Thomas (Tom) Crean was an Irish Antarctic explorer who played a key role in three of the most important expeditions to the continent in the early 20th century.
Born in February 1877 in Gurtuchrane, a farming area near Anascaul on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. Crean received a rudimentary education at Brackluin School, Anascaul. Like many young men of his time, he saw the potential for obtaining a better life by enlisting in the Royal Navy, which he did shortly before his 16th birthday and served for over 20 years before being recruited by the renowned explorer Robert Falcon Scott for his first Antarctic expedition in 1901.
During that expedition, Crean proved an invaluable member of Scott’s team, undertaking several gruelling sledging journeys and demonstrating exceptional strength, endurance and resourcefulness. He also participated in Scott’s second Antarctic expedition in 1910, during which he made a heroic 35-mile solo trek across the ice to rescue two stranded teammates.
Crean’s greatest contribution to Antarctic exploration, however, came during the ill-fated 1914-1917 expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. When their ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice and was eventually crushed, Shackleton and his crew were forced to undertake a perilous journey across the ice to reach safety. Crean played a key role in this journey, manning the sledges and ensuring the team’s survival through his strength, skill, and unwavering determination. He was one of the few expedition members to survive the ordeal, and his courage and fortitude earned him widespread admiration and respect.
Tom Crean, in full polar travelling gear.
Attribution: Herbert G. Ponting (1870-1935), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Crean,_Scott%27s_Antarctic_Expedition,_c1911.jpg
After his Antarctic adventures, Crean retired from the navy and returned to Ireland, where he ran a pub in County Kerry until he died in 1938. In recent years, his legacy has been increasingly recognised, and he is now widely regarded as one of the unsung heroes of Antarctic exploration.
Crean had ten siblings (seven brothers and three sisters). Although sources (including Michael Smith) give Crean’s date of birth as 20th July 1877, a more recent study based on parish records indicates that about 16th February 1877 is more likely. Crean attended the local Catholic school (at nearby Brackluin), leaving at age 12 to help on the family farm.
Photo of Tom Crean taken aboard the Endurance, 1914.
Attribution: Frank Hurley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Crean2b.JPG
Thomas Crean married his childhood sweetheart, Ellen Herlihy, in 1909, shortly before joining Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition. The couple had three daughters, Mary, Kate and Eileen.
During Crean’s Antarctic expeditions, Ellen and the children remained in Ireland, and Crean communicated with them through letters and occasional telegrams. Kate died at three years of age. Crean’s wife Ellen passed away in 1955, and his two remaining daughters died in the 1990s.
Thomas Crean remained devoted to his family throughout his life, and his letters home often expressed his love and concern for them.
Crean and the Royal Navy
Crean enlisted in the Royal Navy at the naval station in nearby Minard Inlet. His initial naval apprenticeship was aboard the training ship Impregnable at Devonport. In November 1894, he was transferred to Devastation.
In December 1901, the Ringarooma, on which Crean was serving (in Christchurch, New Zealand at the time), was ordered to assist Robert Falcon Scott’s ship Discovery when it was docked at Lyttelton Harbour awaiting 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. He finally retired on health grounds in 1920.
- Crean’s first Antarctic expedition with Robert Falcon Scott took place aboard the ship Discovery in 1901-1904. During this expedition, Crean was part of a team that set a new record for the furthest south ever travelled at that time (82°17’S).
- Crean’s solo journey during Scott’s second Antarctic expedition was a remarkable feat of endurance. After two of his teammates fell ill and could not continue, Crean set out alone across the ice to reach a supply depot, covering 35 miles in just 18 hours before collapsing from exhaustion.
- During Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, Crean was part of a six-man team that undertook an 800-mile journey in a small lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, a remote whaling station where they hoped to find rescue. The journey was one of the most harrowing in the history of Antarctic exploration, but Crean’s skill as a navigator was instrumental in guiding the boat through treacherous seas to their destination.
- In addition to his Antarctic expeditions, Crean also served in World War I, where he was awarded the Albert Medal for Bravery for rescuing a fellow sailor from drowning in icy waters.
