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Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book

An Ordinary Man with an Extraordinary Story

If it were a story of fiction it would be considered a little far fetched but the true life story of Tom Crean needs no embellishment as what you read here is incredibly real.

Born on the 16th February 1877, Tom Crean was the seventh of 11 children, (8 boys, 3 girls), born to Patrick and Catherine Crean, a mile or so outside of the village of Annascaul in the townland of Gortacurraun on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry.

Like many families in 19th century Ireland under the governance of the British Empire, the Crean’s lived a hand to mouth existence that had little prospect of improving. By the time Tom Crean reached his teens he made a decision to escape the misery and poverty that surrounded him. An argument with his father, after Tom had allowed cattle to stray into a potato field, led to Tom following the example of many boys in the area seeking a way out of the poverty and misery that surrounded them.

Aged almost 16½-years-old, in July of 1893, Tom Crean joined the British Navy and throughout a harsh apprenticeship under strict naval protocol he progressed through the ratings from a Boy 2nd Class to, in 1895, the status of an Ordinary Seaman, an automatic rise in status for sailors who’d reached their 18th birthday.

Among those significant events hitherto missing from accounts of Crean’s life, was his first sea-going assignment. It was a time in which 18-year-old Crean was thrust into an international territorial dispute that could have resulted in armed conflict. It occurred in April 1895 when orders were given for the flagship of the Pacific Station, HMS Royal Arthur, to form a blockade in the port of Corinto in Nicaragua.

For the young Tom Crean it was a baptism of fire in which he was likely to have been among the detachment of men who were instructed to occupy the town. Fortunately the stand-off ended peacefully after the Nicaraguans paid a £15,000 indemnity to the British and the flotilla of three Naval ships headed out of port.

A topsy-turvy ride of promotions followed by demotions indicate that Crean very probably rued his decision to join the Navy. For a man whose legend would be formed in the saving of lives, the close call in Nicaragua, where the possibility of taking a life was very real, appeared to have weighed heavy on his mind.

After his return to England in April 1898 and for the following two years Crean would build up his arsenal of skills at a number of shore based Navy establishments.

In early 1900 he would learn that his next assignment was to take him to the Australian Station where he would join a squadron of ships protecting the interests of the British Empire’s territories.

After a two month voyage aboard HMS Diana in which he was one of 500 recruits being ferried to Australia, he joined the crew of the cruiser, HMS Ringarooma, in April 1900. His time on Ringarooma would see him partake in missions across the whole region of Oceania. It was an eventful period and it was another part of his timeline that had never before been examined. Crean joined Ringarooma as a Petty Officer 2nd Class yet would be demoted to Able Seaman in December 1900, a month after Ringarooma’s return from a three-month gruelling mission which had taken its toll on the crew. Whatever Crean’s misdemeanour was, it is something we are left to speculate upon.

In December, 1901, an opportunity arose that would see him head south to the largely undiscovered continent of Antarctica. It was the first of three Antarctic expeditions the Kerry man would undertake over the course of his career. Aboard the ship, RRS Discovery, Crean would earn a reputation of being a solid, dependable and trustworthy member of a group that included men who would become celebrities of the age. Men such as Ernest Shackleton and the ship’s commander Robert Falcon Scott. A proud Irishman, Crean’s patriotism on this his first expedition would be displayed with pride as the Irish Ensign flew proudly on the pennant attached to his sled.

At a time when a man’s status was measured by his wealth and upbringing, for ‘lower decks’ men like Tom Crean, a barrier already existed that would see only those from the upper reaches of society being honoured and acclaimed for their achievements. For Crean, an unassuming man who actively avoided the spotlight, it would be a more than acceptable consequence of his remarkable story.

On his second expedition under the same commander, Robert Falcon Scott, Tom Crean would establish himself as a lifesaver extraordinaire yet his amazing feats would remain firmly in the shadows while the misfortunes of his leader would be spread across front pages the world over.

