Terra Nova Crew. Tom Crean front right.
Tom Crean was an Irish sailor and a member of three major expeditions to Antarctica during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He was also a passionate pipe smoker and was rarely seen without a pipe hanging from his mouth while traversing through dangerous conditions and unknown territory. He's best remembered for his heroism and perseverance, especially during Robert Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition, but he has largely remained an obscure figure within the history of Antarctic exploration. He played a prominent role in the most historic Antarctic expeditions and his unyielding determination saved the lives of his fellow explorers. Crean's contributions to Antarctic exploration are invaluable, but he remained a modest, reserved man despite his documented heroism in multiple dire situations.
Crean was born on July 20, 1877, in the farming area of Gurtuchrane near the village of Annascual in County Kerry, Ireland and was one of 10 children born to Patrick and Catherine Crean. Like many large, rural families in Ireland that relied on farming, Crean's family struggled with poverty and lived in constant fear of famine and crop failure. Ireland was still reeling from the Great Famine that ravaged the country during the mid- to late-1840s, causing a million to perish and another million to emigrate.
Crean received a very rudimentary education at the local Catholic school before leaving when he was 12 years old to help on his family's farm. Sharing a house with nine siblings and receiving little attention from his parents instilled a strong sense of independence in Crean. Unlike other famous explorers, he never kept a diary of his life or adventures but Michael Smith's biography on Crean, An Unsung Hero, is the most well-researched and this article has deferred to Smith's work, which was completed with access to what few writings Crean produced, the published works of fellow explorers, and the recollections of surviving family members. According to Smith's research, Crean was one day tending to cattle and allowed them to venture into a potato field, which is an event that caused a heated argument with his father, prompting Crean to leave home when he was a teenager.
When he was just 15, Crean enlisted in the Royal Navy and it's highly likely he either lied about his age or forged his papers, as 16 was the earliest age for enlistment. Away from home for the first time in his life, he initially struggled in adapting to the Navy's strict discipline and harsh regime. At one point, he reportedly threatened to run away because of the dreadful food and poor accommodations aboard the naval ships he served on. However, thanks to the support of his fellow Irish sailors, Crean carried on, developing a reputation for his reliability, and continued to rise through the ranks.
On February 15, 1900, Crean was assigned to the HMS Ringarooma, an oddly-named special torpedo vessel in Australian waters, and that experience would eventually lead to the start of Crean's career as an explorer. A year later, at the port of Lyttelton in New Zealand, the Ringarooma's captain was asked to assist Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott in preparing his ship, the Discovery, before it departed for Antarctica. Work parties were assembled and dispatched to assist with final preparations and Crean was most likely a member. Plans quickly changed when Harry J. Baker, a Discovery crew member, punched a petty officer and deserted, leaving the crew one man short. Robert Scott requested a replacement from the Ringarooma and Crean volunteered.
A shipmate of Crean's overheard him volunteering for the dangerous expedition and declared, "I didn't think you were crazy enough for a mad trip to the end of the world." Crean responded, "Haven't I been mad enough to come from the other end of the world?" Crean's willingness to volunteer reflected his self-confidence and belief in his own abilities. Like many crew members aboard the Discovery, Crean had no previous experience with polar exploration and received no training. However, he was motivated to pursue adventure and was guaranteed a trip to unknown lands — and for him that was an attractive prospect.
He was also a passionate pipe smoker and was rarely seen without a pipe hanging from his mouth while traversing through dangerous conditions and unknown territory.
Crean was a popular figure among his Ringarooma shipmates and they arranged a collection to purchase a departing gift for him, a photo album with an inscription that demonstrates the high regard for Crean held by his fellow sailors. The inscription read: "This was presented to Thos Crean by his shipmates of HMS Ringarooma as a true token of respect and good wishes for his future welfare and safe return on his departure to the Antarctic Regions as a volunteer in the British ship, Discovery, December 20, 1901."
Over the course of the Discovery Expedition, Crean stood out as someone who was reliable, hardworking, humorous, and who faithfully carried out any orders. He rapidly developed his sledging skills and became one of the most proficient crew members at traversing the icy continent, though he struggled early on and would frequently fall through thin ice into the frigid waters, nearly losing his life when he fell twice in one day trying to free the ship when it was lodged in ice. After falling through the first time, Crean changed his wet clothes and went back out on skis before falling through a second time, struggling to get. These were particularly dangerous events because he, like the rest of the crew, was weighed down by very heavy clothing.
Charles Ford, the ship's steward, recorded the event in his diary:
"[Crean was] unable to help himself out, it being all he could do to keep himself from being dragged under the icy by the current. Fortunately, some men working there heard his shouts for assistance and after some difficulty (for which he was numbed with the cold and unable to help himself) a noose was put around him and he was dragged to safety and assisted to the ship."
