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Tom Crean with puppies Roger, Nell, Toby and Nelson on the Endurance expedition, 1911.

The Wild Man of Borneo

Antarctic Explorer Tom Crean

Some men are just simply built of a different constitution. Tom Crean’s accomplishments make “The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” the understatement of the century.

By all accounts, Tom Crean seems to have been that friend who is quietly competent. You know the buddy who doesn’t talk about being a badass, he just gets things done? He’s the one breaking trail or silently lugging more than his fair share of gear on a group trip or making the hero line look easy. Of course, those are 21st century examples of fun. Crean was an Antarctic explorer in the early 1900s, and the realities he faced were terrifying to the extreme, with legitimate life and death consequences.

Few periods of history have produced such a wealth of remarkable stories as the heroic age of expeditions to the Antarctic about 100 years ago. Little more than two decades of exploration threw up a series of powerful dramas that encapsulated the very essence of discovery—endurance, courage and tragedy. In the thick of it all was Tom Crean, an unassuming Kerryman whose extraordinary exploits made him appear as nearly indestructible as any human can be. But his amazing life remained shrouded in obscurity for over many years, known only to a few polar aficionados or bands of devoted supporters in Kerry. Yet it would be impossible to compose a history of Antarctic exploration without recognising and saluting the massive contribution he made.

Tom Crean figured prominently in three of the four major British expeditions to the Antarctic a century ago and spent more time in the ice and snow than either of the more celebrated and instantly recognisable figures of Sir Ernest Shackleton or Captain Robert Scott. And he outlived them both.
Crean first went south in 1901 with Scott’s ground-breaking Discovery expedition, on which he served his polar apprenticeship and learned the skills to survive in the most inhospitable place on earth. He returned a decade later when Scott made his ill-fated bid to reach the South Pole in 1911. Crean was a key figure on the expedition, dragging a sledge to within 150 miles of the South Pole before being ordered to return to base camp. He was among the last three men to see Scott alive within reach of his goal, and only a few months later he went back to the ice to bury Scott’s frozen body.

Crean was born to a large family in County Kerry, Ireland, on February 25, 1877. As one of 10 children, his options on the family land were limited, so he enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 15. Irish to the core, his drinking, and boisterousness earned him a reputation for being a little wild at his naval post in New Zealand. Crean must have purged his system of his youthful drama early on, because never again would anyone publicly refer to him as anything other than a strong and steady, calming force.

Scott and his team stand defeated at Amundsen’s Polar camp.

You don’t have to die like Captain Scott to be a polar hero. The endlessly cheerful, quietly unflappable, hard-as-nails Tom Crean proved that in rare style.

Crean was a colossus. A big, strong, outgoing man, he joined three Antarctic expeditions and on each he suffered appalling ordeals and responded with spectacular acts of bravery. He never weakened, never lost heart – nothing the deadly continent threw at him even made a dent.

He was unfailingly upbeat, always joking, always singing away to himself in an eccentric jumble of bum notes. He called himself “the wild man of Borneo”. His biographer, Michael Smith, calls him a “serial hero.” The man was virtually indestructible.

Tom Crean had crammed more excitement and danger into a few years than most people could manage in a lifetime. But recognition eluded him and he drifted half-forgotten into obscurity for most of the following 80 years. The reasons why history has been unkind to Crean are twofold: first, the politics of post-independence Ireland; and second, what George Bernard Shaw described as the greatest of evils and worst of crimes—poverty.
Tom Crean’s penury is more easily dealt with than the complexities of political and social life in Ireland during the 1920s and 1930s. Crean was one of ten children born to impoverished hill farmers outside the small Kerry village of Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula. Education was rudimentary, and youngsters like Crean were of more value to the family working in the fields than studying mathematics or writing essays. Crean left school with little more than the ability to read and write, a significant fact that would contribute to his later profile.
Most of the men who travelled on the early polar expeditions were from the middle classes, went to public schools and universities or were products of officer training school. Shackleton, for example, went to London’s prestigious Dulwich College, while Scott entered the naval training college at the age of thirteen and spent his entire life in uniform. Writing came naturally to the middle classes of the time, and these men left behind a seemingly endless supply of diaries, letters, paintings and photographs for the archives.

