Dictionary of Sydney

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Crossley, George

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George Crossley

London-born George Crossley began his legal career in 1771 when he was admitted as attorney of the King's Bench in Westminster and later as attorney of the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of Exchequer and the High Court of Chancery.

In his first year of legal practice, Crossley faced a charge of endorsing dishonoured bills of exchange worth £1050. The subsequent civil action for debt recovery led to Crossley's arrest in January 1772 and he was imprisoned for 12 months. Crossley continued to practise law, working solidly for 24 years in the Adelphi Terrace, which was situated off London Strand and faced the Thames.

Condemned to transportation

In February 1796, Crossley faced accusations of forging the will of the late Reverend Lewin, with intent to deprive the rightful heirs of their inheritance. Crossley was found not guilty, despite the Court's finding on the evidence that Crossley ought to have known he was handling a forged will. This case inspired the rumour that Crossley had placed a fly in the dead testator's mouth so there was 'life in the body' and signed the will by holding the dead man's hand to trace the Reverend's signature.

However, it was only a short time before Crossley was called back to the courts, this time for professional misconduct as a legal attorney. A fellow attorney happened to be in Crossley's office and found a prestamped and signed affidavit without any affidavit having been sworn. Crossley was asked to provide reasons for this but his explanations were shown to be both incoherent and untruthful. Crossley was charged with perjury, for which he was sentenced to six months in prison with stints in the pillory, to be followed by transportation to Australia for seven years.

Prior to transportation, he married Anna Maria Devine, who was a free woman when she arrived in Sydney. Anna Maria also happened to be the sister of Sydney Town's Superintendent of Convicts, Nicholas Devine.

Just before leaving England for Australia, Crossley was involved in more Bills of Exchange matters, which he had intended to pay off with the assignment, to himself, of the estate of a married couple in London. Yet, Crossley did not realise this assignment was subject to the couple's life estate. As a result, when Crossley arrived in Australia, the bills of exchange were dishonoured.

Arrival in Sydney Town and a conditional pardon

Upon arrival in Sydney on the Hillsborough on 26 July 1799, Crossley spent the bills of exchange on land near the Hawkesbury River and employed men to prepare the land for agriculture. He also set up a well-stocked shop in Sydney Town.

While setting up his financial interests, Crossley petitioned Governor King for a Royal pardon for his perjury offence. On 4 June 1801, Governor King agreed to a conditional pardon, as Crossley's bills of exchange problems meant that creditors would soon be in pursuit of him. Convicts could not sue or be sued. Therefore Crossley was emancipated so creditors could enforce debt recovery against him within the emerging colonial legal system.

A complex and lengthy civil action ensued between Crossley and D'Arcy Wentworth, who had Power of Attorney to claim debts on behalf of a creditor. To save his shop, Crossley agreed to pay the debt in instalments and was allowed to keep £3 a week for his needs. Crossley was soon accused of not keeping accounts of all his income, and Governor King ordered an auction of his goods and chattels. Crossley was furious, as his goods were seized on 1 August 1802, which was a Sunday when legal process could not be executed. There were appeals and counter-appeals all the way to the Privy Council, where Crossley's claim languished due to his inability to provide security for costs.

Practising in the colony

Yet professionally, there were occasions when Crossley was asked to draw on his legal expertise for matters arising in the colony. He successfully defended Provost-Marshal Gore, who was responsible for enforcing the Governor's regulations against traffickers of rum, against charges that he forged a note worth 15 shillings and also stole a small ornament. When John Macarthur was informed that he was to be charged with some unidentified offence, Crossley prepared the draft indictment of treason for the Deputy Judge-Advocate Richard Atkins.

Crossley was also caught up in the storm of the Rum Rebellion on 26 January 1808, where his presence in Government House saw him advising Governor Bligh. Crossley expressed the view that if the six members of the Criminal Court adjudicated without the Deputy Judge-Advocate, this could be an act of treason. Crossley, with Deputy Judge-Advocate Atkins, was about to prepare the indictment for the six members when Governor Bligh was arrested.

