Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Headlines

It's New years Day, 2015.

My morning paper has an image on it from the celebrations in the city last night, much as it does every year. A quick glance around the web reveals many other media outlets, local and overseas, have followed suit.

A snap of the fireworks, or people watching the fireworks, has almost become a New Years Day news tradition.

But what about earlier years? A look back at newspapers from earlier times can tell us a lot about what was happening on New Years Day, back in the day.

The following are three front pages from Melbourne's now defunct The Argus newspaper, three decades apart,


The 1950s are often viewed as a staid decade, and this front page seems to capture some of that mood. About three quarters of it is taken up with Australia's Davis Cup tennis win over the United States, driven by two precocious 19 year old's destined to become stars of the game; Ken Rosewall (the 'Giant Killer' of the headline)  and Lew Hoad.

New Years Day celebrations are almost entirely absent from the cover, save for the plain sentence right at the top of the page; 'A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL OUR READERS.'

The next largest story does have a New Years theme though, with the announcement of the Queens Honour's List. Eight Australians were knighted, which is about a decades supply in contemporary times, and the Prime Minister's wife (referred to as Mrs R.G.Menzies, rather than by her own christian name) was made a Dame.

In other news, Victoria's bookies indicated that they would start using an armoured car service to collect their take at the end of each race day. Previously, many had simply left their cash in a strong box in the city, but one of these had been cracked and emptied by thieves the previous week, with many thousands of pounds lost.

The Argus, December 29, 1953

Also worth noting is the ad (bottom right) for Gilbey's Gin, which includes a reference to a unit of measure, exotically named the 'Nobbler':

A 'nobbler' was a local term, used exclusively to describe a quantity of gin. It was effectively a nip, and 12 nobblers made up one quart. I was not able to locate the origin of the term, but a different local use for 'nobbler' at the time was to describe a person who illegally fixed horse races, usually by drugging a horse. So, a possible explanation could be that it drew a comparison between a drugged horse, and someone who had knocked back a few too many nips.


Going back ten years, 1944 finds a different world with the last full year of World War II about to start. No surprise then, that the front page of the paper is almost entirely taken up with the latest from the war's far flung theatres; the Red Army's dramatic advance towards the Polish border, and a landing of American Marines in New Guinea. Both pointers towards the Allies eventual victory. On a more sinister note, the Argus' correspondent in London comments on the growing size and might of the Red Army, useful for the Allies at this time, considerably less so when the Russians decided not to retreat again at war's end.

The only non-war related story is at bottom left, and again makes mention of the Honours List (although this time, the King's Honours List). Local boy Richard (later Baron) Casey had been made a Companion of Honour (CH), for his works in the civil service, also recognised when he was appointed Commonwealth Governor of Bengal the previous year. A reminder that this was still three years before India achieved independence.

To the right of the cover is an advertising panel, largely given over to promoting 'Vaxos No. 2 Oral Medicine'. Vaxos is described as a tonic, used to cure the bacteria that cause lumbago, neuritis and sciatica... none of which are caused by bacterial infection. Below this is a small ad for a play:

Peter Cheyney was a former British policemen who had found success writing pulpy crime fiction novels. This Man is Dangeous was his first book and featured his most famous creation, Private Investigator Lemmy Caution.  A number of Cheyney's novels were turned into plays and, later, films, perhaps most famously Alphaville, very loosely adapted by Jean-Luc Goddard,


Another ten year step back finds not only a different world, but a different newspaper. With the dense, narrowly columned sheet depicted above far removed from the big headlines and half page pictures of the 50s. Even the concept of 'news' is different, with what we might think of as important -local and international events, politics, sports - relegated to one column, on the far right. The other 6/7 of the page is given over to something more like what we would later know as classified ads; with births, deaths, marriages, even a lost and found section:

It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a world where you could report a lost bag or pencil to the local paper, with any expectation of its return.

Also of interest is a small section listing 'Airway Services', which contains only two entries, both flights to Tasmania:

'Safety assured by 3 engines and 2 pilots' Hart Aircraft Services proclaimed, in a statement you think may have come back to haunt them.

Of the New Year there is nothing, save for one small private notice, at the centre top:

Placed by Frederick Sidney Jermaine-Lulham, a local dentist and leading Freemason, the message has an unfamiliar presentation, but content that would not look out of place on facebook today. 

And all at 9 pence a line.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Prime Minister Disappears

Sunday, 17 December, 1967: The lead in to Christmas was dramatically interrupted by some of the most sensational news in the history of the country; The Prime Minister, Harold Holt, had disappeared! 

The Sun reports the incredible news.

Initial details were sketchy.

Holt had gone missing while swimming in the ocean near Portsea and was presumed dead, although a search was ongoing. Exactly why Holt had chosen to swim off such rough coast, notorious for rips and unpredictable swell, was uncertain.

But Holt's chances of surviving long in the Southern Ocean were obvious to everyone.

Young man in a hurry: Harold Holt circa 1930.

Born in Sydney in 1908 to a family of modest means, Harold Holt distinguished himself from a young age as a scholar and sportsman. He attended Wesley College in Melbourne and his results won him a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, where he studied law and captained the school cricket and football teams, as well as starring on the debate team.

He was a popular student, but was also viewed as a ruthless, ambitious young man. His driven nature has often been attributed to his parents; his mother died when Harold was 8 and his father was an aloof and remote figure, devoted to his business interests.

After graduating, Holt passed the Victorian bar in 1932 and went to work as a barrister in Melbourne. He also joined the United Australia Party (UAP), the leading conservative party in Australia at the time. His education and skill as a debater made him an obvious choice as a candidate for elected office, and he ran unsuccessfully in the Federal election of 1934 and state election of 1935.

