William Crossman – the first Labour Knight
(22 March 1854 – 23 January 1929)
As its Labour Day allow me to present to you the life William Crossman, probably one of Cardiff’s unsung heroes. He was the first labour Lord Mayor of the city and the first labour person and trade unionist ever to be knighted in Great Britain. That’s quite a claim. I think its true. It was certainly a headline in the Echo at the time.
William Crossman wasn’t a Cardiff man. He was one of the thousands of people that came to Cardiff from the West Country in the late 1800s. As an aside, I’ve often wondered if that’s the reason why the Cardiff accent is so different from the nearby valleys accent.
Crossman was born in 1854 in Tavistock, Devon, son of John Crossman, a ‘captain’ in a copper mine. He married Mary Ann Moore on 29th Dec 1885 at the Roath parish church, St Margaret’s. His address at the time is given as Myra Place. I’ve not been able to find Myra Place and am left wondering if it is in fact a misspelling of Moira Place in Adamsdown. After their marriage they lived at 31 Harriet Street, Cathays for the rest of their lives and never had children.
William was a mason by training. He came to Cardiff to work as a foreman mason on the Roath Dock at Cardiff in 1884. He became a labour leader in 1892, at the time of the great building trade dispute. As a member of the conciliation committee he did much to bring that strike to a satisfactory end. He was said to have been a reasonable man, standing for his principle, but not spoiling for a fight. His sincerity and simplicity is said to have won him the respect and confidence of his opponents. For many years his life was devoted to labour representation, what we would now call trade unionism.
His conciliation skills must have been widely admired. In the early 1900s be became Chief Magistrate and was appointed as Lord Mayor of Cardiff in 1906. He was knighted whilst still in office by Edward VII on his visit to Cardiff on 13 July 1907, when the King came to open the Queen Alexandra Dock. A crowd of some 50,000 people is said to have gathered in front of the City Hall to witness the ceremony. The papers reported that he was the first labourer to have been knighted and probably also the first trade union leader. At the civic ceremony that followed the ceremony, King Edward VII is said to have commented to William, “I quite understand my man” upon seeing him refuse an alcoholic drink. Sir William was a devoted church member and one of the two Sunday school superintendents in the Bible Christian Methodist Church in Miskin Street, Cathays, Cardiff.
In January 1910 Crossman was appointed President of the new Labour Exchange in Bridge Street, Cardiff by Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade. His appointment appears to have been welcomed by politicians of all shades in Cardiff at the time.
Sir William Smith Crossman died on January 23rd 1929 aged 74 years. He is buried at Cathays cemetery.
The best insight into William Crossman’s life I’ve been able to find is, from of all places, the New Zealand Herald. From the first part of the interview Crossman comes over as a very humble man. Just as the interview is about to conclude he gets the opportunity to express his religious views and importance of abstinence. I wonder if the garden in Harriet Street still looks good!
New Zealand Herald. September 7th 1907
FROM STONEMASON TO KNIGHT.
STORY OF SIR W. CROSSMAN’S LIFE.
Working, rather than talking, is the strong point in the character of Sir William Crossman, Lord Mayor of Cardiff, the Labour representative whom the King has just honoured with a knighthood.
There is certainly squareness and massiveness about Sir William’s appearance suggestive of speech—few words and weighty —and himself or his doings form above all others the subject he is most reluctant to speak about.
After some persuasion, however, he consented to give some account of his life and bringing up, telling the tale of quiet, steady work in the simplest possible language.
“I was born in Devonshire,” said Sir William Crossman, though, perhaps, I can hardly be called a Devonshire man, as I was ‘raised’ in Cornwall. I was born at Tavistock in 1864. My father was then the captain of the copper ore mine.
“I have not had a great deal of schooling. All the education I ever had was at the Tavistock national school. I remained there till I was fourteen, and then I set out to earn my own living.
“That was what took me to Cornwall. I became apprenticed as a stonemason in the Gunnisiake Granite Quarries and served the usual term of five years. Then I worked for a while as journeyman at the same quarries.
“After that I went to work at Bristol, and since then I have been engaged in my trade there and elsewhere, but generally working on public works.’’
Nearly half Sir William’s life has, however, been spent in the capital of South Wales; and it is his splendid record of public work in that city which has led to the dramatic contrasts in his life; so that the man who worked as a foreman mason on the building of one dock represented his city in the reception of the Sovereign at the opening of the next.
“It was more twenty years ago that I came to Cardiff,” said Sir William; “indeed, it was 1884. The new Roath Dock was then being built, and I came as foreman-mason under the contractors, and held the position till the contract was completed.”
“‘Afterwards I was engaged on a good many other important building works in the town—the castle wall in the North Road, and I was foreman mason again at the erection of some big warehouses at the West Dock.”
LEADER OF LAROUR.
What first brought Sir William Crossman into prominence in the public life of Cardiff was a dispute in the building trade between employers and employed.
This led to a strike of a somewhat obstinate character which lasted several months, and was accompanied, as is usual by a considerable amount of embittered controversy. Into this controversy Sir William Crossman entered as a cordial advocate of the claims of Labour, but at the same time the position he took up was so reasonable, and the manner in which he defended, it was so tactful, that he was successful in gaining not only the support of his fellow workmen but the respect and confidence of the employers.
On this aspect of the subject, Sir William Crossman had, however, nothing to say, only remarking that it was in the year marked by this dispute -1902- that was first elected a member of the Cardiff Corporation.
