Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer
Thomas Crean, Judith Lee Hallock, PO Box 296, Lake Grove, NY 11755, USA ABSTRACT.
Born in Annascaul, Ireland in1877, Tom Crean enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1893 and was serving in New Zealand when Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition passed through en route for McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. As further British expeditions, Scott’s British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition, in which he sledged to the polar plateau, and Shackleton’s Imperial Tran-Antarctic (Endurance) Expedition, in which he was given charge of the dog teams, drifted on the pack ice of the Weddell Sea and took part in the epic open-boat journey to South Georgia.
Introduction to Tom Crean Irish Explorer
Tom Crean is a relatively neglected Antarctic explorer. Historical accounts of the expeditions in which he participated, written by officers or scientists, have tended either to overlook him or to lump his activities together with those of the other seamen.
But a study of the literature with Crean in mind shows him to be a figure who grew in stature and influence with each of his expeditions. Crean served with three British expeditions early in the present century, twice with Robert F. Scott in 1901-04 and 1910-1913, and finally with Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1914-16. Á young Able Seaman in the first, he served a useful apprenticeship. Gaining maturity in the second expedition, he was ready to take full responsibility and make major contributions to the third, when as a seasoned explorer his experience contributed much to the safety and survival of his companions.
A native of Annascaul County Kerry, Ireland, Tom Crean enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1893 as a Boy 2nd Class. Over the next eight years he had a checkered career of both advancement and demotion. By 1901 he was an Able Seaman in HMS Ringarooma, part of the Royal Navy’s New Zealand Squadron, based in the South Island. There he volunteered for secondment to serve as replacement crew in Scott’s expedition ship Discovery, and so began his distinguished career in polar exploration.
Crean’s Service in ‘Discovery’
Commander Robert Scott called into Lyttleton, New Zealand, late in1901 to refit his ship Discovery and replenish his crew. As Discovery left Lyttleton just before Christmas to call at Port Chalmers for coal, a young seaman, Charles Bonner, fell to his death from the top of the mainmast. In his published account of the expedition, Scott attributed Bonner’s fall to ‘a moment of madness’ (Scott 1905, 84). But in an undated entry in his manuscript journal (Scott 1901-04, 1:131-32), Scott claimed that another seaman had given Bonner a bottle of whiskey while he was at the mast-head: ‘It can scarcely be doubted that this had its effect on the tragedy which shortly followed.’
Crean’s good fortune in joining Discovery is generally attributed directly to Bonner’s death. However, Scott was already four men short in his crew, and had taken steps to seek naval recruits from the New Zealand squadron. Bonner died on 21 December 1901; Crean’s assignment (technically to HMS President for loan to Discovery) was dated 10 December, predating the accident by 11 days (1). Scott’s journal (Scott1901-04, 1: 131-32) refers to the replacement of four men, of whom Crean and another came from HMS Ringarooma.
‘I like the look of these… two’, wrote Scott, ‘and think they will do well.’
References to Crean during the Discovery expedition are few, but the records show him frequently assigned to sledge teams. Sledging, mainly by man hauling, was the sole means of transport over land, the only way to explore the continent, and vital for the expedition. It was often difficult, backbreaking work, but Crean seems to have taken to it readily. His first sledging experience came as soon as Discovery tied up alongside the Antarctic barrier or ice shelf. While Scott experimented with a hydrogen gas balloon, Crean and five other men took equipment and a day’s provisions and sledged south across the following afternoon (Armitage 1902). Later Cream accompanied Lieutenant Michael Barne on three exploration outings and a depot-laying journey (Barne 1903).
In all, Crean sledged a total of 149 days, more than most other expedition members (2).Scott made one additional reference to Crean. In February 1904 Discovery was being loaded in preparation for departure. ‘Crean fell…[through the ice] twice yesterday and as he cannot swim had a fairly narrow shave on the last occasion – luckily he kept still in the break until a line could be got to him.’ Scott remarked that Crean was ‘very cheerful about it.’(Scott 1901-04, 4: 38).
