William Roscoe was a man of many talents and interests, but he is known particularly for being a historian and abolitionist. He was the son of a market gardener who also owned a public house, the Bowling Green, in Mount Pleasant – then a semi-rural location on the outskirts of Liverpool. He left school at 12, but continued to educate himself – and others – throughout the rest of his life.
Initially, he worked alongside his father, during which time he bought his first book which was to be the start of a renowned collection. He also developed an interest in the fine arts and taught himself to read Latin, French and Italian.
Articled as a solicitor in 1769, he went into business by himself in 1774 and went on to marry the daughter of a Liverpool tradesman. Together, they had ten children.
In many ways, William was ahead of his time. For example, he founded a Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Painting and Design in 1773, the first society of this kind outside London, and organised the first exhibition of painting in Liverpool featuring local artists. He also wrote a biography of Lorenzo de Medici, one of the patrons of the Renaissance, which encouraged him to promote cultural development in Liverpool to counterbalance the city’s thirst for trade. He also played an active part in the founding of the Liverpool Royal Institution and the Athenaeum Library.
But one of his lifelong passions was denouncing the slave trade, which at this time played a huge part in Liverpool’s wealth. It was a brave move which could have seriously damaged his career, but he stood firm. He published pamphlets arguing against it and voted for a motion to abolish the slave trade during the one year he represented Liverpool as an MP in the House of Commons. After this, he came home to face a riot orchestrated by local slave traders. However, he calmly continued his work with Liverpool Society for the Abolition of Slavery for the remainder of his life.
Disillusioned with the law, he pursued business interests in banking which almost resulted in bankruptcy during a period of severe economic depression in 1816. Sadly, he was forced to sell off his art and book collection, although his many friends bought what they could and donated them to the Liverpool Royal Institute and Athenaeum.
Many remember him for the poems he wrote for children, the most famous of is The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, which reflected his lifelong interest in botany – among his many other accomplishments, he also established the Botanic Gardens in Liverpool.
In 1831, aged 78, he died of influenza. He was interred in the burial ground next to Renshaw Street chapel, where as a devout Presbyterian he had worshipped, and close to the Old Bowling Green House Tavern where he had been born. Among many reminders of his work that remain in memory of him to this day in Liverpool, a monument stands in the cloisters of Ullet Road Church.
Louise McTigue is a freelance writer and researcher, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials.