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Tom Crean (explorer)

Thomas "Tom" Crean
Portrait of Tom Crean, 7 February 1915
Born (1877-02-25)25 February 1877
Gurtuchrane, Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland
Died 27 July 1938(1938-07-27) (aged 61)
Bon Secours Hospital, Cork, Ireland
Resting place Ballynacourty, Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Education Royal Navy apprenticeship, HMS Impregnable
Occupation Warrant officer and Antarctic explorer
Spouse(s) Ellen Herlihy
Children Mary Crean O'Brien
Kate Crean
Eileen Crean
Parent(s) Patrick Crean
Catherine Courtney
Awards Albert Medal (1913)
Polar Medal (1904, 1913, 1916)

Thomas "Tom" Crean (Irish: Tomás Ó Croidheáin; 25 February 1877 – 27 July 1938), was an Irish seaman and Antarctic explorer from Annascaul in County Kerry. He was a member of three major expeditions to Antarctica during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Captain Scott's 1911–13 Terra Nova Expedition. This saw the race to reach the South Pole lost to Roald Amundsen and ended in the deaths of Scott and his polar party. During this expedition, Crean's 35 statute miles (56 km) solo walk across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of Edward Evans led to him receiving the Albert Medal for Lifesaving.

Crean had left the family farm near South Georgia, to seek aid for the stranded party.

Crean's contributions to these expeditions sealed his reputation as a polar explorer, and earned him a total of three Polar medals. After the Endurance expedition, he returned to the navy; when his naval career ended in 1920 he moved back to County Kerry. In his home town of Annascaul, Crean and his wife Ellen opened a pub called the "South Pole Inn", where he lived quietly and unobtrusively until his death in 1938.


  • Early life and career 1
  • Discovery Expedition, 1901–1904 2
  • Between expeditions, 1904–10 3
  • Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13 4
  • Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (Endurance Expedition), 1914–17 5
  • Later life 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Early life and career

Thomas Crean (generally known as Tom Crean) was on born 25 Feb 1877, in the farming area of Gurtuchrane near the town of Annascaul in County Kerry, Ireland, to Patrick Crean and Catherine, née Courtney. One of ten children, he attended the local Brackluin Catholic school, leaving at the age of 12 to help on the family farm.[1] At the age of 15, Crean enlisted in the Royal Navy at the naval station in nearby Minard Inlet, possibly after an argument with his father.[2] His enlistment as a boy second class is recorded in Royal Navy records on 10 July 1893, 10 days before his 16th birthday; lacking his parents' consent, he probably lied about his age.[3][4]

Crean's initial naval apprenticeship was aboard the training ship Impregnable at Devonport. In November 1894, he was transferred to Devastation. By his 18th birthday, in 1895, Crean was serving in Royal Arthur, and rated ordinary seaman. Less than a year later, he was in Wild Swan as an able seaman, and later joined the Navy's torpedo school ship, Defiance. By 1899, Crean had advanced to the rate of petty officer, second class and was serving in Vivid.[4][5]

In February 1900, Crean was posted to the torpedo vessel Ringarooma, which was part of the Royal Navy's New Zealand Squadron based in the South Island. On 18 December 1901, he was demoted from petty officer to able seaman for an unspecified misdemeanour.[4][6] In December 1901, the Ringarooma was ordered to assist Robert Falcon Scott's ship Discovery when it was docked at Lyttelton Harbour awaiting to departure to Antarctica. When an able seaman of Scott's ship deserted after striking a petty officer, a replacement was required; Crean volunteered, and was accepted.[7]

Discovery Expedition, 1901–1904

Aerial view of Hut Point, near McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Aerial view of Hut Point, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica — the location of Discovery's base, in 1902–04

Discovery sailed for the Antarctic on 21 December 1901, and seven weeks later, on 8 February 1902, arrived in McMurdo Sound, where she anchored at a spot which was later designated "Hut Point".[8] Here the men established the base from which they would launch scientific and exploratory sledging journeys. Crean proved to be one of the most efficient man-haulers in the party; over the expedition as a whole, only seven of the 48-member party logged more time in harness than Crean's 149 days.[9] Crean had a good sense of humour and was well liked by his companions. Scott's second-in-command, Albert Armitage, wrote 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."[10]