The Discovery was trapped in ice for nearly two years and the crew used that time to explore the continent and record data that provided valuable results in many scientific fields, including geology, biology, zoology, and magnetism. Crean, along with 12 other members, made it further south than any other humans in recorded history but were ordered to return while Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Edward Wilson made an attempt to reach the South Pole. That trio came close but were forced to turn back after many of the sled dogs perished and they had depleted most of their supplies. They were also afflicted with snow blindness, frostbite, and scurvy during their tumultuous journey, with Shackleton in particular being the most stricken. Both Scott and Wilson believed Shackleton wouldn't survive the return trip but they managed to reach a separate camp just a few miles away from the ship.
After the Discovery Expedition, Crean resumed his naval service and was promoted to petty officer first class on Scott's recommendation. Crean's work ethic during the Discovery Expedition had caught the attention of Captain Scott, who asked Crean to join him aboard the Victorious in 1906, and Crean followed the captain successively aboard three different ships.
In 1909, Captain Scott had received news that Ernest Shackleton had attempted to reach the South Pole once again, coming remarkably close during his 1907-09 Nimrod Expedition. Scott was aboard a train with Crean at the time when he read the news, reportedly telling Crean, "I think we better have a shot next." Scott was a fiercely competitive man and most likely viewed Shackleton's attempt as a challenge, or perhaps revenge for his thinking that Ernest would die during their previous expedition. Conquering the South Pole had become an international interest during that time and shortly after Scott announced his plans to reach the Pole, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen quietly devised his own expedition to beat Scott.
Crean's willingness to volunteer reflected his self-confidence and belief in his own abilities.
Crean was one of the first crew members recruited for Scott's Terra Nova Expedition, which set out for Antarctica in the summer of 1910 with a crew of 65 men. The ship barely survived the journey to the continent. Severely weighed down by food, equipment, and a large collection of dogs and ponies, the vessel was also exposed to 36 hours of powerful gale-force winds. While the results of the expedition would yield groundbreaking discoveries in various scientific fields, the journey was plagued by poor preparation, inexperience, and illness. But there were notable instances that demonstrated Crean's heroism and tireless spirit.
Crean was a part of the team tasked with establishing a route of supply depots to aid in the attempt to reach the Pole. On the return journey one night, Crean, along with Henry Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, unknowingly pitched their tents on unstable ice and awoke to the ice breaking up around them, separating them from their sledge and equipment. Crean, without hesitation, began jumping from floe to floe, reaching the ice barrier and climbing it to obtain assistance for his companions, hiking alone across treacherous terrain in sub-zero temperatures before reaching an outpost to signal for help.
Learning of Crean's actions, Scott commended him in his diary, writing: "He travelled a great distance over the sea ice, leaping from floe to floe and at last found a thick floe from which, with the help of a ski stick, he could climb the Barrier face. It was a desperate adventure, but luckily successful."
Evans and Crean
The crew eventually made their attempt at the Pole, an 1,800-mile round trip — the longest polar expedition ever attempted and estimated to take 84 days. Each man was to travel on foot the entire time, hauling around 200 pounds of equipment with the ponies. Along the way, parties of three to four men would be dropped off at various points for support and Scott would lead a final party of four to the Pole, the members for which he would decide upon during their journey. On Christmas, 1911, the crew was down to eight men and they enjoyed an improvised four-course meal, sharing desserts and tobacco with each other. Two days after the New Year, Scott shocked everyone when he announced his party would consist of five men: Edward Wilson, Lawrence Oates, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, and himself.
Crean, William Lashly, and Edward "Teddy" Evans were ordered to return to camp, which devastated Crean, who had faithfully served under Scott for over a decade and was now so close to making history. Crean broke down in tears and Scott recounted the disappointment in his diary, writing, "Poor old Crean wept and even Lashly was affected." Years later, Crean told his family his tears were just as much for Scott as they were for himself as he realized taking an extra man was extremely risky since the rations and weights were originally calculated for four men.
The return trip for Crean, Lashly, and Evans was dangerous, marked by close calls and near-death experiences. They became lost in the snow and were miles off their intended course, according to Evans, who was the team's navigator. Running low on food and supplies, the three men decided to take drastic measures by sledding 2,000 feet down a large icefall as a detour to ensure they'd make it back to base camp, dodging deep crevices up to 200 feet wide.
In late January, Evans was stricken with scurvy and growing weaker each day. By February, Evans was close to death and unable to walk on his own, requiring Crean and Lashly to drag him on the sledge. When they were 35 miles from base camp, they had only one or two days' worth of rations left for a trip that would last another four or five days at their current pace because of Evans' worsening condition. Lashly stayed behind with Evans to watch after him in a crudely built tent while Crean journeyed alone to seek help.
Crean continuously livened the mood by joking and singing, with Shackleton later recounting, "He always sang when he was steering, and nobody ever discovered what the song was... but somehow it was cheerful."