Despite these setbacks, the UAP viewed Holt as one of their rising stars and offered the young go-getter the safe seat of Fawkner. Elected to Federal Parliament at the age of 27, Harold Holt remains one of Australia's youngest MP's. His intellectual accomplishments were backed by a debonair appearance and manner; handsome, genial and immaculately dressed, Holt cut quite a public figure in the staid 1930s.

Holt poses for a magazine article.

Joining the UAP in the same year as Holt, but 14 years his senior, was another man destined for the top of Australian politics; Robert Menzies. Menzies and Holt were dissimilar in many respects, but had similar policy ideas, and shared a strong work ethic and love of the theatre. They became firm friends, in and out of politics.

With the shock death of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons in 1939, Menzies (made deputy leader only the year before) assumed the Prime Minstership in dramatic circumstances. A bellicose man, not always easy to work with, Menzies reshuffled cabinet to reward his close colleagues within the party, continuing Holt's rapid rise by promoting him to the Ministry.

Robert Menzies, late 1930s.

But Menzies' blustering style made enemies within the UAP as well, and he was forced to resign in 1941 after a vote of no confidence. Surprisingly, Holt was one of the members who voted against Menzies, although he never revealed his reason and the two would remain friends.

Ongoing tensions within the UAP  would lead the party to splinter and then, finally, to dissolve, in 1944. In the space this created on the Conservative side of politics, Menzies formed a new party, The Liberal Party, as a vehicle to bring him back to power. Holt was one of the first members of the new enterprise, joining the Prahran branch.

When Menzies was re-elected in  1949, Holt was one of the highest profile members of his cabinet, and was already being touted as a future leader. Over the next decade, Holt would serve in a variety of positions, including  Minister for Labour, Immigration and National Service. In 1958 he succeeded Arthur Fadden as Treasurer, the traditional role for the heir apparent.

But he had a long wait. Menzies did not retire until 1966, with Holt sworn in as the 26th Prime Minster on Australia Day of that year. Menzies declared the country 'in good hands.'

Official portrait of Harold Holt, PM.

As Prime Minster, Holt largely continued with the policies of the Menzies era, although he modulated the details of some. Menzies signature 'White Australia Policy' was kept, but the restrictions on non European immigration were relaxed. 

But Holt is best remembered for his personal friendship with American President Lyndon Johnson, and his resulting decision to escalate Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war.

Holt and Johsnon.

The two men were known to each other before Holt became Prime Minister, but they became close when Holt visited Washington in July 1966. They shared a similar background and temperament and became so close that Holt's wife would describe their relationship as 'spectacular.' This visit to the US was when Holt made his famous remark 'all the way with LBJ,' in regards to US-Australian relations.

Johnson's return visit to Australia in October 1966 was less cordial, with violent demonstrations dogging the President's itinerary. Although the prestige attached to the visit - Johnson was the first US President to visit Australia - also had a positive effect. For despite the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, Holt secure a crushing victory at the 1966 election. The Liberal Party result at the poll - 56.9% of the two party vote - is the highest recorded in Australian history.

Holt ended 1966 with control of both houses of Parliament, and firm control of his party, seemingly at the height of his powers.

On December 17, 1967, Holt rose early and drove down to Mornington Penninsula to watch solo around the world yachtsman Alec Rose enter Port Phillip Bay. With the Prime Minister were some friends, and two bodyguards, and after Rose had sailed by, the small party made their way to Cheviot Beach for lunch.

It was a broiling day and, always a keen swimmer,  Holt decided to take a dip after lunch.

His friends tried to dissuade him. The surf was rough and Holt's health - he had collapsed in Parliament earlier in the year - had been in doubt.

But the Prime Minster was determined. He had a holiday house nearby and knew the area, and the ocean conditions, well. He dismissed concerns about the rough sea and changed into his bathing suit, before striding into the ocean.

He quickly swam out past the breakers.

Other witnesses said they had seen Holt turn around and make for shore, before disappearing below the waves.

The alarm was immediately raised.

Within an  hour helicopters were scouring the waves, and by sunset more than 200 search personnel were on site. The largest search - at that time - in Australia's history would last for three weeks and involve members of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard. But after two fruitless days, those involved knew that the best they could hope for was to find the PMs body.

Holt was pronounced dead on December 19 and National Party leader John McEwan was sworn in as Prime Minister the same day. On December 22 a memorial service was held for Holt, attended by 19 heads of state from around the world, Holt's good friend Lyndon Johnson among them.

No trace of Holt's body has ever been found.

And there the matter might have rested.

But the absence of a body, and the unusual circumstances surrounding the disappearance, caused some alternative theories to come forth.

In 1970, paranormal investigator John Keel wrote Operation Trojan Horse, a widely read book that claimed that aliens were behind a number of unsolved mysteries from history. Keel claimed that Holt had, in fact, been abducted by aliens; just the latest example of their regular intervention in human affairs. 

And in 1983, British journalist Anthony Grey wrote a best selling book that claimed Holt was actually a spy, working for the People's Republic of China. In this telling, Holt hadn't drowned but had actually learned that his cover was about to be blown, and arranged to be collected by a Chinese submarine.

Still other theories posited that Holt had been assassinated by the CIA - who had learnt of his intention to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam - or that he had simply become depressed and committed suicide. 

Cheviot Beach, present day.

In 2005 the Victorian Coroner, who had not previously investigated due to the absence of a body, conducted a formal inquiry. Their conclusion was that Holt had accidentally drowned; a tragic case of an experienced swimmer overwhelmed by freak conditions. The report speculated that Holt's body may have been swept from the area by strong currents before it could be found, or eaten by sharks, both common enough in the Southern Ocean.

Holt remains the only Australian PM to die of unnatural causes while in office.