Crean accompanied Lieutenant Michael Barne on three sledging trips across the Ross Ice Shelf, then known as the "Great Ice Barrier". These included the 12-man party led by Barne which set out on 30 October 1902 to lay depots in support of the main southern journey undertaken by Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson. On 11 November the Barne party passed the previous furthest south mark,[11] set by Carsten Borchgrevink in 1900 at 78°50'S, a record which they held briefly until the southern party itself passed it on its way to an eventual 82°17'S.[12]

During the Antarctic winter of 1902 Discovery became locked in the ice. Efforts to free her during the summer of 1902–03 failed, and although some of the expedition's members (including Ernest Shackleton) left in a relief ship, Crean and the majority of the party remained in the Antarctic until the ship was finally freed in February 1904.[13] After returning to regular naval duty, Crean was promoted to petty officer, first class, on Scott's recommendation.[4][14]

Between expeditions, 1904–10

Crean came back to regular duty at the naval base at Chatham, Kent, serving first in Pembroke in 1904 and later transferring to the torpedo school on Vernon. Crean had caught Captain Scott's attention with his attitude and work ethic on the Discovery Expedition, and in 1906 Scott requested that Crean join him on Victorious.[4][15] Over the next few years Crean followed Scott successively to Albemarle, Essex and Bulwark.[4][15] By 1907, Scott was planning his second expedition to the Antarctic. Meanwhile, Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition, 1907–09, despite reaching a new furthest south record of 88°23'S, had failed to reach the South Pole.[16] Scott was with Crean when the news of Shackleton's near miss became public; it is recorded that Scott observed to Crean: "I think we'd better have a shot next."[17]

Terra Nova Expedition, 1910–13

 Six men are working with sleds and camping equipment, close to a pointed tent pitched on a snowy surface. Nearby, upright skis have been parked in the snow
Scott's polar party at 87°S, 31 December 1911, before Crean's return with the last supporting party

Scott held Crean in high regard,[18] so he was among the first people recruited for the Terra Nova Expedition, which set out for the Antarctic in June 1910, and one of the few men in the party with previous polar experience.[14] After the expedition's arrival in McMurdo Sound in January 1911, Crean was as part of the 13-man team who established "One Ton Depot",130 statute miles (210 km) from Hut Point.[19] so named because of the large amount of food and equipment cached there on the projected route to the South Pole. Returning from the depot to base camp at Cape Evans, Crean, accompanied by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry "Birdie" Bowers, experienced near-disaster when camping on unstable sea ice. During the night the ice broke up, leaving the men adrift on an ice floe and separated from their sledges. Crean probably saved the group's lives, by leaping from floe to floe until he reached the Barrier edge and was able to summon help.[20]

Crean departed with Scott in November 1911, for the attempt at the South Pole. This journey had three stages: 400 statute miles (640 km) across the Barrier, 120 statute miles (190 km) up the heavily crevassed Beardmore Glacier to an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above sea level, and then another 350 statute miles (560 km) to the Pole.[21] At regular intervals, supporting parties returned to base; Crean was in the final group of eight men that marched on to the polar plateau and reached 87°32'S, 168 statute miles (270 km) from the pole. Here, on 4 January 1912, Scott selected his final polar party: Crean, William Lashly and Edward Evans were ordered to return to base, while Scott, Edgar Evans, Edward Wilson, Bowers and Lawrence Oates continued to the pole. Crean's biographer Michael Smith suggests that Crean would have been a better choice for the polar party than Edgar Evans, who was weakened by a recent hand injury (of which Scott was unaware). Crean, considered one of the toughest men in the expedition, had led a pony across the Barrier and had thus been saved much of the hard labour of man-hauling.[22] Scott's critical biographer Roland Huntford records that the surgeon Edward L Atkinson, who had accompanied the southern party to the top of the Beardmore, had recommended either Lashly or Crean for the polar party rather than Edgar Evans.[23] Scott in his diary recorded that Crean wept with disappointment at the prospect of having to turn back, so close to the goal.[24]

 Two men stand on snowy ground, with a dark sky background, each man with a white pony. The men are dressed in heavy winter clothing. A caption reads:
Tom Crean and Edgar Evans exercising ponies, winter 1911

Soon after heading north on the 700-statute-mile (1,100 km) journey back to base camp, Crean's party lost the trail back to the Beardmore Glacier, and were faced with a long detour around a large icefall.[25] With food supplies short, and needing to reach their next supply depot, the group made the decision to slide on their sledge, uncontrolled, down the icefall. The three men slid 2,000 feet (600 m),[26] dodging crevasses up to 200 feet (61 m) wide, and ending their descent by overturning on an ice ridge.[27] Evans later wrote: "How we ever escaped entirely uninjured is beyond me to explain".[26]