Crean did not bring a sleeping bag as he did not plan on stopping until he had reached base camp, bringing only a couple of biscuits and some chocolate to sustain him. After 18 hours of walking, Crean miraculously made it to Hut Point ahead of a blizzard and collapsed from weakness. The blizzard delayed the rescue by a day and a half but was ultimately successful and saved the lives of Evans and Lashly. Crean downplayed his heroic, life-saving efforts in a rare letter he wrote to a friend years later: "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."
Months later in October, Crean would join an 11-man search team to look for Robert Scott and his party after they had not returned. On November 12th, it was Crean who made the grim discovery after noticing something protruding from the snow. He found a tent with Scott, Bowers, and Wilson frozen to death inside. Crean openly wept over the body of his dear friend and kissed his forehead while the team gathered the deceased men's journals and diaries and collapsed the tent, constructing a snow cairn over it and erecting a cross.
Crean and the remaining Terra Nova crew arrived in Lyttelton, New Zealand in February 1913 before eventually returning to England. During the summer, Crean was awarded Polar Medals by King George and Prince Louis of Battenberg, the professional head of the British naval service. Crean and Lashly were also awarded the Albert Medal in recognition of their efforts that saved Evans' life during the expedition.
It seemed likely that Crean would resume his service in the Royal Navy and continue on as a sailor but Ernest Shackleton reached out to Crean, asking him to take part in his newest Antarctic adventure. They knew each other well from the Discovery Expedition and Shackleton trusted Crean, realizing he would be a valued crew member. Crean agreed and would serve aboard the Endurance for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which lasted from 1914-17 and is largely considered to be the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
An expert dog-handler was hired for the expedition but never reported for duty, so Crean was tasked with caring for the dogs that would drive them across the continent, and was apparently so skilled at it that the crew jokingly nicknamed Crean "mother."
The goal was to walk across Antarctica, passing through the South Pole along the way, but the ship never made it to the continent. The Endurance was lodged in ice for months before the ice eventually crushed the hull and sank it. The crew escaped on lifeboats, landing on Elephant Island after having drifted on the ice for nearly 500 days. They relied on their skills, determination, and pipes, attempting to find suitable tobacco substitutes after they ran out.
Shackleton, Crean, and Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, ventured out to seek the nearest help at a whaling station on South Georgia Island 800 nautical miles away, dodging severe storms and broken ice along the way. It is considered one of the most extraordinary feats of seamanship and navigation in history. Crean continuously livened the mood by joking and singing, with Shackleton later recounting, "He always sang when he was steering, and nobody ever discovered what the song was... but somehow it was cheerful."
Once they landed, the men endured a continuous 36-hour march with limited equipment to reach the whaling station. When they arrived, rescue was quickly arranged, but that rescue took three attempts on three different ships due to the ice before the entire Endurance crew was successfully rescued. The crew was stranded on Elephant Island for months with dwindling supplies but were ecstatic when tobacco packets were thrown from the arriving ship by Shackleton and Crean onto the shore where the men were anxiously waiting. Disaster was thankfully averted and all hands survived, but the South Pole had once again eluded Crean.
Many have speculated that Crean's pipes were most likely Petersons due to their shaping and metal bands, and also because Crean himself was an Irishman.
Crean would resume his naval service when he returned to Britain in November 1916, and the following year he married Ellen Herlihy, whom he had known since childhood. The last ship he served upon was the HMS Hecla before he suffered a serious fall that forced him to retire in 1920 and caused lasting effects to his vision. Crean was invited by Shackleton to join his new Arctic expedition, the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, but Crean had plans to open a business and his second daughter had been recently born, so he politely declined.
Crean and his wife later opened a public house and pub fittingly called The South Pole Inn, located in Annascaul, close to where Crean grew up, and it remains open to this day. Crean lived out his final years quietly, storing his medals and rarely mentioning his legendary Antarctic adventures to anyone, not even his own family. He never gave interviews or wrote memoirs about his expeditions, testifying to his humble nature and reserved demeanor. Crean passed away a week after his 61st birthday in 1938 from an infection that developed after his appendix was removed in an emergency surgery. In recent years his accomplishments have thankfully become more widely known and appreciated thanks to new research and biographies, allowing his legacy to live on and capture the attention of future generations.
Despite being frequently seen in photographs smoking a pipe, not much is known about what brand he preferred, though it usually appears to be a Dublin-style shape. Writings by his fellow crewmates indicate he would have smoked some sort of rough-cut Navy shag or plug tobacco, though the specific brands remain a mystery. Many have speculated that Crean's pipes were most likely Petersons due to their shaping and metal bands, and also because Crean himself was an Irishman. The historic marque notably designed a pipe styled after the Dublin shape Crean smoked as part of their special, limited-edition Great Explorers series, which also included designs named in honor of Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Roald Amundsen. Dubbed the "Crean," Peterson's homage to the heroic explorer is the largest-production Dublin shape they have ever created, a fitting tribute to the man nicknamed the "Irish Giant."