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William Roscoe

Birthplace: Liverpool, Lancashire, England, UK
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of William Roscoe and Elizabeth Roscoe
Husband of Jane Roscoe
Father of William Stanley Roscoe; Elizabeth Roscoe; Edward Roscoe; James Roscoe; Robert Roscoe and 5 others
Brother of Margaret Roscoe

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About William Roscoe

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 labors, 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." 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.

In 1796 Roscoe gave up legal practice, and toyed with the idea of going to the bar. Between 1793 and 1800 he paid much attention to agriculture, and helped to reclaim Chat Moss, near Manchester. He also succeeded in restoring to good order the affairs of a banking house in which his friend William Clark, then resident in Italy, was a partner. This led to his introduction to the business, which eventually proved disastrous.

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.

In the early 1800s, he 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.

The commercial troubles of 1816 brought into difficulties the banking house with which he was connected, and forced the sale of his collection of books and pictures. Dr SH Spiker, the king of Prussia's librarian, visited Roscoe at this difficult time. Roscoe said he still desired to write a biography of Erasmus but lacked both leisure and youth. The project was never carried out. After five years struggling to discharge the liabilities of the bank, the action of a small number of creditors forced the partners into bankruptcy in 1820. For a time Roscoe was in danger of arrest, but ultimately he received honourable discharge. On the dispersal of his library, the volumes most useful to him were secured by friends and placed in the Liverpool Athenaeum. The sum of £2500 was also invested for his benefit.

Having now resigned commercial pursuits entirely, he found a pleasant task in the arrangement of the great library at Holkham, the property of his friend Thomas Coke.

Roscoe showed considerable moral courage as well as devotion to study. He had many friends. Posterity is not likely to endorse the verdict of Horace Walpole, who thought Roscoe the best of our historians, but his books on Lorenzo de' Medici and Pope Leo X remained important contributions to historical literature.


His poem, Mount Pleasant, was written when he was sixteen, and together with other verses, now forgotten, won the esteem of good critics.

He wrote a long poem published in two parts called The Wrongs of Africa (1787–1788), and entered into a controversy with an ex-Roman Catholic priest called Fr Raymond Harris, who tried to justify the slave trade through the Bible (and was generously paid for his efforts by Liverpool businessmen involved with the slave trade). Roscoe also wrote a pamphlet in 1788 entitled 'A General View of the African Slave Trade'. Roscoe was also a political pamphleteer, and like many other Liberals of the day hailed the promise of liberty in the French Revolution.

Meanwhile he had pursued his Italian studies, and had carried out research, which resulted in his Life of Lorenzo de' Medici, which appeared in 1796, and gained him a reputation among contemporary historians. It was often reprinted, and translations in French, German and other languages show that its popularity was not confined to Britain. Angelo Fabroni, who had intended to translate his own Latin life of Lorenzo, abandoned the idea and persuaded Gaetano Mecherini to undertake an Italian version of Roscoe's work.

His translation of Luigi Tansillo's Nurse appeared in 1798, and went through several editions. It is dedicated in a sonnet to his wife, who had practised the precepts of the Italian poet.

The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth appeared in 1805, and was a natural sequel to his previous work of history. The new work, whilst it maintained its author's fame, did not meet with so favourable a reception as the Life of Lorenzo. It was frequently reprinted, and the insertion of the Italian translation in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum did not prevent its circulation even in the papal states.

He wrote the Sonnet on Parting with his Books on the 1816 sale of his library. In 1822 he issued an appendix of illustrations to his Lorenzo and also a Memoir of Richard Robert Jones of Aberdaron, a remarkable self-taught linguist. The year 1824 was memorable for the death of his wife and the publication of his edition of the works of Alexander Pope, which involved him in a controversy with William Lisle Bowles. His versatility was shown by the appearance of a folio monograph on the Monandrian Plants, which was published in 1828. The last part came out after his recovery from a stroke.

In addition to these, Roscoe wrote tracts on penal jurisprudence, and contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Linnean Society. The first collected edition of his Poetical Works was published in 1857, and is sadly incomplete, omitting, with other verses known to be from his pen, the Butterfly's Ball, a fantasy, which has charmed thousands of children since it appeared in 1807. Other verses are in Poems for Youth, by a Family Circle (1820).


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.

The standard author abbreviation Roscoe is used to indicate this individual as the author when citing a botanical name.

Originally named Caldersburgh, Roscoe Village in Coshocton County, Ohio, U.S.A. is named for him.

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William Roscoe's Timeline

March 8, 1753
Liverpool, Lancashire, England, UK
January 4, 1782
Age 28
June 30, 1783
Age 30
August 30, 1785
Age 32
June 25, 1787
Age 34
March 5, 1789
Age 35
Lancashire, England
June 23, 1791
Age 38
June 13, 1793
Age 40
August 5, 1795
Age 42
June 4, 1797
Age 44