- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2020 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Continuing the series on islands around our coastline we venture a little further south down the Queensland coast, dropping the pick at that wondrous yachtie escape, Middle Percy Island. The assistance of Ms Cathryn Radclyffe is greatly appreciated in providing information for this story.
The Percy Islands, 120 km southeast of Mackay, are known worldwide among cruising sailors seeking picturesque isolated anchorages amid islands fringed with palm shaded golden sandy beaches. Here we discover some intriguing characters.
In the Beginning
In May 1770 Lieutenant James Cook sailed through these waters in HM Barque Endeavour and not having time to explore this wonderland, he named Whitsunday Passage (after its discovery on the Christian festival day) and collectively named a number of islands he sailed past. The first group, which could only be seen in the distance from the masthead, was named the Northumberland Isles and the larger northerly group the Cumberland Isles. Other eminent navigators charted this vast expanse between the mainland and the continental reef, including Matthew Flinders and Phillip Parker King, but the coast remained inadequately surveyed for many years.
The Percy Islands
The Percy Islands comprise two major and nine smaller islands, dominated by Middle and South Percy Islands; the former is the largest at about 2,000 ha. They lie approximately half way between the mainland and the reef and stretch 180 km along the coast, between 20 and 21.5 degrees of south latitude.
Well before European explorers these islands were known to local Aboriginal people who visited them for resources. James Cook notes in his journal about the capability of Aboriginals using bark canoes at Botany Bay and dugout canoes seen further north at Endeavour River. He was surprised at signs of habitation on islands that lay up to five leagues (27 km) from the mainland. In June 1819 Phillip Parker King in HM Cutter Mermaid anchored in Middle Percy and noted tracks and fires but did not sight any natives. So how did Aboriginal people inhabit the Percy Islands when bark canoes were intended for riverine and close inshore travel?
At Percy Island bark canoes were used. Rowland (1984) mentions a 1981 trial with a bark canoe constructed by local people which was paddled down the Fitzroy River and across to Keppel Island, a distance of about 60 km. It is concluded that it was possible for Aboriginal people using bark canoes to island hop from the mainland to the Percy Islands involving a greatest distance over open water of 27 km – which ties in with Cook’s observations1.
Possibly the first white man to set foot on Middle Percy was Matthew Flinders who in the sloop HMS Investigatorwith her consort Lady Nelson spent five days here taking on water, wood, fish and soil for the ship’s garden. He described it as ‘…one of the prettiest places imaginable’. As these islands are part of Cook’s Northumberland Isles, Flinders used the Northumberland family name of Percy in describing them. We are told that on 28 September 1802 Flinders placed the beautiful Percy Islands on the chart for the first time. The ships departed on 4 October trying to find a passage through the Barrier Reef but it was not until 20 October that Investigator broke into the Pacific, with Lady Nelson returning to Port Jackson.
Flinders also named nearby Pine Islet after its abundance of hoop pine. Commander Phillip Parker King in HM Sloop Bathurst landed in 1824 and cut some pines for top-gallants, finding them ‘tough as any spar he ever saw’.
The Tragic Meeting of two Cultures
In September 1854 the ketch Vision, chartered by the naturalist Frederick Strange, set out from Moreton Bay to explore the coast to Cape York searching for natural history specimens. Also on board was his assistant Richard Shrinks and botanist Walter Hill2. The ketch had a crew of six including the master George Maitland and Diliape, an Aboriginal guide cum interpreter. On 14 October Vision anchored at Middle Percy and most of the crew went ashore searching for fresh water, two crew remaining on board as they were suffering from measles. On return they met a group of nineAborigines and a further group of about a dozen were visible in the distance, who were given some fishhooks and tobacco.
Walter Hill then took off alone to explore. He returned to a state of devastation with four of his colleagues and one native killed. After searching unsuccessfully for any more of their party the survivors Walter Hill, Captain Maitland, the two crew with measles, and Diliape left the island and sailed back to Moreton Bay. The incident caused much concern and was widely reported. The survey vessel HMS Torch was sent to investigate, reaching the island on 29 January 1855 when an armed party was sent ashore and apprehended a family group of nine Aboriginals – two men, three women and four children. Also discovered were the traditional arms of spears, waddies and boomerangs, plus four canoes.
