ROSCOE, William (1753-1831), of Allerton, nr. Liverpool, Lancs.
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Family and Education
b. 8 Mar. 1753, o.s. of William Roscoe, market gardener, of Liverpool by w. Elizabeth. educ. Martin’s sch. 1759-61, Sykes’s sch. 1761-5, both in Paradise Street, Liverpool; articled to John Eyes, attorney 1769, adm. 1774; G. Inn 1797. m. 22 Feb. 1781, Jane, da. of William Griffies, linen draper, of Liverpool, 7s. 2da.
Roscoe was an outstanding example of the self-made scholar and publicist. Bred to his father’s market garden, he contrived to break away from it, becoming in turn a bookseller’s assistant and an attorney in partnership with Aspinall and Hall. Even this was a means to an end—to make his mark in literature and politics. In 1777 and 1787 he published poems and in 1788 and 1792 pamphlets against the slave trade on which the prosperity of Liverpool was based. He went on to write verse sympathizing with the French revolution and attacked Edmund Burke in a pamphlet of 1796, soon after his literary reputation had been established by his biography of Lorenzo de’Medici, a pioneer study in Italian renaissance history. Horace Walpole hailed him as ‘the best historian, and poet of this age’.1
Roscoe detested the political climate of England in the 1790s: in 1795 he wrote to the Marquess of Lansdowne complaining bitterly of Pitt’s alarmist legislation ‘where every man is called upon to be a spy upon his brother’.2 Anti-Jacobin feeling closed down the Literary and Philosophical Society at Liverpool which he and his friends had founded and shattered his dream of making the city another Florence. Giving up his practice in 1796, he retired to Chat Moss near Manchester where he had been for several years engaged in a scheme for draining and cultivating a tract of peat moss. In 1797 he was admitted to Grays Inn, but kept one term only. In November 1798 he assured Lord Holland that it was best to ‘relinquish the fruitless opposition which gives to every new measure of government the appearance of a victory over a sinking party’; he believed that ‘the present war is not a war against the French but a war of the English aristocracy against the friends of reform in this country’. Soon after he purchased a moiety of the Allerton estate in 1799 he was unintentionally reclaimed by the business world from agricultural improvement, the study of botany and a projected biography of Pope Leo X. On the impending failure of his friends Messrs J. and W. Clarke’s Liverpool bank he stepped in as shareholder and active partner to save them. The story went that Sir Benjamin Hammet*
who is said to have held acceptances on the Liverpool bank to the amount of £200,000, was so struck with Roscoe’s ability in arranging the affairs of the bank, that he pressed him to become a partner in the concern, and that, on Roscoe’s refusal, he threatened to make it bankrupt, and that it was to save his friends that Roscoe yielded.3
Roscoe welcomed the armistice and in 1802 published an anonymous pamphlet deploring any resumption of hostilities with France. In March 1805 he wrote to Lord Holland condemning ministerial policy towards the Irish Catholics. Himself a Unitarian, he looked forward to ‘general toleration of speculative opinions’. His own biography of Leo X, published in 1805, did not please critical opinion and was promptly placed on the Index Expurgatorius on being translated into Italian. He seemed, moreover, an improbable candidate for Liverpool in the election of 1806, when he was adopted late in the day as the Whig candidate with the blessing of the Grenville ministry. But he was
a fine-looking tall man, with an expressive countenance ... rather farmer-looking ... completely idolized here by all ranks. Besides his bank, which he attends four complete days each week, he has two large farms. He writes his books, collects pictures and etchings, reads a great deal, and makes plans for all the public buildings. In short, he is a most surprising, worthy, agreeable, and respectable man.4
He was not (until 1815) a freeman of Liverpool, and posed as the champion of the disfranchised as well as of the freemen at large against the corporation. His humble origins were mocked by his opponents, but his election, attended by a triumphal procession, exceeded all his hopes. As he explained in a public speech of 25 Nov., his principles were peace and retrenchment, parliamentary reform and, above all, the abolition of the slave trade. As he favoured compensation for the losses sustained by slave owners and the breaking of the East India Company trade monopoly to satisfy the town’s Africa merchants, he was not free from what William Smith* termed ‘a degree of Liverpool taint or temporizing at least’. Privately, too, he thought all ‘rational friends of freedom’ must deplore the radicalism of Sir Francis Burdett. But he emerged from his election giving more credit to the Liverpool electors than he had been inclined to accord them—and, a year later, from the House of Commons with a higher opinion of its aggregate ability than he had credited it with.5
On 7 Jan. 1807 Lady Holland recorded:
Roscoe spoke yesterday for his maiden speech on the Thetford petition. Windham says his manner is dull, coarse, and provincial. I do not think his talents are such as will enable him to add to his reputation by his public speaking.
