Tom Crean – Ireland's Great Antarctic Explorer
If ever you should visit Annascaul in County Kerry, Ireland, you might wonder why there is a pub at the bottom of the main street named The South Pole Inn. Its penguins and Antarctic memorabilia seem out of place in this sleepy corner of Ireland’s beautiful Dingle Peninsula; that is until you learn about the story of the man that ran it.
For this quiet little town near Dingle carries the legacy of one of the greatest explorers of the 20th Century; one whose adventures are largely unknown.
Born on 25th February, 1877, Thomas Crean was born to a farming family at Gurtuchrane near Annascaul. He enlisted in the Royal Navy when he was fifteen, ten days before his sixteenth birthday. It is speculated that he joined after an argument with his father, and had lied about his age when signing up at a Navy inlet at nearby Minard.
Leaving rural Ireland far behind him, his taste for adventure developed. In 1901, aged twenty-four, Crean put his name down for an expedition to the South Pole aboard the ship, The Discovery. An able seaman of The Discovery’s crew had deserted, leaving the ship one man down.
Tom Crean was accepted, and it was on board The Discovery that he would meet the legends of Antarctic exploration, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton.
The nature of the voyage would be to study the terrain and resources of this distant and mysterious continent. Lasting three years, the mission was deemed a success, despite there being issues with traversing the icy terrain and a problem with the ship becoming locked in ice. Crean earned himself a reputation of being hard-working and amiable, and was described as “An Irishman with a fund of wit and an even temper which nothing disturbed.” by Scott’s second-in-command, Albert Armitage. Despite the difficulty of the terrain, Tom Crean and eleven others set a record for the furthest south mark, travelling across the Ross Ice Shelf by sledge.
After the return of The Discovery, Crean was promoted to a Petty Officer, First Class, under the recommendation of Scott himself. Crean’s reputation was so that Scott requested that he serve among his crew of the Victorious. At the time, Shackleton was back in the Antarctic on an attempt to reach the South Pole. Despite setting a new record for the furthest south, Shackleton’s party was forced to return. Upon hearing of the failure, Scott’s words to Tom Crean were, “I think we’d better have a shot next.”
In 1910, Scott famously set forth for the Antarctic aboard his ship The Terra Nova. Amongst those on board were Edward Evans, Lawrence “Titus” Oates, Edgar Evans, Edward Wilson, and Henry Robertson Bowers. Being one of the only men with Polar experience, Crean was held in high regard by Scott, and was put in charge of taking supplies to the “One Ton Depot”.
He quickly became a hero. One night on a return trip from the depot, he and his companions were camping on the frozen sea. The ice began to break up, leaving Bowers and another floating out to sea. Crean leaped out from his tent, and seeing his comrades in peril, jumped across the frozen sheets of broken ice before running to the others to fetch help.
Because of his bravery and experience, Crean was one of the men chosen to go with Scott on the journey to the South Pole. The trek south was split into three stages, with a large group going forth for the initial 400 miles until the Beardmore Glacier was reached. Here, the party would be reduced, and the 120 mile climb up the glacier would commence. The final 168 miles would be a small party, led by Scott to claim the glory of reaching the South Pole. Tom Crean travelled with Scott right until the start of the final stage, when he was ordered to return to base along with Lashley and Edward Evans. It is said that Crean wept at having to turn back, being so close to the goal. Scott, Edgar Evans, Wilson, and Bowers continued onwards in a bid to reach the South Pole.
Crean, Lashly, and Edward Evans were left with the mind-boggling prospect of walking 700 miles through ice and snow to Hut Point. Somewhere along the way, they lost their bearings. They were way off their route to the landmark Beardmore Glacier, and with a great ice flow blocking their way, had but one choice; to go the long way round. With no safe way of getting down the icy plateau, supplies were running out.
The three men were left with a deadly dilemma. They had to get down the ice flow, or they would die before they reached the glacier. Incredibly, they climbed onto their sledge, and the three slid down the ice flow onto the glacier, avoiding all crevasses that were over 200 foot wide. At uncontrollable speed, the three adventurers slid 2,000 feet downhill. Finally reaching a stop when their sledge hit an ice ridge and overturned, their gamble had paid off. Of it, Edward Evans wrote, “How we ever escaped entirely uninjured is beyond me to explain.”