The prisoners were taken to Sydney to stand trial (Queensland was not a separate state at that time) and detained at Darlinghurst Gaol where the gaoler later reported ‘they were beginning to pine from confinement and refuse food; and that some of the children had died’. In April 1855 they were discharged for lack of evidence and eventually returned to their homeland at Port Curtis (Gladstone). Walter Hill later stated he believed the cause of the tragic dispute was over important water rights.
Staff Commander3 Edward Parker Bedwell RN
While responsibility for surveying the Australian coast rested with the British Admiralty, the problem of thorough charting of the extensive coastline was not high on their list of worldwide responsibilities. To provide additional resources, in 1860 an agreement was reached between the Admiralty Hydrographer and the Australian colonial governments whereby the cost of the surveys would be shared, with the Admiralty providing professional staff and instruments and publishing charts, and the Colonial Governments providing vessels and crew to an equal value. In 1861 Sailing Master James Jeffrey was appointed as Queensland’s first Admiralty Surveyor and a local vessel was leased. In 1863 the State Government had a vessel specifically constructed, the schooner Pearl. Jeffrey was promoted to Staff Commander in 1866 and replaced as Master by Edward Parker Bedwell, who in August 1870 was also promoted Staff Commander. Bedwell is little known today but his contribution was important to Queensland’s maritime history.
Edward Bedwell joined the Royal Navy in 1848 and served under Sir William Parker, one of Nelson’s captains, fighting in the Crimean War. In 1857 he became a naval surveyor and was sent to chart parts of the rugged coastlines of British Columbia. In 1864 he was posted as Chief Assistant to the New South Wales hydrographic survey, later taking charge of the Queensland survey. Bedwell continued the survey of Moreton Bay until the beginning of 1868, and from then to 1879 surveyed the coast between Danger Point and the northern end of the Cumberland Islands; the Brisbane, Mary, Burnett and Fitzroy Rivers and the coast as far south as the Percy Islands.
In 1874 Commander Bedwell landed on Middle Percy, introduced a dozen goats4, and planted edible fruits from Walter Hill’s Brisbane Botanical Gardens to provide sustenance to distressed mariners. From these beginnings a small community was able to thrive, providing visitors and themselves with plentiful produce and trading opportunities.
In 1878 surveying duties were transferred from Pearl to the chartered single screw steamship Llewellyn which could cover much more ground in less time than the schooner. The following year in Llewellyn, Bedwell named the islands within the Cumberland group; some names are seldom used today, being replaced by the more popular Whitsundays. Staff Commander Bedwell returned to England in 1880, retired from the Royal Navy in 1883, and was laid to rest at Southport, Lancashire on 30 June 1919, in his 86th year.
Who needs a Lighthouse?
In these oft benign waters passages can be idyllic but sudden storms make conditions treacherous and before the days of modern navigational aids night-time navigation presented further dangers of ploughing into uncharted reefs, with plentiful wrecks attesting to these conditions.
At 9.30 pm on Monday 13 August 1877 the Eastern & Australian Company’s 976-ton steamer Normanby on passage from Moreton Bay to Singapore struck a submerged rock 1.5 nautical miles southwest of Middle Percy Island. The rock, unknown and uncharted, tore large holes in the ship’s hull. With great presence of mind Captain John Reddell ran her aground on the beach at Middle Percy and over the next few days emergency repairs were made, greatly assisted by the shipwright skills of James Joss, and they were able to get her off and return to Brisbane for repairs. Passengers and mails were transferred to a coastal steamer Tambaroora who came to her aid and there was no loss of life.
This gave impetus to the construction of a lighthouse in 1855 on the precipitous Pine Islet, some 5 km off Middle Percy, which was manned by three families. The original light used whale oil, which in 1923 was upgraded to kerosene. On 5 January 1895 Dorothea McKay, wife of the light-keeper, died and was buried on the island. When the original cottages were demolished it was decided that one of their replacements would have to be built over Dorothea’s grave. The body was exhumed and relocated nearby. Since that time keepers and families reported hauntings with nocturnal footsteps and vigorous knocking on doors.
After a century of guiding ships through these waters the original lighthouse was dismantled and replaced by a fully automatic solar-powered light. The old lighthouse was taken to Mackay where it was rebuilt as a feature in the marina complex. On 14 May 2017 the Pine Islet Light flashed its friendly beacon for the last time; with virtually all modern vessels using GPS the lighthouse was deemed an unnecessary expense. May Dorothea now rest peacefully.