- Despite his many accomplishments, Crean remained a humble and unassuming figure throughout his life. He rarely spoke about his exploits in Antarctica, and it was only after his death that his contributions to exploration began to receive the recognition they deserved.
The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration
Thomas Crean was a member of three major Antarctic expeditions during what is known as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” from 1897 to 1922.
Caption: “Tour Scotland Photograph RRS Discovery Dundee November 17th” by Tour Scotland Photographs is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
- Discovery Expedition (1901-1904): Crean was serving on HMS Ringarooma in New Zealand in December 1901 when Robert Falcon Scott required a replacement sailor for Discovery on his British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04. Crean volunteered and was accepted. He joined the Discovery Expedition as a Petty Officer in 1901. The goal of the expedition was to explore the unknown regions of Antarctica and conduct scientific research. Crean was part of the team that set a record for the southernmost latitude reached at the time. He also participated in the sledging journeys and proved himself to be a skilled and hardworking team member.
- Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913): Scott again recruited Crean for the Terra Nova Expedition. This time, the aim was to reach the South Pole. Crean was part of the team that set up the base camp at Cape Evans and later helped establish supply depots for the Polar party. When Scott’s team reached the South Pole and found that they were beaten by the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen, Crean was one of the team members who assisted in the return journey.
- Endurance Expedition (1914-1917): This was the third Antarctic expedition in which Crean participated, and it was led by Ernest Shackleton. The goal of the expedition was to cross the Antarctic continent. However, the expedition faced many challenges, including the loss of their ship, Endurance, which became trapped in ice and eventually sank. Crean was part of the team that survived on the ice and eventually made it to Elephant Island. From there, Crean was one of the six members who joined Shackleton on a hazardous 800-mile open boat journey to South Georgia Island, which they completed without loss of life.
Interesting Facts about Tom Crean
- Despite his many years of service in the Royal Navy, Crean was initially rejected when he applied to join Scott’s first Antarctic expedition due to his lack of formal education. However, Scott was impressed by his physical strength and resilience and ultimately decided to take him on as an able seaman.
- During Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, Crean was a member of the team that established a base camp on the ice floe after the ship was crushed. The team lived on the ice for five months before making a harrowing journey to Elephant Island on small lifeboats, followed by an 800-mile journey to South Georgia to seek rescue.
- Crean was known for his selflessness and willingness to put the needs of the team above his own. During the Endurance expedition, he gave up his sleeping bag to team member Frank Worsley, who suffered from frostbite. He also volunteered for dangerous tasks, such as manning the tiller during a storm, despite being warned that it would likely be fatal.
- After returning from the Antarctic, Crean was awarded the Polar Medal with two bars, a rare honour that recognised his contributions to three major expeditions. He was one of only four men to receive the medal with two bars at the time.
- Crean’s exploits in the Antarctic have been celebrated in various media, including books, documentaries, and films. The 2013 documentary “Tom Crean: Unsung Hero” explores his life and accomplishments, while the 2020 feature film “The South Pole: An Epic Adventure” tells the story of his journey across Antarctica.
- In addition to his Antarctic adventures, Crean was also a successful farmer and businessman. He owned a farm in County Kerry, as well as the South Pole Inn, and was known for his hard work and dedication to his community.
- Crean’s hometown of Annascaul, County Kerry, is now home to the Tom Crean Museum and Historical Walk, which celebrates his life and accomplishments. The museum features artefacts from his Antarctic expeditions and exhibits on the history of exploration in the region.
- After retiring from the Navy, Crean returned to County Kerry and opened the South Pole Inn, a pub that still bears his name today. The pub is a popular destination for visitors interested in Crean’s story and is a testament to his enduring legacy.
- Crean’s accomplishments in Antarctica have been recognised in various ways, including the naming of Mount Crean and Crean Glacier in his honour. He has also been the subject of numerous books, documentaries, and other works of art, including the play “Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer” by Irish playwright Aidan Dooley.
- In recent years, Crean’s story has inspired a new generation of explorers and adventurers. In 2018, a team of Irish and British soldiers retraced his journey across South Georgia, while in 2020, a group of female scientists and adventurers followed in his footsteps on a trek across Antarctica.
