A postcard of Rough Bay, Percy Island.
A postcard of Rough Bay, Percy Island.

Mackay history: The disappearance of the Armitage family

THE disappearance of the local Armitage Family in 1938 sparked a massive land and sea search which was the most comprehensive and intensive of its time, it even included the use of pigeons.

The search began after the family aboard their launch Dorisana failed to arrive at their holiday destination on Percy Island – 104.6km south east of Mackay. The owner of the island a Mr White alerted the Mackay authorities by radio and telegram on August 17 and 18 of the non-arrival of the Armitage family.

The communication facilities of the nearby Pine Island lighthouse were used.

Those on board the missing launch were Mr Percy Armitage, his wife Isabel and their two children: Jack – aged 11 and Margaret – aged 10. Mr Leslie Blake, also accompanied the family on their ill-fated trip.

Percy Island, had been the previous home of Mr Armitage’s parents, Colonel Armitage and Mrs. E.H. Armitage, who raised sheep there before moving to Mackay and Percy was born there.

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Percy Armitage was an employee and first class mechanic at local firm, Ronald Motors. Isabel Armitage, was superintendent of the South Ward Presbyterian Sunday school, which operated at the Victoria Park State School, until 1940.

The family had left for Percy Island on August 14, travelling on the 9 metre launch ‘Dorisana’ owned by Mr Armitage who was a capable seaman. The family had reportedly taken a month’s worth of provisions with them for the trip. The launch had also been refitted with a new mast and sails.

Weather on the day of the departure of the launch, was reported by the Daily Mercury as ‘propitious’ or favourable.

Interestingly it was reported that also on August 14 a 7.6m launch departed Townsville with mail to be delivered to Percy Island. The whereabouts of the man aboard and the launch were still unknown by August 24.

Following the message on August 17, an initial search, was made using a tiger moth plane, piloted by Jack Connor, with J.V. Bussitin joining him. The search began at 6am on August 18. The searchers travelled south from Mackay following the coastline circling small islands off the coast. From Cape Palmerston the searches flew almost due east to the Beverly Group, within sight of the Percy Group.

The men reported the sea was calm and visibility was excellent. After a long and thorough search the tiger moth landed back in Mackay at about 11am. Another search by Jack Connor, flying as far north as Proserpine was to occur on August 22.

Isabel Armitage. Picture: The Dorisana In Memory An account of the tragedy at Sea Book
Isabel Armitage. Picture: The Dorisana In Memory An account of the tragedy at Sea Book

Joining the search were a number of Mackay vessels and one from Carmila.

A boat owned by Mr White at Percy Island was also searching. Searchers looked for smoke signals as a sign of possible life.

Pilots of Australian Airline aircraft and all ships were alerted to be on the lookout for the missing locals.

Twelve Homer Carrier Pigeons lent by Mr Porter of Moore Street were employed to hasten the communication between searchers and Mackay.

By August 22, the Daily Mercury was reporting that the hope of finding the missing locals appeared to be fading.

False hope was to occur on August 23, when a wrecked dingy was discovered on Tinsmith Island east of Midge Point.

But on its arrival at Eimeo it was identified as not belonging to the Dorisana.

Boat wreckage, had also been found on the rocks at Percy Island on August 14, according to a report from the Department of Navigation in Brisbane which was received in Mackay on August 18, but locals dismissed the report as the wreckage didn’t match the missing launch.

A launch had also been seen at Rocky Dam Creek, near Cape Palmerston however it was determined by description that it wasn’t the ‘Dorisana’.

An appeal to raise money to continue the search was launched by Radio 4MK, on August 22. Initially more than £330 was raised; £620 by August 24 and £649/4/- by August 26.

By August 30, the total was reported to have been just over £800.

The local radio station also relayed instructions to the launches assisting in the search.

Responding to a request from Mackay Mayor Alderman George Moody, H.M.A.S. Canberra and Voyager, helped with the search for the missing launch on August 24 and 25.

By August 27, a Castrol C-Grade Oil Drum, containing petroleum found on Maher Island east of Linderman Island was declared as a definite clue. The Oil Drum, using non-standard plugs was identified by James Croker and Son’s employee Mr S. Bonfield.

Mackay District Boy Scout Troop patrols comprising groups from Calen, Mackay and Sarina assisted with land searches including a large amount of coastline throughout the Mackay District on August 27.

Margaret and John Armitage. Picture: The Dorisana In Memory An account of the tragedy at Sea Book
Margaret and John Armitage. Picture: The Dorisana In Memory An account of the tragedy at Sea Book

The Daily Mercury reported on August 29, 1938 that ‘every island within 160 miles of Mackay had been scoured along with every inlet and coastline, searching for remains’.

A letter addressed to Mr Moody, from the H.M.A.S. Canberra, Chief Staff Officer Mr W.R. Patterson, dated August 26, revealed that unfortunately ‘the search proved fruitless, and there was no sign of either wreckage or the missing launch’.

An amphibian plane, attached to H.M.A.S. Sydney was also used to search for the missing persons arrived in Mackay on August 29, after searching the Beverley and Guardfish Island groups, but was unsuccessful in finding any trace. The H.M.A.S. Sydney, was to scour territory between Mackay and the Great Barrier Reef.

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On August 30, the organised search of the missing ‘Dorisana’ had come to an end, after the Sydney’s amphibian plane search failed to find any remains.

Later, on August 25, 1940 the Armitage Memorial Church-Hall was dedicated to the family. The last service in the hall, prior to its demolition was held on July 18, 1993. The first service in the new Armitage Chapel/Uniting Church, part of the current Blue Care building at the corner of Evan (formally George) and Kennedy Streets was held on December 25, 1993.

Steven Pritchard and Judy Stewart, Mackay Historical Society – Mackay Museum