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CROKE, Sir ALEXANDER, judge, politician, author, and colonial administrator; b. 22 July 1758 in Aylesbury, England, the only surviving son of Alexander Croke and his first wife, Anne Armistead; m. 11 Aug. 1796 Alice Blake; d. 27 Dec. 1842 at Studley Priory, England.
Born into the landed gentry, Alexander Croke was the heir to a substantial though unpretentious country estate. His earliest education took place at a private school in Bierton, where, he recalled, he “acquired a general love for literature and science.” On 11 Oct. 1775 he matriculated as a gentleman commoner at Oriel College, Oxford, and he remained there five years. During this period he succeeded to the Studley estate. In 1780 Croke took up the study of law at the Inns of Court, and in 1786 was called to the bar. However, as he later stated, “although I had studied the theory of the law, I never engaged in the practice of it, or attended much in Westminster Hall,” since he had a competence to support him. A predisposition to theoretical deliberation was to become marked in his Nova Scotian career.
Croke resumed legal studies at Oxford in 1794, “being weary of an idle life, & seeing the necessity of a profession.” He obtained the degrees of bcl and dcl in 1797, and on 3 November of that year he was admitted to the College of Advocates. Choosing to practise at the bar, he was soon given a share of the increasing business of the High Court of Admiralty engendered by the French revolutionary wars. A number of his reports brought him into public notice and earned him praise from the government and such London journals as the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine and the Gentleman’s Magazine.
In 1801 the system of vice-admiralty courts in the British colonies was restructured, and Croke was offered one of the judgeships which had become available in Jamaica, Martinique, and Nova Scotia. Preferring “the severe, but healthy climate of Nova Scotia, to all the luxuries and all the dangers of the West Indies,” he arrived in Halifax on 11 Nov. 1801 with his wife and infant son and daughter. With the exception of a trip to England in 1810 to place his son in school, Croke remained in Nova Scotia until July 1815. Eight of his eleven children were born in the province.
Croke was honoured for his work in Nova Scotia by a knighthood from the Prince Regent on 5 July 1816 and retired with an annuity of £1,000 to his estate, where he “entertained his Oxford friends, amused himself with drawing and painting, and wrote a number of books.” According to certain contemporaries, he was an accomplished artist, several of his paintings obtaining the approval of Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy of Arts. Unfortunately, no trace of his efforts has been found. Croke exhibited some degree of literary and poetic skill, publishing books and pamphlets on a wide variety of subjects. His most ambitious undertaking was The genealogical history of the Croke family, originally named LeBlount (Oxford, 1823), a two-volume work of extensive and well-documented research. Other endeavours included legal reports, a church catechism, polemical and satirical poetry, an essay on Latin verse, and letters on political and educational subjects. Croke died at Studley Priory in his 85th year. Eight of his children reached adulthood, but none left any progeny.
Although only one-sixth of Croke’s life was spent in Nova Scotia, that period constituted the major portion of his professional career. His chief and most visible role in Nova Scotia was to preside over the Vice-Admiralty Court. Since its establishment in 1749 at Halifax the court had developed into a significant force within the province, exercising the traditional Admiralty competence over all cases of a maritime origin. Its activities involved three levels of jurisdiction – the local, which covered disputes of merchants and seamen, the imperial, which concerned control of trade and the forest reserves of the navy, and the international, which came into play in wartime and gave the court authority to condemn ships and cargoes captured by privateers and the navy.
The existence of this powerful and independent institution elicited frequent and vociferous complaints from the local population, the most common being that the court’s fees were exorbitant and that the mode of trial by judge alone violated the right of Englishmen to trial by their peers. In a colony where smuggling was rife, the actual motive behind the complaints was the prospect of almost certain conviction in the admiralty court as compared with the better chances afforded by lenient juries in the common courts. The House of Assembly, dominated by Halifax merchants, was the most vocal opponent of the court, and by using the issues of high fees and non-jury trials attempted to gain some control over the institution. These issues were matters of imperial policy, over which Croke had no command, but they nevertheless provided the colonists with ample motivation for disliking the official responsible.
The other main cause of contention was the court’s mandate to enforce the navigation acts. With respect to the colonies, the prime object of the legislation was to confine all transportation connected with them to British shipping and so ensure that the benefits derived fell to the mother country. Because of their slow economic development, the Maritime provinces had come to depend heavily on their neighbour to the south for supplies by the beginning of the 19th century; they therefore demanded some modification of the acts in order to obtain by legal means from the United States desperately needed staples and products for re-export to other British possessions. The lieutenant governors of the provinces fatalistically accepted a certain amount of clandestine trade as natural and unavoidable, and objected that too much preventive legislation would only obstruct “the quiet current of commercial industry.” Accordingly, breaches were made in the system as Sir John Wentworth*, Sir George Prevost*, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke*, and others took advantage of emergency powers to meet the needs of the colonists.
