Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader of notorious cult The Family, dies at 97

 theage.com.au  06/14/2019 05:30:00  2

Hamilton-Byrne founded The Family in the 1960s with Melbourne University academic Raynor Johnson, who served for 30 years as head of Queen's College. The apocalyptic cult blended yoga, drug-taking and Eastern mysticism with Christianity.

Along with her husband, Bill Byrne, Hamilton-Byrne acquired children through adoption scams and imprisoned them at a house beside Lake Eildon. They were home-schooled, wore identical clothes and had their hair dyed blond.

They were also dosed with LSD after being "initiated" at age 14. Starvation, beatings and brainwashing were common. At one point there were as many as 28 of these children.

At one point the cult had hundreds of adult members, many of them respected middle-class professionals.

One survivor, Leeanne Creese, launched a legal battle for compensation against Hamilton-Byrne in 2017, however it has taken two years to proceed to trial.

According to a statement of claim filed in the Supreme Court, the "cruel and inhumane treatment" Ms Creese was subjected to left her with PTSD, including feelings of intense fear, helplessness and horror.

Children also had their heads held under water, were administered large quantities of tranquilisers, and were not given medical treatment for serious illnesses including dysentery, court documents state.

Before her death, lawyers for Hamilton-Byrne filed a defence denying all allegations against her. She did admit to having a group of children under her care known as The Family.

The class action, which survivors must opt out of not to take part, covers the cult's activities between 1968 and 1987. It is understood up to seven survivors could be involved.

Dozens of cult children were fed LSD and other drugs, starved and beaten.

Dozens of cult children were fed LSD and other drugs, starved and beaten.

Hamilton-Byrne owned property in Australia, including homes in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne, as well as overseas.

It is understood her estate has dwindled, in part because of the cost of her palliative care.

One member of the legal action, Ben Shenton, was taken in by the cult at just 18 months old and bore the abuse of Hamilton-Byrne and the "aunties" until he was rescued with the other children at the age of 15 after a police raid.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader of The Family.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne, leader of The Family.Credit:

Mr Shenton remembers his first night of freedom; the realisation he didn't have to go back, that he didn't have watch his words or feel scared anymore.

On Friday, his feeling was relief.

"The influence that Anne had over people, and the damage that was done ... it's good to see a chapter being closed," Mr Shenton told The Age.

"I'm very saddened by the impact on people, some of them no longer with us, and some of us damaged.

"There will be a lot of fallout from this, like any time when someone's had an affect on your life, let alone abuse.

"There will be people today thinking about that impact, not wanting to, but being forced to."

Hamilton-Byrne was never charged with anything more serious than fraud, which led to $5000 in fines. Police and prosecutors did not pursue potential charges of kidnapping, administering drugs and assault.

Former Victoria Police detective Lex de Man, who investigated the cult and its leader, said he still had regrets that Hamilton-Byrne never faced justice on several allegations due to legal technicalities.

"I shed not one tear today," he said. "Today for me brings to an end the life of one of Victoria's most evil people.

"My hope is that those who suffered, the survivors who are the former children, if there's any way they can receive compensation for what they went through that should happen."

Hamilton-Byrne was born Evelyn Edwards in Sale in December 1921. Her mother was mentally ill and her father itinerant. She taught yoga in Melbourne and Geelong and began the cult with Dr Johnson in 1962.

Hamilton-Byrne fled Australia with Bill after the Lake Eildon house was raided by police. They had property in Kent, near London, and the Catskills region of New York. They were eventually found there after a joint Victoria Police-FBI operation and then extradited.

"She was one of the world's most notorious cult leaders and one of the few women," said journalist Chris Johnston, co-author of The Family, a book investigating the cult.

"She orchestrated one of the darkest eras in Melbourne's history."

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