The cruel cult of Anne Hamilton-Byrne

Nigel H. Sinnott

Unseen Unheard Unknown; by Sarah Hamilton-Byrne. 220 pp.; ppbk. Penguin Australia, 1995 (ISBN 0 14 017434 6). $14.95 [about £7].
Earlier this century, engineers in Victoria dammed the Goulburn River where it is joined by the Delatite to form a large artificial lake. Beside the dam is the town of Eildon and between this and the Fraser National Park a small settlement emerged by the lake at Taylor's Bay. The area around the lake appealed to retired people, artists, fishing and boating enthusiasts, bushwalkers, trail-bike riders and holiday makers. It was also secluded enough to attract a wealthy, secretive and sinister sect called The Family.

One of the founders of The Family (sometimes called the Great White Brotherhood) was Dr Raynor Johnson, a physicist and Master of Queen's College at the University of Melbourne. He was interested in Eastern mysticism and became "a world authority on religion".

The cult's doctrines were a syncretism or mixture of ideas from Hinduism, yoga, Zen, Christianity and other sources, combined with an uncritical adoration of the movement's female leader. Initiation involved the use of drugs - usually LSD but, if this was in short supply, psilocybin-rich toadstools would do. Secrecy and a low profile were encouraged by the motto "Unseen, unheard, unknown".

The co-founder was Anne Hamilton-Byrne, who claimed descent from the French royal family and the Biblical House of David. Her detractors believe she was the daughter of a railway engine cleaner and they further allege that her claims to have a pilot's licence and qualifications in psychiatric nursing, homoeopathy and physiotherapy are groundless.

Anne became the Master of the cult and sought a wealthy, middle-class following. In the late 1960s she decide, as a "scientific experiment" (warmly accepted by Dr Johnson), to collect a group of young children and indoctrinate them to continue her movement. They were supposed to become an élite leadership group after - she believed - most of the world had been destroyed by a massive explosion.

Children were acquired either direct from Family members or through adoptions arranged by cult doctors and social workers. The children's names were changed, their identities falsified, and they were sometimes provided with multiple false birth certificates. On one occasion they were baptised, en bloc, as Catholics, presumably so that Anne could acquire a swag of baptismal certificates.

For most of the time the children were kept at Taylors Bay, in strict isolation on a property called Kai Lama ("Uptop" to the children). They were dressed alike and often had their hair dyed blond to make them look alike. When Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill were not around - which was most of the time - the children were looked after by rostered cult members called Aunties who had agreed to donate half their time to guruseva (Sanskrit for "service to the Master").

The children were rigidly controlled during their waking hours and had to speak in affected English middle-class accents. They were viciously punished - with beatings, bashings, starvation, vast numbers of lines to write and public humiliation - for the slightest infraction of Anne's rules. Children were routinely beaten for bed-wetting and even for fouling their nappies. The cult's maxims were "You can't murder a bum" and "A belting a day keeps evil away". On one occasion Anne asked someone to hold up the telephone while a child was being beaten "so I can hear the screams". She once held up a boy, less than two years old, by his ankles to show followers "the best way to belt a child". Cruelty to animals, on the other hand, was strongly denounced. The children received restricted and barely adequate food but vast amounts of vitamin tablets. They were routinely dosed with tranquillisers to keep them docile.

Anne had a horror of fatness, and any child she reckoned was overweight was put on even more restricted rations. The Master did not, of course, practise what she preached. She maintained her preferred body image with regular plastic surgery and liposuction.

If the children were ill, they were ignored or else punished for "attention seeking" or making undue noise. Anne, on the other hand, doled out homoeopathic remedies for "disobedience" and "thinking wrongly".

The children received a limited education of sorts and had regular hatha yoga and meditation sessions. The youngsters were occasionally taken to the cult's other properties in Victoria, England and the United States. As they got older, the boys were sent off to a private boarding school in England (Stoneyhurst). Anne was, apparently, not too fussy about formal education for the girls, though in 1984 the Kai Lama property was granted recognition as a school, Aquinel College.

The children were, in other words, brought up in an atmosphere which was callous, oppressive and manipulative. They were denied the features of childhood most youngsters take for granted: freedom consistent with safety, unconditional affection, emotional security, and opportunities to acquire coping skills in the outside world.

The misery and deprivation to which the children were subjected were conveniently rationalised by Anne Hamilton-Byrne's belief in reincarnation and karma. The Aunties, by the way, claimed that Anne was Jesus Christ reincarnated. Suffering, according to The Family, acquired merit (good karma) in this life and helped redeem sins in supposed former lives.

The children were trained to be afraid of outsiders in general and of the police in particular. But in 1987 a private investigator, who had been watching The Family for some time, persuaded three teenage girls - who had broken away from the cult or were trying to do so - to meet two women officers of the Victoria Police. Further meetings took place and, after the girls had made detailed statements, the police planned a dawn raid on Kai Lama.

The cult's daily timetable was, for once, convenient. Three busloads of police struck at 6:30 a.m. when the children were in one part of the building, doing yoga, and the adults upstairs. The raid went well and, once they had been reassured by the three older girls, the rest of the children started talking freely about their experiences. They had discovered that someone in the world was more powerful than Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne!

Sarah Hamilton-Byrne was one of the girls who went to the police and accompanied the raid. She has now written a book describing her experiences as one of Anne's children and her own efforts to break away and adjust to the outside world.