Leaseholders – Joss, Mason & Smith
Middle Percy Island was first settled in the 1870s by three pioneers, James Joss, Charles Mason and Smith, who were possibly searching for gold but ended up bartering and selling produce to passing vessels and domesticating the local goats. They requested the first Government leasehold of the island in 1875 as they had built homes, gardens and animal paddocks behind the tidal lagoon at West Bay. The recluse, Smith, committed suicide by jumping off a small headland near West Bay, now known as Smith’s Bluff. Within the space of a few more years Mason was reported insane and died. James Joss had previously lived at Rockhampton where he worked as a shipwright and is credited with building some fine vessels. According to the electoral rolls James Joss was still living at Percy Island in 1913 but becoming infirm and forgetful was deemed unable to care for himself. Eventually leaving the island, he kept talking of 1,500 gold sovereigns he had hidden but could no longer remember where. The whereabouts of this fortune remains elusive.
Details of early leaseholders are sketchy as records no longer exist but Captain John Cook Till first visited Middle Percy in the 1860s and may have lived there on an occasional basis as he built a house on a point facing the house occupied by Joss. Captain Till had a plurality of wives and this did not suit Joss who had an aversion to the opposite sex. One of the wives, Mary, objected to living on the island with her baby and there is a record of a daughter Edith Percy Till born on the island on 26 February 1882. An older sister Rose (dates uncertain) was also born here but died in infancy. John Till became ill in 1898 and left the island, dying in Brisbane in 1912.
In 1889 a retired Indian Army Officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Scott Armitage, bought the lease of Middle Percy Island. John Armitage was the first son of well-known Ceylonese traders of tea and coffee and was educated in England before taking an Army commission. Later returning to Ceylon he spent many years in the family business and married Mary Wimpenny; they had three children. In 1881 John Armitage became the first commanding officer of the Ceylon Light Infantry with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
In 1883 Ceylon was struck by a devastating virus that wiped out nearly all the coffee plantations and the Armitage dynasty crumbled; at the same time John’s wife, Mary, fell ill and died. John Armitage then moved to Australia leaving his now adult children behind. After acquiring the lease, he formed The Middle Percy Coffee Plantation Company, using South Sea islanders to help establish the plantation. He chose a house site where the present homestead still stands. This is 780 feet above sea level on arable ground fed by creeks towards the centre of the island – ideal for growing coffee.
John Armitage remarried, his housekeeper Emily becoming the second Mrs Armitage, and they had a son Percy who grew up on the island. There are a few newspaper cuttings giving some indication of the economic state of the island, The Brisbane Courier of 1 September 1900 stating that: ‘about 20 acres have been cleared and planted in coffee, and introduced sheep are doing well. Goats are in their thousands with 7,000 killed and thousands more remaining. There are also cattle enough for the island’s needs’. In another article it says the goat skins are taken to Rockhampton and then sent to Sydney where there is a good market for them.
The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin of October 1920 provides further information, stating: ‘News was received in town on Saturday of the death at Mackay of Lieutenant Colonel J.S. Armitage, after a long and painful illness. In his eighties there was not a better-known figure in Rockhampton than the debonair colonel. He remained at Percy Island until about 18 months ago when failing health compelled his transfer to Mackay, where he lived until the end came, watched over by his wife to the last. He died on 8 October 1920’.
Lieutenant Colonel Armitage appears to have sold the lease in about 1919 to a Mr W.V. Bidon, after which it was transferred a number of times until it was purchased by Bob Turnbull who ran sheep and cattle on the nearby Duke Islands. This venture was unsuccessful and Bob sold out in 1921 to the White family.
The White Family
Henry Bevis White was the son of an English clergyman, public school educated and a graduate of the University of London. In 1889 Henry and his wife Ethel migrated to Canada where he tried his hand at gold mining and later farming. After a devastating cold winter in 1906-07 resulting in the death of thousands of cattle the family, which now included three children, decided to seek warmer climes in New Zealand. While there Henry took a sailing holiday to the Barrier Reef, became captivated, and finding the lease of Middle Percy available he bought this and moved the family across the Tasman in 1921.
With farming experience, the Whites brought Shire horses and ponies to help clear the land and introduced 2,000 head of sheep, a few cattle and working dogs. When the Whites took over the homestead was in a bad state of repair owing to a lack of maintenance and an infestation of white ants. Henry decided to dismantle the house and build a new homestead using as much of the old materials as possible.
