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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cole, Thomas Ernest (Tom) (1906–1995)

by Robin Trotter

This article was published online in 2020

Thomas Ernest Cole (1906–1995), author, buffalo shooter, and crocodile hunter, was born on 28 February 1906 at Brockley, London, eldest of eight children of locally born parents Reece Ernest Cole, cooper, and his wife Adelina Helen, née Arundell. Educated at Steyning Grammar School, West Sussex, Tom recalled that his school career was undistinguished. At seventeen, seeking a warmer climate and wanting to escape a difficult relationship with his father, he migrated to Australia.

Arriving in Brisbane in October 1923 Cole found employment on a fruit farm at Cleveland. Within six months he had moved to a dairy farm at Maleny, and by April 1925 was a stockman at Rutherglen station in the St George district. He later became skilled at horse-breaking, a high-paying job in the bush. Having worked at a succession of stations in Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the Kimberley, Western Australia, he recalled that he was ‘never out of work’ and ‘never got the sack’ (1993).

By the early 1930s Cole had been introduced to buffalo shooting. Keen to enter that lucrative industry, in 1933 he leased one hundred square miles (259 km2) between the West and South Alligator Rivers in the Northern Territory, and subsequently six more grazing properties. Over the next nine years he built a reputation across northern Australia as an outstanding bushman, with additional interests in mining and crocodile hunting. Aboriginal people who attended his camp received rations in return for their services. On the outbreak of World War II, he was engaged by the intelligence section of the 7th Military District as a military reporting officer. Having disposed of his properties, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in Melbourne on 26 May 1943. Two weeks later he was arrested by the Victoria Police and charged with having stolen sixty-five head of cattle from Newcastle Waters station, Northern Territory, between December 1942 and January 1943. Having avoided imprisonment, he returned to the army but was diagnosed with leprosy and on 12 August in Brisbane was discharged as medically unfit. He moved to Sydney, where he worked as a crocodile skin agent and purchased a dry-cleaning business; he also wrote articles for metropolitan newspapers about the skin industry. On 14 August 1947 at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Kensington, he married Kathleen Mary Callen, a clerk. They were to have two daughters: Cole already had a daughter from a relationship with an Aboriginal woman known as Djilu.

In 1950, while his family remained in Sydney, Cole moved his business to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea where he spent long periods hunting crocodiles and purchasing skins, frequently returning home to arrange processing and sales. With his interest in crocodile shooting starting to wane, in 1955 he acquired land at Banz in the Western Highlands, and established a coffee plantation; he also moved into timber milling, and a hotel venture, and was prominent in the settler community at Mount Hagen. In 1968, foreseeing increases in plantation expenses, he sold his plantation, moved to the Sepik River area, and set up a coffee trading business and a scheme to buy and sell artefacts. He left Papua New Guinea in 1978, and retired to Sydney.

Cole took up writing because he wanted to ‘put the record straight’ (Cole 1993) about cattle stations, buffalo shooting, and the outback, and document a way of life that he worried might be forgotten in an era when roads, transport, and communications had ‘abolished isolation and dependence on the horse’ (Inder 1995, 7). Spears and Smoke Signals (1982) was a collection of yarns illustrated by his close friend, the cartoonist Eric Joliffe, and the Indigenous illustrator Ero Jakku. Hell West and Crooked (1988) was an autobiographical account of Cole’s years in the outback; it sold over one hundred thousand copies. Other books followed: The Last Paradise (1990), about his experiences in Papua and New Guinea in the 1950s; Riding the Wildman Plains (1992), a selection of his letters and diary entries; and Crocodiles and Other Characters (1992), another collection of yarns. In 1985 he had documented the lives of buffalo shooters in the film Something of the Times, in which he reunited with some of the Aboriginal people who had frequented his camps and worksites, reconstructed his camp, and demonstrated the preparation of hides for sale and distribution. He was awarded the OAM in 1994.

Described as ‘outgoing and generous,’ with ‘a witty regard for the preposterous’ (Inder 1995, 7), Cole exhibited ‘overtones of immoderation in almost everything’ (Hollinshed 1978, 22), including his business pursuits and his consumption of strong liquor. He advocated taking life ‘as it comes’ (1993). Predeceased by his wife (d. 1987), and survived by his daughters, he died on 9 December 1995 at Lady Gowrie Nursing Home, Gordon, and was cremated.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Cole, T. ‘Man Turns on the Crocodile.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 1949, 5
  • Cole, Tom. ‘Crocodile Hunting Is New Industry.’ Smith’s Weekly, 6 August 1949, 6
  • Cole, Tom. Interview by Heather Rusden, 5–8 July 1993. National Library of Australia
  • Hollinshed, Judith. ‘28 Years in PNG.’ Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, 14 December 1978, 22
  • Inder, Stuart. ‘Stockman’s Feats Led to Classic Yarns.’ Australian, 28 December 1995, 7
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8721, Papers of Tom Cole, 1923–93
  • Smith’s Weekly. ‘Buffalo-Hunter and Dry-Cleaner.’ 8 November 1947, 15
  • Smith’s Weekly. ‘They Make £50 a Week as Crocodile Hunters.’ 8 January 1949, 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Buffalo Hunter’s Fortitude. Three Accidents in Three Days.’ 22 January 1938, 17

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robin Trotter, 'Cole, Thomas Ernest (Tom) (1906–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/cole-thomas-ernest-tom-23778/text32668, published online 2020, accessed online 21 October 2020.

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