Croke represented that segment of British society which at the beginning of the 19th century still retained its belief in the value and necessity of the navigation acts. Although he had no choice but to enforce the law, a survey of his judgements reveals how strongly he maintained his convictions and how rigidly he interpreted the statutes. The case of the Economy, decided in March 1813, indicates the tenor of his judicial career. After the outbreak of the War of 1812 New England had shown itself willing to continue trading with the Maritime provinces, and the colonial authorities had issued licences which allowed American vessels such as the Economy to transport provisions to Nova Scotia. Yet the Economy and its cargo of livestock had been taken by the privateer Liverpool Packet [see Joseph Barss*] despite the possession of a licence from Vice-Admiral Herbert Sawyer. In condemning ship and cargo on the grounds that Sawyer could give “no legality whatever to a traffic otherwise unlawful,” Croke concluded his judgement with a traditional and comprehensive defence of the navigation acts. Although he conceded the necessity of allowing the import of certain types of foodstuffs as sanctioned by British orders in council, he would not condone the admission of livestock, which he was certain was in ample supply in Nova Scotia. However, the war had resulted in a sharp increase in the number of British troops in North America, and the military commanders believed that Maritime resources were insufficient to meet the demand for provisions. Sherbrooke informed Prevost, commander-in-chief in British North America, that Croke had “given a decree . . . which If not reversed at home will I greatly fear Cause much individual mischief.” The lieutenant governor’s sense of harassment was probably representative of the reactions of many who suffered from Croke’s severely legalistic approach, and is revealed in a further remark to Prevost, “There is a vulgar saying that the Devil Can only run the length of his Tether – That of Bonaparte snapped short at Moscow, And I am willing to hope that Dr Croke has nearly reached the end of his.” Whatever the legal validity of Croke’s decision, the British government supported Sherbrooke by allowing licences to be granted to American ships.
The popular feeling against the Vice-Admiralty Court was not mitigated by Croke’s service as administrator of the colony, a duty which as senior eligible councillor he performed in the absence of the lieutenant governor from 6 Dec. 1808 to 15 April 1809 and from 25 August to 16 Oct. 1811. His very right to the position was a matter of dispute. The royal mandamus appointing him to the Council in 1802 had given him seniority after the chief justice, and his supercession of other councillors had created difficulties. Another source of friction was the lengthy satirical poem entitled “The Inquisition” which Croke wrote probably in 1805 and which was widely circulated in manuscript. In it he presented a biting commentary on the moral tone of upper-class Halifax society, striking with witty and frequently caustic criticism at leading individuals, including many Council members, who were often only thinly veiled by classical pseudonyms. Such a work could not fail to produce resentment and even animosity in the parochial capital of Halifax. These tensions were exacerbated by Croke’s suspicions of and condescending attitude towards the assembly. Prevost’s warning to the British government that in his absence the civil duties would fall to “an able tho’ unpopular character” reflected public opinion.
Croke’s first term as administrator proceeded peacefully until the most important matter of legislative business, the annual appropriations bill, became the centre of attention. Following accepted practice, the assembly made itemized proposals for expenditures, and after some negotiation the bill was approved by the Council on 20 Jan. 1809 and sent to Croke for his formal acceptance. The assembly was stunned by Croke’s refusal to assent to the bill, and the resulting controversy lasted until Prevost approved it after his return.
Croke justified his rejection of the bill in a lengthy dispatch to the colonial secretary. The basis for his first objection lay in a clause authorizing the payment of 200 guineas to the commissioners appointed to correspond with the provincial agents. Seemingly innocuous, the clause contained several new appointments, a political manœuvre that Croke recognized and denounced as an encroachment upon the royal prerogative. The second reason for his dissent lay in the amount of the sums appropriated, which he claimed was excessive and likely to cause injury to the king’s service. Croke suggested a return to the practice current before 1786 when no appropriations acts were passed and all money was drawn from the provincial treasury by warrant from the legislature. Because of the intransigence of both Croke and the assembly, the house was prorogued and civil administration became paralysed. Croke’s attempt to obtain the Council’s permission to withdraw money from the treasury failed. His efforts to protect the crown’s prerogatives and save the government from a large public debt only led to turmoil in the colony’s administration and intensified the popular dislike of him and his court. His second term as administrator was uneventful.