Tom Crean was the unsung hero of Antarctic exploration whose incredible exploits exploring with Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton were overlooked for 80 years. Crean, who left school at 12 and ran away from home at 15, served on three expeditions to the Antarctic, spent longer in the ice than either Scott or Shackleton and outlived both men. He was among the last to see Scott alive near the South Pole in 1912 and returned to the ice to bury his frozen body. Crean was also a major figure in Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to the Antarctic over 100 years ago. But Tom Crean could never speak about his exploits and took his remarkable story to the grave.
Books relating to Tom Crean
- The Worst Journey in the World: (Ranked number 1 in National Geographic’s 100 Best Adventure Books of All Time), Paperback, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Author) 1 April 2010, published by Vintage Classics, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Worst-Journey-World-Vintage-Classics/dp/0099530376/
This book is a first-hand account of the Terra Nova Expedition by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an expedition member who was friends with Crean. The book provides a detailed description of Crean’s role on the expedition, as well as his personality and character.
- Shackleton: Hardcover, by Roland Huntford (Author) 1 Nov. 1985, published by Hodder & Stoughton Limited, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shackleton-Huntford-Ppr-Roland/dp/0340419946/
This book provides a comprehensive account of Shackleton’s life and expeditions, including the Endurance Expedition. It includes information on Crean’s role on the expedition and his contributions to the team’s survival.
- A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole, Hardcover, by Diana Preston (Author) 1 Nov. 1998, published by Houghton Mifflin (Trade), available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/First-Rate-Tragedy-Robert-Falcon/dp/0618002014
This book provides an in-depth look at the Terra Nova Expedition, including the events leading up to the expedition and the aftermath. It includes information on Crean’s participation in the expedition and his contributions to the team’s efforts.
- Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero: Paperback, by Tim Foley (Author) 27 Aug. 2018, by Kell Foley Publishing, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Crean-Extraordinary-Life-Irish-Hero/dp/1999918932/
Tim Foley, a former consultant and magazine columnist who has worked as a Project Consultant to several UK television programmes, has, since 2010, spearheaded a campaign to honour Tom Crean, an Irish explorer from County Kerry whose life-saving exploits during the pioneering age of Antarctic exploration, earned him the prestigious Albert Medal for bravery.
- Scott’s Last Expedition: 2 Volumes, Hardcover, by Captain R. F Scott, arranged by Leonard Huxley, with a preface by Sir Clements R Markham, 1 Jan. 1913, published by Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scotts-Last-Expedition-2-Volumes/dp/B000I74GZA/
This book is Robert Falcon Scott’s account of the Terra Nova Expedition, and it includes descriptions of Crean’s role in the expedition. The book also contains photographs and maps that help to illustrate the team’s journey.
- Argonauts of the South: Being a Narrative of Voyagings and Polar Seas and Adventures in the Antarctic With Sir Douglas Mawson and Sir Ernest Shackleton (Classic Reprint), Hardcover, by Frank Hurley 23 April 2018, published by Forgotten Books, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Argonauts-South-Narrative-Adventures-Shackleton/dp/0331892472/
This book is a first-hand account of the Endurance Expedition by Frank Hurley, the team’s official photographer. The book includes many photographs taken by Hurley, including several of Crean and other team members.
- An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean: Antarctic Survivor – 20th anniversary illustrated edition, Paperback, by Michael Smith (Author) 8 May 2020, published by Gill Books, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Unsung-Hero-Antarctic-anniversary-illustrated/dp/0717189562/
Michael Smith is a writer and historian who has extensively researched and written about polar exploration, including the life and expeditions of Tom Crean. He is the author of the book above, which chronicles Crean’s life and achievements as a member of three major Antarctic expeditions, including those led by Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Smith’s book is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive and well-researched accounts of Crean’s life and legacy. In addition to his book, Smith has also written numerous articles and given talks about Crean and polar exploration.
The Scott Polar Research Institute
The Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) is a research centre and museum at the University of Cambridge in England. The Institute was founded in 1920 to advance the study of polar science and exploration, and it is named in honour of Robert Falcon Scott, who died during his 1911-1912 expedition to the South Pole.
