CROWLEY, Sir Ambrose (1658-1713), of Greenwich, Kent

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

25 Aug. - 7 Oct. 1713

Family and Education

b. 1 Feb. 1658, 1st s. of Ambrose Crowley, ironmonger, of Stourbridge, Worcs. by his 1st w. Mary, da. of Thomas Hall of Chadwich, Bromsgrove, Worcs.  m. 1 Mar. 1681[–2], Mary, da. of Charles Owen of All Hallows, Honey Lane, London, 4s. (3 d.v.p.) 7da. (2 d.v.p.).  Kntd. 1 Jan. 1707.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Drapers’ Co. 1684, master 1708–9; common councilman, London 1697–1711, sheriff 1706–7, alderman 1711–d.

Dir. S. Sea Co. 1711–d., dep. gov. 1712–13; commr. building 50 new churches 1712–d.2

Biography

Crowley’s rise to ownership of what may have been the largest ironworks in Europe and his innovations in industrial welfare have been extensively studied by economic historians. Coming from a Quaker family in the iron manufacturing business, Crowley was apprenticed at the age of 15 to a London Draper, where, according to his own account, he showed great application: ‘I never asked for one holiday all my time of apprenticeship except when my father was in town . . . My diligence in my apprenticeship raised me several friends who were always ready to assist me in everything that was needful.’ From the 1680s Crowley was in business for himself. He established an ironware factory at Winlaton, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, from which he gradually expanded until by 1707 he had a whole complex of factories and warehouses, largely designed to service the naval contracts in which he specialized. The Crowley works were unique in having a written constitution, the Law Book of the Crowley Ironworks, based on the methods and procedures laid down by Crowley himself. He was also ahead of his time in the insurance scheme he established to pay for many social services for his workers, to which both employer and employees contributed.

In 1704 Crowley moved his London headquarters to Greenwich, where his neighbour was (Sir) Gregory Page, (1st Bt.)*, a Baptist and Whig, who acted as an intermediary in Crowley’s buy-out of a rival business in 1707. In December that year he stood godfather to a son of a fellow iron manufacturer, the Whig John Hanbury*. Having achieved success in business, Crowley began to take a closer interest in politics. Here he showed that, while maintaining good relations in his personal and business life with many Nonconformists and Whigs, he himself was a firm though moderate Anglican and Tory. In 1706, when he was nominated as sheriff of London, the Post Man described him as a gentleman of ‘known loyalty to her Majesty and well affected to the government both in Church and State’. Duly chosen, he received the customary knighthood during his shrievalty. In January 1708, having noticed recent meetings of city Whigs, he wrote to Sir Richard Hoare* offering help in his campaign for the coming general electons, adding, ‘you may depend on it that I shall be a steady friend to the Church of England as by law established’. In November that year Crowley was reportedly gathering support to succeed as alderman in Castle Baynard ward, although in the event he did not stand. In 1709 he was a candidate for alderman, unsuccessfully, in three different wards. He lost the election in Queenhithe ward, according to one newsletter, ‘by a new whim, by refusing to treat but promised each that should vote for him a chaldron of coals, which the electors disdained’. In the 1710 London elections he voted for three Tory candidates but, interestingly, his fourth vote went to the Whiggish John Ward II*, a champion of merchant interests, rather than to the High Tory John Cass*. He finally achieved his ambition of becoming an alderman in the more favourable political climate of 1711.3

As a large naval contractor, Crowley was inevitably affected by the almost constant financial crises troubling the navy. In 1699 he had been a leader of the naval creditors pressing for better methods of payment. In 1710 he again took the lead in pressing for action about naval payments and several times threatened to stop deliveries. He welcomed the new administration established in the summer and autumn of 1710 and was one of the few wealthy City men to support Robert Harley*. However, he continued to press for some settlement of his naval debts, writing to Harley with proposals which were to some extent embodied in the South Sea Company bill. This scheme arranged for the compulsory transfer of all unfunded naval debts incurred before Michaelmas 1710 into South Sea Company stock, but when it came into operation it was not particularly liked by any of the naval creditors, including Crowley, and in 1712 he described it as ‘an intolerable hardship’. He eventually held some £56,000 worth of stock, but it appears that through discount on naval bills and South Sea stock (the selling price of which seems to have soon fallen below par) he lost some £15,000. As one of the largest stockholders, Crowley was at least given some control over the company, being appointed one its directors in 1711. The following year he was chosen as deputy-governor and thenceforth chaired nearly all the directors’ meetings. In 1712 he also successfully persuaded Harley to appoint him to the commission for building 50 new churches in London, where he succeeded in getting the ruined church at Greenwich placed first in the list of those to be rebuilt. The suggestion that Crowley was the model for the satiric portrait ‘Sir Jack Anvil’ in the Spectator, February 1712, has been discounted by his biographer.4

In January 1713 Crowley reaffirmed his support for the Tory administration by joining with three other financiers to lend the government £130,000. Later that year he successfully contested Andover, possibly with the help of the lord lieutenant of Hampshire, the 2nd Duke of Beaufort, who was steward of the borough. He was classed as a Tory in the Worsley list, but never took his seat, his sudden death occurring on 7 Oct. 1713, before the new Parliament assembled. He left to his four unmarried daughters £10,000 each in South Sea stock, and to his only surviving son, John Crowley†, his great ironworks, worth well over £100,000. A funeral poem celebrated his unique contribution to industry,

          Great Crowley led,
          Not followed, his proud structures all his own,
          the founder of his feast himself alone.5