|"Crean was an Irishman with a fund of wit and an even temper which nothing disturbed."
--Albert Armitage, Two Years in the Antarctic
Petty Officer Thomas Crean
|Note: The following is excerpted from a lecture given to the Mountaineering Clubs of Ireland by Michael Smith, author of "An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean - Antarctic Survivor." Published by Collins Press, "An Unsung Hero" is currently available in Ireland, and can be ordered online at the Collins press website (www.collinspress.com). Our deepest thanks to Mr. Smith for allowing us to publish this edited version of his lecture.|
Part 1 - Introduction to a Hero
Tom Crean was undoubtedly one of the finest characters to emerge from the Heroic Age of Polar exploration. Few men have made a greater contribution to the annals of Polar exploration and yet have been so badly served by history. For too many years Tom Crean's contributions to the great adventures of Polar exploration have been underestimated or even ignored.
In his own way, Tom Crean was a great man - someone who rose from the most humble of backgrounds to play a significant part in founding the Antarctic Continent. He was a central character in some of the most remarkable stories of courage, endurance and heroism.
Tom Crean figured prominently on three of the four major British expeditions to Antarctica 100 years ago. First on Discovery (1901-04), then on Terra Nova (1910-13) and finally on Endurance (1914-16). He was no bit-player in these expeditions. He was at centre stage in some of the most dramatic events of the whole era. Crean spent more time in the South than either Scott or Shackleton, and he outlived them both.
Crean was one of the rare breed who served both Scott and Shackleton with equal distinction. And Crean was one of an even rarer breed who turned down Shackleton. Despite a personal request from Shackleton, Crean rejected the chance to sail on the Quest in 1921 - what proved to be Shackleton's last journey. Perhaps Crean knew the right time to quit.
Frank Debenham, who established the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, had his own memory of Tom Crean. He said that Crean was unique - like one of the characters out of Masefield or Kipling.
Crean was thoroughly reliable, blessed with immense physical strength and, more importantly, had great mental resolve and self confidence. He was also an irrepressible optimist who could crack a joke or sing a song, even at the most difficult times.
Tom Crean was born in 1877 on a remote hillside farm near the village of Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula in Co Kerry. He shared a birthday with that other great adventurer of the 20th century, Edmund Hilary. Tom was one of a typically large family of 10 children who struggled to eke out a meagre existence on the land. Education was minimal and the youngsters learned little more than how to read and write.
One reason why Crean's story has been overlooked for so long is that he left precious written material little behind. He was poorly educated and in contrast to his more famous contemporaries, did not keep a diary and only a handful of letters have survived.
Understandably, he wanted to get away from the poverty and one of the most popular exit routes was the British Navy. In 1893, at the age of 15, he lied about his age and signed up Boy Second Class in the mightiest navy in the world.
Fate took Crean to Pacific waters. He was a Petty Officer, 2nd Class, on board a warship called Ringarooma, which was in New Zealand as Scott's Discovery was making a final stop-over before embarking on the first concerted exploration of the Antarctic Continent. One of Scott's sailors deserted shortly before Discovery set sail and Crean volunteered for a trip into the unknown.