The SPRI’s research activities include studies of climate change, glaciology, ecology, and other topics related to the polar regions. The Institute also has a library and archive that contain more than 700,000 items related to polar exploration, including books, maps, photographs, and artefacts.
The SPRI’s museum exhibits include displays on the history of polar exploration, the culture and life of indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and the scientific research being conducted in these areas today. The museum also hosts public lectures, seminars, and other events related to polar science and exploration.
The Institute has a large collection of archival material, including diaries, photographs, and other documents related to the history of polar exploration. Among these materials are several items related to Tom Crean, including letters he wrote during his expeditions and photographs of him and his fellow explorers. The Institute also has a portrait of Tom Crean on display in its Polar Museum, which is a museum dedicated to the history of polar exploration. The portrait depicts Crean in his naval uniform, accompanied by a plaque that provides information about his life and achievements. In addition to these items, the Institute also hosts regular talks and events related to polar exploration, and Tom Crean is often mentioned or discussed in these presentations. Overall, the Scott Polar Research Institute is a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about Tom Crean and his contributions to Antarctic exploration.
National Maritime Museum
The National Maritime Museum is located in Greenwich, London, and it is the largest museum of its kind in the world. The museum’s exhibits and collections focus on the maritime history of the UK, including the Royal Navy, merchant shipping, and exploration. The museum’s exhibits cover a wide range of topics, including shipbuilding, navigation, art, and exploration. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions on a variety of maritime-related subjects.
The National Maritime Museum’s collection includes over two million items, including paintings, manuscripts, maps, and ship models. The museum also has an extensive library and archive that contains books, journals, and other materials related to maritime history. In addition to its exhibits and collections, the National Maritime Museum also hosts educational programs, lectures, and events related to maritime history and exploration. The museum is a major centre for research and scholarship on maritime topics, and it collaborates with other institutions and organisations around the world.
The Shackleton Foundation
The Shackleton Foundation is a UK-based charity established in 2007 to support individuals and innovative projects embodying Shackleton’s spirit of adventure, leadership, and perseverance. The foundation provides funding and mentorship to individuals who are undertaking challenging expeditions or projects in the fields of science, engineering, and social entrepreneurship. By doing so, The Shackleton Foundation improves the lives of disadvantaged young people across the UK.
The Shackleton Foundation was established in memory of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led several Antarctic expeditions, including the famous Endurance expedition of 1914-1916. Tom Crean was a member of that expedition and played a key role in rescuing the stranded crew.
The Shackleton Foundation recognises the importance of Tom Crean’s contributions to the Endurance expedition and polar exploration more broadly. The organisation often refers to Crean in its literature and on its website, and it has awarded several Shackleton Leadership Awards to individuals who demonstrate the same kind of courage, resilience, and leadership that Crean and Shackleton exemplified.
Organisations set up in memory of Tom Crean
Several organisations have been set up in memory of Tom Crean to honour his achievements and contributions to Antarctic exploration. Here are a few examples:
- The Tom Crean Society: The Tom Crean Society was established in 2010 to promote the life and achievements of Tom Crean. The society organises events, lectures, and educational programs related to Crean and Antarctic exploration.
- The Tom Crean Endurance Exhibition: The Tom Crean Endurance Exhibition is located in the South Pole Inn, the public house that Tom Crean owned in his hometown of Annascaul, County Kerry. The exhibition includes displays and artefacts related to Crean’s life and achievements and the history of Antarctic exploration.
- The National Maritime Museum: The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, has a collection of artefacts related to Antarctic exploration, including items used by Tom Crean and other members of the expeditions he participated in.
- The Polar Museum: The Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, has a collection of exhibits and artefacts related to Antarctic exploration, including items about Tom Crean and the expeditions he participated in.
- The Kerry County Museum: The Kerry County Museum in Tralee, County Kerry, has a collection of exhibits related to the history and culture of the region, including displays on Tom Crean and his achievements.
- The Crean Challenge and Crean Mór: The Crean Challenge is an annual endurance event held in Killarney, County Kerry, in honour of Tom Crean. Participants run or walk a 27-kilometre route that takes them through some of the most scenic parts of the region. Crean Mór is a longer version of the Crean Challenge, covering a distance of 56 kilometres.
