Roscoe, William

William Roscoe (March 8, 1753-June 27, 1831) was a poet, historian, botanist, and politician who laid the foundation for the cultural flowering of Liverpool while opposing the slave trade, the main source of its prosperity. A prominent member of the Presbyterian (Unitarian) dissenting community, his political and social reform activities were strongly informed by his rational views of religion.

William was born and grew up at the Bowling Green Inn, in Mount Pleasant, then a semi-rural area on the outskirts of Liverpool with a view of the dockyards and the Mersey. From his father, an inn-keeper and a market gardener, Roscoe inherited a tremendous energy and a lifelong interest in agriculture, gardening, and botany. His mother taught him to love books and poetry. The Roscoe family belonged to Benn’s Garden Chapel, one of the two main dissenting meeting houses in the town.

Although William left school at age 12 to assist his father in the market garden, he did not cease pursuing his own education. He studied Latin, Greek, French and Italian; developed an interest in art and poetry; and was an earnest student of the New Testament. At 16 he was apprenticed to a local solicitor for five years. In 1770, when the minister of his church, the Unitarian William Enfield, left to serve as rector of the Warrington Academy, in Warrington, Cheshire (the same school where Joseph Priestley had previously served as a tutor), Roscoe began attending open meetings there.

Having qualified as an attorney in 1774, Roscoe worked in that profession for the next 22 years. In 1781 he married Jane Griffies. They had ten children. Meanwhile he developed wide artistic and literary interests. In 1773 he helped to found the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts of Painting and Design, the first such society outside of London. His first published poem, Mount Pleasant, 1777, extolled the emergence of Liverpool as a port of international renown.

Early on Roscoe developed an interest in the European Renaissance, particularly in the rise of the arts and learning in fourteenth century Florence. Although he never travelled to Italy, friends brought him books and other material from Florence. His The Life of Lorenzo de Medici, 1796, was met with critical acclaim, went into many editions, and was translated into French, German, Italian, and other languages. He followed this success with the four-volume Life and Pontificate of Leo X, 1805. Inspired by his Renaissance studies, he began to envision himself as a patron of the arts, doing for Liverpool what Lorenzo de Medici had done for Florence. Because of his success in business life Roscoe was able to build a large and important collection of paintings, manuscripts, and books.

Although he retired from his profession at 43, he was too much of a public-minded figure to retire from public life or from public activity. He moved to Allerton Hall, a house where his father had worked as a butler before he was born. In this rural area he took up farming, he also continued writing and political campaigning.

Inspired by his faith and encouraged by Enfield, he had been an opponent of the slave trade from the beginning of his political career. His poem Mount Pleasant had included an indictment of slavery and those who profited from it:

Shame to Mankind! But shame to BRITONS most,
Who all the sweets of Liberty can boast;
Yet, deaf to every human claim, deny
That bliss to others, which themselves enjoy.

A few years later Roscoe issued a longer poem, The Wrongs of Africa, published in two volumes, 1787 and 1788, which established him as a leader of the abolitionist cause. He devoted all the income from this publication to the London Committee for the Abolition of Slave Trade. He also composed a prose attack on the trade, A General View of the African Slave Trade, demonstrating its Injustice and Impolicy, 1789. These public statements went against the tide of public opinion and questioned the means by which many of his fellow citizens had acquired their wealth. The Liverpool City Council paid a clergyman to write a theological rebuttal of Roscoe’s arguments. His opposition to the trade was steeped in his religious beliefs and he joined forces with the Quakers to establish his objections.

When Roscoe raised his voice against the African slave trade he offended not only the religious and political establishment of the town but also many of his fellow Unitarian dissenters. At least a dozen members of his Chapel were slave-ship owners. Other members included sailmakers, coopers, ropemakers, chandlers, and merchants of many kinds whose livelihoods partly depended upon the slave trade.

Roscoe’s opposition to the slave trade brought him into the national political arena. In 1806, after a difficult and stormy campaign, he was elected to Parliament as an independent candidate. His opponents identified his religion as the root cause of his opposition to ‘the African trade’. This identification of Liverpool’s dissenters with abolition was a result of the Roscoe’s hard work during the preceding years. The leading anti-slave trade campaigner, William Wilberforce called Roscoe ‘a man who by strength of character has risen above the deep-seated prejudices of his townspeople and eventually won their respect.’ Roscoe, in voting for the historic ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the Colonies’, 1807, told the House of Commons that ‘for thirty years I have never ceased to condemn this inhuman traffic: and I consider it the greatest happiness of my life to lift up my voice on this occasion against it, with the friends of justice and humanity.’ On his return to Liverpool, however, he was greeted by a riot orchestrated by local slave traders. He remained a Member of Parliament only until the next election. He continued his tireless efforts on behalf of the Liverpool society for the Abolition of Slavery, becoming the President of the society and delivering the annual address in 1824. In this address Roscoe gave voice to the idea that the religious instruction of slaves and assuring their attendance at worship were essential elements in setting the stage for effective emancipation. He had expressed similar views on the role of religion in his earlier work Penal Jurisprudence and the Reformation of Criminals (1819).

