A few kilometres up the back road from the pub The South Pole Inn in Annascaul, County Kerry, in Ireland lies Gortacurraun, the home where Patrick and Catherine Crean would raise their large family. Thomas Crean was born here on 16th February 1877 at a time when opportunities were hard to come by in Ireland where the majority were still subject to hards times after the famine years.
To help raise a young family meant long, hard hours of working the cattle and the fields just to keep a family from starvation. The Crean household was no different and fathers often called on their sons from an early age to help them eek out a living.
When Tom was 12 years old, he left the nearby Brackluin school to work the farm with his father. In 1893, after a series of petty arguments with his father, the latest seeing him take the blame for allowing cattle to stray from their field, young Tom Crean would make a momentous decision. Like many young Irishmen of his era, Tom Crean decided to join the Navy.
After a hard apprenticeship training under a strict naval regime, one of Tom Crean’s earliest naval assignments was to the Pacific Station in South America. There, whilst serving aboard HMS Royal Arthur, he was thrust into an international incident that, for a time, threatened to escalate into a wider conflict. Fortunately, the incident, in Corinto, Nicaragua, ended peacefully. Tom Crean returned to England continuing to build up his arsenal of naval skills at shore training establishments.
It was later, whilst stationed in New Zealand aboard HMS Ringarooma, that 24-year-old Crean’s life would unexpectedly take another turn and one that would lead him to a place that can be considered his second home, Antarctica.
Robert F Scott, was a naval captain with big ambitions and his ship, Discovery, was soon to embark on a mission to explore the last great continent. The misfortune of one sailor led directly to the fortune of another in the shape of Tom Crean. The year was 1901 and a deckhand short after the death of a crew member led Scott to recruit Crean for his journey South.
The Discovery expedition was famed as one that laid the marker for future attempts to break the records for reaching farthest South yet it was also noted for being the one that was to divide the two leaders.
Shackleton had been returned home by his commander Captain Scott after taking ill whilst attempting the record. It was a decision Shackleton found hard to bear. His relationship with Scott was to sour from the moment he was ordered home.
Left scarred and discredited from his orders to return home Shackleton, decided to go it alone. After raising private funding he returned to Antarctica aboard Nimrod in 1907 to attempt the ultimate goal of reaching the South Pole itself. It was a goal that evaded him but he did achieve the coveted record of reaching the farthest South.
In this to and fro game in the quest for Southern Glory, the next attempt to reach the Pole fell to Scott and the first person he confided in was Tom Crean. The Terra Nova expedition set sail in 1910 and aboard ship were a number of Polar veterans including Tom Crean and his friend Edgar Evans. Scotts second in command was Lieutenant Teddy Evans and the name Evans would become one associated with Tom Crean for very different reasons.
The Terra Nova expedition was to become the first of Tom Crean’s three journeys to Antarctica that would document his heroism. It was whilst returning from a mission to establish stores at One Ton Depot that would prove vital for Scotts attempt to reach the Pole, that Crean’s disregard for his own safety led him to summon help for two colleagues who were left stranded on an ice floe.
Crean was part of a three-man team who camped overnight on the ice barrier when without warning, save the crunching sounds of the breaking ice, the three men beecame trapped on an isolated mound of ice. Whilst killer whales circled the floes eying up their next meal, it was Crean who seized the initiative, jumping from floe to floe and navigating his way up the frozen cliff face in order to save his two colleagues.
His subsequent display of heroism would come at a time when Crean valued his chances of becoming among the pioneers to negotiate their way to the South Pole.
Of the final eight men that reached within 170 miles of the pole after an arduous trek across Antarctica’s unforgiving terrain, five would be chosen to basque in the glory of being the first to reach the South Pole. Scott chose to disappoint his second in command Lieutenant Evans, William Lashly, another hardy polar veteran and a tearful Tom Crean. As Crean waved goodbye to his colleagues little was he to know that it would be the last time he would see them alive again.
At this point in the story, the news publications and history books, quite naturally, focus their attention on Scott’s failed attempt to be the first human to plant a flag at the South Pole. It was though, an accolade that would fall to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
Another story of great heroism was being played out in the opposite direction as the three men of the returning party made their way back to Hut Point.
The hero of the piece again happened to be Tom Crean and in a feat described as being the ‘single most heroic act of bravery in the history of polar exploration’, Tom Crean undertook a solo march in worsening conditions in order to save the life of Lieutenant Teddy Evans. Evans had contacted scurvy with approximately 100 miles of their 700-mile journey still to trek.
Despite ordering his bearers to carry on without him, Crean and Lashly, who were now hauling their patient on a sled, continued and refused their commanders orders to leave him behind. When Evans order the two men to continue and leave him to his fate, they refused and Crean said to his dying commander: “If you are to go out sir, then we’ll all go out together”
35 miles from the safety of the expedition depot, Evans condition worsened to the extent that his carriers believed he couldn’t survive the remainder of the trip unless he had urgent medical treatment. It was decided that Crean, with one stick of chocolate and three biscuits for a ration, would take on the task to reach Hut point, by the fastest means possible – this he did, on foot.
In 18 hours and after an arduous march in ever worsening conditions, an exhausted Tom Crean summoned the help required to save his commander. His feat was to earn him and his colleague Lashly, who’d stayed behind to nurse the critical patient, the Albert Medal for their remarkable display of bravery.
The safe return and recovery of one Evans was offset by the loss of another, his friend Taff Evans who, with Scott and the rest of the Polar party, had lost their lives on the return trip from the pole. Edgar “Taff” Evans had earlier confided in his friend Crean about his ambitions on his return to the Gower Peninsula. He was to buy a public house and name it The South Pole. Although not documented, I believe Tom Crean’s gesture to his great friend came in the form of The South Pole Inn, he himself opened in 1929, nine years after his retirement from the Navy.