The gamble at the icefall succeeded, and the men reached their depot two days later.[27] However, they had great difficulty navigating down the glacier. Lashly wrote: "I cannot describe the maze we got into and the hairbreadth escapes we have had to pass through."[28] In his attempts to find the way down, Evans removed his goggles and subsequently suffered agonies of snow blindness that made him into a passenger.[29] When the party was finally free of the glacier and on the level surface of the Barrier, Evans began to display the first symptoms of scurvy.[30] By early February he was in great pain, his joints were swollen and discoloured, and he was passing blood. Through the efforts of Crean and Lashly the group struggled towards One Ton Depot, which they reached on 11 February. At this point Evans collapsed; Crean thought he had died and, according to Evans's account, "his hot tears fell on my face".[29]

With over 100 statute miles (160 km) still to travel before the relative safety of Hut Point, Crean and Lashly began hauling Evans on the sledge, "eking out his life with the last few drops of brandy that they still had with them".[30] On 18 February they arrived at Corner Camp, still 35 statute miles (56 km) from Hut Point, with only one or two days' food rations left and still four or five days' man-hauling to do. They then decided that Crean should go on alone, to fetch help. With only a little chocolate and three biscuits to sustain him, without a tent or survival equipment,[31] Crean walked the distance to Hut Point in 18 hours, arriving in a state of collapse to find Atkinson there, with the dog driver Dmtri Gerov.[30][32] Crean reached safety just ahead of a fierce blizzard, which probably would have killed him, and which delayed the rescue party by a day and a half.[29] Atkinson led a successful rescue, and Lashly and Evans were both brought to base camp alive. Crean modestly played down the significance of his feat of endurance. In a rare written account, he wrote in a letter: "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."[33]

Scott's party failed to return. The winter of 1912 at Cape Evans was a sombre one, with the knowledge that the polar party had undoubtedly perished. Frank Debenham wrote that "in the winter it was once again Crean who was the mainstay for cheerfulness in the now depleted mess deck part of the hut."[34] In November 1912, Crean was one of the 11-man search party that found the remains of the polar party. On 12 November they spotted a cairn of snow, which proved to be a tent against which the drift had piled up. It contained the bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers.[35] Crean later wrote, referring to Scott in understated fashion, that he had "lost a good friend".[36]

On 12 February 1913 Crean and the remaining crew of the Prince Louis of Battenberg, the First Sea Lord.[37][38] Crean and Lashly were both awarded the Albert Medal, 2nd Class for saving Evans's life, these were presented by the King at Buckingham Palace on 26 July 1913. Crean was promoted to the rank of chief petty officer, retroactive to 9 September 1910.[4][39]

Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (Endurance Expedition), 1914–17

 A group of men on board a ship, identified by a caption as
Members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard Endurance, 1914. Crean is second from the left in the first standing row. Shackleton (wearing soft hat) is in the centre of the picture.

Ernest Shackleton knew Crean well from the Discovery Expedition, and also knew of his exploits on Scott's last expedition. Like Scott, Shackleton trusted Crean:[40] he was worth, in Shackleton's own word, "trumps".[41] Crean joined Shackleton's Imperial Transantarctic Expedition on 25 May 1914, as second officer,[42] with a varied range of duties. In the absence of a Canadian dog-handling expert who was hired but never appeared, Crean took charge of one of the dog-handling teams,[43] and was later involved in the care and nurture of the pups born to one of his dogs, Sally, early in the expedition.[44]

On 19 January 1915 the expedition's ship, the Endurance, was beset in the Weddell Sea pack ice. In the early efforts to free her, Crean narrowly escaped being crushed by a sudden movement in the ice.[45] The ship drifted in the ice for months, eventually sinking on 21 November. Shackleton informed the men that they would drag the food, gear, and three lifeboats across the pack ice, to Snow Hill or Robertson Island, 200 statute miles (320 km) away. Because of uneven ice conditions, pressure ridges, and the danger of ice breakup which could separate the men, they soon abandoned this plan: the men pitched camp and decided to wait. They hoped that the clockwise drift of the pack would carry them 400 statute miles (640 km) to Paulet Island where they knew there was a hut with emergency supplies.[46] But the pack ice held firm as it carried the men well past Paulet Island, and did not break up until 9 April. The crew then had to sail and row the three ill-equipped lifeboats through the pack ice to Elephant Island, a trip which lasted five days. Crean and Hubert Hudson, the navigating officer of the Endurance, piloted their lifeboat with Crean effectively in charge as Hudson appeared to have suffered a breakdown.[47][48]

