Sir William Crossley (1844-1911)

Sir William Crossley

Written by Jean Warburton

Occupations: Manufacturer and Philanthropist

Life and family

The Crossley family is of old Norman-Lancashire stock from Scaitcliffe Hall, Todmorden. Two brothers left Lancashire for the Ulster invasion under William III and remained in Northern Ireland. William Crosby was born on 22nd October 1844 in Glenburn, near Lisburn in County Antrim, the third of four children. His father was Francis Adam Crossley (1787-1846), a Major in the East India Company who was a Governor of the Andaman Islands in 1815. He was the son of John Crossley and Elizabeth Alcott. On 20th April 1837, Francis Adam Crossley married Elizabeth Helen Irwin (1810-1892) daughter of William Irwin of Mount Irwin, County Armagh. William Crossley’s siblings were Francis William (1839-1897) known as Frank, Emmeline (1842-1917) and Thomas Hastings Henry (1846-1926), who was known as Hastings and became a classical scholar. He was educated at the Royal School in Dungannon, County Tyrone and then in Bonn where the family moved in the mid-1850s. At the age of 19 years, he entered the engineering works of Armstrong Mitchell & Co at Elswick, Newcastle-upon -Tyne where he served his apprenticeship for the next four years, subsequently becoming a member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and of the Iron and Steel Institute.

On 22nd April 1876, at St Mary’s Notting Hill, London William Crossley married Mabel Gordon Anderson (1854-1943), who was born in Calcutta, the daughter of Dr Francis Anderson (1814-1898) who was the Inspector General of Hospitals in India. They had three sons, Kenneth Irwin (1877-1957), Eric (1878-1949) and Brian (1886-1915) who died in action in France. They also had two daughters who, sadly, both died in infancy in the year in which they were born, Lettice in 1879 and Cicely in 1880. 

William Crossley died on 12th October 1911 following complications from an operation. He was buried in the graveyard at St Mary the Virgin in Bowdon, Cheshire. Mabel remained living at their house Glenfield in Dunham Massey, Cheshire and died there on 30th April 1943.


In 1867, Frank Crossley, with help from his uncle, bought the engineering business of John Dunlop & Co. of Great Marlborough Street, Manchester which manufactured, amongst other things, pumps, presses and small steam engines. William Crossley joined his brother shortly after the purchase to concentrate on the business side of the enterprise whilst Frank provided engineering expertise. After the partnership with John MacMillan Dunlop (1818-1878) was dissolved, the firm became Crossley Brothers. In 1869, being acquainted with engineering developments in Germany, they acquired the patents of Otto and Langan for the new gas-fuelled internal combustion engine. The engine was noisy and cumbersome but Frank improved the design and operation and over 1,300 were manufactured and sold to a wide variety of industries, the Crossley Gas Engine becoming a household name.

In 1876, Crossley Brothers acquired the English patent rights to the Otto four stroke cycle gas engine which was more efficient and quieter in operation than its predecessor. There was great demand for the new internal gas combustion engine and the firm expanded rapidly, moving to new premises in Openshaw, eastern Manchester. In 1881, Crossley Brothers became a private limited company. In 1896, the company acquired the rights to manufacture diesel engines and made their first diesel engine in 1898. The engines were then used in buses, including those constructed by Leyland Motors.

After Frank died in 1897, Crossley Brothers Ltd became a public company. William Crossley continued to run the company using his business acumen to defeat the many infringements of the Otto patents, in many instances involving actions in the High Court. The company then made petrol engines and built their first motor car in 1904. Crossley Motors Ltd was registered as the vehicle manufacturing arm of Crossley Brothers Ltd in 1906. A major contribution to manufacturing was the introduction of the assembly line. It is considered by some that the Crossley system influenced Henry Ford who visited the factory at the turn of the century. In 1908, William’s son Kenneth Crossley assumed control of the companies becoming Chairman of Crossley Brothers Ltd and Crossley Motors Ltd. The companies continued to flourish and in 1913 Crossley Motors Ltd was the fifteenth largest car manufacturer in Britain.