The Endurance – another fascinating story Tom Crean was part of the team.

Crean was fifteen years old in 1893 when he confronted the stark reality of life on a Kerry farm. Like countless young Irishmen and women, he chose to leave to seek a better life elsewhere. One obvious route was the British army or navy, a regular bolthole for generations of young Irish lads eager to escape the hardship of home. Crean was so desperate to escape that he lied about his age to sign up for the Royal Navy and only rarely returned to Ireland over the next three decades. Crean enjoyed a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, climbing the ranks from the lowest level of Boy 2nd Class to Chief Petty Officer and finally to Warrant Officer. He spent eight years as a common naval ‘bluejacket’ before volunteering for Scott’s Discovery expedition in 1901 and becoming an explorer. By tradition, much British exploration—particularly to the Arctic and the Antarctic—was carried out under the auspices of the Royal Navy, either directly or indirectly. Discovery was overwhelmingly a Royal Navy operation, leavened with a few scientists and a civilian cook. Even private expeditions, like Shackleton’s Endurance voyages, were sea-faring enterprises, with naval men like Crean given special permission to join up for the duration.

The Terra Nova Trapped in the ice.

Discovery alongside Barrier.

Terra Nova at Cape Evans.

His first two trips South were with Captain Scott – on the Discovery in 1901 and the Terra Nova in 1910. He was what is often described as “hardbitten” tough, and determined, he had been disrated in the Navy for drunken and inappropriate behaviour and had a less than satisfactory character reference, this happened just before he joined the Discovery expedition with Scott, the first of three journeys he would make to Antarctica..

Crean joined Scott’s Discovery expedition when he was in Christchurch, New Zealand in December 1901 serving aboard HMS Ringarooma, the Discovery was also in port and in need of an extra crewmember, and he left his own ship to join as a volunteer able seaman. He gained a reputation for being one of the most effective man-haulers in the party and was well liked and respected by the other men. Crean returned to naval duty after the expedition and was promoted to Petty Officer 1st class following Scott’s recommendation. Following the Discovery expedition, Scott requested that Crean should join him in serving on his ship and for the next few years, the two served together on a number of vessels.

The Discovery trip was a journey into the unknown. Antarctica was a mystery at the time, the last unexplored continent on earth. But Crean took to polar exploration like a drake to water. Blizzards, frostbite, snow-blindness – he just sucked it all up.

Crean was one of the men Scott chose first for the Terra Nova expedition, he was appointed as an expert sledger and pony handler, he was also one of the few men on the expedition with previous polar experience.

By the time his second expedition on the Terra Nova came round he was an old-timer. And that’s when he began pulling off his wild heroics; when he started saving lives.

Birdie Bowers and the splendidly named Apsley Cherry-Garrard were the first men to owe him everything. One night the three explorers unwittingly camped on unstable sea ice – and were woken a few hours later by the sickening sound of the floor breaking up beneath them.

They found themselves trapped on a small floe, surrounded by loose ice, and drifting out to sea. To add to the drama, killer whales were circling, looking for breakfast. “We had been in a few tight places,” recalled Bowers, “but this was the limit.”

Crean assessed the situation, calmly announced he was going for help – then he leapt off the floe onto another piece of ice floating past, and from there made slow but dogged progress back to solid ground, jumping from floe to floe, using the slippery, bobbing ice sheets as stepping stones, killer whales all around him.

Crean and Petty Officer Evans mending sleeping bags, May 16th 1911, Scott’s Terra Nova expedition.

It was a mad gamble. One slip and he’d be dead. But after several hours he was back with ropes and a rescue party to save his colleagues. “Oh, I just kept going pretty lively…” he said later, brushing off any talk of heroics, “them killers wasn’t too healthy company.”