 Man, standing, wearing a smock, heavy trousers and boots. He has a ski stick in his right hand, a pair of skis strapped on his back, and is carrying a rounded bundle on his shoulder. Behind him on the ground is assorted polar equipment.
Tom Crean, in full polar travelling gear

On reaching Elephant Island, Crean was one of the "four fittest men" detailed by Shackleton to find a safe camping-ground.[49] Shackleton decided that, rather than waiting for a rescue ship that would probably never arrive, one of the lifeboats should be strengthened so that a crew could sail it to [53]

 Man, sitting, wearing heavy winter clothes. He has a pipe in his mouth and is holding four sled dog puppiess.
Crean and "his" pups

The party made its South Georgia landfall on the uninhabited southern coast, having decided that the risk of aiming directly for the

  • "Crean and Shackleton Antarctic Commemorative Coins Issued by Ireland" Accessed 9 October 2008.
  • Early recording of "The Ballad of Tom Crean" on YouTube

External links

  • Michael Smith, 2010, 'Great Endeavour – Ireland's Antarctic Explorers', Collins Press
  • Ian O'Shea, 2012, 'Tom Crean: Antarctic Survivor', LMNOP Books
  • Alfred Lansing, 1986, 'Endurance: Shackelton's Incredible Voyage', Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Further reading

  • Huntford, Roland (1985). The Last Place on Earth. London: Pan Books.  
  • Kennedy, Maev (16 October 2001). "Irish village hears tales of its forgotten polar hero". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 20 October 2011. 
  • Preston, Diana (1999). A First Rate Tragedy. London: Constable & Co.  
  • Smith, Michael (2000). An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor. London: Headline Book Publishing.  


  1. ^ Smith, p. 16
  2. ^ Smith, p. 18
  3. ^ Smith, p. 19
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Registers of Seamen's Services—Image details—Crean, Thomas (until promotion to warrant officer)" (fee usually required to view full pdf of service record). DocumentsOnline.  
  5. ^ Smith, pp. 20–21
  6. ^ Smith, p. 29
  7. ^ Smith, p. 31
  8. ^ The name "Hut Point" was given to mark the location, alongside the ship's anchorage, of the expedition's main storage hut, which was used in later expeditions as a shelter and storage depot. Crane, p. 157
  9. ^ Smith, pp. 46–47
  10. ^ Smith, p. 46
  11. ^ Smith, p. 55
  12. ^ Crane, pp. 214–15. Modern re-calculations based on photographs have placed this furthest south at 82°11'S (Crane map, p. 215).
  13. ^ Preston, pp. 67–69
  14. ^ a b Smith, p. 70
  15. ^ a b Crean, Royal Navy service record, referenced in Smith, p. 72
  16. ^ Crane, pp. 394–95
  17. ^ Preston, p. 101
  18. ^ Huxley, p. 434
  19. ^ Cherry-Garrard, p. 107
  20. ^ Cherry-Garrard, p. 147
  21. ^ Smith, p. 102
  22. ^ Smith, p. 161
  23. ^ Huntford (The Last Place on Earth), p. 455
  24. ^ Scott, Diary, 4 January 1912, reprinted in Smith, p. 123
  25. ^ Smith, p. 127
  26. ^ a b Smith, p. 129
  27. ^ a b Lashly's diary, quoted in Cherry-Garrard, p. 402
  28. ^ Lashly diary, quoted in Preston, p. 207
  29. ^ a b c Preston, pp. 206–08
  30. ^ a b c Crane, pp. 555–56
  31. ^ Cherry-Garrard, p. 420
  32. ^ Smith, p. 140
  33. ^ Crean, letter to unknown person, 26 February 1912, reprinted in Smith, p. 143
  34. ^ Smith, p. 168
  35. ^ Crane, pp. 569–70. Oates and Edgar Evans has perished earlier on the return journey.
  36. ^ Crean letter to J. Kennedy, January 1913, SPRI, reprinted in Smith, p. 172
  37. ^ Smith, p. 180
  38. ^ The London Gazette: no. 28740. p. 5322. 25 July 1913. Retrieved 7 December 2008.
  39. ^ Smith, p. 183
  40. ^ Huntford: Shackleton, p. 477
  41. ^ Alexander, p. 21
  42. ^ Smith, p. 190
  43. ^ Shackleton, pp. 44–45
  44. ^ Alexander, pp. 29–31
  45. ^ Shackleton, p. 31
  46. ^ Alexander, p. 98
  47. ^ a b Alexander, p. 127
  48. ^ Smith, p. 226
  49. ^ Shackleton, p. 147
  50. ^ Shackleton, p. 158
  51. ^ Worsley, p. 142
  52. ^ Alexander, p. 153
  53. ^ Shackleton, p. 174
  54. ^ Alexander, p. 150
  55. ^ Alexander, p. 156
  56. ^ Worsley, pp. 190–91
  57. ^ Worsley, p. 213
  58. ^ Worsley, p. 220
  59. ^ Admiralty Certificate of Qualification for Warrant Officer, 17 August 1917, referenced in Smith, p. 300
  60. ^ a b "RN Officer's Service Records—Image details—Crean, Thomas (from promotion to Warrant Officer)" (fee usually required to view full pdf of service record). DocumentsOnline. The National Archives. Retrieved 8 December 2008. 
  61. ^ "Remembering a Great Irishman and Antarctic pioneer". The James Caird Society. Retrieved 23 August 2015. 
  62. ^ Smith, p. 308
  63. ^ Smith, p. 304
  64. ^ a b Smith, p. 309
  65. ^ Smith, p. 306
  66. ^ a b Smith, p. 312
  67. ^ Interview with his daughter, Mary O'Brien "RTÉ – Charlie Bird on the trail of Tom Crean"
  68. ^ Smith, p. 314
  69. ^ Smith, p. 318
  70. ^ Kennedy 2001.
  71. ^ "Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer". Annascaul. Retrieved 23 August 2015. 