But they were far from safe. Making their way down the glacier was like traversing through a maze of ice. Edward Evans removed his goggles to try and see a way through, but was stricken by snow blindness as a result. Because of this, he ended up having to be carried the rest of the way. Finally reaching the level surface at the base of the glacier, Evans’ health took a serious turn for the worse. He had swollen joints, was passing blood, and it was apparent that he was suffering from scurvy. Crean and Lashley managed to get him to One Ton Depot, but Evans collapsed. Crean had feared that despite their efforts, their companion had died, and Evans described how he felt Crean’s hot tears falling on to his face. Thankfully he still lived, but it would not be for long if action was not taken.
Nursing Evans with their last drops of brandy as they pulled him by sledge across the ice, Crean and Lashly discussed what to do next. It was still over 35 miles to the safety of Hut Point, and they did not have enough rations to get there. Crean went on alone to fetch help, with only a little chocolate and three biscuits to fuel his march. With no tent or survival equipment, it is a miracle that he reached Hut Point. Making the journey in eighteen hours, he collapsed when he arrived, just ahead of a blizzard that surely would have killed him.
Thanks to his courage and endurance, Lashly and Edward Evans were brought back to Hut Point alive. In a later letter, Crean played down the experience saying, “So it fell to my lot to do the 30 miles for help, and only a couple of biscuits and a stick of chocolate to do it. Well, sir, I was very weak when I reached the hut.”
The crew of the Terra Nova waited for news or sign of Scott and his companions. It became apparent that something had befallen them. Despite Crean’s cheery attempts to keep spirits high, the realisation that Scott’s party had met their end began to sink in.
In 1912, Crean joined the eleven man search party. On 12th November, they spotted a peaked shape in the still whiteness of the Antarctic ice near the base of the Beardmore Glacier. It was a tent, against which a drift of snow had piled up. Within lay the bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers. Of Oates and Evans there was no sign. We know now that Oates who was suffering from terrible frostbite in his feet and hands, sacrificed himself by walking out into the snow in a bid to help the others, whilst Edgar Evans died near the bottom of the glacier.
The loss was devastating. Crean wrote of it in a letter, describing that in Scott’s death, he had lost a good friend. A large wooden cross was erected on the slopes of a hill overlooking Hut Point, with the names of the five dead men inscribed upon it. The words of Tennyson were added, from his poem of the great Greek explorer, Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Crean’s bravery was noted, and upon his return, he and Lashley were awarded the Albert Medal by King George V himself at Buckingham Palace, for their deeds of bravery in saving the life of Edward Evans. Tom Crean was also promoted to Chief Petty Officer.
You would think that the experience with Scott’s doomed expedition would put any man off visiting the Antarctic again. But not Tom Crean.
Ernest Shackleton, whom Crean had met on The Discovery, was planning a voyage south on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The goal of these explorers was to cross the Antarctic from sea-to-sea.
Shackleton rated Tom Crean as being a top man to have in any party to the frigid continent, and requested that Crean join him aboard The Endeavour as Second Officer. Crean’s duties were varied, and included taking care of the dogs. He famously nurtured a litter of puppies born to a bitch named Sally, early on in the expedition. Crean had a love of animals, and stories of the ship’s cat, and a pet rabbit have circulated with other stories of the expedition.
Yet again, this trip to the far south was stricken with difficulties. The Endurance became stuck fast in pack ice, and Crean was nearly crushed whilst trying to free her. Hopes were lost when the ship finally broke up and sank ten months later. Due to the drift of the ice, the crew now found themselves far off course and a plan was put together to take all their provisions and lifeboats and drag them across the ice to Robertson Island or Snow Hill. This would be a 200 mile walk. With the dangers of melting ice, it was decided that instead, they would sit it out and wait. Surely, with the drift of the ice sheet, they would be carried to Paulet Island which was 400 miles in a clockwise direction.
A good plan, except that the pack ice held fast. The men were carried well past Paulet Island, leaving the crew of the Endurance with the task of taking up oars and rowing to Elephant Island. This took five days. Hubert Hudson, navigating officer of The Endurance, was charged with plotting their course. He unfortunately seemed to suffer from a nervous breakdown, leaving Crean in charge.
