Tom Crean’s Death – The Tragedy & The Erroneous Obituary.

Tom Crean’s Death.

July 27th 1938 – Bon Secours Hospital, Cork.

“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” – George Eliot

One of the last known photographs of Tom Crean

One of the last known photographs of Tom Crean.

For many years it had been thought that Tom Crean was born on July 20th 1877, that is until Kay Caball discovered his birth certificate, which proved that he was in fact born on February 25th 1877. July 20th however is still a date that will always feature in the life story of the man from Annascaul, who had taken part in three major Antarctic expeditions. Tragically it was on that day in 1938, that his untimely demise was set in motion.
The Irish Giant, as he had been called by those that served with him, and had witnessed, first hand, his immense and heroic contributions, suddenly began to feel quite unwell.

Tom had complained of acute stomach pains, and had began vomiting. He was rushed to Tralee hospital, which was situated about 16 miles from his home at the South Pole Inn. Appendicitis was quickly diagnosed, but in a cruel twist of fate, there was no surgeon on duty to perform the necessary operation. A transfer was arranged to the nearest available hospital, which was the Bon Secours in Cork, but it lay a damning 75 miles away.
Creans appendix had burst prior to its removal and infection quickly took hold. His condition deteriorated over the course of the following week, while his loving wife Nell kept vigil with him throughout his final days, as he drifted in and out of consciousness. On July 27th 1938, Tom Crean slipped into un-consciousness and from this world, as unassumingly as he had lived his humble post Antarctic years.

The funeral of Tom Crean, was as large a gathering of mourners, as the village of Annascaul had ever witnessed. Tom had been an extremely popular character, and despite almost refusing to speak about his heroic past, most of his friends and neighbours were aware of his exploits to some extent.Tom was buried at Ballynacourty cemetery, in a tomb he had built himself. He was laid to rest beside his daughter Katie, who had died of ill health, at the tender age of four.
Placed on top of the tomb was a glass case of porcelain flowers, a tribute from Edward Evans, the man who’s life Crean’s solo march had saved, in February 1912. It read, “In affectionate remembrance from an Antarctic comrade.”

Crean’s passing was widely reported and his death would have caused quite a shock, and conjured great sadness among his former exploration comrades. 

The Obituary.

New Zealand has, and continues to have, a rich association with Antarctic exploration. Both of Captain Scott’s expeditions, left the country, as their last port of call, before journeying southwards.
In 1901, Scott’s ship Discovery, was at Lyttelton Harbour, making final arrangements for the British National Antarctic Expedition. By chance Tom Crean was also in Lyttelton, serving aboard HMS Ringarooma. One of Scott’s crew – a man by the name of Harry Baker – struck an officer, and fled before punishment could be meted out. Finding himself a man short, Scott approached the captain of the Ringarooma, in search of a replacement. The Ringarooma’s crew had been detailed to assist Scott, with
his preparations, and it also came good, and proffered a new recruit. That man was Tom Crean.
Quite by chance and curious circumstance, Crean had found himself aboard the ship Discovery, as it headed off to explore the vast, unknown continent of Antarctica. The rest, as they say, is history.

Members of the Terra Nova noreturn to New Zealand in February 1913.
Tom Crean stands on far right.

Crean’s association with Antarctica, is now legendary. New Zealand too, will always have affiliation with the Irishman. He would return there, with Discovery, on the expedition’s homeward journey in 1904. Six years later, Crean would again find himself in New Zealand, as Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition, readied itself to again head south, and make a quest for the South Pole. The Terra Nova sailed from Port Chalmers on 29th November, 1910, aware that Amundsen was “proceeding south” and intended reaching the pole before them. The race had begun.
The Terra Nova returned to Lyttelton in February 1913, on a wave of despair. Prior to their arrival, on the morning of 10 February 1913, Dr Edward Atkinson and Lieutenant Harry Pennell had disembarked and rowed into the New Zealand port of Oamaru. From there they sent a message back to the expedition’s New Zealand agent, Joseph Kinsey, informing him of the tragic deaths of Scott and his polar party. The world already knew of Amundsen’s victory, as he had returned to Hobart, Australia, where he publicly announced his success on 7 March 1912.

So it comes as no surprise that a newspaper in New Zealand would carry an obituary to a man who had been involved in both of Scott’s expeditions, and would later play a pivotal role in the survival and rescue of the Endurance crew, on Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Below is the obituary, that appeared in the July 30th Edition of the Evening Post, in New Zealand, three days after Tom Crean’s death.

MR. THOMAS S. CREAN

EVENING POST, VOLUME CXXVI, ISSUE 26, 30 JULY 1938

The death has occurred of Mr. Thomas S. Crean, a former petty officer in the Navy, who went to the South Pole twice with Captain Scott and twice with Sir Ernest Shackleton. He saved the lives of Scott and Evans, going to a distant base and returning laden with food.