Though his name appeared rarely in Discovery expedition records, Tom Crean obviously proved himself adaptable to Antarctic conditions, and made his mark with Scott. He was a strong sledger, a hard worker, and a cheerful companion. In recording Crean’s award of the Royal Geographical Society’s Antarctic Silver Medal, Clements Markham noted that he was ‘An excellent man, tall with a profile like the Duke of Wellington, universally liked’ (2). Scott too clearly recognized Crean’s value. In a recommendation for promotion to Petty Officer First Class, effective 9 September 1904, Scott wrote of him: ‘Specially recommended for continuous good conduct and meritorious service throughout the period of the Antarctic Expedition 1901-1904.’(3) Scott also invited Crean to serve as his coxswain (1), and when he planned his next expedition he wrote to Crean: ‘I have applied for your services for the Expedition, and I think the Admiralty will let you come… I shall want you at the ship to help fitting her out.’ (4)Crean was one of few Discovery veterans chosen.
With Scott’s polar expedition
Crean joined the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913 in May 1910 as a seaman in the Terra Nova (1,5). In this expedition he achieved greater prominence. On 24 January depot-laying party. Within a week E.L. Atkinson, the medical officer, became disabled, and Crean was assigned to remain behind to care for him, On 2 February Scott wrote,’ Atkinson and Crean remained behind. Very hard on the latter… I am very sorry for him’ (Scott1910-12, 3: 20). While the rest of the party went on, Crean was engaged in various activities. ‘Crean will manage to rescue some more of the forage from the Barrier edge,’ Scott recorded (1910-12, 3: 20), and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, assistant zoologist on the expedition, wrote,’…worse still from his [Crean's] point of view, dig a hole downwards into the Barrier for scientific observations-’ (Cherry-Garrard 1970: 154). When Scott returned twenty days later, he noted, ‘Crean had carried up a good deal of fodder and some seal meat was found buried.’(Scott 1910-12, 3:57). No mention was made of the hole.
Crean’s disappointment at missing the first sledge journey was soon mitigated by an exciting episode. On 28 February, following a depot trek to Corner Camp, Scott ordered Crean to accompany Cherry-Garrard and Lieutenant Henry Robertson (‘Birdie’) Bowers in taking four ponies across the sea ice to Hut Point. Although the sea ice had been reported solid, after travelling several miles the party discovered it to be broken and treacherous; so they marched back until the exhausted ponies would go no further. When they camped down for the night, and Bowers finally prepared a hot meal, he mistook a small bag of curry powder for the cocoa bag and made cocoa with that. ‘Crean,’Bowers reported, ‘drank his right down before discovering anything wrong.’(Bowers 1910-13, 2:76-77).
The next day proved more difficult than the first. At 4:30am Bowers awoke to find the ice had broken up completely. Determined not to lose the supplies and ponies, the three men worked their way from floe to floe, moving the ponies and stores with them. After six hours they neared an ice cliff that represented safety, Crean behaving all the while ‘as if he had done this sort of thing often before.’ However, the ice became so fragmented that it proved impossible to proceed with the equipment and animals. Still unwilling to leave anything behind, Bowers accepted Crean’s offer to go for help (Bowers 1910-13,2: 82, 87).
Bowers and Cherry-Garrard watched as Crean slowly made his way to the ice cliff. ‘Crean was hours moving to and fro before I had the satisfaction of seeing him up on the Barrier,’ bowers recorded.
‘[He] had got up into the Barrier at great risk to himself as I gathered afterwards from his very modest account.’ (Bowers1910-13, 2: 88-89).
Crean’s ‘modest account,’ as recorded by Cherry-Garrard, had Crean jumping from floe to floe: ‘I was pretty lively… there were lots of penguins and seals and killers [whales] knocking round that day.’ Crean described how he crossed the last of the floes and scaled the Barrier, helped by a ski stick:
It was a sloping piece… very near touching the Barrier, in one corner of it only. Well, I dug a hole with the ski stick in the side of the Barrier for a step for one foot, and when I finished the hole I straddled my legs and got one on the floe and one in the side of the Barrier. Then I got the stick and dug it in on top and I gave myself a bit of a spring and got my outside leg up top. It was a terrible place but I thought it was the only chance. I made straight for Safety Camp and they must have spotted me…[Tryggve] Gran… Scott and [Edward] Wilson and [L.E.G.] Oates met me a long way out: I explained how it happened. [Scott] was worried-looking a bit, but he never said anything out of the way. He told Oates to inside and light the primus and give me a meal.’(Cherry-Garrard 1970: 196-197).
Crean returned to the floe area with Scott and Oates, and took a hand in rescuing Bowers and Cherry-Garrard along with the sledges of stores. The four ponies were lost, despite the desperate efforts of the men to save them.
