Childe was a noted archaeologist and philologist who specialized in European pre history. He was also a devout Marxist. Once upon a time he was both Director and Professor of European Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology in London.
In mid 1956, Childe decided to retire from his position as Director a year prematurely and gave the impression to one good friend of his that he felt that his academic career should come to an end. The archaeological discipline had rapidly expanded and changed across Europe during the 1950s, leading to increasing specialisation of different areas and making the synthesising, that Childe was known for, increasingly difficult. That year the Institute was moving to a new premises in Bloomsbury and Childe wanted to give his successor, W.F. Grimes, a fresh start in the new surroundings. To commemorate his achievements, the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society published a Festschrift edition on the final day of his Directorship which contained contributions from people all over the world, something that touched Childe deeply.
Upon his retirement, he mentioned to many of his friends that he planned to return to Australia, visit relatives and then jump off a cliff. The reason mentioned for this was that he was terrified of becoming old, senile and a burden on society.
Noticing his body functions deteriorating, he suspected that he had cancer.
In England he sorted out his affairs and donated much of his extensive personal library and all of his estate, to the Institute of Archaeology.
After a vacation spent visiting archaeological sites in Gibraltar and Spain in February 1957, he sailed to Australia, reaching Sydney on his 65th birthday.
Fondest memory: As an amazing turnaround, the University of Sydney, which had once barred him from working there, now awarded him an honourary degree.
He travelled around the country for the next six months, visiting various family members and old friends. He was unimpressed by what he saw of Australian society, coming to the opinion that the it had not progressed in any way since the 1920s, having become reactionary, increasingly suburban and un-educated.
Meanwhile, he also began to investigate the prehistory of Australia, forming the opinion that there was much for archaeologists to study in this field and he gave several lectures to various archaeological and leftist groups. In the final week of his life he even gave a talk on Australian radio in which he argued against the racist and dismissive attitude of many Australian academics towards the Indigenous Australian peoples of the continent.
Before his death he wrote letters to many of his friends on a personal note.
He also wrote a letter to W.F. Grimes, requesting that it not be opened until 1968. In it, he described his fear of old age and stated his intention to take his own life, remarking that "Life ends best when one is happy and strong."
On the morning of 19 October 1957, Childe went walking around the area of the Bridal Veil Falls in the Blue Mountains where he had grown up. He had left his hat, spectacles, compass, pipe and Mackintosh atop Govett's Leap at Blackheath, before jumping 1000 feet to his death.
His death certificate claimed that he had died from an accidental fall whilst studying rock formations and it would only be in the 1980s, with the publication of his letter to Grimes, that his death became recognised as a suicide.
Later noted archaeologist Neil Faulkner said he believed that part of the reason why Childe decided to take his own life was that his "political illusions had been shattered" when he had lost faith in the direction being taken by the world's foremost socialist state, the Soviet Union.
The tale of Govett and his 'leap' belongs more to mythology than to fact. It is romantically claimed that a bushranger named Govett, being chased by the police, spurred his horse on and died rather than surrender as he disappeared off the waterfall which falls 450 m into the Grose Valley. Sadly, even though the colourful story would be an interesting part of Australian history, it is more likely that Govett's Leap was named after William Romaine Govett, a young surveyor who arrived in Sydney in 1827, and who spent many years surveying the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury area before returning to England in 1834 after the government had reduced his surveying establishment.
Fondest memory: The evidence for the 'leap' being simply named after Govett is compelling. In the early 1830s the Three Sisters were known as Govett's Point, suggesting that he was well known and had a general presence in the area. Also, in 1835, Govett wrote 'The bold broken nature of the country on either side is peculiarly grand, and the streams which at first commence in swamps soon make their way into inaccessible gullies, until they arrive at the cliffs of the main channel where they fall in cascades....The most remarkable of these cascades is the one near the Weatherboarded Hut [Wentworth Falls] and that which falls into the head of the Grose River; which the surveyor general named 'Govett's leap' from the circumstance of my first having come upon the spot when surveying with Mr Rusden.'
The falls pictured here are on either side of Govetts Leap.