Roscoe was known as a man of deep devotion and piety as well as an advocate of the uniform application of his religious principles to all members of civil society. It was said that Roscoe read the sacred writings and scriptures during his youth and that he drew from them the moral precepts that Jesus taught and adopted them as his own guiding principles throughout life. Roscoe’s religious views and personal experiences also informed another one of his important, yet ultimately unpopular, positions. He worked tirelessly to repeal the Test Act so that Roman Catholics and all dissenters could hold public office and have equal standing in English government and under the law. Roscoe wrote of ‘introducing [the New Testament] principles and humane spirit into the institutions of civil society.’ Throughout his life Roscoe kept up an active correspondence on religious matters with several leading American Unitarians, including William Ellery Channing, Francis Greenwood, and Jared Sparks.

A few years after he had retired from the law Roscoe became a partner in the bank owned by his friend William Clarke. In 1816, in a period of acute economic depression, the bank collapsed. Forced into bankruptcy, he had to sell his beloved home as well as his books, manuscripts, and paintings. This was a devastating experience for him. He particularly regretted the loss of his books and wrote a sonnet on the subject. His friends purchased the art collection and presented it to the Liverpool Royal Institution, a learned society which Roscoe helped to found in 1814. Eventually this collection passed into the hands of the city and can today be seen in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Many of his books were purchased by friends and placed in the Liverpool Athenaeum. In 1819 Roscoe was made a member of the Royal Society of Literature and awarded a royal payment of 300 guineas per annum in recognition of his services to literature.

Among the poems Roscoe wrote for children, the most famous is The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, 1807. An instant best seller, it is still in print. Part of his intention in such works was to get children to enjoy nature. His own interest in nature and botany led him to establish the Botanic Gardens in Liverpool. He obtained exotic plants from all over the world and helped to identify and classify them. He wrote a botanical work Monandrian Plants and the Order Scitamineae, published 1824 to 1828.

In later life Roscoe became a member of the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth, a congregation originating in the early 17th century. He is amongst the list of signatories to the calls of John Porter and John Hamilton Thom as ministers there in 1827 and 1831. These were perhaps his last public acts, as he became increasingly debilitated by a series of strokes. Thom said of Roscoe, ‘we claim him as a Christian and rejoice to have so signally witnessed the power of Christianity upon a living man.’

The American writer Washington Irving, who served in the United States diplomatic corps in England, 1829-32, observed of Roscoe: ‘Wherever you go in Liverpool you perceive traces of his footsteps in all that is elegant and liberal.’ Throughout the 19th century medals were struck in his honor. He was recognized as ‘Liverpool’s greatest citizen’ in a biography published on the bicentenary of his birth. In more recent decades the sense of civic pride in his achievements has reduced slightly, partly as the focus on slavery has shifted from British anti-slavery campaigners to the Afro-Caribbean experience. There is, however, a growing interest in his botanical achievements. A memorial, originally erected in Renshaw Street Chapel (to where the congregation of Benn’s Garden Chapel moved in 1811), now stands in the cloisters of Ullet Road Church—the home, since 1899, of his old congregation.

The main deposit of Roscoe’s letters, papers and manuscripts is in the Liverpool Record Office. Other letters are held in University collections throughout the United Kingdom. Biographies include Henry Roscoe, The Life of William Roscoe by his son Henry Roscoe (1833); Godfrey W. Mathews, William Roscoe: A Memoir (1931); George Chandler, William Roscoe of Liverpool (1953), which contains some of Roscoe’s poetry in the appendices; Graham Murphy, William Roscoe His Early Ideals and Influence (1981); Donald A. Macnaughton, Roscoe of Liverpool: His Life Writings and Treasures 1753-1831 (1996), a recent biography with an emphasis on Roscoe’s works and collections; Macnaughton’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); and Arline Wilson, William Roscoe: Commerce and Culture (2008). See also Anne Holt, Walking Together (1938), a history of Roscoe’s congregation that devotes a chapter to his contribution.

Article by David Steers
Posted February 22, 2009