In no sphere of Nova Scotian public life did Croke exert so lasting an influence as in education. His prolific writings, published and private, give abundant evidence of his views. To Croke, the prime concerns of education were moral and spiritual – knowledge should be directed towards producing better people, not towards helping them to advance their station in life. Convinced that instruction in the Christian faith was essential in any school curriculum, Croke believed that the only interpretation tenable was that of the Church of England, “the purest and most apostolic form of religion ever established in any country.” Furthermore, adherence to the Church of England would strengthen one’s allegiance to the crown and government of Britain.
By virtue of his position as judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court, Croke was appointed to the board of governors of King’s College by the charter of 1802. It was intended by the board that the institution’s statutes be modelled after those of Oxford, and as the only Oxford graduate among the governors Croke was the logical source of information. Along with Chief Justice Sampson Salter Blowers and Bishop Charles Inglis* he was appointed to the committee which was to draft them. There is no evidence that the committee ever met as a body, however, and it appears that Croke took upon himself the task of framing the statutes. To later generations, their most controversial aspect was the stipulation that all matriculants subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England; in a province which was three-quarters non-Anglican, this clause effectively prohibited most Nova Scotians from attending their only post-secondary institution. The direct result of the restriction was a proliferation of denominational academic institutions during the 19th century [see Thomas McCulloch]. Although the statutes undoubtedly reflected Croke’s personal attitude towards education, they received the approbation of the board of governors, the Council, and the British authorities.
Years later, Croke became embroiled in the issue of public education centring on the so-called Bromleyan controversy. In 1813 Walter Bromley arrived in Nova Scotia to establish an interdenominational school for the poor, and his project drew the interest and support of many influential citizens. Declining an invitation to serve on the committee for organizing the school, Croke voiced his disapproval of the scheme in a lengthy letter published in the Acadian Recorder of 13 Aug. 1813. He thus began a long and heated public debate over the advantages of denominational and interdenominational education. The educational efforts of the colonists became disunited: Bromley’s Royal Acadian School lost valuable supporters and Anglicans intensified their own denominational endeavours. Croke’s outspoken views reinforced Nova Scotians’ antipathy towards him.
The intense dislike of Alexander Croke in Nova Scotia on the part both of contemporaries and of historians up to the 20th century was engendered in part by his office. As judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court he was obliged to enforce a system of laws which were becoming increasingly outdated and which he rendered more unpalatable by his inflexible interpretations. His personality was also to blame for the public perception of him, for he exhibited a lack of understanding and diplomacy in dealing with people whom he perceived to be in a lower social station. This characteristic was especially marked in his insensitivity to the rising aspirations of Nova Scotians at the opening of the 19th century, so that his involvement in the social issues of the community led only to altercations. Although Croke was a man of considerable legal knowledge, cultural and artistic abilities, and much personal integrity, the benefits deriving from them tended to be overshadowed by his less praiseworthy traits and the unpopularity of his office.
Sir Alexander Croke’s writings include A report of the case of Horner against Liddiard, upon the question of what consent is necessary to the marriage of illegitimate minors . . . (London, 1800); Remarks upon Mr. Schlegel’s work, “Upon the visitation of neutral vessels under convoy” (London, 1801); an unpublished poem entitled “The Inquisition: An Heroic Poem in Four Cantos” ([Halifax, c. 1805]), a transcript copy of which is preserved at PANS, MG 1, 239C; The catechism of the Church of England, with parallel passages from the Confession of Faith, and the larger and shorter catechisms of the Church of Scotland (Halifax, 1813); The substance of a judgement, delivered in the Court of Vice-Admiralty, at Halifax, (in Nova Scotia), on the 5th February, 1813; in the case of Little-Joe, Fairweather, Master; upon some questions relating to droits of admiralty . . . (Halifax, 1813); The genealogical history of the Croke family, originally named Le Blount (2v., Oxford, 1823); The case of Otmoor; with the moor orders . . . (Oxford, 1831); Plain truths: five letters, addressed to the members of the Conservative Association of the county and city of Oxford . . . (Oxford, 1837); and The progress of idolatry; a poem in ten books; the three ordeals; or the triumph of virtue, in five cantos; Studley Priory, and other poems . . . (2v., Oxford, 1841); “The three ordeals . . .” is in fact “The Inquisition,” reworded for English audiences. In addition he edited Thirteen Psalms and the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, translated into English verse by John Croke, in the reign of Henry VIII; with other documents relating to the Croke family, along with Philip Bliss, who saw it through the press following Croke’s death. It was published in London in 1844.
The reports of Croke’s cases in the Halifax Court of Vice-Admiralty were issued as Reports of cases, argued and determined in the Court of Vice-Admiralty, at Halifax, in Nova-Scotia, from . . . 1803, to the end of the year 1813, in the time of Alexander Croke . . . , comp. James Stewart (London, 1814).
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