To the polar plateau
ON 1 November 1911Crean, leading the pony Bones, left Cape Evans for the start of the South Polar journey (Scott 1913). Sixteen men started out, but as the trek progressed the ponies were shot and groups of men turned back when they were no longer needed to haul supplies. Returning parties were not predetermined and no one knew who would be selected for the final push to the pole.
Man-hauling on Christmas Day in a team with Seaman William Lashly, Lieutenant E. R. G. (‘Teddy’) Evans and ‘Birdie’ Bowers, Crean was jerked backward off his feet when Lashly fell ‘to the length of his harness and the trace’ into a crevasse. Crean lay helpless with his harness and trace jammed under the sledge. Bowers reported that he and Teddy Evans freed Crean, and the three of them hauled Lashly up. It was Lashly’s birthday;’Crean wished me many happy returns of the day,’ he noted, ‘and of course I thanked him politely and the others laughed.’(Reported by Cherry-Garrard 1922: 429-31).
The blow came on 3 January 1912; When Scott told Crean, Evans and Lashly that they would turn back the next day, while Bowers was selected to join the polar party. The decision created both disappointment and shock. For the polar party it ultimately proved fatal, but the returning group too were heavily handicapped: of the three men now hauling on a sledge intended for four, Lashly and Evans had already pulled over 300 miles further than the rest of the party, and Evans was suffering with early stages of scurvy. Scott’s decision has been roundly criticized by polar historians. Quarter main (1967:264) points out that the returning party was asked to do more than its fair share of work; Limb and Cordingley (1982: 152) judge it ‘an extraordinary decision, quite overturning all expectation,’ Nevertheless, on the morning of 4 January 1912 Crean, Evans, and Lashly said goodbye to the polar party, and Scott noted in his diary, ‘Poor old Crean wept.’(Scott 1910-12, 2: 20).
The return journey soon became a struggle to survive. Evans realized that transferring Bowers had been a grave error, and he discussed the matter with Crean and Lashly. ‘No man was ever better served that I was by these two.’ (Evans 1948: 212). Time, he noted, was essential: the three of them ‘literally stole minutes and seconds from each day in order to add to our marches, but it was a fight for life.’
The race against time encouraged risks. Arriving at the Shackleton Icefalls, they decided to take themselves and the sledge over the falls rather than make a three-day march around. As they glissaded down an ice slope at an estimated sixty miles per hour, the sledge suddenly shot over a yawning crevasse. ‘I looked at Crean,’ wrote Evans, ‘ who raised his eyebrows as if to say, “What next?” ‘ A few days later the party used a narrow ice bridge to ease themselves and the sledge over a deep crevasse, a feat Crean later described: ‘We went along the crossbar to the H of hell.’ (Evans 1948: 215, 220).
Throughout the return journey Crean’s morale remained characteristically high. One evening Lashly wrote, ‘…old Tom is giving us a song while he is covering up the tent with snow… We none of us minds the struggle we have been through to attain the amount of success so far reached. It is all for the good of science, as Crean says.’ (Cherry-Garrard 1970: 450)
On 30 January Evans knew he was suffering from scurvy and in his own words his ‘prospects of winning through became duller day by day.’ At one point he fainted at the start of the march. ‘Crean and Lashly picked me up,’ Evans recalled, ‘and Crean thought I was dead. His hot tears fell on my face.’(Evans 1948226). Although Evans tried to persuade his two companions to leave him, they refused. Strapping him onto the sledge, they pulled him for days until, at Conner Camp, they could go no further. The party was now about thirty-five miles from Hut Point, the closest place they might find aid. It was impossible to leave Evans alone, so Crean set off by himself to summon help.
Crean’s’ recollection of the journey were recorded by Cherry-Garrard: He [Crean] started at 10 on Sunday morning and ‘the surface was good, very good surface indeed,’ and he went about sixteen miles before he stopped. Good clear weather. He had three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate. He stopped about five minutes, sitting on the snow, and ate two biscuits and the chocolate, and put one biscuit back in his pocket. He was quite warm and not sleepy.
He carried on just the same and passed Safety Camp on his right some five hours later, and thinks it was about twelve-thirty on Monday morning that he reached the edge of the Barrier, tired, getting cold in the back and the weather coming on thick. It was bright behind him but it was coming over the Bluff, and White Island was obscured though he could still see Cape Armitage and Castle Rock. He slipped a lot on the sea-ice, having several falls on to his back and it was getting thicker all the time. At the Barrier edge there was a light wind, now it was blowing a string wind, drifting and snowing. He made for the Gap and could not get up at first. To avoid taking a lot out of himself he started to go around Cape Armitage; but soon felt slush coming through his finnesko (he had no crampons) and made back for the Gap.
