Georgian Celebrities – William Roscoe
Who was the man who has been called ‘Liverpool’s greatest son’?
William Roscoe was born in Liverpool on 8th March 1753. His father, formerly a servant at Allerton Hall, was a market gardener who kept a public house called the Bowling Green in Mount Pleasant. Roscoe was largely self-educated having left school at the age of twelve. He assisted his father in the work of the garden, but spent his leisure time on reading and study. In truth, he devoted his whole life to the pursuit of learning. At fifteen he began to look for a suitable career. A month’s trial of bookselling was unsuccessful, and in 1769 he was articled to a solicitor. Although a diligent student of law, he continued to read the classics, and enjoyed the language and literature of Italy which was to dominate his life.
In 1774 he went into business as a lawyer, and in 1781 married Jane, second daughter of William Griffies, a Liverpool tradesman; they had seven sons and three daughters. Roscoe had the courage to publicly denounce the African slave trade in his native town, where, at that time, a significant amount of the wealth came from slavery.
In 1796 Roscoe gave up legal practice, and toyed with the idea of going to the bar. Between 1793 and 1800 he paid much attention to agriculture. He also succeeded in restoring to good order the affairs of a banking house in which his friend William Clark, then resident in Italy, was a partner. This led to his introduction to the business, which eventually proved disastrous.
Roscoe was elected member of parliament for Liverpool in 1806, but the House of Commons was not for him, and at the dissolution in the following year he stood down. During his brief stay however, he was able to cast his vote in favour of the successful abolition of the slave trade.
In the early 1800s, he led a group of Liverpool botanists who created the Liverpool Botanic Garden as a private garden, initially located near Mount Pleasant, which was then on the outskirts of the City. In the 1830s the garden was relocated to Wavertree Botanic Gardens.
The commercial troubles of 1816 brought into difficulties the banking house with which he was connected, and forced the sale of his collection of books and pictures. Dr SH Spiker, the king of Prussia’s librarian, visited Roscoe at this difficult time. Roscoe said he still desired to write a biography of Erasmus but lacked both leisure and youth. The project was never carried out. After five years struggling to discharge the liabilities of the bank, the action of a small number of creditors forced the partners into bankruptcy in 1820. For a time Roscoe was in danger of arrest, but ultimately he received an honourable discharge. On the dispersal of his library, the volumes most useful to him were secured by friends and placed in the Liverpool Athenaeum. The sum of £2500 was also invested for his benefit.
Having now resigned commercial pursuits entirely, he took great pleasure in the arrangement of the great library at Holkham, the property of his friend Thomas Coke.
He was a prolific writer, historian and pamphleteer. Horace Walpole thought Roscoe the best of our historians, and his books on Lorenzo de’Medici and Pope Leo X remain important contributions to historical literature. His poem, Mount Pleasant, was written when he was sixteen, and together with other verses won the esteem of good critics.
The Butterfly’s Ball is a fantasy poem, which has charmed thousands of children since it appeared in 1807.
Roscoe and his wife had seven sons and three daughters, including William Stanley Roscoe, a poet, Thomas, translator from Italian, and Henry, a legal writer who wrote his father’s biography. Henry’s son Henry Enfield Roscoe was a chemist and vice-chancellor of the University of London. His daughter was a poet known by her married name Mary Anne Jevons, and was the mother of William Stanley Jevons.
Throughout his life, Roscoe showed considerable moral courage as well as devotion to study.