In September 1936, Australian film star Brian Abbott (George Rickard Bell), leading lady Jean Laidley (Mort) and a crew of 30 set off for Lord Howe Island on the SS Morinda to film the movie “Mystery Island”.2 As Abbott farewelled his wife at the docks little did he know this would be the last time he would see her.
After a month of eventful filming, the crew returned to Australia on the SS Morinda, but Abbott and fellow actor Desmond Hay (Leslie Hay Simpson) decided they would make the 525 mile trip back on a 16-foot vessel with a small engine.3 They had fuel and supplies for 10 days and expected to make it back to the mainland in 6 days. Hay who was also a solicitor entrusted letters to several crew members to be posted in Sydney if they did not arrive in 14 days.4 The men set off on the 7 October but by the 14 October there was no sign of them.
Pilot Ern Collibee took up the search using Old Bar aerodrome as his base to sweep up and down the coastline.5 By 17 October three RAAF planes joined the search with one of those based at Old Bar. The HMAS Waterhen also joined the search covering 400 miles in one day.6 After 15 days the search was abandoned.7 The men were legally presumed dead five months later.8
In May 1937, the movie “Mystery Island” was released and billed as Australia’s first thriller.9 Although it received average reviews, the comparison between fiction and real-life was not lost on the audience.
Author: Janine Roberts
1 Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 October 1936, 2.
2 Daily Examiner, 10 September 1936, 6.
3 SMH, 7 October 1936, 14.
4 The Labor Daily, 8 October 1936, 8.
5 Newcastle Sun, 14 October 1936, 5.
6 Daily Telegraph, 17 October 1936, 5.
7 Newcastle Sun, 21 October 1936, 5.
8 National Advocate, 10 March 1937, 3.
9 Glen Innes Examiner, 20 May 1937, 2.