New Light on the Death of V. Gordon Childe

John Low

“You stood on the sheer rocky edge
of silence, where the stark light burned;
the dialogue of life was ended,
you saw the many-coloured thing
swing out below you, far and splendid;
and you upon the dizzy ledge
let go, went down,
went down, and died.”
— Jack Lindsay

On Saturday 19 October, 1957, the champion three year old, Tulloch, easily won the Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup fever stirred in the hears of Australians. On the morning of the same day Professor Vere Gordon Childe, renowned pre-historian and author of How Labour Governs, a seminal work in Australian Labour History, fell to a lonely death over the precipitous cliffs at Govett’s Leap in the. Blue Mountains.

While Australians at the time were more concerned about debating whether Tulloch would start in the Melbourne Cup, the question of Childe’s death has proved, in the long run, to be the most enduring. Despite a coroner’s verdict to the contrary, the possibility of suicide has been widely discussed among his friends and acquaintances ever since.

The events of 1956 – Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin and the crushing of the Hungarian revolt were bruising blows to his long held faith in Soviet Communism. When added to his disillusionment with the Australia he found on his return after thirty-five years absence, and to his conviction that he had completed all he was capable of in his chosen field of scholarship, there was enough to persuade many who knew him that his death was, indeed, premeditated.

For others, any lingering doubt was expunged with the publication in 1980 of the now famous letter Childe wrote from the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba not long before he died. Addressed to Professor Grimes, his successor at the London Institute, and accompanied by the instruction that it was not to be opened for another ten years, it confirmed his readiness and desire for death.

But did he set out that Saturday morning with the clear intention of ending his life or was he generally pursuing his Blue Mountains explorations in a state of mind which made an accident a distinct, even’ inevitable, possibility? A splitting of antiquarian hairs, perhaps, but it is worth pointing out that, in his letter to Professor Grimes, Child stated categorically that he did not intend to give pain to his friends by flouting “the British prejudice against suicide”.

He was aware, as an experienced bushwalker, that in the terrain in which he was working “an accident may easily and naturally befall me on a mountain cliff”. While hardly a statement of intent, it seems more likely a recognition that even a brief suspension of the normal degree of care required in potentially dangerous situations could be enough to result in death without disturbing social mores.

Whatever the answer, it is clear that Childe’s mental state was one in which “the dialogue of life was ended”, or at least ending. He was certainly thinking about and preparing himself for death.

In the light of the debate surrounding his death it may be of interest to consider some random comments made to me recently by the woman (Mrs. C. of Katoomba) who was the receptionist at The Carrington Hotel at the time and who spoke to Childe on the night before he died. She remembers him staying at The Carrington on and off for several weeks. During this period he spent some time visiting his friend James Stewart, Sydney University’s Professor of Archaeology, at his Mount Pleasant home near Bathurst. The rest of the time he used in exploring the Blue Mountains in pursuit of an early, and now renewed, interest in geology. He spoke often to Mrs. C. about his geological explorations and indicated that he was writing a book and wanted particularly to examine some rock strata at Govett’s Leap.

In the Carrington’s private bar on the evening before his death he was, according to Mrs. C., the butt of some cruel jokes directed at his rather ugly appearance. To escape this he sought out the congenial company of the hotel receptionist and spoke to her for some time. She felt he greatly appreciated her friendship – and she in return genuinely enjoyed his company – and it was in the light of this that she interpreted a rather unusual offer he made to her that night. He offered her his typewriter as a gift and would hear of no refusal. She didn’t want to take it and remonstrated with him to keep it but, not wishing to cause him distress, finally accepted it and placed it in the hotel safe with the intention of returning it later. However, others might interpret this offer, she refuses to accept it as a sign of intending suicide saying that he spoke many times of his dislike for the machine and of his preference for longhand. To her it was, and remains, simply an expression of gratitude.

Further, she feels that it was quite out of character for him, if he did plan to kill himself that morning, not to have settled his account at the hotel. Each week of his stay, she recalls, he paid his bill with scrupulous regularity. He was, in fact, she continued, looking forward to returning to Bathurst shortly, as soon as he had attended to some business in Sydney.

“Life ends best”, concluded Childe in his letter to Grimes, “when one is happy and strong”. In the final analysis, of course, we will never know the degree of conscious decision or careless behaviour which eventually drew him off “the dizzy ledge” and into the silence.

NOTE:

Jack Lindsay’s poem and Childe’s letter from The Carrington Hotel are both reprinted in Sally Green’s Prehistorian: a biography of V. Gordon Childe published by Moonraker Press in 1981.