He climbed up to the left of the Gap and climbed along the side of Observation Hill to avoid the slippery ice. When he got to the top it was still clear enough to see vaguely the outline of Hut Point, but he could see neither sledges nor dogs. He sat down under the lee of Observation Hill, and finished his biscuit with a bit of ice: ‘I was very dry,’ -slid down the side of Observation Hill and thought at this time there was open water below, for he had no goggles on the march and his eyes were strained. But on getting near the ice foot he found it was polished sea-ice and made his way round to the hut under the ice foot. When he got close he saw the dogs and sledges on the sea-ice, and it was now blowing very hard with drift. He walked in and found the Doctor [Atkinson] and Dimitri [Gerof, the expert dog driver] inside. ‘He gave me a tot first, and then a feed of porridge – but I couldn’t keep it down: that’s the first time in my life that ever it happened, and it was the brandy that did it.’ (Cherry-Garrard 1970: 462-63).
Afterwards Crean expressed justifiable pride in his accomplishment. In a letter to a friend he described his ordeal: If anyone has earned fame, it is your own County Kerry man. There were three of us returning after being 140 miles from the Pole. Lieut. Evans was taken bad, and we had to drag him… miles on the sledge. Then we had 30 to go to our hut, and we were in a bad way regarding food, andour patient got very bad. 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. (6)
A year later, in another letter, Crean again referred to this episode: Comm. Evans… told me he would never forget me, or the other man. There is no doubt about it but we saved his life. You might tell Catherine my long legs did the trick for him. But I must say I was pretty well done for when I finished. (7)
Evans never forgot that Crean and Lashly had saved his life. He dedicated his book, South with Scott, to these two men with ‘the hearts of lions… It is little enough tribute that I have dedicated this book to these two gallant fellows,’ concluded Evans, who kept in touch with both men until they died (Evans1948: 218,229). For his role in rescuing Evans and Lashly, Crean received the Albert Medal for bravery, and the commendation of his companions: ‘Tom Crean’s lone march that day was one of the finest feats, an adventure that is an epic of splendid episodes.’(Ponting 1923:275).
Return to the Barrier
Concern for Scott’s polar party now occupied Crean’s thoughts. ‘It’s a fine record for us,’ Crean wrote a few days after he, Evans and Lashly were safe, ‘but I don’t know how things will turn out until the Captain returns. You may say for certain the pole is reached this time.’ (6) When Scott and his four companions failed to return, Crean spent a subdued winter with twelve other people at Cape Evans. During this time he and Lashly were included when the officers planned the search to determine, if possible, the fate of the polar party: ‘They were listened to with the greatest respect,’ noted E.R. Ellis (1969: 150)
In late October 1912 Crean and ten others left with mules and dogs in search of Scott’s group. Two weeks later, just eleven miles south of a large depot, Scott, Wilson, and Bowers were found dead in their tent. The diaries and records found with the bodies told their stories – of reaching the South Pole to find that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had bitter weather; and of the gradual weakening of the men until they could struggle no further. In a letter Crean wrote, ‘Its not much good for me to explain matters to you concerning our Sad Disaster for no doubt you will read it all in the papers.’ And, he confessed, ‘I must say I have lost a good friend.’ (7)
On this tragic expedition, as on his first, Crean proved that he had the temperament and strength for working in Antarctica. ‘Crean is perfectly happy,’ Scott had written, ‘ready to do anything and go anywhere, the harder the work, the better… I am greatly struck with the advantages of experience in Crean… for all work about camps.’(Scott 1913, 1: 434, 243). Captain Oates referred to Crean and another man as ‘splendid chaps and great friends of mine,’ (8) and Dr Wilson called Crean ‘a delightful creature.’(Huxley 1978: 275). Lieutenant Bowers had recorded that during a sledge journey on a very cold night, the party camped on a slope, Crean and Bowers sleeping head downhill to make two first-time sledgers more comfortable. ‘As a result Crean slipped half out of the tent and let in a cold stream of air under the valance which I was at a loss to account for until morning disclosed him thus – fast asleep of course it takes a lot to worry Capt. Scott’s coxswain.’ (Bowers 1910-13, 3:85-86). Tryggve Gran described Crean as ‘a man who wouldn’t have cared if he’d got to the Pole and God Almighty was standing there or the Devil. He called himself ‘The wild Man from Borneo’…and he was-’(Huntford 1980: 468).
