Stephen Orr recounts the tale of the Faraday School kidnapping, one of Australia’s strangest crimes and an inspiration for film and literature, in this edited extract from his latest book The Fierce Country: True Stories from Australia’s Unsettled Heart, 1830 to Today.
One year in a single image: the teacher, Mary Gibbs, in knee-high boots and a mini-skirt, a white top and tablecloth cardigan. She is standing beside her students outside the Faraday School; each wearing their own cardy or jumper, ankle freezers and canvas shoes. Haircuts courtesy of mum’s kitchen scissors. Two detectives stand at the back, awkward with the attention. But for Lindsay Thompson, Victorian Minister for Education, there is no such dilemma.
It’s 1972. In five weeks’ time Ansett Airlines flight 232 from Adelaide to Alice Springs will be hijacked, and three weeks after that, Gough Whitlam will wrestle the prime ministership from Billy McMahon. It’s been barely a month since 11 Israeli athletes were killed by the Palestinian ‘Black September’ group at the Munich Summer Olympics.
All of this is a long way from Faraday, a small town 38 kilometres south of Bendigo, 116 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. Here, life is simple. The Methodists have been, and built a church, but mostly it’s weatherboard cottages on acreage, improved pasture, sheep, cattle, gentle hills with granite boulders and plenty of scrub for hiding things (including kidnapped children). There are views to be had: Mounts Alexander and Macedon, and nearby Hanging Rock, another good place for hiding school girls.
The rain has cleared, but October 6 is still a wintry afternoon. It’s just after 3pm, nearly time to go home, and inside the Faraday School (No.797) teacher Mary Gibbs is busy with a game of musical chairs for her six students: Robyn Howarth, 11, her sisters, Jillian, 8, and Denise, 5, Lynda Conn, 9, her sister, Helen, 6, and Christine Ellery, 10.
Luckily, another four children are off with a cold.
The door opens and two men, one wearing a balaclava and holding a rifle, the other a floppy hat and dark glasses, enter the room. One says, “School’s over for today, kids.” Christine thinks it’s some sort of joke, someone’s dad or brother trying to scare them, but soon realises, from the look on her teacher’s face, that this is the real thing.
The two men usher them out of the school room, and into the back of a red van. The young ones are scared, but Mary and Christine do their best to comfort them. The kidnappers have left a note:
RANSOM WILL BE ONE MILLION 500,000 – $ 20 NOTES (3 SUITCASES) 500,000 – $10 NOTES (6 SUITCASES) ALL CURRENCY MUST HAVE BEEN IN CIRCULATION AT LEAST 12 MONTHS
AT 7.25 PM WE WILL CONTACT LINDSAY THOMPSON AT RUSSELL ST. POLICE HQ AND MAKE ARRANGEMENTS WITH HIM.
WE ARE NOT GOING TO WASTE ANYONES TIME BY MAKING IDLE THREATS SO WE WILL CUT IT SHORT BY SAYING THAT ANY ATTEMPT TO TRACE US AND APPREHEND US WILL RESULT IN THE ANNIHILATION OF EVERY HOSTAGE.
So begins the story of one of Australia’s strangest crimes. It was to provide the material for the 1980 novel Fortress and a 1986 film of the same name. Abductions of any type have not featured in Australian criminal history. The most famous, though, was the 1960 kidnapping of eight-year-old Sydney schoolboy Graeme Thorne. Thorne’s father had just won 100,000 pounds in a lottery raising money for the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Stephen Bradley took Thorne as he waited for a lift to school. He demanded 25,000 pounds or “the boy will be fed to the sharks”. But Bradley panicked, struck the boy on the head and asphyxiated him.
Twelve years later, unemployed plasterers and friends Robert Clyde Boland, 32, and Edwin John Eastwood, 21, have a similar idea: the children will comply, the government will find the money, they’ll bolt from their bush hiding hole before anyone has any idea what is happening.
The world found out about Faraday via Sun journalist Wayne Grant. At 4.40 pm that afternoon he received a phone call. A voice on the other end said, “I’ve just kidnapped the teacher and kids from the Faraday school.” Grant later said, “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He said the ransom was a million dollars and there was a note in the front desk. Then he hung up. I didn’t know what to make of it for a little while.”
Grant looked up the location. He rang Bendigo police and told them about the phone call. A policewoman explained they had just received calls from anxious parents reporting their kids missing.
Meanwhile, Boland and Eastwood drove their captives through Elphinstone, Kyneton and Lancefield before finding a patch of isolated scrub. Eastwood left in a car (to call Grant) while Boland let the teacher and children out, telling them to behave. They were given some chips and allowed to move around, all the time watched by Boland. He was holding a flick knife. Years later, Christine Ellery told The Australian: “We pretended like we were on a nature excursion. We picked up leaves, made little boats, just not being emotional. I guess we were all acting because we had to do something and we didn’t want to be crying or anxious.”