Ethel was a semi-invalid and needed assistance, mainly provided by her daughter Dorothy and two younger sons Harold and Claude. Bob Turnbull became friendly with the Whites and spent much of his time on the island, the main attraction being the young daughter Dolly. Henry White did not approve of the relationship and it was not until 1944 when Henry died that Bob and Dolly eventually lived together. As they had courted for 23 years they decided not to marry but Bob came to live in the White household. Some six years later when Bob was undertaking seasonal work at the Mackay sugar mill he was killed in a tragic mechanical accident and died on 7 August 1950. Dolly said that the six years they had living together were the happiest of her life.
The islands remained largely unknown to tourists before the 1930s when they were discovered by a new set of adventurous Australians. Amongst them were the up and coming film star Errol Flynn, and the novelist Dora Birtles who captures its allures in her classic best-selling North-West by North.
Tragedy struck in August 1938 when Percy Armitage, the son of Colonel and Mrs Emily Armitage, his wife and two children aged eight and ten, went missing on passage from Mackay to Percy Island in their launch Dorisana. The young Armitage family were intending to visit the island where he had happy childhood memories. For ten days an extensive search was conducted by the cruiser HMAS Canberra and the destroyer HMAS Voyager, two naval seaplanes and numerous other vessels to no avail. The only discovery was two fuel drums known to belong to the missing vessel.
The Martin Legacy
In 1964, the year that sheep were removed from the island, the lease was sold to Andrew (Andy) Charles Martin for the relatively high sum of £15,000. Andrew, the son of a General5 in the British Army and a mother from a prominent Scottish clan, was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. Powerfully built and athletic, he represented Great Britain in the modern pentathlon in the 1948 Olympics. Settling down after leaving the army Andrew bought a dairy farm in Devon and married a widow with two sons, Andrew and Malcolm, and they had a further son Edwin. Wanderlust took hold and Andrew left his family. He purchased an ex-Sydney to Hobart racing yacht
Southern Maid and sailed her north with the aim of starting a charter business. Here he found the Percy Islands with their carefree lifestyle where he could welcome fellow yachties, offering island grown fruit and vegetables, honey and cheese, milk, meat and skins from the goats. He was hoping his family would join him but they found it too remote, resulting in separation and divorce, with the sons occasionally visiting their father.
In 1979 Andrew was responsible for the construction of his most famous memorial, the rustic A-frame hut on West Beach, known as the Percy Hilton, which has been a congregation point famous amongst yachties with its eclectic mix of flotsam and jetsam.
A young cousin of Andy Martin, Cathryn (Cate) Radclyffe, first visited the island in 1985 and thought her ‘uncle’ was far from the family legend of a gallivanting ladies’ man but rather peculiar and demonstrating signs of instability. Cate, however was captivated by the island’s charms and returned.
Andy was joined by another couple, Jon and Liz Hickling. Liz Toothy, a Sydney nurse, had married Jon Hickling and now with son Justin the family was living in Cairns. Andy, who knew the Hicklings, asked if they would be interested in joining him and helping on the island. They bought a 23-foot sail boat and were soon busy with maintenance and repairs to the neglected infrastructure. In Jon Hickling’s words: ‘When we first arrived in 1989, the place was extremely run down. Andy Martin the leaseholder, then 62 years old, had reached his zenith and the sun was well and truly setting on his island empire. He had an extremely bad back, was very lame and badly needed a hip replacement’. They had been told by Andy that on his retirement he wanted Cathryn and the Hicklings to take over the lease.
Now an eccentric, Andy Martin was so preoccupied with religion that it had turned the once rakish adventurer into a mad prophet. Finally, in 1996 in failing health Andy left the island and returned to England where he lived with friends. The Hicklings ran the island for the next five years, paying the outgoings and even sending money to England to help Andy out. In December 2000 they visited Cairns to salvage the derelict hulk of a 30-foot boat Islander which had been built on the island by the White family in 1938 out of local pit-sawn timber. Over three months of restoration the Hicklings were approached by Mick Cotter who said he had known Andy as a teenager and offered some assistance in repairing the old boat, and then returned with them as a spare hand, when the boat was taken to Percy Island.
After a short stay Mick left the island with presents of honey, mango chutney and goatskins, and was aware of Andy’s address in England. Mick then flew to England, found Andy, told him the island was falling into rack and ruin, and persuaded Andy to sign over the remainder of the island’s lease (then valued at about $320,000) to him for $10. Mick Cotter gave the impression of wealth (unfounded) who could restore the island to its former glory and help Andy’s return.