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book
Crean shortly before his first expedition to Antarctica

Tom Crean’s first expedition to Antarctica — RRS Discovery

Robert F Scott, was a naval commander with big ambitions and his ship, RRS Discovery, was soon to embark on a mission to explore the last great continent. The desertion of one sailor led directly to the recruitment of another in the shape of Tom Crean. The year was 1901 and short of a deckhand when a sailor fled the ship after raising his hand to a Petty Officer, Scott would recruit Tom Crean from HMS Ringarooma to join the crew for their journey South.

The Discovery expedition was noted as one that laid the marker for future attempts to break the record for reaching farthest South yet it was also noted for being the one that was to divide two leaders.

Shackleton had been returned home by his commander Captain Scott after taking ill whilst attempting to reach the South Pole. 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.

For a short period on his first expedition, Tom Crean could revel in the glory of being a member of the sledging team that held the prized ‘Farthest South’ record. It was however, a short lived, month-long accomplishment surpassed by his Scott, Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton.

Crean’s time on Discovery introduced him to colleagues who, like him, would become Antarctic veterans. Together they would share historic dramas that lay ahead in future expeditions.

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book
Tom Crean, 5th from right on the back row, with the Southern sledge party on the Discovery expedition, shortly before his short-lived entry to the record books

The Fateful Terra Nova Expedition — Crean’s Second Journey to Antarctica

In the 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. Smarting from Shackleton claiming the furthest south prize on the Nimrod expedition between 1907–1909, and aware that the ultimate prize of being the first human to reach the Pole may evade him unless he acted with haste, Scott once again prepared to sail south.

The Terra Nova expedition set sail in 1910 and aboard the ship were a number of former Discovery colleagues including a Welsh powerhouse, Edgar Evans, a good friend of Crean and a man of similar stature and from a similar background. Scott’s second-in-command was Lieutenant Teddy Evans and the name Evans would become one forever associated with Tom Crean for different reasons.

The Terra Nova expedition was to become the first of Tom Crean’s journeys to Antarctica that would document his feats of heroism. It was whilst returning from a journey to establish stores at One Ton Depot, a mission that would prove vital for Scott’s attempt to reach the Pole, that Crean’s disregard for his own safety led him to summon help for two colleagues and four of the expedition horses who were left stranded on an ice floe.

Crean was part of a three-man team who camped overnight on the ice barrier when, with little warning, the crunching sounds of the breaking ice trapped the Polar party on an isolated floe. Whilst killer whales circled the floes eying up their next meal, Crean seized the initiative, jumping from floe to floe and navigating his way up the frozen cliff face in order to bring about the safe rescue of his two colleagues. Sadly, three of the horses were victims of the drama.

Crean’s subsequent display of heroism would come at a time when he valued his chances of becoming among the pioneers to make their way to the South Pole.

Of the final eight men who’d reached within 170 miles of the pole after an arduous trek across Antarctica’s unforgiving terrain, five would form the party chosen to bask in the glory of being the first humans 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 did he know that it would be the last time he would see them alive.

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 an accolade that would fall to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Scott’s return journey would cost him and his four colleagues their lives. Little known was the story of great heroism that had played out as the three men of the last supporting party, Tom Crean, William Lashly and Lieutenant Teddy Evans made their way back to Hut Point.

The hero of the piece again happened to be Tom Crean and in a venture described as being ‘one of the unforgettable classics among polar feats’, 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 800-mile journey still to trek.  In worsening health, Evans ordered the two men to forge on and leave him to his fate but they steadfastly refused. Evans later recalled Crean’s words: “If you are to go out sir, then we’ll all go out together” 

On February 18th 1912, when the men were 35 miles from the safety of the expedition base at Hut Point, Evans condition worsened to the extent that his carriers believed he wouldn’t survive without urgent medical attention. It was decided that Crean, with just one stick of chocolate and three biscuits for a meager ration, would take on the task to reach Hut Point by the fastest means possible — this he did, on foot and without skis.

