Crawford, William Sharman (1780–1861), radical politician and agrarian reformer, was born 3 September 1780 at Moira Castle, Co. Down, elder son among two sons and a daughter of William Sharman (qv), landowner and Volunteer colonel, and Arminella Sharman (née Willson) of Purdysburn, Co. Down. Aged ten he attended the local school at Moira run by the Rev. Charles Moore, and afterwards was probably educated privately. He was appointed JP in 1808, and sheriff and DL of Co. Down (1811). He also served as captain of the Moira yeomanry corps, but mostly concerned himself with running the estate inherited from his father in 1803. Until 1819 he led a relatively quiet life at Waringstown, Co. Down; he then sold up and moved to Dublin, residing at 11 Fitzwilliam Sq. East. He became a member of the RDS (1823) and in 1827 inherited his father-in-law's estates at Crawfordsburn and Rademon in Co. Down, which had an income of £8,000 a year. He assumed the name ‘Crawford’ (by royal licence) in accordance with the will of his father-in-law, and became a prominent member of local agricultural societies. An advocate of catholic relief since 1812, he publicly supported emancipation in 1829, and the following year was strenuous in his efforts as a magistrate to disperse Orange demonstrations.
Owner of more than 6,000 acres in Co. Down, he was a benevolent landlord who charged moderate rents, encouraged improvements, and never evicted a tenant. He gave full recognition to the Ulster tenant right custom, which admitted that the tenant had a saleable interest in his tenancy, and maintained that the custom was largely responsible for Ulster's relative prosperity. He strongly believed that landlords held land in trust for the public benefit and that they were duty bound to promote the happiness and well-being of their tenantry; they did not have an absolute right to land ownership, and tenants, particularly those who had made improvements to their holdings, had a natural right to a fair return for their efforts.
An advocate of parliamentary reform, he stood as liberal candidate for Co. Down (1831). However, the dominant Downshire and Londonderry families supported anti-reform tories, and he was defeated. He also unsuccessfully contested Belfast (1832). He resisted approaches from Daniel O'Connell (qv) to declare for repeal in 1831, declaring that it would ‘undermine the connection between Great Britain and Ireland upon which the prosperity, happiness, and security of the country depended’ (Northern Whig, 24 Jan. 1831). In January 1831 he signed a manifesto sponsored by the duke of Leinster (qv) to this effect. Partly because of his opposition to repeal, his relations with O'Connell were often strained and sometimes openly antagonistic, but there were also strong differences in personality: Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) maintained that ‘the cold, just, narrow puritan, and the large, genial, generous, exuberant orator were incapable of understanding each other’ (Duffy, 340). However, Crawford's views on self-government varied with circumstances, and by 1833, dissatisfied with the government's handling of the tithe question and the Irish reform bill of 1832, he believed that Ireland would fare better under a devolved government, a plan he outlined in The expediency and necessity of a local legislative body in Ireland (Newry, 1833). After Crawford presided at a repeal meeting in Navan (9 April 1834) he was regarded as an avowed repealer by Dublin Castle. He began to cooperate with O'Connell, and with O'Connellite support was returned unopposed as MP for Dundalk (1835). Believing that Ireland's most pressing problem was agrarian reform, he introduced (2 July 1835) a bill to compensate evicted tenants for improvements, but it failed to receive a second reading; he introduced the bill again in March 1836 but to no effect.
Although an active member of the Church of Ireland, Crawford was opposed to tithes and called for their complete abolition. He strongly criticised O'Connell's willingness to compromise on the issue, and the resulting tensions meant he did not stand for Dundalk in 1837. After O'Connell's acceptance of the Irish tithe act (1838), which commuted tithe into a rent charge, Crawford accused him at a public meeting in Dublin of sacrificing the interests of Irish tenant farmers to his alliance with the whigs. O'Connell's banteringly abusive reply rankled with Crawford and undermined the prospects of future cooperation.
Rather than join O'Connell's Repeal Association, Crawford and a group of Ulster reformers founded (May 1840) their own Ulster Constitutional Association, modelled on radical associations in Britain; Crawford was one of its two secretaries, although it soon became moribund. However, his opposition to the arms bill of July 1843 caused him to move closer to the repealers and to advocate a federal United Kingdom. His proposal drew many adherents, and even O'Connell seemed sympathetic for a time. Crawford outlined his federalist scheme in four letters published in the Northern Whig (12, 14, 16, 19 November 1844), arguing for powers similar to those given to Canada in 1840, and for Ireland to retain representatives at Westminster. These proposals, however, were denounced by O'Connell, who after criticism in the Nation was anxious to reestablish himself as an avowed repealer. Crawford also differed with O'Connell on the 1845 colleges bill, which he believed would help break down sectarian barriers. For the same reason he had also supported legislation providing for non-denominational primary education in 1831. He opposed all state endowment of churches and criticised both the regium donum and the Maynooth grant, maintaining that all religious sects should be supported voluntarily. He later condemned the 1851 ecclesiastical titles act (prohibiting the assumption of territorial titles in the UK by catholic clergy), which he believed was an unwarranted interference with catholic religious liberties.
