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Harold Holt’s Briefcase

Video clip synopsis – The disappearance of our seventeenth Prime Minister, Harold Holt, during a beach holiday sparked countless conspiracy theories. The items left in his briefcase are a significant time capsule of his last days as Prime Minister.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 5min 30sec
Tags - Australian History, biography, commemoration, identity, media and society, news media, photography, Prime Ministers, reporting, representations, Vietnam War, war, see all tags


Harold Holt’s Briefcase

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About the Video Clip


Harold Holt’s Briefcase is an episode from the series The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures, produced in 2007.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures
Award winning cartoonist and yarn spinner, Warren Brown, reveals the emotional lives of Australian Prime Ministers through 10 objects they used every day or even adored – from Robert Menzies’ home movie camera, to Joseph Lyons’ love letters, Harold Holt’s briefcase and Ben Chifley’s pipe. These treasures reveal the nation’s leaders, as you have never seen them before.

The Prime Ministers’ National Treasures is a Film Australia National Interest Program produced in association with Old Parliament House and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Background Information


The disappearance of our seventeenth Prime Minister, Harold Holt, at Cheviot Beach in 1967 during a beach holiday sparked countless conspiracy theories and ultimately overshadowed his political accomplishments.

At the height of the Cold War, with the Vietnam War escalating, Holt moved Australia’s focus away from Britain and more towards America — substantially increasing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. His impromptu speech on the White House lawn declaring himself ‘All the way with LBJ’ indicated his support for US President Johnson.

Holt’s prime ministership represented a major social shift from the tradition and conservatism of the Menzies era, to that of the ‘swinging sixties’. One of the hardest working of Australia’s Cabinet ministers, after 32 years as a parliamentarian, Harold Holt reached the prime ministerial office in 1966.

Holt’s first prime ministerial statement announced the relaxation of restrictions that had blocked the entry of non-European migrants for 65 years. The Migration Act 1966 increased access to migrants other than those from Europe, including refugees fleeing Vietnam. This was the beginning of the dismantling of the 'White Australia’ Policy. In 1966 he brought in Australia’s conversion to decimal currency. The following year on 27 May 1967 Australians overwhelmingly answered ‘yes’ to removing the discriminatory clause in Australia’s Constitution under which Aboriginal people were not counted in the census, and in changing the Constitution so that the Commonwealth parliament was empowered to legislate for Indigenous people.

Holt also brought Australia into the ‘space race’ with the construction of the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, and the joint US-Australian communications station at North West Cape, Western Australia.

In September 2005, the Victorian State Coroner found that Holt had drowned while swimming. The Coroner had previously been unable to investigate a death where a body was never found. Harold Holt was the third prime minister to die in office after Joe Lyons (1939) and John Curtin (1945).

The items left in Holt’s briefcase are a significant time capsule of his last days as Prime Minister: a pair of socks, theatre tickets, his tax returns and a couple of combs.

Harold Holt (1908 – 1967) was Prime Minister of Australia from January 1966 to December 1967. Harold Holt’s briefcase is held at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.

Classroom Activities


The power of images

Holt was Prime Minister during part of Australia’s Vietnam War history.

It is often claimed that representations of the war on television influenced people against the Vietnam War.

Here is an activity to test the power and significance of three key images in the Vietnam War. They are images that people who lived during the war will almost all remember; but they are also images that are less straightforward than they at first seem.

Gather the images — but for some you will need several versions. Gather them in this order.

  1. The burning of a monk
    1. Image 1A
    2. Image 1B
  2. A girl injured by napalm
    1. Image 2A
    2. Image 2B
    3. Image 2C
  3. The execution of a VC suspect
    1. Image 3A
  1. Print the images on individual pages so that you can show them to people separately.
  2. Show Image 1A to people. Ask for their comment on it.
  3. Show Image 2A to people. Ask for their comment.
  4. Show Image 3A to people. Ask for their comment.
  5. Now show image 1B. Point out the presence of the monk in the background, with a camera, showing that he knew the monk was going to set fire to himself as a political act. Ask if this extra element makes any difference to the person’s perception of the image.
  6. Now show image 2B and 2C, each of which increasingly shows other activities going on at the same time. Ask if these extra elements make any difference to the person’s perception of the image.
  7. Now explain to the person that there is a background story to 3A. The VC suspect being shot had just been captured at a local police station. The man shooting had a son-in-law who was an officer at that station. The son-in-law, his wife (the shooter’s daughter) and the officer’s children (the shooter’s grandchildren) had all been executed there by strangling. The shooter had just returned from identifying their bodies when the suspect was brought to him. Does this make any difference to their reaction to the image?
  8. Discuss what this tells us about the use of images in history.

Further Resources


Go to National Archives of Australia – Australian Prime Ministers

Go to the Australian Dictionary of Biography

For more photographs, cartoons and other historical images of Harold Holt go to the National Library of Australia