In praise of Tom Crean: Polar Explorer and Hat Enthusiast

It’s Tom Crean’s birthday.  I celebrated by making large amounts of tea and using my new tea-cosy.  You see, it’s not just any old tea-cosy.  It’s a Tom Crean tea-cosy.  Hand-knit with the warmest, wildest Hebridean yarn I could find.

This post is not about my own research but rather related [1] to the research of Sinead Moriarty, a PhD student I work with at the University of Roehampton, who is investigating the representations of Antarctica in children’s literature.

One of the texts Sinead’s looking at is Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill, a gorgeous picturebook about the Endeavour expedition which has been recently nominated for the Kate Greenaway prize for illustration.

Shackleton's Journey by William Grill, Flying Eye Books

Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill, Flying Eye Books

The book is gorgeous.  I’m enchanted by it.  I teach a module on Visual Texts for the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton and I love reading picturebooks and thinking about how words and images work together to create a text.

This picturebook is especially beautiful.

Grill makes excellent use of white space and his limited palette is appropriately matched to the spare text.  Grill’s landscapes are extraordinary; the tension between the tiny ship and the huge expanse of Antarctica is tangible in the third opening shown here with the ship placed down in the right-hand side, a position of uncertainty and danger.[2] The illustrations of the men – and dogs – have a Lowry-esque quality that at once makes the figures seem universal, like stick-men, and also deeply individualised.


They are at once archetypal and unique, supernatural and real.

This is Grill’s portrait of Tom Crean.

from Shackleton's Journey by William Grill

from Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill

At once a real man and a legend.

Crean is the man who went to Antarctica with Scott twice[3] and came back alive and THEN went back to Antarctica with Shackleton[4].  Voluntarily. He’s a big deal.

I won’t get into all the details of the Antarctic voyages or recount the dozens of amazing stories and examples of Crean’s fortitude and courage.  Like the time he was awarded the Albert Medal for Lifesaving for walking 56 km across the Ross Ice Shelf to get help for Edward Evans who was injured.  He did this walk alone with only a couple of biscuits and a stick of chocolate for sustenance.[5]   Or when the dog-handler Shackleton hired for the Endurance expedition didn’t turn up[6], Crean took charge of the dogs.  Including all the puppies.[7]


There’s something wonderful about this giant of a man having an armful of puppies.

And after all his adventures he went home to Kerry, got married, and opened a pub called The South Pole Inn and led a very quiet life.

He was described as having “a fund of wit and an even temper which nothing disturbed.”  He enjoyed singing tunelessly and seemed to like animals very much.

Herbert Ponting's photo of Crean with Bones the pony in 1911

Herbert Ponting’s photo of Crean with Bones the pony in 1911

As well as taking care of puppies and ponies, he also smuggled a rabbit onto the Terra Nova.

He was also something of a hat enthusiast.

The first photo is probably the most iconic image of Crean and definitely my favourite of his hats. It’s definitely a ‘mighty’[8] hat.

Not that we have much historical evidence for this but Sinead and I both think this hat looks a bit like a tea-cosy.

In honour of Tom Crean, I made a pattern.  It’s a tea-cosy that doubles as a hat.  Very useful for cold research days.

It’s made with undyed Hebridean wool and is a nice chocolate brown colour. I picked it up in a sale in Fibreworks Oxford. While it wasn’t nearly as scratchy as the Jacob’s yarn I used for the Ragnar Blanket, this wool was pretty coarse.  There were bits in it.  Lots of little bits.  If I’d swept up all the bits afterwards, I could probably cover the floor of a very small rabbit-hutch.

The second skein has a slightly looser twist and is a shade lighter in colour so under some lights, if you squint, you can see where I changed skeins but I don’t really mind – that sort of colour variation is natural and the difference in twist is, I think, normal with handspun yarn because different spinners work with different tensions.

It’s very warm and, if you choose to wear it as a hat, the rib-section is long enough to double-back on itself to make a double-layer over your ears.

It’s a very simple pattern and it makes for excellent TV knitting. Download the free pattern here: Tom Crean Tea Cosy Hat.

If you’re interested in hearing more about Sinead’s research on Antarctica in children’s literature, she’ll be talking at the Irish Society for the Study of Children’s Literature (ISSCL) conference in Dun Laoghaire on April 11th 2015.  Do come along!


[1] If somewhat tangentially…

[2] See William Moebius, “An Introduction to Picturebook Codes” Word and Image 2 (1986) 2: 141—158 reprinted in Children’s Literature: The Development of Criticism, edited by Peter Hunt, 131–47. London: Routledge, 1990.

[3] Discovery expedition 1901-1904 and Terra Nova expedition 1910-1913

[4] Endurance expedition 1914-1917

[5] I find this amazing because I would struggle to get out of the house without at least a cup of tea as well.

[6] I wouldn’t blame him for having second thoughts…

[7] OK…maybe this isn’t a testament of his courage but it is a point in his favour in my book.

[8] This is the word I associate with massive, warm hats.  I was out walking in Mayo with my school group when I was only a slip of a girl.  I was cold so I was wearing the most enormous blue hat my mammy had knitted for me.  Out of nowhere a big mountainy man appeared, pointed at me, said “That a mighty hat, girl!” and promptly disappeared back up the mountain.

12 thoughts on “In praise of Tom Crean: Polar Explorer and Hat Enthusiast

  1. Two years ago, we published an article about Tom C. in Sea History magazine. I noted on my layout markup “What a cool hat–wonder if I could find a similar pattern!” I then saw the photo of Tom in Ravelry and followed the link… It was fun to read your post today about him and that fab hat. Thanks for the smile.

    • Thank you! I’ve been meaning to make a Tom Crean hat for a while now but when I saw his birthday was coming up I decided to go for it. Glad you enjoyed the post…I must tell Sinead about the Sea History article. Could come in handy!

    • Hi Shelley,

      Looking back at my contributor copy, I see you must be Editor-at-Large, then and now. I’m the author of the Tom Crean article, as well as the “Rough Weather All Day” in the current (Spring 2015) issue.

      TC wore any number of hats, including none. Alas, I can’t attach images here.

      Right now (one hundred years ago today) TC is training dogs on the sea ice with the beset ‘Endurance.’ See my post on,, “Live Posts from the Antarctic 1915″\

      Hats off t’you.

      Dave Hirzel

      • Hi Dave, thanks so much for this info – and for the link. Your blog looks fascinating!

      • Hi Dave–
        Apologies for the confusion, but Peter Stanford is our editor at large. My official title is copy editor; my repeated requests to have it changed to Defender of the Written Word have been heartless squashed. Your articles are always a highly interesting contribution to Sea History.

        For those having trouble with the above link, they can try to reach your blog.


    • Oh they are fabulous! Thanks for the link! I must make a pair to go with the hat – all we need now is someone to make a Shackleton scarf and we’ll be all set. 🙂

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  4. Hi jane attempting to make this tom crean hat for my boyfriend qnd have never knitted in the round before. Have cast on the stitches but now am wo dering if the length of the cable joining needles is too long? Does it have to be a certain length? Thanks so much


    • It’s tricky to get the cable length exactly right. Sometimes shuffling the stitches around helps or maybe using a set of double-pointed needles would be better if your cable is so long as to be unmanageable? Sometimes it’s just the first couple of rounds tat are awkward though and once you get going, the stitches stretch to fit.

  5. I loved your post Jane. I stumbled upon it while looking for tea cosy inspiration. Combining the tea cosy with such a rugged legend of a man – inspired. Made my day.

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