Tom Crean was born a farmer’s son in the Anascaul district, in the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland. It was a hard life for young Tom and his family and he eventually he decided to run away to sea. At the age of 15, he enlisted in the British Navy and served on a number of navy ships. By 1899, he had worked his way up to the rank of Petty Officer.
Tom’s involvement with Polar exploration came about quite by accident. Whilst serving on HMS Ringarooma he found himself in Christchurch, New Zealand. Scott’s “Discovery” was also in port and just happened to be in need of an extra crewmember. It is not clear how Tom was appointed to the “Discovery”, but it was possibly at the recommendation of his skipper. In December 1901, he was to join her as a volunteer Able Seaman.
He performed his duty well, and Scott noticed Crean and thought very highly of him. On returning from Scott’s 1901-04 expedition, he was promoted to Petty Officer 1st Class.
During 1909 when Scott set about recruiting his crew for the “Terra Nova”, Crean was one of the first crew members he decided he must have along with
him . In September of 1910, he was appointed to the expedition as Petty Officer.
Crean had expected to be in the party to make the final push to the Pole; however, Scott decided to exclude him. Crean, who had been very loyal to Scott, was more than disappointed to learn that Bowers had been selected as the fifth member.
Scott and his party reached the South Pole on Thursday 18th January 1912 only to find that Amundsen had arrived there on Saturday 16th December 1911.
The story of how Scott and his four companions battled their way back from the pole and eventually perished only 14 miles from safety is now legendary.
In February of 1912, Crean , Teddy Evans and William Lashley were stranded on the ice and close to death. Crean made his epic 35 mile perilous lone trek back to Hut Point to raise the alarm and saved the lives of his two companions. For this quite remarkable feat he received the Albert Medal.
On Tuesday 12th November 1912 Tom Crean was one of the party sent out to find Scott. In the afternoon of Friday 15th November, they came across the tent containing the frostbitten bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Crean wept openly.
Crean returned back to his Navy duties and was stationed at Chatham. In 1913 Shackleton began to recruit for his intended Trans-Antarctic expedition. He had known Crean from their time together on the “Discovery” and Shackleton was later to chose him as one of the party of six to make the crossing of Antarctica.
The crossing never took place as the “Endurance “ sank. Crean was chosen in a party of six to make the epic open boat crossing of Drakes Passage from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. He, along with Shackleton and Worsley, miraculously managed to cross the island, something that had never been done before, and even to this day, has only been achieved by a handful of people who have taken far longer than they did!
Crean accompanied Shackleton on his four attempts to rescue the remaining 22 men stranded on Elephant Island. On the Wednesday 30th August 1916 on board the Chilean steamer, “Yelcho” their mission was finally achieved.
Crean arrived back in England in November 1916 and again returned to his Navy duties at Chatham. Tom married his childhood sweetheart Nell Herlihy on Wednesday 5th September 1917 in his hometown of Anascaul. He was 40 and Nell 36.
That same year he gained promotion to the rank of Acting Boatswain.
He returned again to Chatham and towards the end of WW1 spent some time serving around the English and Irish coasts on H.M.S. Colleen.
In 1919 Tom served on HMS Fox and suffered a bad fall whilst on ship, which resulted in his early retirement from the navy in 1920 at the age of just 42.
Shackleton invited Tom to join him on the 1922 “Quest” expedition but Tom declined the offer.
Tom hung up his Antarctic boots and settled down to a happy married life with Nell, and within four years, they had produced three fine daughters, Mary (1918) Katherine (1920) and Eileen (1922). Tragically, Katherine was to die of epilepsy when she was just four years old.
In 1927 Tom achieved one of his life long ambitions. He opened a pub in Anascaul and gave it the name “The South Pole Inn”. Many visitors from outside the area must have wondered at its name!
Tom Crean’s Pub in Anascaul
South Pole Inn (photo courtesy of Janet Adey)
Tom spent many happy years with Nell running the pub, until 1938 when he fell ill with stomach pains. He was admitted to hospital in Tralee and acute appendicitis was diagnosed. Strangely no surgeon was available to perform the simple routine operation. He was transferred to a hospital in Cork some 80 miles away.
The delay proved fatal. Infection had set in and he died one week later on Wednesday 27th July. 1938 at the age of 61.
Tom, a staunch Catholic, had built his own tomb some years earlier in the village of Ballynacourty, close to his birthplace where he rests to this day. Almost the entire population of Anascaul turned out to show their respect for one of their most famous sons.
Tom Crean was a modest man. Born a farmer’s son, poorly educated, he died an accomplished mariner and a decorated hero of the golden age of polar exploration. Respected by great men including Scott and Shackleton.
Memorial Plaque, Tom Crean Memorial Garden. Anascaul.
( photo courtesy of Janet Adey)
Tom Crean’s statute – with pups. Tom Crean Memorial Garden. Anascaul.
(photo courtesy of Janet Adey)