Not so long ago, word began to spread in Ireland about a remarkable man who travelled to Antarctica on some of the most challenging endeavours ever experienced. Furthermore, it emerged that this man was a pivotal figure, intimately involved in the great exploits of Scott and Shackleton. His contribution to these expeditions was enormous and on more than one occasion he risked his life to save others. For many years his story remained obscure, known only to an interested few. Fortunately, all this has now changed and the name Tom Crean is quickly becoming a household name in Ireland.
Tom Crean was born on 20 July, 1877, into a poor farming household near Annascaul in County Kerry, Ireland. Times were very hard, forcing many young men to leave their country after nothing but the most rudimentary education. Tom's story was no different. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15 and spent the following seven years honing his skills as a junior seaman.
The First Expedition
It was during a routine journey to New Zealand that Crean first booked his place with history. A crew replacement position became available on Robert Falcon Scott's ship Discovery and Crean duly signed up. The ship was bound for Antarctica with one of the first British expeditions to explore the interior of the continent. The Discovery reached the McMurdo Sound early in 1902 and was to remain there for two years. The members of the ship spent the time carrying out a variety of scientific studies along with a number of exploratory forays deep into the continent, going further south than any men had ever gone before.
Crean - now a tall, well built young man in his mid-twenties - was the quintessential gentle giant, a physically strong man with an overriding emotional concern for the people and animals around him. He was a popular member of the expedition, always enthusiastic and good-humoured, who could strike up a song1 even during the most unlikely of circumstances. He was extremely hard-working - Scott once observed that the harder the work for Crean, the better. Above all, Crean showed amazing fortitude; he never lost hope even during the most trying of circumstances, and was able to endure huge adversity long after most men would have given up.
The Journey to the South Pole
One prize still remained beyond the capabilities of even the most seasoned adventurer - to be the first human to reach the South Pole. In 1909, Ernest Shackleton came within 97 miles of the Pole before he made the bold decision to turn back. The next to try was Scott. Even before the expedition had started officially, Crean was already a part of his team.
Scott's ship, the Terra Nova, set sail from London in 1910, reaching McMurdo Sound in the first days of 1911. The team quickly began to prepare for the journey to the Pole, setting up supply depots at strategic points along the chosen route to assist the Polar exploration team on their return to base camp.
It was on one of these preparatory journeys that Crean displayed the depth of character that was to mark him out during the years to come. Returning from one of the depots, Crean and two other men, Henry Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, became marooned on an ice floe surrounded by killer whales. Crean set off on his own to seek help, jumping from floe to floe, seemingly unaware of the huge risks he was taking with his own life. He reached base camp within a few hours and a party was dispatched to rescue his colleagues.
Shortly after the end of the dark Antarctic winter, the assault on the South Pole commenced. The journey itself would entail a 400 mile hike across the Ross Ice Shelf, followed by a punishing climb of 120 miles up the Beardmore Glacier, culminating in a trip of 350 miles over the featureless Antarctic Plateau to the South Pole itself. A team of 12 men, Crean included, set out on 1 November, 1911. Conditions were far from perfect, and the team struggled to cover distances of only a few miles each day. By the time the men reached the foot of the Beardmore, they were exhausted. There then followed a withering one month slog up the crevasse-strewn Glacier, rising to a height of 10,000 ft above sea level. At the summit, Scott announced the team that he would be taking to the Pole. Crean was not selected and by all accounts he was devastated. After having come so far, Tom Crean, William Lashly, and officer Teddy Evans had to return back the way they came.
The return journey down the Glacier and across the Ice Shelf was anything but a cake-walk. Evans became seriously ill with scurvy and as his condition declined, the two other men had to drag him by sledge for days, dangerously depleting their own supplies and slowing their progress. Evans continued to deteriorate, and eventually a point was reached where the team could go no further. Once again, Crean set off on his own, covering a distance of 35 miles in 18 hours, hardly taking a break despite the sub-zero temperatures and his reduced physical condition. Crean's solo walk was to save Teddy Evans's life. Evans remained forever grateful to Crean for what he had accomplished.
Scott and his party were not so fortunate. After suffering the disappointment of having been beaten to the Pole by Roald Amundsen, the entire team perished on the return journey, running out of food and fuel in horrendous blizzard conditions a mere 11 miles from the nearest depot. Tom Crean was the first to discover the bodies.