William Crossley did not restrict his business activities to Crossley Brothers. He was a director of the Manchester Trust Limited and the Scottish Life Assurance Company Limited and a major shareholder in La Libertad Rubber and Cocoa Estate Company Limited. There was an altruistic element to William Crossley’s business activities, working for the good of commerce in Manchester. He was one of the original promoters of the Manchester Ship Canal and subsequently a director of the Manchester Ship Canal Company. He also devoted much useful work to the improvement of technical education in the city and was Chairman of the machinery section of the Royal Jubilee industrial exhibition in Manchester in 1887.


William Crossley devoted much of his wealth and leisure to philanthropic work. He was connected to a large number of organisations and subscribed considerable sums to charity. A particular concern was the treatment of consumptive patients and the movement to reduce the mortality of such patients. He was the Chairman of the Committee of the Manchester Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Throat and Chest. As a result of his generosity, the Committee were able to acquire possession of the Convalescent Home in Bowdon, extend the accommodation and equip it with the most approved methods for the treatment of consumption. He then provided a gift of £70,000 to build a sanatorium in Delamere Forest for the treatment of consumptive patients from Lancashire towns.

A second major concern of William Crossley was young people. He was President of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Manchester and took an active part in the promotion of clubs for boys and girls of the lower classes in Manchester becoming Chairman of the Boys and Girls Refuge at Strangeways. When Crossley Brothers’ factory moved to Openshaw, he established the Openshaw Lads Club, which was said to be model of what such an institution should be. He not only provided the funds but was a constant helper there.

Public service

William Crossley was active in public service in Manchester and Cheshire. He was a magistrate both in Cheshire and for the City of Manchester where he was a member of the Licensing Committee. His work for business generally in Manchester and his philanthropy has already been noted and in 1903 he was given the Freedom of the City of Manchester in recognition of his valued public service. He represented Altrincham on the Cheshire County Council and had a seat on the Administrative Sub-Committee. 

In 1906, he was asked to stand as the Liberal candidate for Altrincham, an invitation which he accepted. In the Liberal landslide election of that year, he defeated the sitting Conservative member, Coningsby Disraeli (1867-1936) and in 1909, William Crossley was made a baronet. He retained his seat in the first election in 1910 but in the December election of that year he lost the seat to John Kebty-Fletcher (1869-1918), Conservative, by 119 votes. William Crossley was well known and popular at Westminster. Although it was said that he rarely treated the House to a speech, he did serve on the Royal Commission on Canals and Waterways. He actively supported women’s suffrage and was a member of the Parliamentary Committee under the Chairmanship of the Earl of Lytton which was set up for the purpose of drawing up a Women’s Suffrage Bill.


After his early years in Northern Ireland, Germany and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, William Crossley moved to Cheshire, initially lodging in Bowdon. After his marriage, he lived in Dunham Massey, Glenfield remaining his home until his death. He decided, however, that he would like a second home in the Lake District. So, he acquired a large plot of land at the northern end of Windermere in Pull Wyke Bay which looked east over the lake. He commissioned George Faulkner Armitage (1849-1937), architect, to design his house as he had admired Armitage’s earlier work of Bramall Hall, Cheshire. The house, Pullwoods, was originally built between 1890 and 1891 and then extended between 1901 and 1902. It is a long strung out house with many gables and views over the lake from the major rooms. Pullwoods was constructed as a timber framed house with red infilling from broken tiles pressed into cement as a filler, not a usual Lake District technique, which led Nikolaus Pevsner in The Buildings of England Cumbria to describe it as ‘thoroughly out of place’. In addition to the house, there is a boathouse of similar construction and a lodge and farm complex at the gate.