An advanced radical, in 1837 Crawford sat on the chartist committee appointed to draft the parliamentary bills embodying the six points of the People's Charter. Unlike O'Connell he believed that Irish MPs should ally themselves with chartists and radicals rather than with the whigs. His strong opposition to the corn laws secured him an entry into middle-class radical circles and he shared anti-corn-law platforms with Richard Cobden and John Bright. His popularity with English radicals helped him win a parliamentary seat at Rochdale (1841–52), and he became a leading radical spokesman. However, Crawford was no great orator: his speeches were plain, solid, and argumentative. High-minded and reluctant to compromise, he was not an effective party politician, and was described as ‘proud, punctilious, and angular, unlikely to forget past affronts, and more solicitous to be conspicuously right than to be successful’ (Duffy, 595–6).
His persistent advocacy of tenant right helped persuade Sir Robert Peel (qv) to set up the Devon commission in November 1843 to inquire into the Irish land question, and he was among the first witnesses it examined. In February 1845 the commission published an inconclusive report which admitted the benefits of the Ulster custom to the tenant but condemned it as subversive of property rights; however, it recommended that in restricted circumstances tenants could receive modest compensation for improvements. Crawford regarded the government's compensation bill as inadequate, and introduced his own bill (July 1845), which received little support.
During the famine Crawford pleaded for more effective relief measures, advocating outdoor relief rather than herding the hungry into disease-ridden workhouses. He believed that the rapacity of many Irish landlords was largely to blame for Irish poverty, and that the poor should be supported in their own parishes to make landlords face up to their responsibilities. Crawford denounced prevailing Malthusian principles, and was opposed to emigration and land-clearance schemes. He outlined these ideas in Depopulation not necessary (1850), claiming that Ireland's rural population could be supported if a tax on absentee landlords was used to reclaim wasteland. In March 1847 he introduced a bill advocating the legalisation of the Ulster custom and making compensation for improvements legally binding, but it was voted down by a large margin (112 to 25); it was again overwhelmingly rejected in April 1848. Meanwhile farmers throughout Ireland, faced with increasing hardship and evictions, were forming tenant associations which came together in the Tenant League of Ireland in August 1850. Initially, Crawford was not directly involved with the league, and disapproved of its policy of fixity of tenure, which he believed could be exploited by idle and unimproving tenants. However, he eventually swallowed his reservations and became acknowledged as the league's main parliamentary spokesman. In August 1851 he helped conclude an alliance between the Catholic Defence Association and the Tenant League, under which members of the parliamentary ‘Irish Brigade’ agreed to support a tenant right bill that provided for fair rent and free sale but excluded fixity of tenure. Crawford introduced such a bill on 10 February 1852, although it was strongly attacked in the commons as an infringement of property rights and voted down. By 1853 Crawford had introduced eight bills, none of which had received significant support, and conservative newspapers mocked his tenacious advocacy of tenant right as ‘Crawford's craze’.
In the 1852 general election he stood for Co. Down on a platform of tenant right. He was portrayed as ‘the ally of papists and infidel levelling democrats’ (Belfast Newletter, 12 May 1852), and the Downshire and Londonderry families effectively mobilised the Orange order against him in a rowdy campaign; he was defeated and never reentered parliament. In September 1852 he chaired a major tenant-right meeting in Dublin attended by forty-one MPs (with varying degrees of commitment to tenant right) and several hundred agrarian activists. After this he surrendered leadership of the movement to William Shee. From 1852 he lived in semi-retirement at Crawfordsburn but, as the ‘father of tenant right’, he continued to support the tenants’ cause in the press and campaigned against rural poverty and evictions. In June 1858 he toured Gweedore, and the severe poverty he saw confirmed his belief that agrarian reform was desperately needed. He regarded Cardwell's (qv) landed property and improvement act (1860) and Deasy's (qv) landlord and tenant act (1860) as setbacks to the tenant right cause. He died 17 October 1861 at Crawfordsburn and was buried in the family vault at Kilmore, Co. Down. Obituaries almost universally praised his integrity, sense of duty, and devotion to the welfare of tenant farmers. His last years were marked by disillusionment that his efforts had been so ineffective, but tenant right was eventually conceded in the land acts of 1870 and 1881.
He married (5 December 1805) Mabel Fridiswid (d. 1844), daughter and heiress of Maj. John Crawford (d. 1827), of Crawfordsburn, Co. Down, a committed Volunteer and close friend of his father; they had seven sons and four daughters. He was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, John Sharman Crawford (1809–84), JP, DL, and high sheriff of Co. Down (1839).
William's third son, James Sharman Crawford (b. 24 August 1812), was the most politically active. He graduated BA from TCD (1833) and worked as land agent for the Crawford family (1835–47). Born into the Church of Ireland, he converted to presbyterianism and was a prominent member of the Crossgar presbyterian community. An active member of the Downpatrick board of poor law guardians, he worked assiduously to improve conditions in the local workhouse and in the Down district asylum. Advocating tenant right and assisted by the recent introduction of the secret ballot, he was elected liberal MP for Co. Down (1874–8). His parliamentary career was relatively undistinguished: he did not sit with the home rule party, but promoted the interests of tenant farmers and tabled an amendment bill to broaden the scope of the 1870 Irish land act; he also advocated local government reform and economy in the public finances. He died unmarried 27 April 1878 at Rademon.