IN recognition of his contributions to the Terra Nova expedition, Crean was once again promoted, this time to Chief Petty Officer. Unlike his Discovery promotion, which took effect at the end of the journey, this promotion was antedated to 9 September 1910, near the beginning of the expedition. (1)
There is a curious notation in Crean’s service record. Under ‘Remarks’ for the year 1913 it is noted that Crean was ‘Reported lost on British Antarctic Expedition. Discharged Dead 17th February 1912.’(1)Petty Officer Edgar Evans Antarctic Explorer died on that date during the return journey from the South Pole with Scott, so it appears that somewhere along the line the wrong man was listed as lost. Crean was very much alive, and destined to return to the Antarctic.
Shackleton and ‘Endurance’
His opportunity came within a year after he returned to Britain. On 23 May 1914 Tom Crean was again assigned to President, this time on loan to the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition under Sir Ernest Shackleton. (1) Exactly how Crean joined the undertaking is unknown. One source erroneously claims he resigned from the navy, forfeiting his pension in order to go (Huxley 1978: 275). But from nearly 5,000 applicants for positions, Crean was selected as second officer of the expedition, sailing in the ship Endurance with twenty-seven other men – eleven scientists and seventeen officers and crew (Shackleton 1983: xv). On this expedition Crean became for the first time a major figure. His position as second officer, his previous Antarctic experience, his place in Shackleton’ plans, and the role he ultimately played all served to emphasize his presence.
The most important role planned for Crean was that he would accompany Shackleton, along with four other men, on a sledge journey across Antarctica. With seventy dogs, the six men were to leave from a point along the Weddell Sea, sledge to the South Pole, and then proceed onward to the Ross Sea. Crean had been chosen as driver of a sledge team because of his experience and strength. His years in the navy had instilled the discipline so highly valued by his new leader, with whom he had previously served under Scott in Discovery. In addition Shackleton was quite fond of Crean, who was not above ‘giving Shackleton a bit o’ the blarney occasionally.’ (Lansing 1959: 16, 39).
Adrift in the Weddell Sea
Crean’s expectation of being amongst the first to cross the Antarctic continent remained unfulfilled, for Endurance never reached the continent. In January 1915 the ship was beset in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea, and remained there despite strenuous efforts to free it. At one stage a large chunk of ice under the ship appeared to be checking its movements. Crean and two other men were on a stage chipping at the ice when it suddenly broke free, pinning Crean between the stage and the shaft of a heavy 11ft [3.5m] iron ‘pricker’. Although for a time he was in danger of having his legs broken, or of being pulled underwater by the pressure of the ice, he was soon freed. The iron picker was bent against him to an angle of 45o, but Crean emerged with no more than a few bad bruises.
As winter closed in it became obvious that Endurance would not escape the ice for several months. Living arrangements on board were altered, and the dogs were moved onto the ice. In clearing a space around the rudder and propeller to avoid damage, blocks of ice two feet think were cut and lifted out. Crean used the blocks to make an igloo for one of the dogs, which had had a litter of pups, an idea quickly adopted for the rest of the dogs. Two days later a line of ‘dog loos’, as they were called, appeared around the ship (Shackleton 1983:36).
To Elephant Island
After surviving five months on the ice floes the expedition took to three small boats. Tom Crean was second in command of the smallest vessel, Stancomb Wills, which was little more than 20 ft [6m] long and carried eight men (Worsley 1979: 29). As they left the floe the boat was nearly swamped by a tiderip of huge ice masses, and it was only by tremendous exertion that the men avoided disaster (Shackleton 1983:123).
Thus began an appalling six-day voyage, often through freezing temperatures and gale winds. At one point the men hooked the boats onto an ice floe and cooked a meal while Crean, Worsley, and Shackleton stayed in their boats to keep them steady and prevent collisions with the floe. During the voyage Shackleton noticed that ‘Most of the people were frostbitten to some extent, and it was interesting to notice that the old-timers’, wild, Crean, Hurley, and I, were all right. Apparently we were acclimatized to ordinary Antarctic temperature.’ (Shackleton 1983: 131,138).
As the boats approached Elephant Island, in the South Orkney Islands, Stancomb Wills, with only three oars left, was falling behind. Worsley, in James Caird, “dropped back and handed our shortest oar to Crean, who was over six feet tall. He tanked me emphatically ‘Skipper darlin’,’ he added, ‘what the hell’s the good o’ givin’ me, the longest man, the shortest oar.’ ‘Swap it,’ I shouted, which he did” (Worsley 1979:73).