The Terra Nova returned to civilisation, arriving in Cardiff in June 1913. Notwithstanding the grief that accompanied the news of Scott's demise, Tom Crean and William Lashly were awarded the Albert Medal for bravery in saving Teddy Evans's life.
The Endurance Expedition
One would think that after Scott, Crean's taste for Antarctic adventure would have diminished. His most celebrated achievements were yet to come, however. In 1914, Crean was invited by Ernest Shackleton to join his expedition to be the first to cross the southern continent from coast to coast. He duly accepted the invitation and Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, embarked from London in August that year, just as the First World War began.
The Endurance sailed into the Weddell Sea in early 1915, aiming for Vahsel Bay on the other side of the continent to McMurdo Sound. Things, however, did not turn out as planned. With no more than 80 miles to go to Vahsel Bay, the Endurance got wedged in pack ice and was to remain in that state until it was eventually crushed by the ice and sank 10 months later. The team had no choice but to stay with the ship, as it moved slowly north with the ice. They were outcasts in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet, thousands of miles from the nearest outpost of human civilisation. Shackleton's bold adventure was in disarray and from this point onwards his priority shifted to saving the lives of all 28 men on the expedition.
Shackleton knew more than most that low morale would be the kiss of death to the group. Tom Crean was one of the men Shackleton began to rely heavily on, as his unflappable sense of humour and will to live was just the tonic for the long, cold, eventless days ahead.
After 15 months adrift on the ice, conditions finally improved to the extent that the expedition's three small boats could be launched. What followed were six days and nights of abominable conditions, the whole team freezing from continuous soakings and high winds. All three boats safely reached Elephant Island on 15 April, 1916.
Elephant Island was a barren, inhospitable island with no chance of rescue, so Shackleton hand-picked a team of six men, Crean included, to travel in a small boat across the most hostile seas in the world to reach human civilisation. Their destination was South Georgia, 800 miles away. The journey of the six men to South Georgia stands out as one of the most incredible sea journeys ever undertaken. It is nothing short of miraculous that they safely reached their destination in 17 days, but their troubles were far from over. To reach the South Georgia whaling stations and the chance of salvation, Shackleton, Crean and Frank Worsley had to scale a series of steep, uncharted mountain ranges, with nothing but their ragged clothes and a few basic tools to assist them. It was a climb fraught with danger, but the team of three struggled across the mountains in 36 hours. On 20 May, 1916, over eighteen months since they lost contact with the rest of the world, the three dishevelled, exhausted men arrived at Stromness whaling station2. Their journey was at an end and, over the following months, the remaining members of the expedition were rescued. Their achievements saved the lives of all 28 men of the Endurance expedition.
The Later Years
After the war, Tom Crean left the Navy and returned to his home in Ireland. Despite a further invitation from Shackleton, he never took part in an Antarctic expedition again. Southern Ireland was in the throes of gaining independence from Britain so, like many men of the time, Crean left his old life behind. He married Nell Herlihy, a local woman from Annascaul. They had three daughters, one of whom, Katherine, died in early childhood. In 1927 he opened a pub, the South Pole Inn in Annascaul3. He was a local celebrity, nicknamed 'Tom the Pole' by the villagers. Right up to the end of his days, he spoke little to anyone about the enormous feats he accomplished during his time with Scott and Shackleton.
Tom Crean died in Cork of appendicitis on 27 July, 1938.
A Place in History
For a long time, the tragic story of Scott's journey to the South Pole tended to put many of the other expeditions of the time into the shadow. Shackleton's Endurance expedition, while never completely forgotten, was certainly under-appreciated by many. However, in the late 1990s, a number of books, films and television programmes began re-evaluating and highlighting the exploits of Shackleton, and it was then that the story of Tom Crean began to emerge into the limelight. In 1997, a sailing expedition tried to recreate the amazing boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, but it had to be abandoned due to the rough seas. The boat was called the Tom Crean in honour of the great man. A book Tom Crean, An Unsung Hero, written by Michael Smith, helped to bring the story to a mass audience.
It is unlikely that Tom Crean himself would have been comfortable with this fame and adulation, were he still alive. However, his name will live on for many generations to come. A mountain in Antarctica and a large glacier in South Georgia have been named in honour of this truly inspirational hero.