“I was put up for Cathays Ward,” he said, ‘by Cardiff Labour Progressive League and I was returned for the ward by a good majority, “I have kept my seat ever since. though I have had to fight for it twice. I have always contested the ward as Labour and Liberal.
“It is the same district – the Cathays Ward- that I represent on the Board of Guardians. I have been on the board for some eight or nine years. “But I not know,”’ said Sir William, smiling. “that if I were to enumerate all the different positions I do hold or have held it would be interesting.”
THE SIMPLE LIFE.
Though, since his public duties have absorbed so much of his time, Sir William Crossman has ceased to wield the hammer and chisel himself, he still leads the simple life of a working man. His little home in the Cathays Ward of Cardiff, over which Lady Crossman presides with pleasant and kindly hospitality, is only rented, at £20 a year.
The garden is but a little oblong patch usually attached to such villas, but the most is made of it. It is overflowing with flowers, and the little conservatory, which opens out of Sir William’s tiny study, displays a wonderful variety of blossom and colour. Gardening is Sir William’s hobby in his leisure moments, which, however, especially since his accession to the Mayoral duties, are not very numerous.
“I have always found great pleasure in gardening,” he said. ‘‘After the busy life of the day I find working among my flowers restful. I think, especially in towns, you can tell a great deal about the character of people by the way they keep their gardens. Perhaps you see one a squalid wilderness and the next one ablaze with flowers.
“I do not think I have anything more to say,” said Sir William in conclusion.
“If you ask me to what I think I owe most in my life I would like to say I had the great advantage of being brought up by Christian parents and of knowing the benefit of total abstinence from my youth. My father was a very strong temperance advocate”.
“Then I was fortunate in choosing as a friend and companion when I left my home a man who was steady in habits and a good friend to have. That was when I left Cornwall for Bristol. “It is in the choice of their friends and companions that I always feel young men should be so careful. I am sure their future often greatly depends on their companions in early life. I have so often known young men who had good parents, but when they left home they allowed themselves to be led away by careless companions. It is often simply for want of a little consideration on their own part, they forget the teaching of the old home life and cast it all aside.
Young men by the time they have passed through their apprenticeship, are launching out in their life on their own account, have generally picked up a friend.
The two start out together, and their characters influence each other a good deal. A good friend then may make a lot of difference in a young man’s life.
“Since I have grown to manhood and taken part for some years now in Sunday-school work, I have always tried my best to instil into young people an idea of their responsibility in future. I have tried to make them see how important it is for them, when they launch out into life for themselves to carry with them the influence of a good home as the best means to help them to grow up and useful citizens.
“For, of course, if a young man his character and grit, and can resist temptation, it is a great advantage for him when he has finished his apprenticeship not to stay all the time at the same works, but to travel a bit, to ‘spread about the country’ as we say. He needs to see other methods; to find out what other firms are doing, and the ways of other districts.
“That is generally how the best men are made, the men who become foremen of large worker. They have generally travelled and seen of variety of work.’
William Crossman had six siblings though three of them died in infancy. There also appears to have been quite a lot of child mortality in the offspring of the three remaining siblings so the Crossman family history isn’t spread very wide it seems. There may be some living offspring living in Canada.
William Crossman’s wife, Mary Ann Moore, as from the Isle of Man. ‘Annie’ as she was known was baptized on 21st March 1844 at St. Barnabas Church, Douglas, Isle of Man . She went into service as a cook working for an upper class family in England where Henry Bingham Mildmay was the man of the house. There she met her future husband, William Crossman, who was a guest of her employer one evening. After dinner, Crossman asked his host whether he could meet the cook who had prepared such a wonderful meal. And the rest as they say is history.
They didn’t have any children, but Charlotte Moore, a niece, and her two young daughters, Dora and Rita (Marguerite), lived in Cardiff with the Crossmans for a couple of years following the death of Charlotte’s young husband, Mr Bond. Lord Crossman was known to send a regular supply of good quality second hand clothing to his brother-in-law, William Preston Moore, for him to distribute to the needy and destitute in Liverpool.
Mary Ann and her spinster sister Catherine Ellen were very close and they lived their final years together in Cardiff. Ellen had worked as a Ladies Companion to a member of the aristocracy. She was an expert in etiquette and mixed with high society. When her sister, Mary Ann was widowed, Ellen came to Cardiff to look after Mary Ann until she passed away. They are buried together along with William Crossman in the grave in Cathays Cemetery.
Mary Ann came from a maritime family. Her father Peter Moore (1813-1880) was a sailmaker, is listed in Slater’s Directory in 1846 and 1852 as living at 5 James St., Douglas, Isle of Man. He is also listed as being a joint ship owner of the vessels “Dolphin” and “”Laburnum”. Peter is buried in the Old Kirk Braddan Cemetery in Douglas. Mary Ann’s mother was Anne Preston (1816-1857) also from Douglas, Isle of Man. She had eight children the last of which was born in 1856, just a year before she died.
This piece of research into the life William Crossman originates from a U3A (University of the Third Age) Family History Group. We wanted to learn together about tracing someone’s family history and someone suggested choosing someone not connected with any of our families and why not look at the life of a Cardiff Mayor. As the fruit of that research didn’t seem to have a natural home and as William Crossman does have Roath ties, I thought why not post it here. Thank you to the members of that U3A group for their efforts.