In 18-hours and after an arduous march in ever worsening conditions, an exhausted Tom Crean slumped through the door of the expedition hut to alert the expedition doctor, Atkinson, of the urgency of his mission. Astonishingly, even after his energy-sapping ordeal, Crean requested to accompany the rescue party. Unsurprisingly, Atkinson dismissed Crean’s overtures and set off with the Russian dog handler, Dmitry, to rescue Lashly and Evans.

Crean’s 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 yet the lifesaving episode would take a back seat to the fatal consequences that beset their captain, Scott and their returning colleagues.

Scott had reached the Pole only to find he’d been beaten to the prize by a rival Norwegian team under the leadership of Roald Amundsen. Dejected, Scott’s team headed back to Hut Point but it was a journey, due to worsening conditions and lessening food supplies, that would cost them their lives.

The tragedy would populate newsfeeds the world over and virtual anonymity would become the reward for Crean’s selfless acts of bravery. It suited the unassuming Kerry man and his strong aversion to being in the spotlight.

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book
Crean, (left), and Edgar Evans sewing reindeer sleeping bags on the Terra Nova Expedition.

Endurance Expedition — The Greatest Rescue in Maritime History

After the Terra Nova expedition, Crean returned home and back to Naval duty but his days in Antarctica were not yet over and in 1914, the continent he knew better than most men on the planet, once again came calling. This time the request came from a former Discovery colleague and Scott’s great rival, now a knight of the realm, Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton, unlike Scott, was from a merchant navy background and the lack of naval protocol and class divisions would make this expedition a more relaxed affair.

Shackleton was all too aware of Crean’s strengths from their time together on the Discovery expedition, yet now after hearing of Crean’s heroic acts while serving under Scott, recruiting his fellow Irishman for the next journey south, was a priority.

It’s clear that Shackleton valued Crean foremost among the crew he wanted to join him aboard Endurance in his attempt to become the first to traverse the Antarctic continent overland. There was though, a rival for Crean’s services and it’s another fascinating story missing from previous accounts of Crean’s life.

Joseph Foster Stackhouse, leader of the proposed 1914 British Antarctic expedition scheduled to depart at a similar time to Shackleton, had earmarked Crean to act as his Boatswain.

Stackhouse lost out to Shackleton for the services of the Kerry man after his expedition was postponed. Sadly it would never get off the ground as Stackhouse met with a premature and heroic end while a passenger of the doomed liner Lusitania in May 1915.

Records, glory, and adventure were in Shackleton’s blood and although he and Crean shared a country of birth, they hailed from opposite ends of the class spectrum. It mattered little though and they enjoyed a close relationship of mutual trust, loyalty, and fondness. Crean stepped aboard Endurance with the rank of Second Officer and in the knowledge that this time he would be in the group of men making the record attempt.

The expedition struck trouble soon after leaving the whaling island of South Georgia 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 wasn’t an option. Their mission had now, inadvertently, become a fight for survival as the 28 man crew hauled provisions and three lifeboats across the crevasses and ice mounds in their path In their wake, the Endurance had succumbed to the vice-like grip of the ice and broken, on 21st November 1915 she sank beneath to her icy grave witnessed from a distance, by her crew.

After an arduous, debilitating trek across shifting continental ice floes that hampered 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, the New Zealand born captain of the expedition, skippered The Dudley Docker and the smallest of the boats, consequently the most difficult to navigate, The Stancombe Wills, was headed up by Tom Crean.