- The Tom Crean Endurance Expedition: The Tom Crean Endurance Expedition is a modern-day expedition that retraces the steps of Tom Crean’s 1914 journey from Antarctica to South Georgia Island. The expedition raises funds for cancer research and awareness.
- The Tom Crean Fish and Wine Festival: The Tom Crean Fish and Wine Festival is an annual event held in Annascaul, County Kerry, to celebrate the life and achievements of Tom Crean. The festival features local seafood and wine, as well as music and entertainment.
- The Tom Crean Memorial School: The Tom Crean Memorial School is a primary school located in Annascaul, County Kerry, where Tom Crean lived for much of his life. The school is named in honour of Crean, and its curriculum emphasises outdoor education and exploration.
- The Tom Crean Trail: The Tom Crean Trail is a hiking trail in County Kerry that passes through some of the most scenic parts of the region. The course is named in honour of Tom Crean and follows a route with which he would have been familiar during his time in the area.
- The Tom Crean 32 Marathon: The Tom Crean 32 Marathon is an annual marathon held in Tralee, County Kerry, to honour the memory of Tom Crean. The marathon covers a distance of 32 miles, representing the number of years that Crean served in the Royal Navy.
- The Tom Crean Fellowship: The Tom Crean Fellowship is a research program established by the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge to support research related to Antarctic exploration. The fellowship is named to recognise Tom Crean’s contributions to the field.
These are just a few examples of the organisations that have been established in memory of Tom Crean. Many other events, programs, and initiatives honour his legacy and contributions to Antarctic exploration. His legacy continues to inspire people around the world to explore, adventure, and push the boundaries of what is possible.
Crean and Dogs
Crean and “his” pups.
Attribution: Frank Hurley (1885–1962), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Crean.jpg
During his expeditions, Crean was known to be a skilled dog handler, and he worked closely with the sledge dogs that were used to transport supplies across the frozen terrain. The dogs were essential to the success of the expeditions, and Crean developed a close bond with them.
The puppies in Crean’s arms were born aboard the Endurance on 7th January 1915, a product of Sally and Samson. They were named (l-r): Roger, Toby (back), Nell (front) and Nelson. The sledge dogs chosen for the expedition came from Canada and were shipped to Buenos Aires, where the Endurance picked them up.
The image of Tom Crean holding a puppy has become a popular symbol of his bravery, determination, and compassion towards both humans and animals, and it serves as a reminder of his important contributions to Antarctic exploration.
Sources and Further Reading
YouTube and Other Videos:
- The Story of Tom Crean – Unsung Hero, at: https://youtu.be/7lK-cP6bUds
- Tom Crean – Irish Antarctic Explorer, 1987, at: https://youtu.be/-nT6AgWtzkA
- Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer, at: https://youtu.be/kF1t2iSWURc
- Tom Crean, at: https://youtu.be/h3GqFdQJnbo
- Tom Crean, the Brave Antarctic Explorer, at: https://www.facebook.com/CentralLibraryDublin/videos/tom-crean-antarctic-explorer/745516192789812/
- Tom Crean Explorer, at: https://www.rte.ie/archives/collections/news/21258498-tom-crean-explorer/
Eastern Antarctica is to the right of the Transantarctic Mountains and Western Antarctica is to the left.
Attribution: Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica team, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antarctica.svg
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End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Source: Smith, Michael (2000). An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor. London: Headline Book Publishing. ISBN 0-7472-5357-9. ↑
- Source: Murphy, David. “Crean, Thomas (“Tom”)”. Dictionary of Irish Biography. Royal Irish Academy. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Crean_(explorer) ↑
- Source: Smith (as above), P31. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Crean_(explorer) ↑
- Explanation: On his last naval assignment, with HMS Hecla, Crean suffered a bad fall which caused lasting effects to his vision. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Crean_(explorer) ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Crean_(explorer) ↑
- Source: https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/shackleton/biographies/Crean,_Thomas/ ↑
- Source: http://www.endurancedesigns.com/tom-crean-portrait ↑