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George Crossley (1749–1823)

by K. G. Allars

This article was published:

George Crossley, n.d., from Edward Charles Close - New South Wales Sketchbook: Sea Voyage, Sydney, Illawarra, Newcastle, Morpeth, c.1817-1840 [detail]

George Crossley, n.d., from Edward Charles Close - New South Wales Sketchbook: Sea Voyage, Sydney, Illawarra, Newcastle, Morpeth, c.1817-1840 [detail]

State Library of New South Wales

George Crossley (1749-1823), attorney and convict, was born in London, where he was articled and in 1771 was admitted as an attorney and solicitor. In the same year he was imprisoned for a civil debt for twelve months, notwithstanding his claim of immunity as a solicitor. After practising in Adelphi Terrace, London, for twenty-four years, in February 1796 he was charged with forging the will of Rev. Henry Lewin for the benefit of Lady Briggs, thus defrauding the heir-at-law. According to an unsubstantiated story by Roger Therry, Crossley's defence was that he placed a fly in the mouth of the dead testator before tracing the signature with the dead testator's hand, so that there could be no denial of life in the body; the prosecution, relying on the evidence of an alleged accomplice, failed.

A few months later Crossley and two other attorneys were called upon to answer charges of professional malpractice. Crossley produced an affidavit by himself to answer the charges, but the court did not find it credible. He was charged with perjury and convicted; after an unsuccessful appeal he was imprisoned for six months, ordered to be placed in the pillory and thereafter to be transported for seven years. His wife Anna Maria, a sister of Nicholas Divine, superintendent of convicts in Sydney, accompanied her husband to Port Jackson at Crossley's expense.

They arrived in the Hillsborough, on 26 July 1799, having bought at the Cape, en route, goods with which to open a shop. Crossley soon acquired land and by 1801 had sixteen men on his farm at the Hawkesbury, but then his creditors began to sue him. His bills of exchange had been dishonoured, though it is uncertain that Crossley, when drawing them, knew that this would be so; at all events, to facilitate the litigation, Governor Philip Gidley King, according to his later statement, gave Crossley a conditional pardon on 4 June 1801. After D'Arcy Wentworth, acting on behalf of one creditor, had obtained a judgment in the Civil Court, the governor, in an award on 9 January 1802 given on Crossley's appeal, instead of having his goods at once seized and sold, permitted him to continue trading, subject to his accounting for his sales, in order that the loss to his creditors might be reduced. Crossley allegedly failed to observe these conditions and on 14 September 1802 the governor ordered that Crossley's goods be seized. Crossley then prosecuted Wentworth and Thomas Smyth, the provost-marshal, for this seizure, but the Civil Court found for Wentworth. On appeal in February 1804 King found for Smyth. Crossley's projected appeal to the Privy Council lapsed for want of security for costs.

He continued to farm the 423 acres (171 ha) which he had bought at the Hawkesbury. In 1803, despite his past, he had begun to practise as an attorney in Sydney, where he was one of only two or three, free or bond, with any legal training. In 1807, though not allowed to plead in court, he advised Provost-Marshal William Gore when he was prosecuted because, it has been said, he was a loyal and capable supporter of William Bligh. Crossley at times advised Deputy Judge Advocate Richard Atkins and finally assisted him to prepare the information on the prosecution of John Macarthur which preceded the Bligh rebellion. He attained the ultimate success of being consulted by Bligh on the day of his arrest, when, although a convict, he was at Government House advising the governor on his correspondence with the rebels. For this support Crossley was tried by the rebels for having practised as an attorney after a conviction for perjury, contrary to the Act 12 Geo. I, c. 29. He was found guilty and sentenced to be transported to the Coal River for seven years. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived he was released and sued the rebels for damages for trespass and false imprisonment. A verdict of £500 was awarded to him against Anthony Fenn Kemp, Thomas Moore, Thomas Laycock, William Minchin and William Lawson but his suit against Villiers and Charles Throsby was dismissed.

After his return to Sydney, he succeeded as a farmer, trader, moneylender and lawyer. He appeared in the court of Judge-Advocate Ellis Bent, but when the new Supreme Court opened in 1815 under the Charter of Justice issued the previous year, his right to practise in it was questioned. On 1 May 1815 the court, with J. H. Bent as judge and William Broughton and Alexander Riley as assessors, had before it the petitions of Crossley and two other convict solicitors, Edward Eagar and George Chartres, for permission to practise. Bent refused Crossley the right to address the court and adjourned it when Broughton and Riley supported Crossley's right to speak. Bent insisted that the suppliants were persons 'unfit for the situation of an attorney' and had never been admitted as attorneys to the former Civil Court, though permitted to act as 'Agents specially appointed of such suitors as chose to employ them'. Although Macquarie supported their right to admission and censured Bent, the latter refused to allow them to appear. Crossley continued to practise in the Judge-Advocate's Court and advertised his business in the Gazette, but Macquarie was informed in a dispatch of 18 April 1816 that emancipated men should not be allowed to practise except when there were not two free lawyers in the colony. As a result Crossley was allowed only to finish the suits he had on hand. Next year he entered into partnership with T. S. Amos, a qualified solicitor who had emigrated to Sydney; but on 16 August Barron Field shattered this arrangement by striking Amos's name off the roll of attorneys. Field afterwards allowed Crossley a limited right of practice, again arising out of unfinished business in Amos's office, but for this he was criticized by Commissioner John Thomas Bigge.

From his wife's death in 1817 until he died in Sydney, without issue, on 19 March 1823, Crossley's career was marked by decline and pressure from creditors; there was a further conviction on 1 September 1821 for perjury with a fine of £50. He was buried in the old burial ground in Sydney, and the headstone was later removed to Bunnerong cemetery. He was a colourful if somewhat shady character, not possessing all the virtues ordinarily required of attorneys, but sometimes unnecessarily maligned.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 4, series 4, vol 1
  • Proceedings of a General Court-Martial … for the Trial of Lieut-Col. Geo. Johnston (Lond, 1811)
  • K. G. Allars, ‘George Crossley: An Unusual Attorney’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 44, part 5, 1958, pp 261-300
  • Crossley papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Supreme Court papers (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

K. G. Allars, 'Crossley, George (1749–1823)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Crossley, n.d., from Edward Charles Close - New South Wales Sketchbook: Sea Voyage, Sydney, Illawarra, Newcastle, Morpeth, c.1817-1840 [detail]

George Crossley, n.d., from Edward Charles Close - New South Wales Sketchbook: Sea Voyage, Sydney, Illawarra, Newcastle, Morpeth, c.1817-1840 [detail]

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


19 March, 1823 (aged ~ 74)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: perjury
Sentence: 7 years
Court: Middlesex
Trial Date: 20 June 1797