Sarah discovered, incidentally, that she was not Anne's real daughter as she had been led to suppose. Her real mother had been browbeaten, while dosed with tranquillisers, to sign adoption papers. The baby had been surreptitiously adopted by the family doctor, a cult member, and handed over to Anne. Coercion and subterfuge were the norm in most other cases as well.

After the raid at Lake Eildon the children were taken to the Victorian government's Allambie reception centre in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Sarah formed a high opinion of the staff there and of several police officers who continued to offer help and support. She gives a moving account of a little boy called David who, after looking at the refrigerator, was told he could help himself to anything he fancied. "I will never forget the look on David's face as he gazed into that fridge and realised he was free." A girl named Cassandra, who was much shorter than most children of her age, grew eleven centimetres in her first year of freedom. Another child received a vicious telephone call from an Aunty. She told him she was his real mother, reviled him, and then disowned him. Once again, as Sarah points out "the cruelty of the régime we had left was amply demonstrated".

The cult even obtained the services of a compliant journalist who claimed that Anne and Bill were the innocent victims of a witch-hunt and that they had taken in children who were retarded and "unwanted by anyone else".

The children's move to St. John's Homes for Boys and Girls, an Anglican institution, brought problems. Unlike the people at Allambie, Sarah relates:

The hierarchy at St John's believed it was important that staff remained aloof. The few staff who tried to befriend or comfort us were encouraged to leave. No affection was allowed; that was interpreted as a risk to 'professional boundaries'. At the same time, the St John's hierarchy actively tried to stop us making outside friends; new people were discredited. . . The staff were rude to the few people who had befriended us. . . Some . . . were especially vitriolic. . . The philosophy seemed to be 'Don't talk about it and it will all go away'. Whenever we tried to explain our background to them, they accused us of being self-indulgent and wanting sympathy. Eventually the children decided to go their separate ways, though they still see each other frequently to celebrate anniversaries of the raid at Taylors Bay. A disappointment they had to bear was being told that the authorities were unable to prosecute members of The Family for cruelty, as more than twelve months had elapsed from the last date of abuse. Four of the Aunties were sentenced to a few months' jail for social security frauds; these sentences were later reduced on appeal.

And The Master herself? She was finally extradited from the United States to Australia to face charges involving false registration of births. She was fined $5,000 for making a false declaration. Sarah estimates Anne's assets as being at least $150 million.

Sarah is, if anything, a little too ready to absolve the Aunties. "Most of them were not intrinsically evil people" she writes. "They had merely subjugated all moral standards to the goal of obeying the Master's will. . . They were told to discipline us to within an inch of our lives and that is what they did." Elsewhere Sarah describes the Aunties' chorus of "Good on you Anne, they need to be taught from an early age!" I may not be alone in regarding "only obeying orders" as a poor excuse for gross cruelty.

One of the more appalling features of The Family - apart from Anne's egomania and double-talk - was the way in which its evil activities were furthered by a seedy coterie of morally defective professionals. The brutal Aunties were nurses or nursing students; then there were the doctors who provided the Aunties with prescription drugs (to sedate the children) or who supervised the abuse of LSD; psychiatrists who committed patients to a hospital run by a cult member; lawyers who fixed up the deed polls for bogus passports and birth certificates; and social workers who helped bypass normal adoption procedures. "Without their support and participation," Sarah comments, "Anne Hamilton-Byrne would never have become what she is today. It was their names that gave her the credibility and social power she needed. . . They looked respectable, therefore people thought they must be respectable."

When reading Sarah's book I found I could cope tolerably well with her descriptions of incessant beatings and humiliations; but when she came to describe the aftermath of the raid and her efforts to overcome her self-doubts, depression and fear of inadequacy, it became impossible to be objective or detached. No one should be put in a position where he or she has to write a first-hand account like this, but it needed to be done and has been written well. It has the ring of painful sincerity and a dogged concern for compassion, decency and honesty.

As far as Sarah is concerned, the worst thing The Family did to the children - as it had the most lasting effect - was the withholding of love. "I believe to deny a child love is to deny its existence as a human being." Elsewhere she says that "Destroying life and liveliness in people is perhaps the true definition of evil."

Thanks to a combination of luck, the help of loyal, perceptive friends and her innate intelligence and stubborn courage, Sarah has survived The Family's efforts to suborn her to its designs, and she is well on the way to being something that the Master could only bluster about - a real healer.

Dr Sarah Hamilton-Byrne has rendered a valuable public service by shedding a bright light on the dark secrets of The Family and by exposing it for the cruel, parasitic monstrosity it was.

Note (1997) by the editor of the Australian Humanist, James Gerrand:

Those who attended last year's Skeptics Convention were privileged to hear Dr Sarah speak of her ordeal as a further valuable service she rendered to the public.

Note (1997) by the editor of The Skeptic, Barry Williams:

Readers who attended the Australian Skeptics 1995 Convention in Melbourne would have had the privilege of hearing Dr Sarah Hamilton-Byrne speaking about her horrifying childhood experiences. It was a presentation not to be forgotten.


Originally typed 23 October 1995.

First published as "The cruel cult of Anne Hamilton-Byrne" in the Australian Humanist, n.s., no. 46, May 1997: 9 -11.

Republished as "Anatomy of a cruel cult" in The Skeptic (Sydney) 17 (2), Winter [June] 1997: 45-46, 48.

Scanned 7 November 2005 (minor corrections 13 Nov. 2007).