William Roscoe: a True Son of Liverpool


David Alton recalls the life and times of William Roscoe – reformer, poet, historian, lawyer, banker, MP, Unitarian, – ‘a true son of Liverpool’ from whom we still have much to learn.

In 1770 the Liverpool poet, William Roscoe, moved from Mount Pleasant where his father had kept a tavern and market garden. With his much loved wife and family they went to the nearby countryside-to the Dingle, in Toxteth Park…’Where the linnet chirps his song…’ and ‘bending tufts of grass, bright gleaming through the encircling wood,…grateful for the tribute paid, Lord Mersey loved the Maid’.

Roscoe’s stanzas recall an age which pre-dated the industrialisation of Liverpool. The evangelical preacher John Wesley described it as ‘one of the neatest, best built towns I have ever seen in England’.

His poetry recaptures a Liverpool long since gone. It is penned by a man born in today’s bustling city centre, but who was himself a countryman. A true son of this city, perhaps, when he wrote these lines, he foresaw the destruction of Liverpool, first by enemy bombs and then by politicians and planners: ‘The year may come-O distant by the year-When desolation spread her empire here. When Trade’s uncertain triumph shall be o’er, And the wave roll neglected on the shore…and not one trace of former pride remain.’

In 2002 William Roscoe still has much to say to our generation. At a time when people are searching for deeper values here is a man of quality.

It was no exaggeration when the great historian of Liverpool, James Picton, said that ‘no native resident of Liverpool has done more to elevate the character of the community, by uniting the successful pursuit of literature and art with the ordinary duties of the citizen and man of business’.

Man of Integrity

Our politicians today should look back with pride to this cultured man of deep integrity. Today’s city leaders could do worse than imitate Roscoe. In our Liverpool schools we should encourage the study of a life which combined a love of languages, art and poetry with a passionate commitment to political reform and human rights.

It is inspiring to see how the young Roscoe shaped his ideas.

In 1759, at six years of age, he was sent to a day school in Paradise Street, kept by a Mr Martin. At twelve years of age he ended his formal education, working in his father’s market garden, growing potatoes: but, significantly, this was when he bought himself his first book. This book was to form the core of what subsequently became, a world-famous library. At 15, he worked briefly in a book store and then was articled as a clerk to John Eyes, a Church Street solicitor.

Gradually Roscoe taught himself a love of literature and the arts. He began to write and to illustrate his first poems. He began to fashion ideas, and to hold political and religious beliefs. Mrs Thatcher talks a lot about ‘self help’. She would have like the side of Roscoe that pulled himself up by his own boot straps. But he set his store by more than mere materialism.

In the heat of the commercial boom which hit Liverpool at the end of the eighteenth century, Roscoe became a successful banker and lawyer. But he never lost sight of his other values.

Take his attitudes towards slavery, the war with the French and the French revolution.

The Slave Trade

Liverpool’s prosperity was based on the slave trade. Ramsay Muir, the professor of contemporary history at Liverpool University at the turn of the century, estimated that slavery generated a staggering £15million in Liverpool in one year alone. In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century that would have been wealth on a scale only equalled today in the City of London’s money markets.

The slaves were not brought directly to Liverpool; they were just one part of a triangle. Manufactured goods were shipped to Guinea. These cargoes were exchanged for slaves who were then taken direct to the West Indies and sold. In the Liverpool newspapers of Roscoe’s day there were many advertisements urging Liverpool gentleman to try their luck and to amass their fortunes in this trade of human misery.

It would have been easy for Roscoe to turn a blind eye to these lucrative but evil practices. The slave traders dominated Liverpool and it was highly unpopular to speak out against it. He and William Rathbone were two of the few who did. Roscoe went further and joined with the Quakers, and political leaders like Fox and the Christian political reformer, William Wilberforce, to challenge the slavery laws.

In 1787 and 1788 he published tracts and poems attacking the inhumanity and evil of slavery. In his poem The Wrongs of Africa are lines which retain their strength and poignancy to this day: ‘Blush ye not, to boast your equal laws, your just restraints, your rights defended, your liberties secured, whilst with an iron hand ye crushed to earth the helpless African; and bid him drink that cup of sorrow, which yourselves have dashed, indignant, from Oppression’s fainting grasp?’

Roscoe showed admiral courage as he shunned popular acclaim, vigorously admonishing his Liverpool readers and reminding them that for all of us there comes a time of reckoning: ‘Forget not, Britain, higher still than thee, sits the great Judge of nations, who can weigh the wrong. And can repay.’

Roscoe MP

Two decades later, in 1807, he was briefly elected to serve as a Liverpool member of Parliament. He ignored the hatred which his position might engender and strongly supported Wilberforce. Other abolitionists told him his vote in the House was worth twenty. After just three months in the House of Commons he returned to Liverpool and was assailed by enraged slave traders. In the General Election which followed Liverpool returned a Tory in his place. His determination to put principles and conscience first was summed up by what he told the house of Commons: ‘I consider it the greatest happiness of my existence to lift up my voice on this occasion, with the friends of justice and humanity.’

Roscoe showed similar courage in supporting the ideals-though not the fanaticism-of the French Revolution. From his political position, as a Whig, he bitterly attacked Edmund Burke, who changed sides and became an opponent of political reform. Roscoe subsequently opposed the Napoleonic wars-again risking adverse public reaction-and by keeping alive the ideal of political reform, he and the Whigs paved the way for the reforming legislation of the 1830s and probably helped avert a bloody revolution.

Two hundred years ago, in 1790, he penned these lines about the revolution in Europe: ‘Too long had Oppression and Terror entwined those fancy-formed chains that enslave the free mind…Seize then the glad moment, and hail the decree that bids millions rejoice, and a nation be free’, words which today should resound around the capitals of Eastern Europe. Roscoe fought against slavery and championed individual liberty. He was adamantly opposed to the Test Acts which debarred and discriminated against Dissenters and Roman Catholics-another unpopular cause in the Liverpool of his day. He argued for ‘general toleration’. As a Dissenting Christian himself-he was a Unitarian-he refused to compromise when offered the position of the Deputy-Lieutenancy of the County (which the law said could only be held by a member of the Established Church). Even though he was assured that the law would no be invoked against him, he held that bad laws should be repealed not ignored. Nearly two centuries later the American civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, said, “Do not ask if it is politic, do not ask if it is timely, ask if it is right”. Roscoe saw clearly the difference between right and wrong and lived his life accordingly.

Nor was Roscoe simply long on words and short on actions.

He supported every project calculated for the public good. The extent of his private charities was considerable. The foundation of Liverpool’s Athenaeum and the Botanic Gardens were largely at his instigation. And his commitment to his city and his family was second to none.

He lived successively at Mount Pleasant, Dingle, Islington, Allerton Hall and died in 1831 at his home in Toxteth’s Lodge Lane. He wrote often about the city he loved. But his children’s poem, The Butterfly’s Ball, must be one of the all time greats and remains my favourite. Written for his son Robert, he describes some of the guests at revels in the insect world: ‘And there was the gnat, and the dragon fly too, with all their relations, green orange and blue: and there came the moth with his plumage of down, and the hornet, in jacket of yellow and brown.’ King George III liked it so much that he had the poem set to music for his three daughters, the princesses Elizabeth, Augusta and Mary.

In 1953 Liverpool City Council sponsored a volume of verse, writings and biography of Roscoe, complied by the City librarian, George Chandler. Maybe now, 200 years after his poetry about European liberties and freedom, and of his campaign to end the evils of slavery, our city and its schools should commemorate again the memory of a singular and virtuous man.