After a difficult five-day journey, the weary crew, who’d negotiated their small boats through a mass of bergs and floes in their path, arrived exhausted on a small inlet on the remote and isolated, Elephant Island. Drenched by frozen sea waters they scrambled out of the boats and collapsed on the pebble beach. With little prospect of rescue it was decided almost immediately that a mission had to be undertaken if they were to have any chance of survival. For the journey Shackleton chose Tom Crean among his crew of six in the James Caird lifeboat, skilfully adapted for the voyage ahead by the expedition’s carpenter. It would be an ambitious, seemingly impossible, journey across the notoriously perilous Southern Ocean. Their destination was an attempt to reach South Georgia, where civilisation in the form of the whaling station, lay in wait as their only hope of survival. The 22-men who made up the remainder of Endurance’s crew would await rescue on Elephant Island using the remaining two lifeboats as their only shelter.

Through expert navigation and after a 14-day journey of unimaginable sufferances, the James Caird and its crew of six miraculously reached South Georgia on May 10th 1916 but they landed at the uninhabited side 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 South Georgia’s interior. The daunting task fell to Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean and at 3am on 19th May 1916, by the light of the moon, they set out.

In a three-day crossing of a hostile, mountainous terrain with dangers at every turn, a journey 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, the story of the three men was met with sheer disbelief of the ordeals they’d been subjected to. Among the hardy whalers, who congregated to hear the tale, tears were shed as they imagined the hardships.

Over the course of the following four months, three attempts to reach their stranded colleagues were doomed to failure. On 30th August 1916, the fourth attempt at rescue broke through the ice to reach the marooned men at Elephant Island. Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton manned the lifeboats launched from the Chilean tug, Yelcho and headed to the beach where their relieved colleagues were waving and cheering  them from the shore.

Within an hour they were aboard and headed to the safety of the Chilean port of Punta Arenas. The three main protagonists, Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean had pulled off what most believed was an impossible task.

In their resolve to save the lives of their comrades they had completely disregarded 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.

Tom Crean’s return to the Navy would see him return to Ireland where he was assigned to HMS Colleen. He served much of his time at Bere Island, County Cork where he was remembered fondly by those he befriended.

In the final act of World War One, Crean would join the crew of HMS Inflexible, on November 14th 1918. Another significant posting missing from previous account of his life, Crean, now a Warrant Officer, was aboard as the Grand Fleet escorted the surrendered German High Seas fleet into Scapa Flow.

His penultimate assignment would take him to the opposite polar region, where Crean served an active role aboard HMS Fox as part of the North Russian Expeditionary force whose mission it was to prevent the advance of the Bolsheviks in the wake of the First World War. In the journey from Murmansk to Archangel in May 1919, Tom Crean would encounter a familiar problem as Fox became icebound in the frozen waters of the Barents Sea. While the ship was ice-locked, one of the crew, recalled in a letter how Crean gave valuable instruction to the men on how to capture a seal. It was among the many survival tactics Crean had become expert in during his time in Antarctica. Their ordeal came to an end when two icebreakers freed the ship and she made her way to Archangel.

Crean’s later duties saw him leave the ship on a number of occasions, leading a party of men up the northern Dvina River and his role was, more than likely, to resupply the forces attempting to hold back the Bolsheviks. It would be a time when Crean would also be re-united with Frank Worsley, captain of the Endurance, who joined the ship in June 1919. No doubt the two men would share with the crew a tale of rescue and survival the like of which they could never have imagined possible.

The campaign in Northern Russia was brought to an end after a public and media outcry at the costs, both in money and in lives, over five hundred of which were lost. For Tom Crean, his time in Russia, albeit while serving in a supporting role, was his second experience in a field of conflict while in the employ of the Royal Navy.

On 27th September 1919, the flotilla headed home, having fulfilled its duties and evacuated allied forces in the area.

Crean took up his final navy posting on 21st November 1919 aboard HMS Hecla, the depot ship and special torpedo vessel based at Portsmouth. His retirement from the Navy in 1920, was an enforced one after being diagnosed with Retinitis. Eyes that had been subjected to the fiercest blizzards and coldest winds on earth were the cause of his final farewell after a 27-year career, 7 years of which he’d spent in the Antarctic Circle.