The first landing site on Elephant Island proved untenable, so the next morning Shackleton sent Crean and four others in Stancomb Wills to find saver ground. They were gone nine hours, finding the only suitable site some seven miles [11km] to the west. Two days later the entire party made the six-hour voyage through gale winds to what would be home for 22 of the men for four and a half months. Many of the tents by this time were in tatters, to the two smaller boats were upturned, set on rock walls, and used as shelter (Worsley 1979: 38,77,71).
The journey to South Georgia
Crean was one of six men spared the suffering on Elephant Island; instead he participated in Antarctica’s most incredible saga – an open-boat journey to South Georgia. Shackleton knew the likelihood of rescue was remote. Even if searches were mad for the Endurance party, no one would guess that they were on Elephant Island, 1 500 miles [2 400km] from their original destination. Shackleton decided to fetch help himself from South Georgia, some 800 miles [1 280km] away to the northeast across the wildest ocean in the world.
For the journey he chose James Caird, the best of their three boats, 22′ 6″ [6.9m] long, with a six foot beam [1.8m] and sides raised to give a depth of 3′ 7″[109cm]. Decked at both ends and covered with canvas, when fully loaded the boat had 2′ 2″[66cm] of freeboard (Worsley 1979: 39,83). For his companions on the voyage Shackleton chose Crean, Worsley, W.McNeish, T, McCarthy and J. Vincent, leaving Frank Wild in charge of the Elephant Island camp. Wild wanted Crean to remain behind as his chief assistant, but Crean begged hard to be allowed to go in the boat. After consulting Wild, Shackleton decided to take him (Shackleton 1983: 158) and Wild said no more about it. (18) While loading James Caird for the journey, ‘As each boatload [of stores] came alongside,’ recorded Worsley, ‘the contents were passed to us, with a running fire of jokes, chaff, and good wishes from dear pals whom we were leaving behind…As for Crean, they said things that ought to have made him blush; but what would make Crean blush would make a butcher’s dog drop its bone.’ (Worsley 1979:89).
The sea journey began on 24 April 1916. As Shackleton tersely described it, ‘The tale of [those] sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving waters.’ (Shackleton 1983: 165). There were two watches of four hours each: three men on deck steering, pumping, bailing, and handling sails; and three (after crawling into the just-vacated sleeping bags of the other watch since the unused bags were usually frozen) ‘deluding themselves that they were sleeping.’ (Worsley 1979: 94).
Crean took charge of cooking, a chore requiring equal measures of patience and agility. It took three people to steady the Primus stove and cooker and to keep them cleared of the omnipresent reindeer hair moulting from the sleeping bags. Worsley recalled one cooking session when,’…absorbed in watching Crean stirring, I saw him stop and stare into the hoosh… The next moment a filthy black paw shot out, seized a handful of reindeer hair from the hoosh, squeezed it out, so as to waste nothing, and then threw it away. We didn’t mind a little dirt, but we drew the line at reindeer hair.’(Worsley 1979:105-07).
Crean maintained his sense of humour. Worsley described how:
… a quaint sort of mimic bickering arose between Crean and Sir E. It was partly chaff and partly a comic revolt against the conditions. Tom Crean had been so long and done so much with Sir E that he had become a privileged retainer. As these 2 watch mates turned-in, a kind of wordless rumbling, muttering, growling noise could be heard issuing from the dark and gloomy lair in the bows… At times they were so full of quaint conceits and Crean’s remarks were so Irish, that I ran risk of explosion by suppressed laughter.
‘Go to sleep Crean and don’t be clucking like an old hen.’ ‘Boss I can’t eat these reindeer hairs. I’ll have an inside on me like a Billy goats neck. Let’s give them to the Skipper and McCarthy. They never know what they’re eating’ and so on. (19)
At other times Crean amused his companions with his singing. Worsley described it as ‘noises at the helm that, we surmised, represented “The Wearin’ o’ the Green.’ Another series of sounds, however, completely baffled us.’ (Worsley 1979:122-23). Shackleton noted (1983:174) ‘One of the memories that comes to me from those days is of Crean singing at the tiller. He always sang while he was steering, and nobody ever discovered what the song was. It was devoid of tune and as monotonous as the chanting of a Buddhist attempt ‘The Wearing of the Green.’