He concurred with Whitbread in lamenting the failure of peace negotiations with France. On 20 and 23 Feb. 1807 he spoke up for abolition and compensation, defending his constituents from the imputation of connivance at inhumanity and following the line he had laid down for himself at Liverpool on 25 Nov. To a friend he wrote, ‘I have reason to think that my speech gave satisfaction, as both Mr Wilberforce and Mr Whitbread expressed themselves in particular terms to me to that effect’. Richard Sharp told him his vote was worth 20.6 He was the first Liverpool Member to take the other side on this question. Roscoe defended Romilly’s freehold estates bill, 11 Mar. 1807: it would ‘do nothing more than make every real estate subject to a debt which every honest man would wish to see paid’. On 17 Mar. he presented the Liverpool merchants’ petition in favour of distillation from sugar. He voted for Brand’s motion following the dismissal of his friends from office, 9 Apr., and on 15 Apr. championed Catholic relief and the Whig side of the constitutional question. On 24 Apr. he supported Whitbread’s plan for popular education.
Roscoe’s public entry into Liverpool on 2 May 1807, a day after the abolition of the slave trade had become law, was disastrous; enraged slave traders masquerading as protestant zealots assailed him. To prevent disorder he declined, though his friends insisted on a token poll in his name. Lord Holland was one of many Whig sympathizers who wrote to him, assuring him that his ‘rejection at Liverpool is considered by us all as one of the greatest disgraces to the country, as well as misfortunes to the party, that could have happened’. Roscoe declined a deputy-lieutenancy of the county, offered him by Lord Derby, from dissenting scruples.7
Roscoe remained a publicist. A pamphlet of his in favour of peace negotiations reached its fifth edition in February 1808; it took Whitbread’s line, rather than Fox’s. His name was mentioned as a possible candidate for Westminster in case of a vacancy in March 1808. In 1810 he wrote a pamphlet critical of the Whig leader Earl Grey’s motion of 13 June in the Lords on the war; this again drew him nearer Whitbread, Creevey and the Whig ‘Mountain’. His signature on the Liverpool petition for reform was mentioned in the House, 21 May 1810; he was a friend of constitutional reform in 1811 and a steward for the public meeting in London of June 1811 in favour of it. He informed Henry Brougham that in his view the franchise should be extended ‘to all who as householders are heads of families, and contribute to the exigencies of the state’, and that ‘all persons holding places and pensions should be incapable of being elected, or if they afterwards accept of places should be absolutely deprived of seats in the House’. This would be ‘a full and substantial reform’.8
Roscoe had put himself out of the question at Liverpool at the next election: so he assured an inquirer in September 1811. He was, however, despite his initial scepticism, cordial in concerting with Brougham the local opposition to the orders in council in the session of 1812. Of its success he wrote to Brougham, 25 June, ‘Such a victory of public opinion has never occurred in my time and I hope what we have already seen is only the earnest of what remains to be done’. After organizing a public dinner for Brougham at Liverpool on 4 Sept., he proceeded to promote his and Thomas Creevey’s joint candidature on the Whig interest at the ensuing election. Creevey was not acceptable to all Roscoe’s friends, some of whom urged him to offer himself, but his ‘prompt and peremptory’ refusal and warm recommendation of Creevey settled the question. He then lay low, explaining to Brougham:
I consider myself in some degree as a sort of connecting link between the more aristocratic and democratic friends of our cause, and if I were to give way to every popular impulse I should not only act against my own feelings, which revolt at all extremes, but do essential injury to the cause.
