The Iconic Tom Crean Portrait
The Endurance Expedition 1914 – 1917
It is 104 years to the day, since Frank Hurley took this iconic photograph of the Irish explorer Tom Crean, during the Endurance Expedition. The setting for the powerful image was on the drifting ice floes of the Weddell Sea, where Crean, Hurley and the crew of Shackleton’s Endurance, had found themselves ensnared. It is, above all other photographs of Tom Crean, the one image that has become synonymous with his immense strength, unwavering courage and indomitable character.
Despite the unfavourable prospects of their situation, Crean fixes the camera with a stare of steely determination, yet somehow manages to exude the altruistic side of his aspect, that made him such a popular character with all who endeavoured with him.
Behind those deep, dark eyes, swirled a multitude of memories cast in the ice and hardships of Antarctica.
Crean was, by 1915, a veteran of two Antarctic expeditions, with Captain Scott – The Discovery and the Terra Nova. On the Terra Nova Expedition he had laboured to within 150 miles of the South Pole with Scott, who opted not to select him for the polar party, at this juncture. A bitterly disappointed Tom Crean, Lt. Edward Evans and Bill Lashly, turned for Cape Evans, as the last supporting team.
Crean and Lashly were both awarded the Albert Medal for Conspicuous Bravery, for their heroics, when their gruelling 750 mile return journey, became a desperate race against time, with the life of their Lieutenant, hanging in the balance.
Though cold, hungry and utterly exhausted, the two men dragged their dying, scurvy stricken comrade, through the Antarctic wastes, on the provisions sledge, refusing to obey his order, to leave him behind and save themselves.
The got as close as 35 miles to Cape Evans, but that was five days toil away, at the pace they had weakened to. Evans would be dead by then. A decision was made, and the dying Evans was placed in a tent, where Lashly would remain to tend to him. Crean embarked on a solo march to reach the base, and raise rescue for his two companions. He covered the 35 miles in 18 hours, outflanking a blizzard whilst sustained by just a few biscuits and a piece of chocolate. Unbelievably they had saved Evans.
The could however do nothing to save the five men they had parted company with on the Polar Plateau, on January 4th, 1912. Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Edgar Evans did succeed in reaching the South Pole, only to discover they had been preceded there by Roald Amundsen. All five men would die in quite wretched circumstances, on their return journey. Crean was among the search party that located the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, on November 12th, 1912.
Tom Crean was the only member of the ill fated Terra Nova Expedition to ever return to Antarctica, and he did so within a year of arriving home, when Sir Ernest Shackleton was quick to seek out his services, having learned of his heroic exploits.
Frank Hurley, the Endurance Expedition’s photographer, captured hundreds of images that would provide the world with a visual account, of the remarkable ordeal that unfolded when the Endurance became trapped, and eventually crushed, by the ice of the Weddell Sea.
Alas when it became evident that the ship was going to sink and the men would have to haul their supplies across the ice, Hurley had to leave hundreds of negatives behind, and selected what he considered the most important of the images
The photo of Tom Crean was taken in the early stages of the Edurance entrapment, on February 7th 1915, and unbeknownst to the men at this time, they faced more than two years of extreme survival, on ice, sea and land, and Crean would play a central role in the safe rescue of all the crew.
He was one of the six brave souls who sailed over 800 miles of the treacherous Weddell Sea in a lifeboat, before he crossed the rugged, mountainous and uncharted interior of South Georgia, with Shackleton and Worsley, to finally achieve rescue for the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island.
When you look at this photograph of Tom Crean, and look into his eyes, you know he was ready for all that lay ahead.
“A fine character one of the most reliable men on the expedition. As his name suggests he is an Irishman and a giant at that. He started as an ordinary sailor in the Navy and was in Scott’s expedition on HMS Discovery and again in his last expedition when, by walking thirty miles alone to fetch help, and thereby save the life of Commander Evans dangerously ill with scurvy, he gained the Albert medal for conspicuous bravery. His staunch loyalty to the expedition is worth a lot”
Orde-Lees Diary, October 10, 1915