In July 2003, a bronze statue of Crean was unveiled across from his pub in Annascaul. It depicts him leaning against a crate whilst holding a pair of hiking poles in one hand and two of "his" beloved sled dog pups in the other.[71]

[70], has been widely performed since 2001 by its author Aidan Dooley, including a special showing at the South Pole Inn, Annascaul, in October 2001. Present were Crean's daughters, Eileen and Mary, both in their 80s. Apparently he never told them his stories; according to Eileen: "He put his medals and his sword in a box ... and that was that. He was a very humble man".Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer A one-man play, [69] Crean is commemorated in at least two place names:

In 1938 Crean became ill with a burst appendix. He was taken to the nearest hospital in Tralee, but as no surgeon was available to operate, he was transferred to the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork where his appendix was removed. Because the operation had been delayed, an infection developed, and after a week in the hospital he died on 27 July 1938, shortly after his sixty-first birthday. He was buried in his family's tomb at the cemetery in Ballynacourty.[68]

 In the foreground is a dark-coloured statue of a man carrying a small dog. In the background is a low, white building with cars parked outside.
Statue of Crean, with the South Pole Inn in the background

Throughout his life, Crean remained an extremely modest man. When he returned to Kerry, he put all of his medals away and never again spoke about his experiences in the Antarctic. Indeed, there is no reliable evidence of Crean giving any interviews to the press.[66] It has been speculated that this may have been because Kerry had long been a centre for occupying power.[66] In fact, Crean and his family were once the victims of a Black and Tan raid during the War of Independence. The raiders ransacked his property and the Creans felt threatened until the Black and Tans happened across a framed photo of Crean in Royal Navy dress uniform and medals. They then left his inn.[67]

On his last naval assignment, with Hecla, Crean suffered a bad fall which caused lasting effects to his vision. As a result, he was retired on medical grounds on 24 March 1920.[60][63] He and Ellen opened a small public house in Annascaul, which he called the South Pole Inn.[64] The couple had three daughters, Mary, Kate, and Eileen,[65] although Kate died when she was four years old.[64]

In early 1920, Shackleton was organising another Antarctic expedition, later to be known as the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition. He invited Crean to join him, along with other officers from the Endurance. By this time, however, Crean's second daughter had arrived, and he had plans to open a business following his naval career. He turned down Shackleton's invitation.[62]

After returning to Britain in November 1916, Crean resumed naval duties. On 15 December 1916 he was promoted to the rank of warrant officer (as a boatswain), in recognition of his service on the Endurance,[4][59][60] and was awarded his third Polar Medal. On 5 September 1917 Crean married Ellen Herlihy of Annascaul.[61]

Later life


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