When Eastwood returned, Mary Gibbs and the children were locked inside the van. The kidnappers told her they were going to collect the ransom. They drove off, leaving the group in the dark.
The Victorian Education Minister, Lindsay Thompson, was already at police headquarters following the progress of the investigation. He told a press conference the government was doing everything possible to secure the return of Gibbs and her students. Their main concern was “the welfare of those missing”. Victorian Premier, Rupert Hamer, told parents (across the State, and nation) the government would pay the ransom.
Thompson returned home to bed but was woken at 3.45 am by Assistant Commissioner Mick Miller. Forty-five minutes earlier he’d received instructions: “Woodend Post Office at 5 am and no funny business.” The drop-off had been arranged. Thompson agreed. He was picked up and driven north along the Calder Highway towards the small town.
Beside him was a suitcase full of money.
Assistant Commissioner Bill Crowley was posing as his ministerial chauffeur. Crowley had a Derringer pistol hidden, while Mick Miller was under a blanket in the back of the car with a high-powered rifle. Thompson had been told that if there was any trouble he should duck to give Miller a clean shot.
They arrived at the post office. And waited. An old car passed a few times before a man got out and walked towards them. Thompson called out, “What the hell do you think you’re doing walking down the main street of Woodend at 5 am?” Police took the man in for questioning, but he told them he’d been waiting for a friend.
Meanwhile, Mary Gibbs had been busy. She’d kicked out a panel in the back door of the van with her platform-heeled boots. Later she told The Sun: “When they didn’t come back before dawn, I thought it is now or never and began kicking at the door.” She explained that Christine and Robin had helped. “I must admit I hadn’t thought of escaping until dawn and the children were desperate to do you-know-what.”
It had been a long day for the teacher: six hours of school, and fifteen hours of comforting her students, trying to convince them they’d all be fine, despite her own fears. Ellery explained later: “Everybody fared quite fine. We all came from very strong families.”
Gibbs described the escape in detail: “First I got the children to charge the doors, but they were bolted from outside … Then I got Christine Ellery to hang on to a small chain on the wall of the van. I supported myself on Christine’s shoulder, put one hand on the other wall of the van and kicked and kicked and kicked. God knows how many times, but then, bit by bit, things started to give … It was fantastic. I crawled out and the girls followed.”
She led her six students — tired, frightened, stumbling through the bush — until they found hunters at 8 am.
Their ordeal was over.
Over the next few days police ramped up their manhunt and eventually captured Boland and Eastwood. Gibbs and her students became minor celebrities. Their images appeared in most national newspapers. Robyn Howarth told The Sun: “I was scared they were going to kill us for nothing. They said they had nothing to gain from killing us — and nothing to lose either.”
The attention didn’t hurt Lindsay Thompson’s career. He became Victorian Premier in June 1981 after winning a Liberal Party ballot to succeed Rupert Hamer. He was a man of the people, son of school teachers (although his father died when he was two), raised on a shoestring by his mother before winning a scholarship to Caulfield Grammar. He was Number One ticket holder for Richmond Football Club. He could connect with ordinary people. Jeff Kennett, Victorian Premier from 1992 to 1999, said, “There was no ego attached to Lindsay Thompson. He didn’t want a big car, he didn’t want a big house, he didn’t want the best clothes. He was in one sense the most wonderfully simple person.”
Thompson remembered his role in the Faraday kidnappings as one of the highlights of his political career. “I’ve only been a millionaire once in my life,” he said of the Saturday after the kidnappings, “and all the shops were closed.”
Forty years later journalist Wayne Grant still recalled those days in 1972. He believed Mary Gibbs had done a stand-out job. “She was quite a small young lady. She had these tanned, knee-high leather boots and she used them to great effect.” He explained that the day and night of 6 October was a sort of loss of innocence. And later: “There was no such thing as counselling … it was all a matter of family support and friendship support that would have gotten them through.”
Boland and Eastwood went to trial. Eastwood provided evidence against Boland and had three previous robbery charges discounted in return. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with a non-parole period of 10 years. It took three trials to convict Boland: 17 years in prison with a non-parole period of 12 years.
Today, the name Faraday means one thing to most people. Like Snowtown, it makes the job of getting on with life difficult. But this small town has become part of Australia’s folklore. It lost its innocence during a period of widespread social change. It has been written about again and again (Eastwood’s Focus on Faraday and Beyond: Australia’s Crime of the Century, The Inside Story) and turned into fiction and film.
The Faraday School was closed after the kidnapping. The six girls grew up, went their separate ways, and seldom talked about that day and night in 1972. In 2007, Christine Ellery said: “We just got on with life. It wasn’t talked about much.”
This is an edited extract of ‘The Faraday School Kidnapping’ from Stephen Orr’s upcoming book The Fierce Country: True Stories from Australia’s Unsettled Heart, 1830 to Today out now (Wakefield Press).
Header image: The van that Mary Gibbs and the Faraday School children were held in and escaped from (credit: Victoria Police)