Finally they reached Elephant Island, and Tom Crean was charged by Shackleton to find a safe place to camp. Not leaving it to fate, one of the lifeboats was modified for a voyage to South Georgia so that a rescue party could be sent for. Shackleton set out on the 800 nautical mile journey with a small crew of six, including Tom Crean. Frank Wild was left in charge of the men at Elephant Island. They had no idea if Shackleton would make it, nor how long rescue would be.
The voyage was horrific. It took seventeen days, and the crew made their way through gales, rolling seas, and snow squalls. Shackleton recalled Tom Crean’s tuneless singing, whilst he was at the tiller, remarking, “He always sang when he was steering, and nobody ever discovered what the song was... but somehow it was cheerful.” Amazingly, they reached South Georgia, despite having a broken rudder. Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley set off on foot thirty miles across the glaciated landscape of South Georgia.
Shackleton may not have been the first to traverse the Antarctic, but he, Crean and Worsley were the first to traverse South Georgia. As with the epic trek in Scott’s expedition, this desperate walk was made with no tents. They were equipped with a length of alpine rope, and a carpenter’s adze, and had adapted their boots for traversing the ice by hammering screws from their lifeboat through the soles to serve as crampons.
Arriving at a whaling station at Stromness, they were filthy. Lost for months, their skin was blackened from months of cooking blubber. Their hair was long and matted, and they must have been quite a sight! Thanks to their courage, all of the men stranded on Elephant Island were rescued.
Tom Crean returned to Britain in 1916 and resumed his naval duties. He had been promoted to a Warrant Officer in recognition of his service to the Endurance expedition, and was awarded a third Polar Medal. He married a woman named Ellen Herlihy from his hometown of Annascaul on 5th September 1917, and Tom Crean started to settle and raise a family.
Tom was retired from the Navy in 1920 following a fall which affected his vision. His life at sea was over, and so he and Ellen opened a pub in Annascaul which they named The South Pole Inn. They had three daughters named Mary, Kate, and Eileen, although Kate sadly died when she was only four years old.
Tom Crean remained a modest and quiet man throughout his life. He would never speak of his time with the British Navy, nor of his adventures in the Antarctic, instead putting his medals and sword away safely. He returned to a gentle life in Ireland, where seldom a snowflake fell.
Due to tensions between the Irish and British during the time around the Irish War of Independence, it is possible that these things were not spoken about for fear of bringing trouble to the family. Crean’s brother Cornelius was killed in an IRA ambush in County Cork in 1920, whilst serving as a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. There was a not a lot of love for the English, or those that had anything to do with them back in those days of struggles.
Tom Crean passed away in 1938 after a short illness. Despite all the hardships and dangers he had been through, tragically it would be poor medical facilities that would be his undoing.
Falling ill with vomiting and acute stomach pains, Tom was was rushed to Tralee hospital, around 16 miles from Annascaul. He was diagnosed with appendicitis but was unable to be treated in Tralee hospital as no surgeon was available to operate. Tom was transferred 75 miles to Bon Secours Hospital, Cork where his appendix was removed, but not before it had ruptured due to the delay. Infection took hold, and the quiet hero passed away on 27th July, 1938.
It is a bitter loss that something so easily treatable would bring about the end of this great man.
Campaigners are working tirelessly bring Tom's adventures to wider public knowledge, and for Ireland to recognise him as the hero that he is.
A petition has been raised requesting that Dáil Éireann names a new flagship of the Irish Naval Fleet after Tom Crean. Built to replace the LE Eithne, this new multi purpose ship will feature with full hospital facilities and be used for humanitarian purposes. We can only hope that this is successful. I would urge you to add your name to the petition, by following this >link.<
And should you ever find yourself in County Kerry, please do make your way to The South Pole, at Annascaul, and raise a jar to the great man himself. One of Ireland’s greatest explorers, Tom Crean.
Should you be interested in learning more about the life of Tom Crean, I would recommend the books below. The first is an excellent account with many evocative photographs from the exhibitions. The second brings the adventures to life for a younger audience, and is delightfully illustrated.
Tom Crean's bar, located in Co. Kerry, Ireland.