Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dame Zara Bate (1909-1989)

This marble head stone with its almost faded epitaph is the memorial to Dame Zara Bate, the wife of Harold Holt, Australia's 17th Prime Minister.  While the engraving in the marble is still legible the black, contrasting paintwork is all but gone. Sadly even her name is hardly legible.  We first discovered this headstone many years ago and revisited the cemetery intentionally to rediscover it.  We walked passed it three times before we recognised it.  The casual visitor would probably never stop.

P.A. Pemberton In the Australian Dictionary of Biography ( http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holt-dame-zara-kate-12652 ) reports Dame Zara Kate Holt (nee Dickins) was a fashion designer and business woman. She met Harold Holt when she was 16. In the 1930’s depression she borrowed 150 pounds from her father and established a dress shop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne.  She sold the business two years later. Pemberton writes that Harold would not marry Zara before he had sufficient funds so she set off on an around the world cruise to England.  On the return journey she met James Fell, a British Army Officer.  She married Fell in May 1935. They set up house in Meerut in India.  Zara returned to Melbourne periodically including for the birth of her three boys.  The last two, born in 1939, were twins.

Wikipedia suggests Zara and James marriage broke down soon after the birth of the twins. Zara divorced James in 1946 and married Holt the same year.  By now Holt was a solicitor and a member of parliament. He adopted the three children.

Pemberton writes that with her husband often in Canberra, Zara opened a boutique called Magg in Toorak Village.  Magg later expanded to Double Bay in Sydney and Myer.  Zara became popular as a speaker on the fashion circuit.  By 1956 she divided her time between their home in Toorak, their house in Portsea and ‘the shack” at Bingil Bay, North Queensland.

In January 1966 her husband, Harold Holt, became Australia’s Prime Minister.  Less than two years later on 17 December 1967 she was at the Lodge in Canberra while Harold was in Melbourne to witness a yachtsman, aboard a yacht called the "Lively" on his solo circumnavigation of the globe, sail through the heads of Port Philip Bay.  After the event he, several of his friends and two body guards drove to one of Holt’s favourite swimming and snorkeling spot; Cheviot Beach on Point Nepean near the ocean side of Portsea.   Holt decided to go swimming despite warnings from his friends.  The surf was large and the beach well known for its rips.  He soon disappeared in the swell.

Televisions and radios around the world crackled into life with the news that the Australian Prime Minister was missing. Dame Zara flew to Melbourne and was driven to Portsea where she was besieged by reporters. Hope gradually diminished and Zara faced the grim reality of her husbands death.  An extensive search by police, navy divers, air force helicopters and local volunteers failed to find his body.

Harold Holt was a strong swimmer and skin diver and there has been much speculation surrounding his disappearance much of which survives today.  Stories range from cramp or heart attack whilst in the water, suicide, faking his own death and conspiracy theories ranging from espionage, being picked up by a Chinese submarine or even a UFO!  The Coroner’s Report records the cause of death as drowning in accidental circumstances.  One of the most famous memorials to Holt is the Harold Holt Swim Centre in Glen Iris Melbourne. Ironic.

On 19 February 1969 Zara married Henry Jefferson Percival Bate.  She retired in Surfers Paradise Queensland and died on 14 June 1989.  She was buried in Sorrento Cemetery, Victoria a long way from Queensland but a ten minute drive to Cheviot Beach where Holt disappeared.  Pemberton reports that her estate was sworn for probate at AUD$5,173,165.

Her all but illegible epitaph reads 1909 – 1989 Dame Commander of the British  Empire. A Proud  Australian. RIP. Shared with Taphophile Tragics.


  1. When I did a post for TT last February on Dame Zara, I too had found trouble finding this grave! The headstone is faded and lined up so closely to others! Strangely, I found one of her son's graves at a short distance away before I found hers. Two of her granddaughters are prominent in the fashion industry, but no family member seems to be involved in politics. An intriguing woman!

  2. It always takes me by surprise when someone famous in their day has a modest gravestone. And this modest grave then fades into anonymity. Thank you for reviving this story, if only for a little bit. Hopefully, someone will repaint the carved lettering.

  3. How sad Joe .. she was a glamorous lady in her time who I admired much for her attention to detail. Unfortunately her resting place could only be described as neglected.

  4. That is a fascinating story Joe. I would not put it past those tricky UFO's to be the culprits in this mystery. How ironic her headstone is so ordinary after such an extraordinary life.

  5. Interesting story but I wonder why the engraving has faded away so soon? Only 23 years????? Poor quality?

  6. I like the idea of the Chinese/Russian sub.

    As for Dame Zara ... pfffft! In reality, she was nowt but a flibbertyjibbet. However, I did enjoy the read, and a 5 mil estate is not to be sneezed at.

    1. flibbertyjibbet. hahahahaa!
      i learned a new word.... :)

  7. I love that, shortly after the PM disappeared, a swimming center in Melbourne was named after him.

  8. right, after Julie's dismissive comment on her, I shall have to read more about this intriguing woman!
    I remember Gemma's post about her, and i think it odd that only her current last name is on the stone (for someone married to the late PM!)

  9. Fantastic post. I think I have read about her before. Seems familliar. Shame the stone is slowly fading.

    Herding Cats

  10. I don't know why anyone would think that paint on a stone would last.
    it is a very modest stone for one with such a history.

  11. maybe the family thought she deserved a modest stone?

  12. A fascinating story about both Mr Holt and Dame Zara. Dreadfully sad about Mr Holt s demise. Anyone drowning is very sad for that matter.
    Perhaps Dame Zara only wanted something simple for her headstone. We ll never know and it's no ones business really except that of family members.

    I love Sorrento and may pop by to pay my respects.

  13. I wrote the previous post, and this is my the photo I'm happy to publish

  14. I lived in a house across from Glen Iris station that Zara Holt apparently lived in if anyone can tell me if this is true, and would go to Harold Holt pool as a kid it also has a heated indoor pool.