A year later, Crean notched up heroic rescue number two. And this time he accomplished it with nothing less than the greatest solo polar march ever made.

Crean and two other colleagues – Teddy Evans and Bill Lashly – were returning to base after taking part in Scott’s fateful push to the South Pole in 1912. They’d been among eight men who got within 150 miles of the prize. Then Scott had split the group, sending the trio back and pushing on with the four other men who were to die at his side.

Some say Scott would have survived if he’d brought the indomitable Crean with him that day. Maybe, maybe not. But what is certain is that by sending Crean back, the captain saved Teddy Evans’s life instead.

Evans, Crean and Lashly’s grim 750-miles trudge homewards was a race for survival. From the start, things went awry. The temperature dropped alarmingly. They got lost. They suffered snow-blindness. Then something happened that would have ended lesser men – Evans’s legs began to swell, his teeth became loose and he began to haemorrhage. He had scurvy.

Tom Crean (right) with Alf Cheetham, on the Endurance, 1914.

Evans was soon too weak to walk. So Crean and Lashly lay him on the sledge and pulled him, two men doing the work of three, silently plodding through the snow at a rate of just one mile an hour.

It was a hopeless situation. The pace was too slow and their food was running out. At this speed they would all starve and freeze to death. Evans told his companions to leave him on the ice and save themselves; they refused.

The pair towed the dying Evans like that for almost a week through the icy wilderness, two brave men fighting a losing battle. On the sixth day, hungry and exhausted, they could pull no more: they were shattered. Only a miracle could save them now.

Thankfully, the wild man of Borneo had one up his sleeve. Leaving Lashly to nurse Evans, he volunteered to walk on alone to the expedition base at Hut Point and fetch help. Hut Point was 35 miles away – 35 miles across the most hostile terrain on the planet.

Crean had no skis, no tent, no means of navigation, no hot food. If there was a blizzard or if he got lost, he was dead. If he fell and injured himself, he was dead. And if he failed, all three men would perish.

He folded his arms across his face as a shield against the bitter wind and subzero temperatures, and strode off into the white wilderness. In his pocket he had three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate, his only food.

The wild man trudged for 16 miles before taking his first break. He stopped for five minutes, ate two biscuits and the chocolate and then marched on. He halted again after another 14 miles, sitting down on the ice this time. He had another “meal”: the last biscuit and a lump of snow. Then, with storm clouds pressing in, he got up and moved on once more.

The Grave Of The Southern Party – Scott, Wilson & Bowers.

You can imagine Crean quietly singing away to himself as he fought his way forward, sometimes slipping on the ice underfoot or sinking up to his thighs in soft snow. He walked for 18 hours through that hell, alone. It was an astonishing display of mental and physical toughness; an almost superhuman effort.

And of course he made it. At 3.30am on 19 February, 1912, he stumbled into Hut Point and fell to his knees. The alarm was raised, a rescue party dispatched and Evans and Lashly were saved.

He arrived just before a blizzard struck which would almost have certainly have killed him had he been caught it, as it was he was on the verge of collapse on arrival. Evans who was close to death and Lashly were successfully rescued by the use of a dog team, Crean played down his part but wrote in a letter:

“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”.

A young Norwegian explorer, Tryggve Gran, saw Crean stagger through the door that day and never forgot him. Many years later, he recalled “[Crean was] 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.”

The winter of 1912 was passed in a very sombre atmosphere, the Polar Party had not returned and it was assumed they had perished in the attempt. Crean was one of the last men to see Scott and the pole party alive and he was one of those who found their final camp in November of that year and buried them in the snow.

On return to England Crean was awarded promotion and the Polar and Albert medals for his part in the expedition and for saving Evans’ life.

Tom Crean prepares for the trek to the South Pole with Captain Scott in 1911.

The wild man of Borneo was born and raised in Kerry, a farm boy, one of ten kids. He wasn’t British at all; he was as Irish as stout. But like that other wild Irishman Lucknow Kavanagh before him, he made a massive contribution to Britain’s reputation for grit and backbone, serving in the Royal Navy and taking part in British expeditions.

