Renowned as Australia’s biggest cult, The Family’s grim history dates back to the early 1960s, and is still believed to be active today.
Anne Hamilton Byrne, The Family’s late cult founder and leader, is infamous for the brutal torturing of at least 22 children on her property in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, which she referred to as ‘Uptop’. Over the course of 15 years from 1972 to 1987, many children were taken from their birth parents in adoption scams.
14 of them had their hair regularly dyed peroxide blonde, were dressed identically and were given the Hamilton Byrne surname. Naturally, as you’ll see is a common thread in most cults, Hamilton Byrne believed she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, but in female form.
Intelligent and wealthy, two dangerous traits for any person with delusions of grandeur, Anne Hamilton Byrne struck a deal with the Victorian education department early into her plan. This allowed her to register The Family as a school and essentially cut off all contact for the children from the outside world.
She also had the medical system onside thanks to the caliber of her brood of adult followers. Using her sexual prowess, beauty, and under the guise of a yoga teacher who could see the future, she groomed a host of doctors, physicists, scientists and psychiatrists to do her bidding. In fact, more than 500 adults made up her community at the cult’s peak in the ’60s.
Anne collected 10% of her followers’ incomes and trained them through fraudulent activity, including forgeries and scam adoptions. Doctors in the cult drugged their patients who were mothers and convinced them to hand over their children.
The children were tortured myriad ways. Once they turned 14, they were given monumental doses of strong LSD for weeks at a time, the girls were starved and body shamed, they were hit with canes and shoes, and dunked in water to the point of almost drowning.
One child had a brain injury after treatment from one of the men in the cult. Children who wet the bed were beaten. One boy was nicknamed ‘zebra stripes’ by the other children because we wet the bet every night and the bruises were practically permanent.
So just how did one woman manage to pull the wool over the eyes of a community of hundreds of educated people? According to journalist Chris Johnston, co-author of the book The Family, Anne Hamilton Byrne was devastatingly charismatic.
“She would also change her appearance through cosmetic surgery, drive Jaguars and Daimlers and wear Chanel, wigs and expensive clothes,” Johnston wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. “She had large collections of cats and dogs. Many people remember one particular red dress she wore to a 1970s cult party. She courted women with her mind and men with her body, some say.”
There was a mantra which formed the odious rule to live by for The Family, also known as the Great White Brotherhood: “unseen, unheard, unknown”.
In 1987, police raided the cult’s property and removed the children. The 14 children who had their surnames changed to Anne were eventually adopted out or were reunited with their families. Operation Forest was then set up to dismantle the cult and find Anne, who at this point was a multi-millionaire living in New York with her husband Bill.
Local authorities partnered with Interpol in the UK and the FBI in the US to extradite Anne and Bill on the ground of conspiracy to defraud and commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets.
When Anne and Bill were finally taken back to Melbourne in 1993 and appeared in a county court, they were each ordered to pay a measly $5000 fine. It was at this point however that the cult was finally considered undone.
While some of The Family cult’s adult members are believed to still be operational, the sect hasn’t had any new members since the late ’80s. The current cult members are now elderly, but thanks to Anne’s fraudulent ways, are believed to be living off of $5-10 million between them.
At 98 years old, Anne died with dementia in a Melbourne retirement home on June 13th, 2019. There was no public funeral and no headstone. Bill passed 18 years before her in 2001. An unjust end for the woman who created such indelible lifelong trauma for so many people. Some of the children she held under her care were never able to recover, and took their own lives.