinet he attended while in Australia. 

Title or description of record Date range Series number
Questions arising out of disappearance of Holt 1967–68 A432, 1967/3407
Personal papers of Sir John McEwen 1967–71 M58, 176
Personal papers of Sir John McEwen 1967–71 M58, 415
Personal papers of Sir John McEwen 1967–71 M58, 470
Outwards correspondence – Sir John Bunting 1967 M319, 17
Retiring allowances; establishment of Holt's death 1968 A432, 1968/3035
Facilities for Dame Zara Holt 1968 A1209, 1968/8003
Holt's disappearance – constitutional considerations 1968 A1209, 1968/8004
Removal and storage of effects of Holt from Lodge 1968 A1209, 1968/10078