On return from the Terra Nova expedition, Crean resumed his Naval duties at Chatham, Kent until Shackleton began to recruit for his attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica from coast to coast via the South Pole. Shackleton knew Crean from the Discovery expedition and had no hesitation in taking him south with the expedition as second officer. He selected Crean to be one of the party of 6 to make the crossing, it looked like Crean was going to have a chance to reach the pole after all after his disappointment at not being selected by Scott.

This is when the honorary nutter pulled off heroic rescue number three on his final journey South in 1914 – and this time it was a team effort. Crean sailed on the Endurance with Ernest Shackleton, another tough Irishman known to his men as the Boss. Together the pair made a formidable team.

The Endurance expedition was a glorious failure. Shackleton’s mad plan had been to walk straight across the Antarctic continent – 1,800 miles coast to coast – with six men, Crean among them. No one had ever done it before. He called it the “last great journey on earth.”

But Endurance never even made it to the dropping off point. As she approached the Antarctic coast, the ship got stuck fast in heavy pack and sat trapped in the ice for an incredible 10 months, all the time slowly drifting north on the sea current – away from their destination.

After Endurance sank, the explorers had to drag their lifeboat, James Caird, across the ice to the open sea. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Finally, after being crunched and crushed for almost a year, her stern rose dramatically into the air and she sank. The ice had swallowed her. And the adventurers who had sailed in her were left marooned on a floe, adrift on a floating ice-sheet 1,000 miles from the nearest human settlement.

That fragile ice floe was to be their home for nearly six months, 28 men crammed into five tents and surviving on a relentless diet of penguin and seal meat that soon had them all-farting like thunder. They had enough fuel for one cup of hot tea each a day. And they had three small open boats that had been salvaged from the Endurance – their only slim hope for survival.

By April 1916, the castaways had drifted nearly 2,000 miles north and were rapidly heading for open water. The ice beneath them started to crumble. Breakout was imminent. At last, the men clambered into the three tiny vessels and cast off in search of land.

The voyage that followed was torture. Waves crashed over the men day and night. Killer whales jostled the boat. Their clothes froze solid on their backs. Salt spray constantly slashed at their faces, leaving their mouths raw and bloody.

After five days afloat, the exhausted, terrified men began to crack. One guy had a nervous breakdown; others became delirious from thirst; a hardened sailor covered his face with his hands and wept in despair. The little flotilla was turning into a drifting asylum.

Not Crean though. He took the tiller of the smallest of the three boats, the Stancomb Wills, and steered her through the lumpy, frozen sea with a calm determination. As all around him lost their heads, he remained resolute. Occasionally he sang a tuneless little song to himself. And after a week of misery he successfully landed his desperate companions on Elephant Island, a grim, uninhabited chunk of rock in the middle of the South Atlantic.

All three boats made it safely ashore, spilling their loads of half-crazed sailors onto the beach. One guy was so unhinged he started slaughtering seals with an axe; another had a heart attack. It was the first time they’d set foot on solid ground since 5 December, 1914 – 497 days before.

Crean the family man in the late 1920s, with wife Nell and daughters Mary (left) and Eileen. (Photo Crean Family)

But they couldn’t stay on Elephant Island. Every man knew they would never be found on that isolated rock. So Shackleton announced his next ludicrous plan: he would take five men and sail 800 miles to the nearest inhabited island, South Georgia, and there he’d get help, find a ship, and return to save his stranded companions.

Eight hundred miles – that was ten times the distance they’d just travelled. They’d have to sail an open boat across the most fearsome ocean on the planet, in winter. They’d face gales and mountainous waves. If they got their navigation even slightly off, they’d be swept past their goal into 3,000 miles of ocean and lost forever. It was virtually a suicide mission. Crean volunteered to go with the Boss.

The six men set off on Easter Monday, 1916, in the James Caird, a 22-foot whaler, the largest of the three boats. Their voyage made the journey to Elephant Island look like a Caribbean cruise.