The rebels took over the court and arbitrarily charged Crossley under an act for perjury that only the British courts could apply. Not knowing where to send Crossley for transportation, they settled on a sentence of seven years at Coal River (Newcastle).

Imprisoned again

Crossley was put on a ship for Coal River and placed in the custody of Charles Throsby on 20 February 1808. Mr Villiers replaced Throsby on 19 September 1808 while Lieutenant Lawson continued the custody arrangement until 10 January 1810, which marked Governor Macquarie's arrival in the colony. On 4 January 1810, His Majesty's Proclamation was given at Government House for Crossley's release.

In a petition to Governor Macquarie dated 16 February 1810, Crossley unsuccessfully sought to claim compensation for his estimated professional losses flowing from the Rum Rebellion and for his difficulties in his farming interests. However, on 5 April 1810, Crossley was successful in suing the rebels for trespass and false imprisonment; he was the only person who brought any action against the rebels. Crossley was awarded £500 damages but it is not known if an appeal was heard or whether Crossley indeed received the £500.

Return to respectable society

Without further delay, Crossley joined Sydney's bustling scene to become a respected businessman, farmer, trader, money-lender and lawyer. However, Crossley's right to practice as an attorney looked shaky when the new Supreme Court of New South Wales was established in 1815 under the 1814 Charter of Justice, which challenged former convict attorneys' rights to practise law in the colony.

Crossley's concerns were shared by fellow emancipist Edward Eagar and Governor Macquarie received correspondences detailing their fears. When the Supreme Court convened on 4 May 1815, Crossley filed an affidavit with evidence of Governor King's Royal Pardon as to his fitness to practise as a lawyer. This issue was considered by the Supreme Court the next day, when George Crossley, George Chartres and Edward Eagar appeared before Judge Jeffery Hart Bent and Judge Broughton. Judge JH Bent overruled the sympathies of his fellow judges towards the appealing attorneys and said a perjurer could not continue to act as an attorney in the colony.

There was some respite for Crossley when Judge JH Bent was replaced by Judge Barron Field and the new Deputy Judge-Advocate John Wylde. However, the British government, in a dispatch dated 18 April 1816, forbade emancipated convicts from practising as attorneys within New South Wales except in circumstances where two free lawyers could not be found in the colony.

Return to the law

Despite this prohibition Crossley found work as a clerk. On 12 October 1816, the London solicitor TS Amos moved to Sydney and hired Crossley as a clerk with Governor Macquarie's permission. There was a complex partnership agreement dated 1 May 1817 between Amos and Crossley which stated that, on certain conditions, Crossley would be paid one half of profits, less £400 pounds a year. The £400 would not apply if Crossley happened to be admitted as a solicitor.

The agreement continued until 16 August 1819 when the court ordered Amos to be struck off the roll for allowing Crossley to perform legal services under his name. However on 19 August 1819 the court said that Crossley could continue to carry out work waiting in Amos's office. It appeared Crossley was used as a pretext for having Amos struck off, with the court unhappy with Amos's personal capacity in recovering debts as an agent.

In 1817, Crossley's wife Anna Maria died at the age of 52.

Crossley's final downfall

On 1 September 1821, Crossley faced a charge of wilful and corrupt perjury relating to the execution of the deceased estate of John Reddington. Crossley was found guilty and fined £50.

Crossley died on 26 March 1823, with many creditors pursuing his estate. A will dated 15 March 1823 directed that he be buried in the Old Burial Ground with his wife. His headstone was later transported to Bunnerong Cemetery.


KG Allars, 'George Crossley: An Unusual Attorney', Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 44 part 5, 1958, pp 261–300

KG Allars, 'Crossley, George (1749–1823)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966, pp 262–3

MH Ellis, John Macarthur, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1955

HV Evatt, Rum Rebellion: A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the NSW Corps, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1938