true crime

Anne Hamilton-Byrne adopted dozens of children. Then she starved, drugged and beat them.


“I love children.”

These are the chilling words Anne Hamilton-Byrne uttered when asked why she started the most notorious cult in Australian history.

Hamilton-Byrne was born Evelyn Grace Victoria Edwards on December 30, 1921, in Sale, Victoria. She was the oldest of seven children and grew up in poverty-stricken conditions.

Her mother was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and was hospitalised in four different mental health facilities in Melbourne from 1941.

As soon as she could, Hamilton-Byrne left home and changed her name.

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In 1961, Hamilton-Byrne, then a yoga teacher who believed she was Jesus Christ reincarnated, met a man named Dr Raynor Johnson. Together they started the Great White Brotherhood, also known as the Santiniketan Park Association and The Family.

They began hosting regular meetings of the “religious and philosophical discussion group” at Johnson’s home in Ferny Creek in the Dandenong Ranges, outside of Melbourne.

The group soon purchased the property next door to Johnson’s home. They named it Santiniketan Park and constructed a meeting hall which they called Santiniketan Lodge.

At this point, the group mainly consisted of middle class professionals – many of of whom were nurses and psychiatrists. They met in the Lodge several times a week.

Later, under the influence of LSD, Hamilton-Byrne had a vision. She decided her mission was to adopt dozens of children so she could save them from the upcoming apocalypse.


Between 1968 and 1975, Hamilton-Byrne, along with her husband Bill, adopted 14 infants and young children. She also encouraged her cult members to give their own children over to her.

The Family cult leader then created a ‘school’ for the children at a private Lake Eildon property called Uptop. The children were given matching outfits, their hair was bleached blonde, and their names were changed. They were told Hamilton-Byrne was their biological mother.

Over the years, they suffered horrific physical and mental abuse at the hands of the cult leaders who they called ‘the Aunties’. They were plied with LSD and other dangerous substances, and were beaten and starved by ‘the Aunties’.

In 1987, Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, one of the children raised in the compound, was expelled from the group by her mother for arguing and acting rebellious.

With Sarah’s help, Victorian federal and local police later stormed the compound, and rescued the remaining children.

The children had no idea their lives weren’t normal. They screamed and tried to fight off their rescuers.

the family cult anne hamilton byrne
The children of The Family. Image: ABC.

After the raid, Hamilton-Byrne and Bill fled Australia and remained on the run for six years. In June 1993, police from Australia, the UK, and the US, working together on Operation Forest, tracked them down to the town of Hurleyville in the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York.

They were arrested, extradited back to Australia, and charged with conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets.

According to The Age, Hamilton-Byrne and Bill were only forced to pay a fine of $5000 for their crimes.

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In 2009, two of the cult's victims received compensation from Hamilton-Byrne.

Soon after, Hamilton-Byrne was diagnosed with dementia. This meant she couldn't face any more legal challenges from the children of the cult.

In 2017, the 98-year-old was moved to palliative care. According to The Age, it's estimated that her estate could be worth $10 million.

On June 14, 2019, it was announced Hamilton-Byrne had died in a nursing home in suburban Melbourne.

She never showed any remorse for her crimes.

The Cult of the Family, a three-part documentary series is currently streaming on ABC iView.