Permanently wet and frozen to the marrow, the men’s feet and legs turned a ghostly white. Frostbite and filth made their faces black. Their throats became so swollen it was almost impossible to eat or speak.

The James Caird became encased in ice and almost sunk from the weight. One night a gigantic freak wave came out of nowhere and nearly finished them. They battled a hurricane and only just survived. By the end of the voyage, two of the six on board were broken men and close to death.

And Crean? Here’s Shackleton: “One of the memories that comes to me from those days is of Crean singing at the tiller and nobody ever discovered what the song was. It was devoid of tune and as monotonous as the chanting of a Buddhist monk at his prayers; yet somehow it was cheerful.”

The six desperate men were barely able to walk up the beach when they finally landed on South Georgia after 17 days of hell at sea. Yet, incredibly, still their ordeal wasn’t over. Now they were going to have to march right across the island to reach the Stromness whaling station where they hoped to find help.

South Georgia is a barren wilderness in the middle of the ocean, its interior a chaos of mountains, glaciers and crevasses. No one had ever crossed it before; no one was even sure if it was possible. But three of the James Caird’s crew – Shackleton, Crean and another stalwart, Frank Worsley – were about to give it a crack. The fate of the entire Endurance expedition now lay in this trio’s hands.

Leaving their shipmates, the men headed up into the unnamed mountains with a 90-foot rope, two compasses and a carpenter’s adze to use as an ice axe. Each carried his rations in a sock. They had neither a tent nor sleeping bags.

Tom The Pole as he was affectionately known to the locals, was a popular man who lived a relatively peaceful life in Annascaul, running The South Pole Inn. Crean’s pub, the South Pole Inn, Annascaul, County Kerry. (Michael Smith)

On the first night of the crossing, they found themselves stuck on a high peak in the middle of the island. Thick fog was closing in behind, ahead lay a dangerous icy slope that would take hours to negotiate – and if they didn’t get down fast they would die of exposure.

“We’ll slide,” said the ever-optimistic Shackleton – and that’s exactly what they did. Sitting on the coiled rope, their legs and arms wrapped around the man in front, they went flying off down the mountain on their makeshift toboggan – amazed to find themselves oblivious to the danger and yelling like schoolboys at the sudden and unexpected burst of joy.

Brought to a sudden halt by a snowbank, Crean, Worsley and the Boss dusted themselves down, shook hands rather solemnly, and strode firmly onwards, their trousers now in tatters.

As they approached Stromness they tried to smarten themselves up a bit in case there were women at the base. This was a task beyond even these three. They’d been wearing the same ragged clothes for more than a year, they hadn’t washed for three months, and they’d been on the march for 36 hours. Two children were the first to see them approach – they fled in fear.

The Endurance had berthed at South Georgia on her way South 18 months earlier. But nobody at the quayside recognised the three long-haired, wild-eyed wanderers who arrived out of nowhere that day.

They were taken to the station manager who gaped in disbelief before speaking. A Norwegian worker recalled, in broken English, what happened next: “Manager say: ‘Who the hell are you?’ and terrible bearded man in the centre of the three say very quietly: ‘My name is Shackleton.’ Me – I turn away and weep.”

Even Tom Crean admitted things had been a bit hairy on that third and final expedition to the bottom of the world. “We had a hot time of it the last 12 months when we lost Endurance and I must say the Boss is a splendid gentleman,” he wrote to his old mate Cherry-Garrard when he got home.

But once again his guts and pluck had helped turn a disaster into victory. Crean didn’t die and nor did his colleagues: amazingly, not a single man on the Endurance expedition was lost.

After his Antarctic adventures, he returned to England and resumed his naval career at Chatham. He married Nell Herlihy in 1917 back in his home town of Anascaul, Nell had been his childhood sweetheart, though they were aged 40 and 36 by the time they married. Crean served in the Royal Navy aboard HMS Colleen in the First World War, shortly after the war ended, he was given early retirement at the age of just 42 in 1920 following a bad fall on his ship. Shackleton wanted Crean to return to Antarctica with him once again on the Quest expedition, but the offer was declined and Tom settled down to married life and raising his family of four daughters.