Crean made his first voyage to the Antarctic as an A.B. with Scott’s Discovery Expedition of 1901. As a petty officer, 8.N., he again accompanied Scott on the expedition of 1912.

Crean, Evans, and Lashly were the last to see Scott and his companions alive. They were greatly distressed when Scott chose them for the return party on December 31. “Poor old Crean wept,” Scott wrote in his journal. Their journey back should not have been difficult. But a blizzard held them up for three days. Lieutenant Evans developed symptoms of scurvy, but he continued to pull at the sledge. After struggling on for four days he could go no further, and his companions pulled him on the sledge. Four days of this struggling brought them to Comer Camp; then came a heavy snowfall; the sledge could not travel. Next day Crean set out alone to tramp to Hut Point, 34 miles away. Lashly stayed to nurse Evans and almost certainly saved his life till help came. Crean reached Hut Point after an exhausting march of 18 hours and the dog team was sent out to bring back Evans and Lashly. Both Lashly and Crean received the Albert Medal.

It was on Shackleton’s Endurance that Crean made his next voyage south. He was one of the five the leader chose to accompany him on the remarkable small boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

Source – Papers Past

This obituary was cabled from London after Tom Crean’s death, and was carried by a number of newspapers at the time. While it portrays Crean correctly, as a man of immense character and an accomplished Antarctic explorer, it carries many mistakes. It seems one man, who signed off as M.J. was compelled to put the record straight, and penned the letter below, to the New Zealand Herald. In it, he conveys quite a knowledge of Crean’s exploits, with Scott – the solo march to save Teddy Evans, in particular.
However he seems unaware of the Irishman’s heroic role, on Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition, stating that Crean was a “member of two or three Antarctic expeditions,” and an admission that “…it may refer to a journey of which I know nothing” which was probably referring to the last line of the obituary, which referenced the voyage of the James Caird.
He may have lamented the fact he had hoped “an abler pen than mine” would highlight the erroneous obituary, but overall M.J did a rather adept job of setting the record straight.

ANTARCTIC HERO

NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXXV, ISSUE 23112, 10 AUGUST 1938

Sir, — I have been waiting for an abler pen than mine to take exception to the cabled obituary notice from London that appeared on July 30 under the above heading, and purporting to give a short account of the life of Thomas Crean, petty officer and member of two or three Antarctic expeditions. To begin with, it says he went to the South Pole (sic) twice with Scott and once with Shackleton. As Shackleton never reached the Pole, and Scott only reached it once, when Crean was not of his party, it seems a very careless piece of misinformation. With regard to the rest of the it may refer to a journey of which I know nothing; but I rather think it refers to the following events. When Scott and his Polar party separated from the last supporting party Lieutenant Evans and Petty-Officers Crean and Lashley were the last to see the Polar party alive, and turned back regretfully to commence their long journey to the base on January 4, 1912. The way was long and difficult; heavy crevasses and blizzards made the going slow. On about January 27 Lieutenant Evans began to show signs of developing scurvy. He insisted on pulling his load for as long as he was able, but at last his gallant companions were obliged to strap him on to one of the sledges. This meant leaving everything behind that was not absolutely essential. On February 17 they found themselves 35 miles from Hut Point, but on trying to move Evans the next morning he collapsed and became so ill that Crean and Lashley decided it was impossible to move him. They had only one day’s rations, so it was essential that someone should reach the base and bring back help. This was undertaken by Crean and Lashley remained to nurse and look after Lieutenant Evans. Crean’s solitary walk of 35 statute miles alone (an 18-hour journey under those conditions) was made at the end of a journey of three and a-half months, and over ground covered with crevasses. He had three biscuits and a little chocolate to sustain himself. He had several falls on the sea-ice and the weather was getting worse and worse. However, he was just able to climb up to the Discovery Hut, and was thankful to see dogs and sledges on the ice. The sensation he made when he burst into the hut with his news can be imagined. Fortunately Dr. Atkinson was there, and the man in charge of the dogs, Dimitri. Crean himself needed medical attention and half an hour after a blizzard broke, which delayed them; but as soon as possible the doctor and Dimitri set off with two dog teams, fresh fruit and vegetables and other food. They were able to find the hut, because Lashley had tied a large piece of burberry on some bamboos for a flag, which showed through the storm. Lieutenant Evans was attended to and his life saved and the party brought him to Hut Point as soon as the weather permitted. M.J.

Source – Papers Past.

It would appear however that someone had noticed the mistakes prior to the publication of M.J’s letter on August 10th. The Auckland Star ran with the following correction on August 2nd 1938.

POLAR HERO DIES.

AUCKLAND STAR, VOLUME LXIX, ISSUE 180, 2 AUGUST 1938

POLAR HERO DIES.

