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William Roscoe

William Roscoe by
Martin Archer Shee,

William Roscoe (8 March 1753 – 30 June 1831), was an English historian and miscellaneous writer, perhaps best known today as an early abolitionist, and for his poem for children the Butterfly's Ball. He was born in Liverpool, where his father, a market gardener, kept a public house called the Bowling Green at Mount Pleasant. Roscoe left school at the age of twelve, having learned all that his schoolmaster could teach. He assisted his father in the work of the garden, but spent his leisure time on reading and study.

"This mode of life," he says, "gave health and vigour to my body, and amusement and instruction to my mind; and to this day I well remember the delicious sleep which succeeded my labours, from which I was again called at an early hour. If I were now asked whom I consider to be the happiest of the human race, I should answer, those who cultivate the earth by their own hands."

Bowling Green House 

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 made the acquaintance with 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 denounce the African slave trade in his native town, where, at that time, a significant amount of the wealth came from slavery. Roscoe was a Unitarian and Presbyterian. His outspokenness against the slave trade meant that abolitionism and presbyterianism were linked together in the public mind.

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.

Roscoe Memorial Gardens is the burial site of Liverpool's most 
famous abolitionist, William Roscoe (1735-1831).

In the early 1800s, Roscoe 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.

Roscoe and his wife had seven sons and three daughters, including William Stanley Roscoe (1782–1843), a poet, Thomas Roscoe (1791–1871), translator from Italian, and Henry (1800–1836), a legal writer who wrote his father's biography. Henry's son Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833–1915) was a chemist and vice-chancellor of the University of London. Daughter Mary Anne was known as a poet by her married name Mary Anne Jevons, and was the mother of William Stanley Jevons.


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Liverpool Records Office

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