When Brougham and Creevey were defeated, the Whig conclusion was that Roscoe was at fault in attempting to carry two. He had declined an invitation to come forward for Westminster as second string to Burdett, and his unsuccessful candidature at Leicester was without his knowledge, though he thanked his supporters there for the compliment intended him.9
On 25 Jan. 1816 Roscoe’s bank stopped payment. John Whishaw assured Creevey that attempts were made to keep the house going, particularly by Arthur Heywood, Joseph Birch*, Lord Derby, Thomas William Coke I* and others, ‘but the distress of the times and the engagements of the house amounting to upwards of £300,000 rendered the whole scheme impracticable’. Creevey alleged that apart from two of them, the creditors (nearly 400 of them) ‘acted most liberally’ and that Roscoe should still look forward to £10,000 p.a. from his ‘property in a coal work’. He sold his personal effects to stave off bankruptcy, but it befell him in 1820. A year before he had published Observations on Penal Jurisprudence. His Whig friends, notably Coke who engaged him to catalogue his manuscripts at Holkham, saw to it that he did not starve.10 He died 30 June 1831.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Lawrence Taylor / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Henry Roscoe, Life of William Roscoe, i. 12, 43, 90, 126; Liverpool, the African Slave Trade and Abolition ed. Anstey and Hair, 211; E. Murphy, William Roscoe, His Early Ideals and Influence (1981); Gent. Mag. (1831), ii. 179; Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 375; Farington, i. 153.
- 2. Roscoe, i. 127.
- 3. G. Chandler, William Roscoe of Liverpool, p. xxv; G. W. Mathews, William Roscoe, 29; Liverpool RO, Roscoe mss 2080; Add. 51650, Roscoe to Holland, 25 Dec. 1799, 26 Oct. 1800, to Lady Holland, 22 May 1800.
- 4. Add. 51650, Roscoe to Holland, 18 Nov. 1802; Roscoe, i. 294-6; Horner Mems. i. 313; DNB; Archibald Constable, i. 77.
- 5. Lansdowne mss, Roscoe to Petty, 13 Nov.; Add. 51650, Roscoe to Holland, 13 Nov.; 51573, Smith to same, 7 Dec. ; Roscoe, i. 358-9; Moore, Byron Letters (1875), 308.
- 6. Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 197; Farington, iv. 87; Roscoe, i. 366-76; Mathews, 32.
- 7. Roscoe mss 1190-1, 2092; Add. 51650, Roscoe to Holland, 3 June 1807; Brougham, Life and Times, ii. 64-65.
- 8. Add. 51650, Roscoe to Holland, 1 Feb.; Creevey mss, Roscoe to Creevey, 3 Feb. 1808; Wakes Museum, Selborne, Holt White mss 358; Brougham mss 35347; Manchester Coll. Oxf., Shepherd mss, Creevey to Rev. Shepherd, 6 Nov. 1810; Roscoe, ii. 14.
- 9. Roscoe mss 2012, 2515, 2518; Brougham mss 10345, 10380, 32315, 32583-6, 32588; Add. 27840, ff. 56, 73, 74; Creevey mss, Brougham to Creevey, Fri. [Sept.]; Morning Chron. 21 Oct. 1812.
- 10. Creevey mss, Whishaw to Creevey, 10 Feb. 1816; Farington, viii. 54, 83; Roscoe, ii. 243-256; Holland, 377.