In this article:
- Harold Holt was an Australian Prime Minister who is currently best known for his mysterious disappearance on December 17, 1967, near his vacation home at Portsea, Victoria.
- Nearly 200 people were deployed as part of the search party tasked with retrieving Holt, but there was no sign of him other than the clothes he had left on the beach.
- Witnesses say they saw Holt swimming out to sea but conspiracy theorists claim that the former PM was abducted by a Chinese submarine.
Harold Holt’s strange disappearance stands out as one of the few missing persons cases where a high-profile individual couldn’t be found despite the amount of resources that went into the search.
Sure, there’s the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, but it’s still rare for a country’s Prime Minister to vanish without a trace.
Except that’s exactly what happened on December 17, 1967, when Australia was startled by the news saying the country’s top-ranking official was last seen swimming at the beach of Portsea, Victoria.
Who Was Harold Holt?
Harold Holt was the 17th Prime Minister of Australia and the third Prime Minister to die while in office. These days, most people only remember him as that one Aussie PM who disappeared — a disservice to the man who Holt was when he was still alive.
So let’s get to know him better.
Harold Holt was born on August 5, 1908, in Stanmore, New South Wales to a fairly affluent family. His mother’s sister was a famous actress in England and Australia while his father’s father was a well-off landowner and mayor of Wallendbeen, New South Wales.
With plenty of social graces to go around on both sides of the family, it was no surprise that Holt became a popular student when he started attending Wesley College in 1920.
The then PM-to-be was an intelligent student who finished his studies on a scholarship. Holt was also an active member of a debating team, an activity that no doubt came in handy when he was trading verbal blows with fellow politicians later in life.
Holt was also an avid sportsman. Despite being known for his “naturally flailing elbows” and general lack of natural athletic abilities, he joined sports teams for cricket and football as well as tennis. What would be his life-long love, however, was swimming.
Holt won Wesley College’s prestigious Alexander Wawn prize before moving on to Melbourne University where he studied law. After law school, Holt worked as a solicitor, a kind of lawyer that gives clients general legal advice, at Fink, Best, & Miller.
But Holt started his legal career during the Depression which meant that even a lawyer like himself wasn’t exactly making good money. For perspective, Holt had to live in a boardinghouse.
Because of this, he took a job appearing before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration on behalf of the Victorian Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association
His time in the legal field gave Holt the chance to brush elbows with important people and cultivate friendships in high places. Because of his social abilities and innate intelligence, many of his friends and acquaintances urged him to enter politics.
This lead him to become the youngest member of the Australian Parliament, at just 27 years old, where he served under then Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
In February 1939, after World WEar II broke out, Holt joined the Australian Army Reserve and served as a gunner for the 2/4th Field Regiment. This willingness to put his neck on the line boosted his popularity among voters which later became stronger when he sponsored the Child Endowment Act.
Holt is also noted for his opposition to the White Australia policy, which is exactly what it sounds like, when he stepped in to ensure that a Filipino man with an Australian wife could stay as a permanent resident in Australia.
That said, he was also a firm nationalist who pushed to change the Australian currency’s name to “dollar” instead of “royal” and was an open supporter of the war in Vietnam.
Clearly, this was a man with political enemies. Though he won the elections for Prime Minister by a landslide, his allies’ suspicions that something would happen to Holt were confirmed when he was reported missing near his vacation home in Portsea, Victoria.
Harold Holt Vanishes at Portsea on December 17, 1967
Harold Holt kept a strong stance on political matters but was laid back in his personal life. Just before he disappeared, he had driven to his family’s vacation home in Portsea on his own without a security detail.
His home was also strangely under guarded.
Nicholas Holt, Harold’s son, remembers that the house had “…no fences around it or guards or security. The front doors were always left unlocked.” which Nicholas found troubling since his father was Prime Minister.
But Harold Holt wasn’t having any of it. As far as he was concerned, he was a regular old man on vacation with this family, so after spending time in the family garden with his granddaughter, he announced that he’d be heading down to the beach for a swim.
Holt was already 59 years old at the time, but no one was concerned that he would have an accident. He had remained active throughout his life and, in his own words, knew Portsea’s Cheviot Beach like the back of his hand.
Harold Holt stripped down to his trunks, leaving his shoes, pants, shirt, belt, and walking cane on the beach, before wading into the water. He didn’t disappear right away — in fact, witnesses reported joining him at the beach and seeing him vanish into the waves.
Marjorie Gillespie, Holt’s neighbor, reported that she, her daughter, and two friends saw Holt get engulfed by the sea. Gillespie described it as “like a leaf being taken out”.