The Ireland he returned to was a changed country desperate to break free of British rule. There was little appetite to pay tribute to a man whose amazing feats of bravery took place thousands of miles from the battles being waged to liberate Ireland from Crown governance.

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book
Renowned animal-lover Tom Crean, with four of the puppies born onboard Endurance. An image by Frank Hurley in 1915.

Retirement and the ironic twist of fate in his hour of need

In September 1917, Crean would marry a local girl, Ellen Herlihy, who he’d known since childhood. His Navy pension had allowed him to build a business in licensed premises he and his wife operated from a house they’d purchased back in 1916 in his home village of Annascaul.

Crean’s mindset had also changed as he witnessed the atrocities being carried out in his homeland. Just a month after his retirement, he joined thousands of people who’d descended upon the nearby town of Tralee in a rally to protest against the maltreatment of Republican prisoners in Dublin’s Mountjoy jail. The prisoners had taken to a hunger strike and Crean’s presence at the rally was reported in the news editions as he stood shoulder to shoulder with his compatriots. In a display of unity over two days of a torrential downpour the crowds would help secure the release of the prisoners.

Less that two weeks later, Crean’s brother Cornelius became another victim of the Tan War in a conflict that divided family loyalties across the whole of Ireland. Cornelius, a sergeant in the Cork RIC, had been targeted by Republicans who shot him in an ambush near to Ballinspittle, County Cork.

In the years following the War for Independence and the Civil War, Tom Crean led a largely uneventful life running the pub with his wife whilst bringing up three daughters, one of whom, Kate, plagued by illnesses in her short time, died at the tender age of 3-years-old. It was perhaps Kate he referred to when declining Shackleton’s request that he join him on a fourth expedition to Antarctica in 1921. Crean refused the offer stating: “I have a long-haired pal now” as he made the decision any father would have made to remain with his sick child.

He retired also from elaborating much on 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, Crean’s 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 all extremities 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.

No doubt his friend Edgar Evans, Captain Scott and all his Antarctic colleagues were uppermost in his thoughts when, after completing major renovations to the property in 1929, Crean named his pub, South Pole Inn.

Edgar, the first of Scott’s party to perish on the return journey from the South Pole, had often expressed a desire to open a similar pub on the Gower Peninsula on his return. The fame of being among the first men to reach the pole would, he said, have drawn in the visitors to his new enterprise. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

The South Pole Inn, Annascaul, is a place still today, where a growing fanbase of Crean pay their respects to the remarkable man whose pictures adorn the walls of a busy tourist attraction.

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book

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 the additional 70 miles 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.

In a sad twist of irony, in his own hour of need, there was no one to come to the rescue for the lifesaver extraordinaire.

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 a short distance from the pub where his statue, a privately funded bronze sculpture, is the only token of recognition in honour of this brave Irishman in his country of birth.

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book
The last known photograph taken of Tom Crean

Researching and writing Crean’s Life Story

My book, Crean — The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero, has been as much a labour of love for me as it has been a passion to see Tom Crean awarded the recognition he deserves from the country he loved.

For almost three years I researched at 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 never before published about this incredible man.

To discover the complete story, a special Kerry-made version of the biography is currently on offer for £12.99 + p&p here – signed copies of this version are available if requested.

The new hardback version, released on March 24th, 2020 is available only through online retailers such as Amazon where there is also a lighter weight softback version available. See here for more details.

Images used in the compilation of this post are as follows:

Colourised images with kind permission of Matt Loughrey of https://www.facebook.com/mycolorfulpast/

Image of Southern depot sledge party, Taken on 30 October 1902. The Royal Society – Catalogue reference NAE/5/612

South Pole Inn, Annascaul. Image taken by Jurij Pivka

Tom Crean  -  From Boy 2nd Class to Hero 1st Class Tom Crean Book

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