The party finally reached South Georgia on 10May 1916. After unloading the boat, and a quick meal, Crean went exploring for shelter. He was very pleased to return with news of a cave. ‘However, it proved to be merely an undercut face of the cliff, with huge fifteen-foot icicles hanging down in front, ready to impale and unwary visitor. When we saw it we rather damped Crean’s enthusiasm; still, it served our purpose.’(Worsley 1979: 137). That first night on South Georgia, Crean stood a watch to safeguard James Caird, as the men were too weak and exhausted to haul it onto the beach. Shackleton called for Crean way down to the beach. (Shackleton 1983: 180-81). Shortly afterwards the rest of the men were roused by a shout from Crean. The boat had been torn free from its precarious mooring by a huge wave, and Crean, hanging onto the painter, had been dragged waist-deep into the water. ‘…after some exertion,’ wrote Worsley. ‘[We] managed to get her bows hard aground so that we could hold her.’ (Worsley 1979: 138).
Crean continued to act as cook and, as he was now working over a wood fire, Shackleton suggested he wear his goggles as protection from the smoke (Shackleton 1983: 184). To his sad misfortune, Crean neglected to do so and developed a painful eye condition. Worsley described the consequences:
We slept comfortably for about ten hours, except when disturbed by Crean’s twisting and muffled groans from the pain of his eyes. Sir Ernest lost more sleep than we did, as he attended to Crean… It sounded very quaint to hear Crean demurring like a fractious child, and Sir Ernest, like a worried parent, Reproving him until he got him off to sleep. (Worsley 1979: 147-48).
Across South Georgia
It was now necessary to get from the uninhabited southwest coast of the island to the whaling stations on the north east coast. The southwest coast had been chosen for the landing because of the prevailing westerly winds, the risk of missing South Georgia entirely in poor visibility, and the possibility of navigational errors (Worsley 1979: 124). The feebleness of two of the men precluded a boat journey around the island, since all six men were needed to handle James Caird. There was no choice but for a smaller party to cross the island, a courageous undertaking since at that time no one had ever ventured into its unknown interior. Shackleton chose Crean and Worsley to accompany him (Shackleton 1983: 193). In a straight line the distance involved was about 17 miles [27 km], but Shackleton later estimated they travelled at least 30 miles [48 km].
The three began their trek at 3 am on 19 May 1916, knowing that failure would mean almost certain death for everyone. The terrain was treacherous – mountainous, covered with ice and snow, and scourged by gales (Worsley 1979:156-58). Despite the hazards, Crean’s spirits remained high. ‘Worsley and Crean sang their old songs when the Primus was going merrily,’ noted Shackleton (1983: 200). ‘Laughter was in our hearts, though not on our parched and cracked lips.’
After travelling several hours, the men found they were at the top of a sharp incline at over 4 500 ft [1 300m], with darkness falling and fog rolling in. Sitting on their coiled rope, they locked themselves together and sped down the slope. Worsley (1979: 169) wrote:
‘The speed was terrific. I think we all gasped at that hair-raising shoot into darkness. Crean had hard work to prevent the… adze coming round and cutting us. Then, to our joy, the slope curved out, and we shot into a bank of soft snow. We estimated we had shot down a mile in two or three minutes, and had lowered our altitude by two or three thousand feet.’
Shackleton’s estimate was more conservative: ‘…we had descended at least 900 feet [274m] in two or three minutes.’ Later they made their way down a slope so steep that Shackleton, lying flat on his back on the slope had to form heel rests by kicking his heels into the inch of ice. Roped together, the three slowly made their way down, with Crean, ‘a big, strong fellow,’ last in line ‘to hold the party safely.’ (Worsley 1979:177-78). Shortly afterwards, as the three men seemed to be making good progress, Crean suddenly went through the surface and up to his waist in ice water, the first indication they had that they were crossing a lake. Crean was quickly hauled out and the party hurried, gingerly, to the nearest high ground. ‘Crean was a bit cold,’ contended Worsley, ‘but otherwise none the worse for his ducking.’(Worsley 1979: 179).
During the final stage of their journey, they followed a ravine that ended in a thirty-foot [10m] waterfall. Reluctant to retrace their steps, they fastened the rope around a boulder and descended the fall. Worsley (1979: 180) maintained that Shackleton went first, but Shackle ton (1983:205) wrote that Crean went first because he was the heaviest and the other two held the rope. Both agreed that Worsley slid down last. After a day and a half of nearly continuous marching, climbing, and sliding, the three reached the Stromness whaling station.
