In 2016 a documentary by filmmaker Rosie Jones put the spotlight on an Australian doomsday cult called “The Family.” Although The Family has followers to this day, not many people were aware of its existence. It was created in the early 1960s and operated by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, her husband Bill Hamilton-Byrne, and Raynor Johnson, an Oxford physician and prominent member of the Australian elite.
The cult taught a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, proclaiming Anne Hamilton-Byrne as the Messiah, or the female reincarnation of Jesus. Later in its existence the cult focused primarily on the gathering and indoctrination of children. Her charming and charismatic personality attracted a number of followers, especially from the high social circles in Melbourne.
Hamilton-Byrne adopted 28 children, and at least half of them believed that she was their biological mother. She said that she loved children — she might have liked the idea of having them, but she had some perverse ideas on raising them. Her now-grown-up children recall being punished or starved for the smallest disobedience, as well as being regularly injected with LSD.
Born Evelyn Edwards in 1921, she had a dysfunctional childhood. Her mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and she barely knew her father. Another misfortune in her life was the tragic death of her first husband, in a traffic accident. In 1960, Anne discovered yoga.
At the time, new age-style soul-searching was quite popular among intellectuals and academics, and feminism was on the rise. Tactically, Edwards opened a yoga studio in a suburb of Melbourne where she taught mostly middle-aged women who were bored and unhappy in their marriages.
Edwards offered love to anyone who needed it, and she was charming enough for people to trust her. She encouraged women to leave their husbands, and invited everyone to follow her.
Things got more serious when Edwards met Raynor Johnson, master of the Methodist Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne. He was also deeply interested in spiritualism and took yoga lessons with Edwards. He was taken in by her charm, and besides bringing her more and more people, Johnson also offered his property, “Santiniketan,” at the outskirts of Melbourne for philosophical discussions among the group.
While on LSD, Edwards became convinced that she was the female reincarnation of Jesus. The members who joined what Edwards started calling “The Family” were mostly rich people who not only made hefty donations to the sect, but also gifted their leader with money, houses, and properties around Australia and the U.S.
Anne started preaching that a Third World War was coming — another LSD fueled fantasy — that was going to be so destructive that they, The Family, would have to guide the few people who survive.
In 1968, Anne and her partner Bill changed their surnames to Hamilton-Byrne. They began gathering infants, some natural children of the sect’s members, and others acquired through legal adoption. Adam Lancaster, who grew up in the cult, told CBS: “Under the influence of LSD, she had this vision that she’s got to collect all these children from birth.”
“Because the end of the world was coming,” recollects Dave Whitaker, another cult survivor. Hamilton-Byrne set about preparing the children to educate anyone who survived her Armageddon.
The adoption procedures in Australia at the time were poorly regulated, and a number of doctors, social workers, and lawyers who were members of The Family made sure the process ran smoothly. Birth certificates were forged so that all the children would take the name Hamilton-Byrne.
“You had babies born in cult hospitals, delivered by cult midwives, handed over to cult social workers,” said Lex de Man, one of the two detectives who worked on bringing charges against Hamilton-Byrne.
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At the age of 14, all children went through the cult’s initiation ritual which involved giving them LSD for the first time. After that, the children were frequently given huge doses of the drug.
Deprived of happiness, love, care, and the right to childhood, the kids lived in a trauma that was increased throughout their teenage years. Many of them developed anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal.
Although there were investigators looking into the sect, there wasn’t enough evidence against Anne until 1987. Her “favorite daughter,” Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, got expelled from The Family at the age of 17 for rebellion and lack of obedience.
Soon after, the girl met Helen D., a private investigator who had been scrutinizing the sect for a while. The detective told Sarah who her real biological mother was, and how she was acquired by The Family. Sarah was central to the downfall of the group. All the children were taken away from the property in a police raid, and the leader, along with her husband, escaped to the U.S. where she also owned property.
The FBI finally arrested Anne Hamilton-Byrne in 1993 and she was extradited to Australia. Unfortunately, the only charges brought against her were fraud and conspiracy related to the falsified adoptions.
Aged 98, Anne is living in a nursing home in Melbourne and suffers from dementia. The story got very popular in the media with the release of Jones’ documentary, and the book The Family: The Shocking True Story of a Notorious Cult, co-written by Rosie Jones and Chris Johnston.
Many ex-members and children gave their brave confessions in the documentary.