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Brass Crosby (1725-1793)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1888

Brass Crosby became the lord mayor of London. He was the son of Hercules Crosby and his wife Mary, the daughter and coheiress of John Brass of Blackhalls, Hesilden, Durham. Crosby was born at Stockton-upon-Tees on 8 May 1725, and after serving some time in the office of Benjamin Hoskins, a Sunderland solicitor, he came up to London, where he practised several years as an attorney, first in the Little Minories and afterwards in Seething Lane. In 1758 he was elected a member of the common council for the Tower ward, and in 1760 became the city remembrancer. He purchased this office for the sum of £3,600 and in the following year was allowed to sell it again. In 1764 he served the office of sheriff, and in February of the following year was elected alderman of the Bread Street ward in the place of Alderman Janssen, appointed the city chamberlain.

At the general election of 1768 Crosby was returned to parliament as one of the members for Honiton, for which he continued to sit until the dissolution in September 1774. On 29 September 1770 he was elected lord mayor, when he declared that at the risk of his life he would protect the just privileges and liberties of the citizens of London. One of the first acts of his mayoralty was to refuse to back the press warrants which had been issued, declaring that ‘the city bounty was intended to prevent such violences’ and constables were ordered to attend ‘at all the avenues of the city to prevent the pressgangs from carrying off any persons they may seize within its liberties.’

Soon afterwards he became engaged in his famous struggle with the House of Commons. On 8 February 1771 Colonel Onslow complained to the house of the breach of privilege committed by the printers of the Gazetteer and the Middlesex Journal in printing the parliamentary debates. Though ordered to attend the house, Thompson and Wheble refused to put in an appearance, and the serjeant-at-arms was instructed to take them into custody. As they managed to elude his search, a royal proclamation for their apprehension was issued on 9 March, and a reward of £50 each offered for their capture. On their appearance before Aldermen Wilkes and Oliver respectively they were discharged. In the meantime Colonel Onslow had made similar complaints of six other newspapers, and on 16 March Miller, the printer of the London Evening Post, was taken into custody by a messenger of the house for not obeying the order for his attendance at the bar. The messenger was committed for assault and false imprisonment, and Miller was released by the lord mayor, Wilkes, and Oliver, sitting together at the Mansion House. The lord mayor was thereupon ordered by the house to attend in his place, which he accordingly did on the 19th, when he defended the action which he had taken by arguing that no warrant or attachment might be executed within the city of London ‘but by the ministers of the same city.’

On the following day the messenger's recognisance (he had been afterwards released on bail) was, on the motion of Lord North, erased from the lord mayor's book. This unwarrantable proceeding was described by Lord Chatham in the House of Lords as the ‘act of a mob, not of a parliament’. On the 25th the lord mayor and Alderman Oliver attended the house, when the former was further heard in his defence, and then allowed to withdraw in consequence of his illness from a severe attack of gout.

Welbore Ellis's motion declaring that the proceedings of the city magistrates were a breach of the privileges of the house was carried by 272 to 90, and after a violent discussion it was voted by 170 to 38 that Oliver should be committed to the Tower. On 27 March Crosby was attended to the house by an enormous crowd, and, upon his refusal to be treated with lenity on the score of health, was also committed to the Tower by a majority of 202 against 39. The indignation of the people could hardly be restrained, and public addresses poured in from all parts of the country thanking Crosby for his courageous conduct. During his confinement he was visited not only by his city friends but by the principal members of the opposition, while outside on Tower Hill Colonel Onslow and the speaker were burnt in effigy by crowds of Crosby's humbler admirers.

In April appeared letter XLIV written by Junius with a view to proving that the House of Commons had no right to imprison for any contempt of their authority. In the same month Crosby was twice brought up on a writ of habeas corpus, but in both cases the judges refused to interfere, and he was remanded back to the Tower. The session of parliament at length closed on 8 May, on which day, accompanied by Oliver, Crosby returned to the Mansion House in a triumphal procession. Rejoicings were held in many parts of the country, and at night the city was illuminated in honour of his release. The result of the contest thus ended was that no attempt has ever been made since to restrain the publication of the parliamentary debates.

On the conclusion of his mayoralty Crosby was presented with the thanks of the common council and a silver cup costing £200. At the general election of 1774 he unsuccessfully contested the city of London, and again at a bye election in January 1784, when he was defeated by Brook Watson, the ministerial candidate, by 2,097 to 1,043. In 1782 he was elected president of Bethlehem Hospital, and in 1785 governor of the Irish Society. He died after a short illness on 14 February 1793, at his house in Chatham Place, Blackfriars Bridge, in his sixty-eighth year, and was buried on the 21st in Chelsfield Church, near Orpington, Kent, where a monument was erected to his memory.

Crosby married three times, but left no surviving issue. His third wife was the daughter of James Maud, a wealthy London wine merchant, who purchased the manor of Chelsfield in 1758, and the widow of the Rev. John Tattersall of Gatton. She survived her second husband and died on 5 October 1800.

In the centre of St. George's Circus, Blackfriars Road, is still to be seen the obelisk which was erected in Crosby's honour during the year of his mayoralty.

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