SAVED TWO LIVES.

THOMAS CREAN’S JOURNEY.

A MEDLEY OF ERRORS

A strange medley of errors was cabled from London announcing the death of Thomas Screan, who went to the South Pole twice with Captain Scott and once with Sir Ernest Shackleton. He once saved the lives of Scott and Evans by going to the base, a distance of 150 miles, and returning laden with food.”

Thomas Crean (not Screan) did not go to the South Pole, nor did Shackleton. Nor did Crean save the lives of Scott and Evans. He was one of the last supporting party which left Scott 150 miles from the Pole, and turned back with Evans (of the Broke) and Chief Stoker Lashly. It was the lives of these two men that were saved by Crean’s final dash for help to Hut Point, a distance of about 37 miles. This was as desperate a trip for one man as could be imagined and Lashly, who was left to take care of the helpless Evans, and who left a diary, tells of the anxieties of waiting and of the relief of hearing the dog team returning with help and rations. This story is told most graphically in the book issued by Aspley Cherry-Garrard, ” The Worst Journey in the World,’ a book in which Lashly’s diary is reprinted. The diary was a lucky find, for it was only when Cherry-Garrard wrote to Lashly in the hope of getting some reminiscences of the journey that the diary was produced. Thoughts of Home.

At one stage of the return journey of the little party, as Lashly tells the, story in his diary, “I started to move Mr. Evans this morning, but he completely collapsed and fainted away. Crean was very upset and almost cried, but I told him it was no good to create a scene but put up a bold front and try to assist. I really think he thought Mr. Evans had gone, but we managed to pull him through.
We used the last drop of brandy.” It was after this that the two seamen thought of the plan of one going on, and Crean was chosen at his own request. He was in great peril of falling down crevasses or failing to cover the distance from fatigue, but he reached Hut Point, and a doctor and Dimitri, the dog expert, went back with supplies, and brought in Evans and Lashly, though they had to wait a day till a blizzard subsided. In their extremity the men thought much of what they would eat when they reached civilisation. “Of course,” wrote Lashly in the unspoiled style of a sailor, “New Zealand have got to be answerable for a good deal; plenty of apples we are going to have, and some nice’ home-made cake, not too rich, as we think we can eat more.” One of the things Dimitri produced from the sledge was a good lump of cake. “We are in clover,” wrote Lashly.

Source – Papers Past

So Tom Crean never did make it to the South Pole. Certainly not on four occasions, as stated. The nearest he had come was the 150 miles he had stood from it on January 4th, 1912, before returning with Lashly and Evans as the last supporting team. But that is not to say that his achievements in Antarctica fade in comparison to the accolade of standing at the pole.
His epic solo march is widely considered the single most act of bravery in the history of exploration. He and Lashly would later receive the Albert Medal for their heroic actions.
On the Endurance Expedition, Crean was instrumental in the survival and safe rescue of all 28 men, after their ship had been crushed by the ice of the Weddell Sea. They had spent months, living precariously on drifting ice floes, before they began to break up beneath them. They sailed for seven days in three lifeboats, that they had salvaged from the vessel, and eventually arrived at Elephant Island, after an appalling journey. Tom Crean had captained the smallest and most vulnerable of the boats, the Stancomb Wills.

Launching the James Caird

Launching the James Caird

With no hope of rescue or salvation from the desolate outcrop, a voyage to South Georgia was undertaken. Crean was among the number of 6 men who made the gruelling journey, across the worlds most volatile ocean, in the James Caird lifeboat. It was an 800 mile, 17 day long voyage of sheer and utter hell.
Somehow they survived and reached South Georgia on May 10th 1916. Having been forced to make landfall on the wrong side of the island, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley decided to traverse the uncharted interior, and reach the whaling station at Stromness.
Over peaks, crevasses and glaciers the three ill equipped, emaciated men trekked for 36 hours, conspiring to survive in the most desperate of circumstances, before stumbling into Stromness on May 20th.
After three failed attempts, they finally returned to Elephant Island on August 30th, 1916, aboard the Yelcho. Within an hour of locating their comrades, they had all aboard, and sailed for Chile, completing the greatest survival story of all time.

Given the desperateness of circumstances, considering the magnitude of the obstacles overcome, and the sheer enormity of sufferings and deprivations endured, being one of three men who would transcend the entire ordeal of the Endurance Expedition, is surely an accolade that surpasses that of having stood at the South Pole.

“Home is the Sailor
Home from the Sea”

Epitaph on the tomb of Tom Crean – from Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Portrait Of Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer by Andy Walsh

Portrait Of Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer is a piece of digital artwork by Andy Walsh which was uploaded on July 26th, 2017. The digital art may be purchased as wall art, home decor, apparel, phone cases, greeting cards, and more. All products are produced on-demand and shipped worldwide within 2 – 3 business days.

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