With medical intervention Andy Martin began making a recovery and after seeking legal advice sought restitution of his lease. Andy made his last visit to the island in 2002 and died the following year at a nursing home in Mackay, aged 76. In the meantime, Cathryn and her partner John Morris, whom she met in 2005, had settled in nearby Proserpine and maintained contact with the Hicklings who left the island in 2001. Both parties had invested heavily in maintaining the island and its property and had lost everything.
A protracted and expensive legal dispute over ownership of the lease was settled in June 2008 when a District Court Judge found Cotter had exploited Martin and ordered that the lease be transferred to Martin’s beneficiary, Ms Radclyffe, and that Cotter leave the island.
In 2011 Middle Percy was made a National Park by the Queensland Government. Cathryn Radclyffe was granted a 20-year lease, commencing in 2012, over a portion covering 117 ha of the island known as the conservation park which includes the homestead and land extending down to the palm-fringed anchorage at West Bay. Here she carried on the traditions established by her relative and the Whites of welcoming visitors. Under national park legislation the intention is to eradicate non-indigenous species from the island such as the historic goats and bees. Do not these sturdy little goats also tell an important part of our early maritime history?
After 35 years of involvement with the island, including 12 years of residence, Cathryn Radclyffe says it is time to call it a day and has decided to leave the island with the remainder of the lease passing to a new generation of Robin and Annie Cooke. The newcomers have ambitious plans for low key Christian youth activities. We wish them well.
Percy in Paradise
If you are looking for an island adventure providing famous explorers, murder, ghosts, golden coins, historic goats, great love affairs, tragic deaths, shipwrecks, Olympic athletes, beachcombers and a yachties paradise, all with larger than life characters, then look no further, for it is all here on the Isles of Percy.
1 The history of seagoing craft known to Aboriginal people is complex. These varied from simple single-piece bark canoes found in Botany Bay; further north more robust dugouts influenced by Makassar designs were used to capture sea turtles and dugongs, and the Torres Strait Islanders used sophisticated craft with outriggers and lateen sails, introduced from Papua. It is most likely that Aboriginal people transiting long distances in the Whitsunday region had access to large three-piece bark canoes. Examples of the above are to be found on the Australian Register of Historic Vessels, an online database managed by the Australian National Maritime Museum.
2 In 1855, after his dramatic escape from the Percy Isles, Walter Hill became the first curator of the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, a position he held until retirement in 1881. He was responsible for the establishment of these gardens and the introduction of numerous species of plants suitable to Queensland conditions, including the jacaranda and commercially important cane sugar.
3 In the 19th century smaller survey vessels were commanded by Masters who were highly experienced seamen and proficient surveyors. They were paid a professional allowance above that earned by Masters of ships-of-the-line. To differentiate them the rank of Navigating Lieutenant was introduced but this was disliked and replaced in the Hydrographic Service by the rank of Staff Commander which continued until about 1904.
4 During the 18th and 19th century many ships carried livestock as a source of fresh meat and milk. Goats were favoured as they were smaller than cattle and less fussy eaters. At the latter part of the 19th century it was suspected that milk from infected goats could pass brucellosis to humans (similarities to Covid) and the Royal Navy dictated the boiling of goats’ milk before consumption. In 1906 goats’ milk was phased out of use in the British armed forces in favour of condensed or evaporated milk.
5 Brigadier-General Edwyn Sandys Martin OBE DSO MC of the 5th Dragoon Guards married in 1923 Margaret Alyliffe Elinor Guthrie; they had two sons and one daughter.
Beaglehole, J. C., The Life of Captain James Cook, Stanford University Press, 1992.
Estensen, Mirian, The Life of Matthew Flinders, Alan & Unwin, Sydney, 2002.
Hickling, Jonathan & Liz, The History of the Percy Isles – Past & Present, self-published 2019 & available via e-Books.
Hickling, Jonathan, Middle Percy: Our Island Home, The Coastal Passage (boating magazine), 2004.
Ingleton, Geoffrey C., Charting a Continent, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1944.
Rowland, Michael, J., A Long Way in a Bark Canoe – Aboriginal Occupation of the Percy Isles, Archaeological Branch, Department of Aboriginal & Islander Advancement, Brisbane, 1984.
Rowland, Michael J., By Savage Hands His Steps Were Stayed – Life & Death on the Percy Isles, 1854, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, July 2020.