Although Pullwoods was essentially a holiday home, William Crossley did not keep himself aloof from local life. The farm provided one of his links with the local community. He was a generous supporter of the Hawkshead Agricultural Show and acted one year as its President. He successfully showed sheep, cattle and horses. Religion was another. He was Vicar’s Warden at Low Wray church for a number of years and then worshipped at Brathay church. Nor did he restrict his philanthropy to Manchester but was equally supportive of the community around Pullwoods. He defrayed half the cost of the Outgate Reading Room, Hawkshead and furnished the building, providing a billiard table. He assisted local social and philanthropic movements and the last meeting he attended before he died was in Ambleside to support the cause of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

Mabel retained Pullwoods after her husband’s death and it was used by their son, Kenneth, for business entertainment. In July 1913, he hosted the East Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales section of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and delighted them by flying Waterhen, one of the first hydro-planes, over Windermere. Pullwoods was sold by the family in 1935 and is now divided into holiday flats.


One of William Crossley’s reasons for buying Pullwoods was his great interest in yachting which he indulged to considerable success on Windermere. In 1890, he won the Una Class yacht race for sixteen-foot yachts, sailing Dushtra. He out manoeuvred the race leader towards the end of the race to win by superior sailing. A new twenty-two-foot class of yacht was introduced in 1897 and William Crossley acquired one of the first, Mimosa. He went on to own two further twenty-two-foot class boats, Heron and Idyll. This was an expensive hobby as each boat cost over £200 to build and a further £100 to fit out together with an annual maintenance cost of a further £40 at one of the local professional boat builders such as Shepherds or Borwicks. William Crossley sailed his new yachts with great skill winning 16 Challenge Cups during his time at Pullwoods, a record exceeded by only one other yachtsman, Alfred Reyner Sladen (1866-1944). He was well respected by his fellow yachtsmen having joined the Royal Windermere Yacht Club in 1890 and was elected Commodore for 1896.

Kenneth Crossley equalled his father’s enthusiasm and skill for sailing twenty-two-foot yachts. He won 13 Challenge Cups sailing Mimosa and then his own boat Maple. He followed his father as Commodore of the Yacht Club in 1908.


William Crossley was a highly respected and successful businessman leaving prosperous and growing companies to be run by his son, Kenneth who became the 2nd baronet. Although he had expended considerable sums on philanthropy and his leisure pursuits, he still left £591,636 when he died in 1911. His defining characteristic, however, was that he was a committed Christian. His strong religious views governed his business life. Crossley Brothers refused to supply their products to breweries and other businesses of which William and Frank disapproved. The emblem chosen for use on their vehicles was the early Christian symbol of the Coptic cross. William Crossley pursued actions in court against infringers of Crossley Brother’s patents only as a last resort as such action was totally beyond his principles and beliefs. He took such action to ensure the continued growth of the firm and the employment of its workers. His beliefs also governed his dealing with his fellow men. He was said, by a speaker at a meeting of the Young Liberals in Ambleside, to be a man who fulfilled his duties of capital towards labour and to his workmen and neighbours of all classes both in Manchester and the Lake District. He was a great exponent of the cause of temperance and was Treasurer of the United Kingdom Alliance.

William Crossley’s life is best summarised by the opening lines of his obituary in the Lakes Herald of 13th October 1911: ‘Thus ended a career of usefulness such as few public men have achieved. The work of the deceased Baronet for religion and philanthropy make his name a household word almost as widely known as the firm of famous engine makers of which he was a member.’


  • Primary sources
  • England and Wales Census 1851-1911
  • London Church of England Marriages and Banns 1854-1932
  • England and Wales Civil Registration Death Index 1837-1915
  • National Probate Calendar Index of Wills and Administrations
  • The Belfast Newsletter (Births, Marriages and Death Notices) 1738-1923
  • Westmorland Gazette 23rd August 1896
  • The Queen 4th June 1910
  • Vote 26th November 1910
  • Lakes Herald 13th October 1911, 10th November 1911
  • Times 13th October 1911
  • Evening Mail 13th October 1911
  • The Scotsman 13th October 1911
  • Gloucester Citizen 13th October 1911.

Secondary sources

  • UK and Ireland Find a Grave Index
  • M Hyde and N Pevsner, The Buildings of England Cumbria (2010)
  • M Hyde and E Whittaker, Arts and Crafts House in the Lake District (2014)
  • Ian Jones, The Royal Windermere Yacht Club Celebrates 150 Years 1960-2010 (2010)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, Francis Crossley