The South Pole Inn.

Crean left the navy and returned to Kerry, at a time and in the very place where the Irish War of Independence was at its height. He discovered a totally different political environment to that which he had known when he left Ireland as a teenager in 1893. Now any association with the British was more unpopular than ever, especially in the heartlands of staunchly republican Kerry. Only a month after coming home Crean was given a stark first-hand example of the depth of feeling. Cornelius Crean, his brother and a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, was ambushed and shot dead in Cork. Crean, a pragmatic man with a genius for survival in the most hostile environments, took evasive action. In the difficult circumstances, he sensibly chose to keep a low profile and decided not to speak about his past life and exploits in the Antarctic with Scott and Shackleton.
It was a firm discipline that Crean maintained for the rest of his life. While today a famous polar explorer might employ a smooth-talking public relations executive to promote his image or generally raise his profile, Crean remained tight-lipped and spoke to no one about his life.  Even his two surviving daughters were told precious little about his adventures.

Crean hung up his mitts and snow boots after that and settled into a quiet life back in Ireland. In 1927 he opened a pub in Annascaul. Obviously feeling that the passions of the war had cooled by then, he felt able to call it the South Pole Inn. He ran the pub with Nell until 1938 when after falling ill with stomach pains, he was admitted to hospital in nearby Tralee. Acute appendicitis was diagnosed, but no one was available for the simple routine appendectomy and he was transferred to hospital in Cork 80 miles away. The delay led to infection setting in.

The indestructible Tom Crean died on 27 July, 1938, in a Cork hospital. The man who rescued Teddy Evans and could have saved Scott, the backbone of the Endurance miracle, the wild man of Borneo was felled by, of all things, a burst appendix. Once the infection set in and he was dead in a week. He’d just turned 61.

He was interred in a tomb he had built himself in the village of Ballynacourty near where he was born. Almost the entire population of Annascaul turned out to show their respect for one of their most famous sons.

He never spoke of his Antarctic exploits to his family, in the words of his daughter:

“He put his medals and his sword in a box … and that was that. He was a very humble man”.

The South Pole Inn is still in business as an inn, it is decorated inside with Shackleton and Crean memorabilia. It can be found in the village of Annascaul, County Kerry on the main road between Tralee & Dingle.

The stories he had to tell could have made that pub – any pub – fall silent in awe. But he preferred not to talk about it. As modest as ever, he politely changed the subject if anyone asked him about Antarctica.

He never gave a single interview, never published his memoirs, never even spoke to his family about his adventures. Only his ears hinted at what he’d been through: they were stiff from the effects of frostbite. And his feet, hidden beneath specially made boots, had turned black.

Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer

Crean’s personal politics on his return to Ireland are a little more difficult to pin down, which is hardly surprising given the sensitivity of the times and his understandable reluctance to stick his head above the parapet. What is known is that Crean was undoubtedly proud of his Irish roots, although he was not politically active. His credentials were aptly demonstrated on the first trip to the Antarctic on the Discovery expedition in 1902. A British naval officer, Lt Michel Barne, recorded that Crean’s sledge flew ‘an Irish ensign—consisting of a green flag with a jack in the corner and a gold harp in the centre’.

Despite his British associations, Crean managed to come to terms with the changed political environment. He was a practical, sharp-witted man who was apparently capable of steering his way through the political sensitivities of the time while retaining his own powerful sense of identity. The fact that his pub was called the South Pole Inn demonstrates that Crean was justly proud of his past, yet he was comfortable with the realities of day-to-day life in Kerry. He integrated into the community and was by all accounts a popular figure in the village of Annascaul, where he was affectionately known as ‘Tom the Pole’. His funeral was a major event and friends carried his coffin on their shoulders through the village to his final resting-place. But the price of peace was silence. Tom Crean lived quietly, never once raising his profile or speaking publicly about his extraordinary life.

 


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