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Tom Crean, unsung titan of the South Pole


THOSE with an interest in polar exploration will have heard of such renowned protagonists as Scott, Shackleton, Nansen and Amundsen. Few others will have heard of Tom Crean. What follows is a brief summary of the exploits of a hero who spent more hours in Antarctica than Scott and Shackleton combined.

Robert Falcon Scott’s first foray into the polar regions was the Discovery expedition of 1901-1904. Among his crew members were Dr Edward Wilson, a brilliant artist, and Ernest Shackleton, both of whom would figure highly in later Antarctic exploits. Discovery called in at Lyttelton Harbour, New Zealand, before sailing south and it was here that Tom Crean made his entry, being recruited from HMS Ringarooma after one of Discovery’s crew absconded.

Crean, from Annascaul, County Kerry, had enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 16, as did many Irishmen to escape poverty, and in 1901 was just 24 when he joined Scott’s expedition. It was to be the start of a remarkable career during which he established himself as a polar explorer with few equals. This first expedition saw Crean become an important part of the team: Scott’s second-in-command Albert Armitage said in his book Two Years in the Antarctic that ‘Crean was an Irishman with a fund of wit and an even temper which nothing disturbed’. Coupled with that he was as strong as an ox, had a highly unusual resistance to cold and was well-liked by his companions.

Tom Crean made such an impression on this first expedition that Scott had him transferred to every ship he commanded between the years leading up to his second attempt at reaching the South Pole, which set out in in 1910. Meanwhile, Ernest Shackleton had mounted his own expedition (Nimrod, 1907-09) and had got within 112 miles of the Pole before having to turn back due to imminent starvation. When the news of Shackleton’s near-miss was made public, it is recorded that Scott said to Crean, ‘I think we’d better have a shot next.’

In January 1911, after the expedition’s arrival at McMurdo sound, Crean was part of a team of three who established ‘One Ton Depot’, the start of the laying down of food stores on the proposed route to the pole. While they were returning to base camp at Cape Evans, the ice floes broke up and Crean and his companions, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, were in imminent danger of being cut off from their sledges. The big Irishman saved the day by leaping from floe to floe until he was able to summon help.

In November 1911 the journey to the pole commenced, and Crean was a key member of the group of eight who got through, by stages, to within 168 miles of the pole itself. On January 4, 1912, Scott selected his final polar party: Edgar Evans, Edward Wilson, Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Scott himself. Crean, William Lashley and Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans were ordered back to base. Scott’s diary recorded that Crean wept with disappointment at the prospect of being so near and yet so far from the goal.

The concluding journey and subsequent arrival at the Pole, only to be faced with a Norwegian flag planted 34 days earlier, is well known, as is the return journey where all Scott’s party perished in the frozen wastes. What is not so well known is the harrowing passage that Crean, Lashley and Teddy Evans endured during their 680-mile trek back to base camp. Lost trails, unplanned detours around ice falls, food shortages, negotiating crevasses and the onset of scurvy suffered by Evans who eventually collapsed, made this an epic in its own right. It was the strength of Crean, his courage, his loyalty to his companions and his perseverance on the edge of utter exhaustion which saved the lives of his comrades and earned him the Albert Medal, then the highest award for bravery in peacetime (superseded by the George Cross).

Many historians have written about Scott, perhaps his severest critic being Roland Huntford in his 1985 book The Last Place on Earth. Huntford has little doubt that had Scott taken Crean to the pole the outcome could have been very different. Crean was the strongest man in the whole party, and his biographer Michael Smith also suggests that his inclusion would have made the difference between life and death. We shall never know why Scott did not select Crean for the final leg of the polar push, but this was an age of class distinction and ‘officers and men’ of which Scott was a product of his time. Did Crean’s lowly birth play a part in his omission?

The next calling for Crean was when Ernest Shackleton was assembling his Endurance expedition of 1914–1917 with the goal of being the first to cross the Antarctic continent. On January 19, 1915, Endurance became stuck in pack ice in the Weddell Sea. The ship drifted in the ice for months before sinking on November 21. What followed was perhaps the greatest example of inspired leadership and survival that history affords us. Shackleton, known as ‘boss’, fired his men with confidence and optimism. It is no exaggeration to say that he was ‘loved’ by his men and they would have gone to the ends of the earth for him, which is precisely what they were doing.

Men hauling lifeboats across frozen wastes, drifting in pack ice, sailing and rowing open lifeboats in mountainous, freezing seas, and crossing by foot the island of South Georgia, was a miracle of survival. It was Shackleton, Crean and Frank Worsley, the strongest and fittest of the 27-man crew, who stumbled into the whaling station at Stromness to begin the rescue attempt of their fellow explorers who had been left on Elephant Island to await rescue. The polar historian Caroline Alexander described their 932-mile voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia as one of the most extraordinary feats of seamanship and navigation in recorded history.

Crean returned to Britain in 1916, was promoted to the rank of warrant officer and resumed his Naval duties. He survived the First World War and in 1920 he was invited to join Shackleton on another polar expedition. Crean declined, now being married with two daughters. It was a fateful project for Shackleton, as he died on January 5, 1922 off the island of South Georgia after a heart attack. He was 47 years old.

Meanwhile, Crean had been retired on medical grounds later in 1920 after a bad fall whilst serving on HMS Hecla. Returning to Ireland, he and his wife opened a small pub in Annascaul which they called the ‘South Pole Inn’. He rarely spoke about his experiences in Antarctica, never gave any press interviews and kept a low profile in his life from then on. This may have been partly because County Kerry was a hotbed of Irish republicanism, and Crean’s meritorious record of serving in the Royal Navy could have him an IRA target. In 1938 he suffered a burst appendix, and because of delayed treatment he died at the age of 61. He was buried in the family tomb at the cemetery in Ballynacourty, County Kerry.

History records the names of the ‘leaders’ of human endeavours which seize the public’s imagination with wonder and amazement. But none of these achievements could have been completed without back-up teams, and men like Tom Crean were the backbone of any successful enterprise. Crean’s strength, his sense of humour, his ability to lift spirits in the most desperate conditions and the rock-like support that he gave to every venture he took part in is inspirational in how an ordinary life can be made extraordinary and how it can be lived in a true selfless spirit.

Further reading:

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Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins is a furniture designer/maker who loves to write.

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