The Early Years
William Crossman was born at Isleworth, Middlesex on 30th June 1830. He was the eldest son in the large family of Robert and Sarah Crossman (nee Douglas). Crossman senior was a north country brewer who went into partnership with James Mann in his brewery business in the heart of London’s East End. They were soon joined by Thomas Paulin to form Mann, Crossman, Paulin of the Albion Brewery, Whitechapel Road, Mile End. Robert Crossman acquired property at Holy Island and Cheswick, Northumberland on which he built the family home in 1859.
William Crossman attended Berwick Grammar School and Mr Jeffery’s School at Woolwich prior to entering the Royal Military Academy in January 1847. He passed through the Academy excelling in practical skills and received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant on 19th December 1848, joining the Chatham Royal Engineers establishment on 1st February 1849.
After further officer training, he was put on the staff of the 1851 Great Exhibition from 1st January to 25th October 1851. Preparations had been underway since September 1850 and the Royal Sappers and Miners had been involved from the start; Crossman found himself quartered with these men in Kensington Cavalry Barracks and Kensington Palace for the duration. His duties included allotting space to exhibitors, looking after the ventilation and acting as Assistant Secretary to the Juries. When it was all over, he and the other RE officers were invited to Paris by the French Government and were feted, entertained and paraded in grand style.
Within a week of the end of his duties at the Exhibition, Lieutenant William Crossman boarded the convict ship Marion with the third contingent of Sappers and Miners (30) bound for the Swan River Colony; the young RE officer, the RSMs and newly appointed Warder Thomas Gardiner were nominally in charge of 279 convicts on the voyage. Crossman would join Captains Edmund Henderson and Henry Wray and his Woolwich class-mate Lieutenant Edmund Du Cane in the supervision of the now 100-strong 20th Company of Royal Sappers and Miners. His role would be to superintend the labour of the convicts in the execution of public works, roads, bridges, erecting prisons for those still serving their sentences, depots for the ticket of leave men seeking employment, quarters for soldiers and cottages for the enrolled pensioner force.
Crossman was based mainly in Albany. He became a Magistrate for the Colony, a visiting magistrate of the ticket-of-leave depots and a police magistrate in Perth. The augmentation of the Army as a result of the impending Crimean War, allowed Crossman his promotion to 1st Lieutenant on 7th February 1854. He married Catharine Josephine Morley in Albany on 3rd March 1855; there would be six children of the marriage.
Crossman’s specific projects in the Colony included the gaol at Albany, the drainage of lakes in the Perth Townsite, the Perth-Albany Road, the Perth-Fremantle Road, the Freshwater Bay Depot and works at Champion Bay and Port Gregory. He is remembered in Western Australia by the Crossman River and by the small settlement of Crossman off Albany Highway whence Crossman Road connects with Boddington.
His post in the Colony was not a lengthy one. In February 1856 he, Du Cane and 19 Sappers were recalled to England for duty in the Crimean War. There were shortages of supplies and water on the voyage and after detours to remedy these, the ship Esmeralda finally arrived in England in June. Crossman’s time in the Colony is recorded in his letter books, copies of which are available in the State Library, Perth, Western Australia.
Back in England, Crossman’s practical work during his training at Woolwich was remembered and he was employed by the Inspector-General of Fortifications (I.G.F.) at a time when the British Government felt coastal stations were vulnerable and had therefore sanctioned loans for improved defences of dockyards and naval bases. He spent several years engaged in surveys and designs for the defences of Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight, Gosport, Portland and Plymouth. During this period, on 12th August 1858, he was promoted to 2nd Captain.
Owing to the diplomatic tension between the United States and Britain over the ‘Trent Affair’, the government took steps to strengthen its military forces in Canada. Crossman volunteered for service and in late 1861 assisted in preparing quarters for British troops sent to Canada. He was then made Secretary to the Royal Commission on the defences of Canada, visiting every post on the frontier.
Crossman was promoted to 1st Captain on 5th February 1864 while employed at the War Office. By March 1866 he was again sent overseas, this time by the Treasury, to report on legation and consular buildings in Japan and China. During this mission he acquired a dockyard for the Admiralty in Shanghai and accompanied naval expeditions to Nanking and Yung Chow. Crossman was on this ‘special duty’ for over four years.
Between 1870 and 1882 Crossman found himself on further special duties in Constantinople (for the Foreign Office); Griqualand West, Africa (for the Colonial Office); Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bermuda and Jamaica (as inspector of submarine mining defences); Esquimalt, Fiji, Hong-Kong, Singapore and Australia (for the Colonial Office).
By the time Crossman arrived home in July 1882, he had risen in rank from Captain to Colonel Brevet and made C.M.G. in May 1877. His work into the financial condition of the West Indies earned him a Knighthood in March 1884. A month after promotion to Colonel in May 1885, he resigned his command, stood for Parliament and won the seat of Portsmouth for the Gladstone Liberal government. Crossman found himself at odds with Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule policy and joined the Liberal Unionist Party, retaining his seat until the 1892 when he did not contest the election.
In 1883 he succeeded to his father’s estate in Northumberland, and on 6th January 1886 retired from the Army with the honorary rank of major-general after 38 years’ service. He was a JP for Northumberland, Alderman of the county council, and High Sheriff of Northumberland in 1894/95. He held office on the River Tweed Commission and the Berwick Naturalists’ Club, and was an associate member of the Institute of Civil Engineers.
Sir William’s wife Catherine died in 1898, and the following year he married Ann Matilda , the daughter of Lieutenant-General Richards. Sir William Crossman died at the Belgravia Hotel, London on 19th April 1901, leaving personal effects to the value of nearly £55,000. Cheswick House, Northumberland remained in the Crossman family until 2002 when it went on the market for the first time ever.
The Late Major-General Sir William Crossman, E F Du Cane, Livesey & Co., Ltd., 1901.
History of the Royal Sappers and Miners, T W J Connolly, Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1857.
The Royal Australian Engineers, 1835 to 1902, Maj. Gen. R R McNicoll, CBE, Corps Committee of the Royal Australian Engineers, 1977.
Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Robert Hamilton Vetch.
Royal Engineer: A Life of Sir Edmund Du Cane, Alexandra Hasluck, Angus and Robertson, 1973, p.112 illustration.
Statement of the Services of William Crossman, Royal Engineers, WO25-3913-27, National Archives, Kew.
England & Wales National Probate Calendar 1901.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Brewery History Society Wiki.
Time Inc. (UK) Country Life Magazine.
© Diane Oldman 2016