The Angel of The Gap Selling the Gift of Life

by M-Gillies

The view from The Gap in Watson's Bay, where one can overlook Sydney, Australia is breathtaking but it is also the place where Don Ritchie spent 50 years offering people the gift of life.

For years, men and women would come to the rocky sandstone cliff of Australia’s infamous Gap – a cliff that overlooks Sydney Harbor and attracts a steady flow of tourists and joggers, but also some who linger a little longer. For some of these visitors, it wasn’t the view they had come to admire. Instead, with their shoes and wallets set aside on the coastal rocks with a folded note tucked noticeably in view, they braced their bodies at the cliff’s edge poised to leap from the rocky cliff, until a gentle voice broke the silence with a single question, “Can I help you in some way?”

He was bespectacled and bald with a grandfatherly appearance, and he would walk with a slow approach as he crossed the road that divided his house and the cliff’s edge. With a tender smile on his face, he would invite them over to his house for a cup of tea where he would simply engage these strangers in conversation, and listen to what they had to say.

Despite its panoramic and picturesque view of the ocean, The Gap has developed a reputation in Australia as a notorious suicide spot -something former World War II Naval Veteran and retired insurance agent, Don Ritchie knew when he and his wife moved to the Sydney home overlooking the Pacific Ocean over 50 years ago. As far back as 1863, Australians had been going to the spot to commit suicide. Since then it has been estimated that 50 people kill themselves at that spot every year.

Since 1964, Ritchie has spent much of his free time window-watching, and spotting would-be suicides from his home. He would slowly cross the road to them, earning a title for persuading people not to throw themselves off the notorious suicide spot. A modest man who did not court celebrity or praise, Ritchie would appear as a calm voice and sympathetic listener, offering a helping hand to the desperate. He would engage them in conversations on the cliff-top during their hour of need and eventually persuade them to join him for a cup of tea.

“My ambition has always been to just get them away from the edge, to buy them time, to give them the opportunity to reflect and give them the chance to realize that things might look better the next morning” Ritchie once confided. “You just can’t sit there and watch them, you’ve got to try and save them.”

Over 50 years, Ritchie has saved the lives of 160 people, though his family believes the number to be closer to 500. But for all his attempts to talk people out of jumping, tragically Ritchie’s efforts were not always successful. During his time as Australia’s Angel of The Gap he had seen several people go over the cliff, including one instance when he spoke to a quiet young man 19-years old.

Ritchie stood by the young man, talking to him for half an hour. Despite thinking he was making headway, the young man continued to stare ahead, even after he asked the boy to accompany him for a cup of tea or a beer if the boy was so inclined. But the young man was unpersuaded and took a step off the cliff, his hat lifting into the air as the wind blew it into the hands of Ritchie.

“It turned out that as a little boy, he had lived in the block of flats just behind our house,” Ritchie had said. “He used to play with our grandkids.”

Years ago, when Ritchie was younger, he would scale the fence, occasionally physically dragging people to safety, and on one instance, he was nearly hauled over the edge with a woman he tried to stop. Soon, however, Ritchie came to understand that for some people, there wasn’t much he could do to stop them. For Ritchie, it was enough to know he had made a difference in the many lives he had saved, and for those who don’t follow him home – it’s his kind words that are the the last thing they hear.

For all the faces he had seen, there are some he remembers clearly. In particular, a woman whom he had seen from his bedroom window upon waking early one morning. While the woman sat on the cliff’s edge, Ritchie quickly dressed himself and crossed the street. Her handbag and shoes already positioned outside the fence, as many others had done over the years.

When he approached the woman, Ritchie asked if she would join him for a cup of tea. Obliging, the woman went back to the house with Ritchie, where the man’s wife Moya made her breakfast.

“I don’t council them,” Ritchie had said once. “I don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t do with their lives. I wouldn’t know, and I wouldn’t want that responsibility. All I try to do is to get them away from the edge.”

Two or three months later, Ritchie recalled the woman walking up the garden path with a magnum of French champagne – a gift to him, along with the message that she was doing well. But that wasn’t the first gift nor the last that he’s received from someone – one survivor sent him a painting of an angel with the rays of the sun shining in the background with a simple message written that read, “An angel walks amongst us”. He received many messages from other’s he’d saved. They thanked him for his intervention and for saving their lives.

“I used to sell kitchen scales and bacon cutters, then I was state manager of a life insurance company… at The Gap, I’m trying to sell people life.”

While he never sought out publicity for his deed, he was quickly given the accolade as the Angel of the Gap. Australia awarded Ritchie the Medal of the Order of Australia for his rescues, followed by the Local Hero Award from the National Australia Day Council.

Born on June 9, 1926, Ritchie joined the Royal Australian Navy during World War II. From his 30s to his 60s, he worked as a kitchen salesman before finding work at a multinational firm. But his life took a peculiar turn when he and his wife moved to South Head Road across the street from Jacobs Ladder at the southern end of The Gap Park.

“Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word,” Ritchie had said.

Now, after 50 years of persuading people from cutting their lives short, Ritchie passed away May 13, 2012, at the age of 86. With his passing, Federal MP Malcolm Turnbull stated that Ritchie was “A true hero – one of our greatest Australians. RIP.”

“It’s been a very rewarding experience throughout my life,” Ritchie once said. “The letters and expressions of thanks are greatly appreciated – to know that people are doing well. One little painting left anonymously in my letterbox included the words ‘Ritchie, you are truly an angel that walks among us, bless you’, which made me feel proud.”

“I feel it is a privilege to live in this beautiful place. It has given me the opportunity to help people and have a positive effect on other people’s lives. I hope that knowing what I do, and how I have don it, is of assistance to others.”

Read more:

Don Ritchie | Out of the Shadows

Don Ritchie, Australia’s Local Hero | YouTube




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