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Seventeenth  Prime Minister of Australia, Harold Holt (1908 – 1967), was in kinship care as a child. 

Harold Holt was the oldest child of Tom and Olive Holt. The couple got married in Newtown, a suburb of Sydney, in 1908. Tom was employed as a teacher at the time of Holt’s birth.

When Holt was six years old, Tom and Olive moved to South Australia to run the Duke of Wellington Hotel in Payneham, South Australia. Tom later became a travelling theatrical manager.

Harold and his younger brother, Clifford, were left behind in Sydney. They lived with an uncle and aunt, Harold and Ethel Martin.

For the next two years, Holt attended the Randwick State School. He then went to Nubba Public School for a couple of months before going to Abbottsholme College, a private school on the North Shore. 

Holt’s parents divorced when he was ten years old. Soon after, Holt “persuaded Tom to enrol him and Cliff as boarders at Melbourne’s prestigious Wesley College after a young friend told Harold how good a school it was. Harold was then aged eleven” (p. 5). 

Holt enjoyed his time at Wesley College, where he excelled at sports and theatre. During the holidays, he stayed with “relatives or college friends.” 

Other than when he was with his uncles, aunts and cousins, Harold did not experience the joys of close family life in a loving home. His mother died when he was sixteen and he did not attend her funeral (p. 5). 

Harold Holt won a scholarship to study law at the University of Melbourne in 1927. He was admitted to the Bar in 1932, and began practicing as a solicitor in a solo practice. 

Three years later, Holt won a seat in the Federal Parliament. In 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies appointed him in a junior role, making him Australia’s youngest minister. 

Holt mobilised the Department of Labour and National Service for World War II. Then, in 1940, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force to train as a gunner. But in August of that year, he was discharged and recalled to Canberra after the deaths of three senior ministers in an air accident.

In 1946, Holt married Zara Fell who would go on to become a fashion adviser for Australian officials’ uniforms for the Expo 67 in Montreal. The couple first met while Holt was in law school, although Fell married then divorced a British Army officer stationed in India before reuniting with Holt.

Holt was a member of Parliament for thirty years before being elected as Prime Minister. In the 1950s, he held senior ministerial roles in Immigration and Labour, and National Service. Between 1956 and 1966, Holt served as leader of the House of Representatives and deputy leader of the Liberal Party from 1956 to 1966. He also served as federal treasurer between 1958 and 1966.

Holt succeeded Menzies as Prime Minister in 1966. During his term in office, the government extended Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Holt is credited with modifying the White Australia policy to enable more migration from non-European countries. As a result, Australia forged closer connections within Asia.

…as Gough Whitlam, the leader of the Opposition, pointed out in March 1968: [h]e made Australia better known in Asia and he made Australians more aware of Asia than ever before (ANU).

On 17 December 1967, Harold Holt disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach in Victoria. He was the third Prime Minister to die while in office, although his body was never found.

Harold was seen swimming freely out to sea when turbulent water suddenly built up around him and he disappeared. Help was called, a major rescue operation was mounted, and [his wife] Zara and the immediate family arrived. By nightfall some 190 people were looking for the prime minister without expecting to find him alive. The search was scaled down on 22 December and officially terminated on 5 January 1968 (ANU).


Frame, T. (2005). The Life and Death of Harold Holt. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. 

Hancock, R. (1996). “Holt, Harold Edward (1908-1967)”. Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

“Harold Holt.” Australia’s Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia.

“Harold Holt prime minister of Australia.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

Image available  here.