Tom Neale

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Thomas Francis "Tom" Neale (November 6, 1902 – November 27, 1977)[1] was a New Zealand bushcraft and survival enthusiast who spent much of his life in the Cook Islands and 16 years in three sessions living alone on the island of Anchorage in the Suwarrow atoll, which was the basis of his popular autobiography.

Early life[edit]

Thomas Francis Neale was born in Wellington, New Zealand, but moved to Greymouth while still a baby and then to Timaru at the age of seven. His parents were Frank Frederick Neale and Emma Sarah Neale (née Chapman). He decided to join the Royal New Zealand Navy as a young man, but at 18 was too old to become an apprentice seaman, and signed on as an apprentice engineer instead. For the next four years, Neale travelled through the Pacific Islands on Navy ships, before buying his way out of the Navy to have greater freedom to see the islands for himself. He spent the next six years wandering from island to island, taking short term jobs on inter-island trade ships, clearing bush or planting bananas.

After a few months back in Timaru in 1928, Neale returned to the Pacific and settled in Moorea, Tahiti until 1943, supporting himself with odd jobs and enjoying a private life. He was then offered a job as a relieving storekeeper in the Cook Islands; a job which involved running small shops in various islands while their normal keepers were on leave. As storekeeper he was also an advisor to the local communities. He met with the author Robert Dean Frisbie in Rarotonga, and was entranced by his tales of the atoll of Suwarrow, where Frisbie had lived briefly. In 1945, Neale had the opportunity to visit Suwarrow briefly when a ship dropped in stores for the World War II coast-watchers living there. He decided that this was the place he wanted to live.

First stay on Suwarrow[edit]

It wasn't until October 1952 that he had an opportunity to book a passage on a ship passing close to Suwarrow, now uninhabited since the end of the war.[1] The boat dropped him off with two cats and all the supplies he could scrape together on the islet of Anchorage, about a mile long and a few hundred feet wide. Neale had a hut with water tanks, some books and a badly damaged boat left over from the coast watchers. They had also left wild pigs and chickens on the atoll. The pigs were a liability as they destroyed vegetation and made planting a garden impossible. Neale built a hunting stand in a tree and speared the pigs over the course of several months. He planted a garden, domesticated the chickens, and repaired the boat. For the most part he lived on fish, crayfish, chicken, eggs, paw-paw, coconut and breadfruit.

Ten months after arriving at Suwarrow, Neale had his first visitors: two couples on a yacht, who had been advised of Neale's existence by the British Consul in Tahiti and asked to call in to check up on him. They stayed a couple of nights. The visitors gave Neale a new plan: to rebuild the pier which had been built on Anchorage during the Second World War, but which had been wrecked during a hurricane in 1942. It took six months of intermittent hard labour. Neale celebrated the end of the job by taking a day off. Within 24 hours, his barometer started dropping, and a major storm hit the islet. The following morning, the pier was gone.

According to his autobiography, in May 1954, over three months after the storm, Neale was on the other side of the atoll in his boat when he threw his anchor overboard, putting his back out. In agonising pain, he managed to make his way back to his hut where he lay semi-paralysed for four days. A couple of people on a yacht called in, not knowing of his existence, discovered him in pain and were able to nurse him back to health. When they left, they promised to send a ship back to collect him, and two weeks later, a ship sent by the Cook Islands government arrived to take him back to Rarotonga. According to Helm and Percival, Neale returned to Rarotonga in July 1954. The problem with his back occurred a couple of months after he went back to Suwarrow in 1956. Although Neale thought at the time his back problem was a slipped disc, it was actually arthritis.[2]

Second stay[edit]

Neale wished to return to Suwarrow once his back was fully healed, but the government did not want the responsibility for him. He married Sarah Haua (born c. 1924) on June 15, 1956. They had two children, Arthur and Stella.[3]

Only in March–April 1960 was he able to return to the atoll, this time with more provisions, having learned what were necessities from his previous stay.[4] This time, he stayed for three and a half years before deciding voluntarily to leave in January 1964.[5] During this stay, one of his visitors was by helicopter from a passing American warship; the helicopter could only stay half an hour before the ship was out of range.

Noel Barber, a British author, heard of Neale's life on the island from a report by the United States Navy and paid him a visit. Fourteen months later, his next visit was from an old friend from Rarotonga, who had heard rumours that he had died. Many months later another yacht called in, with a couple and their daughter. A squall hit the lagoon that night, the yacht's anchoring cable parted, and she foundered on a reef. Neale had the three castaways as guests for a couple of months. The castaways managed to signal to a passing ship with a mirror, and were rescued.

Neale decided after this to return to Rarotonga. This decision was due in part to a group of pearl divers who paid periodic visits to Suwarrow; he had found their presence increasingly hard to tolerate.

His autobiography, An Island to Oneself, was written with assistance from Noel Barber, who wrote an introduction to it, and deals with Tom's life up to his second departure from Suwarrow. The autobiography sold well and allowed Neale to fund a much greater store of provisions for his next stay.[6]

Third stay[edit]

Neale returned to the atoll in June 1967.[7] In 1964, while Neale was in Rarotonga, June von Donop, a former accountant from Honolulu, lived alone in his house on Suwarrow for a week, while her crewmates on the schooner Europe stayed on board their vessel. In 1965-66 Michael Swift lived alone on Suwarrow, but he was not familiar with survival techniques and had a hard time finding sufficient food. Many other visitors to the island during Neale's absence (one of them Chögyam Trungpa's former student P. Howard Useche) had left messages for him.[8]

Neale stayed there until 1977, when he was found ill with stomach cancer by a yacht and taken to Rarotonga. After treatment by Milan Brych, he died eight months later. His grave is in the RSA cemetery on Rarotonga, opposite the airport.


  1. ^ Helm and Percival, p 92
  2. ^ Helm and Percival, pp 94-5
  3. ^ Helm and Percival, pp 95-96
  4. ^ Helm and Percival, p 96
  5. ^ Helm and Percival, p 99
  6. ^ Helm and Percival, p 99
  7. ^ Helm and Percival, p 99
  8. ^ Helm and Percival, pp 63, 100, 105


  1. ^ . Neale's gravestone gives his dates of birth and death as November 2, 1902-November 29, 1977. His death certificate gives his death date as November 30. His daughter says the correct figures are November 6 and November 27.