After the Terra Nova expedition, Crean returned home and back to Naval duty but his days in Antarctica were not yet over and in 1916, the continent he knew better than most men on the planet, once again came calling. This time the request came from a former colleague on the Discovery and Scott’s rival, Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton, unlike Scott, was from a merchant navy background and despite the fact he knew of Crean’s strengths from their time together on the Discovery expedition, he’d also now become aware of the remarkable feats Crean. It’s clear that Shackleton valued Crean foremost among the crew he would recruit for his latest journey aboard Endurance in an attempt to be the first to traverse the Antarctic continent overland.
There was a rival for Crean’s services and it’s a story documented in the book.
Records, glory, and adventure were in Shackleton’s blood and the two men shared a country of birth yet hailed from opposite ends of the class spectrum. That mattered little though and they enjoyed a close relationship of mutual trust, loyalty, and fondness.
The expedition struck trouble almost immediately when the ship became lodged in the thick continental ice. Despite the best efforts of the crew to free her, plans had to be made to abandon Endurance at a time when contact with the outside world in a time of emergency wasn’t an option.
Their mission had now, inadvertently, become a fight for survival as the 28 man crew hauled provisions and 3 lifeboats across Antarctica. In their wake, the Endurance had succumbed to the vice-like grip of the ice and broken, she sank beneath to her icy grave witnessed at a distance by her crew.
After an arduous, debilitating trek across shifting continental ice floes that scuppered their march for survival, an opportunity arose to man the lifeboats and head to the nearest destination, Elephant Island.
Skippering the three lifeboats, were the three men destined, through a failed expedition, to enter the history books for their unparalleled feats of heroism, in one of the greatest survival and rescue tales ever documented. Shackleton skippered the largest of the three lifeboats, The James Caird, Worsley skippered The Dudley Docker and the smallest of the boats, consequently the most difficult to navigate, The Stancombe Wills, was skippered by Tom Crean.
After a five-day sea journey, the weary crew, who’d been subjected to the ravages of Antarctica’s unforgiving landscape and drenched by frozen sea waters, arrived exhausted on a small inlet on the remote and isolated, Elephant Island.
With little prospect of rescue, it was decided almost immediately that a self-rescue mission had to be undertaken and Shackleton chose Tom Crean among his crew of six in the adapted James Caird lifeboat in an ambitious, seemingly impossible, journey across the notoriously perilous Southern Sea, in an attempt to reach South Georgia, where civilisation in the form of the whaling station in Grytviken, lay in wait as there only hope of survival. The rest of the crew would await rescue on Elephant Island using the upturned remaining two lifeboats as their only shelter.
Through skilled navigation and after a 14-day journey of unimaginable sufferances, the James Caird and its crew of six miraculously reached South Georgia but they landed at the opposite end of an island whose uncharted terrain had never before been traversed. Their journey so far had been one without precedence in the annals of human endurance and the theme would continue as the only hope left was to take a route across the mountainous glaciers that form the landscape of the island.
The task fell to Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean and in a three-day crossing of a hostile mountainous terrain with dangers at every turn made without navigation maps, the three men reached the sanctuary of the whaling station. Unrecognisable to men they knew after leaving Stromness Bay some 18 months earlier, they were met with disbelief at their feats and tears for their ordeal.
The three main protagonists, Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean had surpassed what most believe was humanly possible in their resolve to save lives regardless of the potential risk to themselves. It was a characteristic that was no stranger to Tom Crean, he’d done it before and under different circumstances,his epic feats of rescue would have seen his name enter the history books but the Ireland he returned to was a changed country desperate to break free of British rule.
Crean’s retirement from the Navy in 1920, was an enforced one after he suffered a bad fall and his pension allowed him to build a business in licensed premises he and his wife operated from a house they’d purchased in his home village of Annascaul. No doubt his friend Edgar Evans, Captain Scott and all his Antarctic colleagues were uppermost in his thoughts when he later named his pub, The South Pole Inn.
In retirement he led an uneventful life running the pub with his wife whilst bringing up three daughters, one of whom, Kate died at the tender age of 4. He retired also from mentioning or talking about his life as an explorer and many say that this was because he’d served the British, the same power who’d employed the hated Black and Tans to brutally uphold their authority on the people of Ireland. In truth, his reticence to speak of his past was most likely down to the fact that very few people on the planet could associate with what a human had to endure in a continent where extreme temperatures left their mark only on those who’d been there. Bragging was a trait so far removed from Tom Crean, it would be unthinkable for him to have ever spoken highly of his own achievements.
In 1938, Tom Crean passed away at the age of 61 and his funeral was the largest Annascaul had ever seen. He’d contracted peritonitis after having to travel to Cork via ambulance when denied a life-saving appendectomy in the Tralee hospital closest to his home because no doctor capable of performing the operation was on duty when he was admitted.
Ironically, in his own hour of need, there was no one to save him.
Tom Crean lies buried a few kilometres from the South Pole Inn, in a family tomb he built with his own hands and his memory is served across the road from the pub where his statue, a privately funded bronze sculpture, is the only recognition in honour of this brave Irishman in his country of birth.
My book, Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero, has been as much a labour of love for me as it has a passion to see Tom Crean awarded the recognition he deserves from the country he loved.
For two years I researched in some of the world’s most respected archives to be able to chronicle the story of Tom Crean and in doing so I’ve unearthed a substantial amount of new information on this great man. I’m proud of what I’ve transcribed and the great feedback from those who’ve read the book, confirms my belief that his story will inspire others as it has me.