They could be straight from the set of the Swiss Family Robinson. However, these photos show how Thomas Bell and his family turned a tiny volcanic island into a paradise.

The Kiwi Robinson Crusoe left Yorkshire for a new life in New Zealand in 1854, aged 16.

However his plans to settle in Aotearoa went awry, and Bell ended up 680 miles off course and in total isolation for 30 years.

These remarkable photos from the New Zealand National library show the life of Thomas Bell. His stranger than fiction story of island life on Sunday Island has inspired a new novel.

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His story is being revived by the London-based author Lydia Syson, a relative of the solitude-loving pioneer.

Syson's new novel Mr Peacock's Possessions is based on her research into the misadventures of Bell.

On the tiny, 11-square-mile Sunday Island the Bells survived in the manner of Robinson Crusoe. It was a hand to mouth existence, surviving off of goats, bananas and a small patch of vegetables.

Supplies: One of the Bell's thatched huts. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Supplies: One of the Bell's thatched huts. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

The island, now known as Raoul Island, is located just under 1000km off the coast of New Zealand's North Island.

But how did Mr Bell end up on this tiny volcanic rock? Was it by some dramatic shipwreck, or an exile from 1800s New Zealand? No, it seems he ended up on the lonely island by choice.

He met his wife Frederica while in New Zealand and married her in Hawke's Bay in 1866.
Together they had six children Hettie, Bessie, Mary, Tom, Harry and Jack, and together this family moved to Samoa.

Here they opened a hotel, but it seems that Samoa wasn't quite small enough for Thomas and family.

Spledid isolation: Frederica Bell in the family hous on Raoul Island. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Spledid isolation: Frederica Bell in the family hous on Raoul Island. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

He heard about Sunday Island from a neighbour and became obsessed with this tiny subtropical paradise.

Somehow, in 1877, Bell convinced his family to catch a ship heading for Auckland. The Ships captain – Captain McKenzie – agreed to make a detour and drop off the young family on Sunday Island.

At first it seemed as if it had been a massive mistake. Their original provisions were rotten and McKenzie failed to return with more supplies.

It was clearly a statement on the captain's expectation for the family's survival.

Yet the Bells were hardier than McKenzie gave them credit for.

The family survived on what they could find. This included a diet of oranges, fish and root vegetables.

Many years later a ship called the Sissy stopped off on the island, seeing smoke from the Bell's fires.

Even then, the Bells didn't take the opportunity to make an escape. Instead the family returned to the Island, with more provisions including bananas.

the Bells being brought ashore in Denham Bay in 1908. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
the Bells being brought ashore in Denham Bay in 1908. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

They had four more children - Raol, Freda, Ada and William 'King' - while on the island, and didn't abandon it until 1914 with the outbreak of war. Raoul was right in the path of German Samoa and Commonwealth Navy fleets. The family relocated to Auckland before the declaration of war, never to return.

Today the Kermadec islands are uninhabited except for a New Zealand DoC field station on Raoul.

This year Lydia Syson had the opportunity to relive her forebear's adventure. She joined a Sir Peter Blake Trust expedition to the island in April, as the 'expedition writer.'

The result of this research was her book Mr Peacock's Possessions, published by Bonnier Zaffre.

"It's one of the most isolated places in the Pacific. From snorkelling there and swimming there and looking out, it seems incredibly pristine," she said.

"The book is all about what it would have been like to live on the island. The extreme isolation."