On the night of their arrival at Stromness Crean and Shackleton shared a room ‘…with electric light and two beds, warm and soft. We were so comfortable that we were unable to sleep,’ complained Shackleton (1983: 210). ‘Late at night a steward brought us tea, bread and butter and cakes, and we lay in bed revelling in the luxury of it all.’ During the night a gale blew in. Worsley recorded: ‘had we been crossing that night nothing could have saved us. The Norwegians afterwards told us there was never another day during the rest of the winter that was fine enough for us to have lived through on the mountains.’ (Worsley 1979: 184).
Crean shared with his companions a strange memory of their journey across South Georgia; they all felt that a fourth person guided them. ‘Of course,’ Worsley later wrote (1979: 167), ‘There were only three, but it is strange that in mentally reviewing the crossing we should always think of a fourth, and then correct ourselves.’ Shackleton (1983:209) was moved to admit: ‘One feels ‘the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech’ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.’
Crean worked with Shackleton until all the men were rescued. Three months after their arrival at Stromness, and after three unsuccessful attempts, the Elephant Island party was finally rescued by a ship able to get through the icy sea. A.H. Macklin, one of those who had waited on the island, wrote, ‘…we saw a boat being lowered… When the boat came nearer we saw Sir E. and Crean aboard… [They] were looking very well, and to our eyes very clean.’(20)
Having seen the rescue accomplished without the loss of a single life, Crean was ready to home by way of South America. He sailed from Buenos Aires on the Nelson liner Highland Lassie, arriving in Britain in early November 1916 (21). Nearly a year after his return home, Crean succinctly and modestly summed up the Endurance expedition, its leader and his own role in a letter to Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an old Terra Nova companion:
We had a hot time of it the last 12 months when we lost the Endurance and I must say the Boss [Shackleton] is a splendid gentleman and I done my duty towards him to the last.
Tom Crean was indispensable to the Endurance expedition. The qualities he displayed on earlier expeditions were severely tested, but he met every challenge. For his services he was promoted to the rank of Acting Boatswain on 27 December 1916. (23) One source contends that Crean was one of two people who were told they would be paid in full only when the money was available, which was interpreted as a compliment earned by being especially staunch and loyal to Shackleton during the trials of the Endurance expedition (Fisher and Fisher 1958: 414).
Crean never returned to the Antarctic. When Shackleton went back in 1921, Crean was no longer in the navy. Upon his retirement, on 3 March 1920, his commanding officer noted that Crean had ‘…conducted himself to my entire satisfaction. An officer of great ability and reliability. He is in all respects thoroughly deserving of all considerations by the Service. To which he is a great loss, through being invalided.’ (24) The cause of his invalidism was eye trouble caused by privations in Antarctica.’ (Evans 1948:229).
His remaining years were spent in Ireland. Shortly after returning from the Endurance expedition he married Ellen Herlihy of Corcadhuibhne, County Kerry; they settle in Annascaul (Crean’s birthplace), opened a pub named the South Pole Inn, and raised a family. Crean talked ‘…Irish as if he had never been away,’ noted one writer. ‘Despite the hardships he had endured and the wounds they left, he never lost his fine spirit and cheery disposition, and he was a kindly neighbour and a good friend.’ On 27 July 1938 Tom Crean died at the age of sixty-three, ‘smoking his pipe to the last.’ He was buried in Ballinacourty near Annascaul (Barry 1952). Crean’s descendants, two daughters and their families, continue to live in the same area, keeping alive memories of their notable ancestor.
Tom Crean was a remarkable man. He participated in three of the first expeditions explore Antarctica, was one of the first to attempt sledging on the continent, and was among the first thirteen to travel to within 150 miles of the South Pole. He participated in the incredible James Caird boat journey and the first crossing of South Georgia; he was instrumental in saving the lives of at least thirty fellow explorers recognized the extraordinary qualities of Tom Crean.
To his companions he sometimes seemed larger than life: although listed in his service record as only five feet ten inches in height (26), there are numerous references to his great size, and at least one of his associates claimed Crean was over six feet tall (Worsley 1979: 73). Whatever his physical size, he stood head and shoulders above most of his comrades in fortitude and reliability, in his intelligent handling of crises, and in his marvellous sense of humour which lightened many a dark moment. His courageous exploits and resolution should have gained him greater recognition than he has been accorded for the past sixty years. This giant of a man did, indeed, have the ‘heart of a lion.’