Records from the National Archives of Australia show that the search had begun almost immediately after the Prime Minister disappeared, making it even odder that Holt’s body was never found.
The search party was led by Inspector 1st Class Jackson of the Commonwealth Police Force together with Inspector Grade 2 J. Ford of the Victoria Police.
The team began a thorough search of the beach while also asking local residents about the events leading up to Holt’s disappearance. Because of his position, it was vital to find out whether there was foul play in Holt’s death.
But nothing seemed to be amiss.
The neighbors who spoke with Holt claimed that the Prime Minister himself admitted that the tide was “unusually high” that day. Another man, Martin Simpson, said that there was a strong undercurrent from where he stood, only knee-deep in the water.
Mr. Stewart, one of the men present, saw Holt swim into the sea without hesitation and took it as a sign that the current wasn’t as strong as it seemed. However, he felt a “deep pool and tremendous undertow” on his legs while he was in the water which scared him out of meeting Holt further out at sea.
And then Harold Holt vanished before their eyes.
Who Took Harold Holt?: The Chinese Submarine Conspiracy
There’s nothing particularly odd about the circumstances of Harold Holt’s disappearance. He was an old man swimming in treacherous waters. If anything, the fact that he didn’t disappear sooner in the water is the real mystery here, as well as a testament to his athleticism.
But Occam’s Razor never stopped conspiracy theorists.
Rumors began to spread that claimed Prime Minister Holt was on drugs when he went out for a swim, hence his incapacitation.
Others claimed that Holt was a homosexual who felt guilty and decided to commit suicide by drowning, a claim that’s at odds with his behavior just hours prior. Harold Holt was making plans and joking about finding a new friend in his granddaughter just before his seeming death.
People also turned Holt’s tolerance of non-whites in Australia against him by claiming that he was a member of an Asian crime syndicate.
But the weirdest claim came nearly two decades later when Anthony Grey published a book entitled The Prime Minister Was a Spy in 1983. As the title suggests, Grey, a former Reuters correspondent who was imprisoned by the Chinese government for two years, claimed that Prime Minister Harold Holt was a spy.
And not just any spy. Grey said that Holt was a spy for the Chinese government.
Grey also made additional wild, unsubstantiated claims about Holt writing pro-China articles while he was a student at the University of Melbourne; that Holt was reporting directly to Chiang Kai-shek; that Holt was sending government documents to China; and that he faked his own death to avoid being taken in by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
It gets even wilder: The book claimed that Holt was still alive in China.
Another book published in 2013 claimed that Harold Holt was assassinated by a rogue cell of an intelligence agency working for the United States government.
Doing a Harold Holt and Other Facts About the Former Australian Prime Minister’s Legacy
Though Harold Holt disappeared abruptly from politics, his influence can still be felt in Australian politics and in the Australian public’s consciousness.
Unlike many of the English crown’s former colonies, Australia was located on the other side of the planet and Harold Holt knew it. This was why he pushed for stronger ties with the rest of Asia and a more robust Australian government with better separation from the U.K.
Harold Holt was also a known sponsor of the arts and established the Australian Council for the Arts to help enrich Australia’s cultural achievements. He also pushed for the 1967 referendum that allowed for indigenous populations to be counted in the Australian census.
Two years after his death, in the most ironic of ironies, the city of Melbourne built a swimming center named after Harold Holt called, obviously, the Harold Holt Swim Centre.
While that might seem a bit in poor taste, Harold Holt was a fan of swimming anyway. Sure, he was no Olympic swimmer, but the former Prime Minister may not mind it as much as we think he would.
What he might mind is how the swim center helped solidify him as “Prime Minister who drowned” to the Australian public.
By 1990, newspapers like the Sun Herald were using the phrase “to do a Harold Holt” or “to do a Harry” as a slang term to describe people who suddenly disappear or escape.
It isn’t just a niche slang term either. When former Prime Minister Scott Morrison was criticized for his lack of action on the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, Australians joked that he was avoiding his duties by doing a Harold Holt.
Morrison has also been mocked for claiming to not know about a rape scandal in a ministerial office by The New Daily writer Dennis Atkins who wrote, “Yeah, right. Harold Holt is alive in China and PM knew nothing of the rape scandal.”
On a more serious note, Holt’s stance against White Australia policies and support for stronger ties to Asia allowed for Asian immigrants to flourish in the country, inadvertently shaping the face of Australia’s diplomatic relations with China and Southeast Asia.