William Roscoe was born in Liverpool and the son of a market gardener and a publican.
After leaving school aged 12, he went on to become a self-made man of many talents. A champion of freedom for all, a poet, writer, scholar, patron of the Arts, lawyer, banker, bibliophile, and botanist.
At this time, much of the wealth of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was built on the slave trade, with Liverpool overtaking Bristol as the main British city involved in this nefarious trade.
Not all of Liverpool's leading citizens at the time were supporters of slavery, and the city produced some of the most forceful and prominent campaigners for abolition, including William Roscoe.
Roscoe was an outspoken critic of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He published poems and pamphlets against it and used his brief period as the MP for Liverpool to vote, in 1807, in favour of its successful abolition. He showed great courage when he campaigned for the this to happen.
Roscoe also transformed the cultural life of Liverpool. Described as ‘Liverpool’s greatest citizen’ he played a key role in ‘Renaissance Liverpool’ during the early 19th century.
He was a founding member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, Liverpool Royal Institution and the Athenaeum Library. At his bankruptcy sale, Roscoe’s friends purchased a number of his private collection of books and manuscripts, which were acquired by the Athenaeum Library, and his friend William Rathbone IV purchased several his paintings for the Liverpool Royal Institution. These were added to and given to the Walker Art Gallery by the Institution in 1948.
“He was one of the small Liverpool circle who insisted that education held the key to progress – both for boys and, way ahead of his time, for girls. One of that circle’s most notable achievements was the founding of an institute for apprentice mechanics and engineers and which, over nearly two centuries, has evolved into today’s thriving Liverpool John Moores University.”
– Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool during a talk on Roscoe’s poetry in 2015
Education was also close to his heart, and alongside William Rathbone IV, actively embraced philanthropic projects on education and as well as culture. In 1823, he played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Liverpool Mechanics’ and Apprentices’ Library, the precursor of LJMU.
Roscoe’s mission to extend the benefits of education to all remains at the heart of LJMU’s operations today and the university is proud to maintain links with its founding father through the Roscoe Lecture Series and our work with schools and colleges across the region.
The Roscoe Lecture Series was launched in November 1997, by Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool, to provide an open platform for debate on topics of public interest.
The lectures play an important part in the intellectual life of Merseyside, helping to foster informed debate, broaden horizons and perspectives, and uphold the crucial spirit of intellectual inquiry and free speech in which Roscoe passionately believed.
Since 1997, LJMU has delivered more than 120 lectures, featuring a wide range of speakers, including the then HRH Prince of Wales (now King Charles III), Paralympic athlete Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, The Archbishop of Canterbury, journalist and presenter Esther Rantzen, the Presidents of Ireland and Ghana, and our former Chancellors including Sir Brian Leveson and Cherie Booth.
The last of four Bicentenary year Roscoe Lectures in 2023 was delivered by author, academic and poet Malik Al Nasir on “The truth that lies behind Roscoe”. In the lecture he shared his research in which he has discovered that the wealth generated from the enslavement of his own ancestors was brought to Liverpool.
While William Roscoe was not involved in the slave trade, and that he was indeed a campaigner for abolition, Malik has discovered that Roscoe was supported financially by many individuals who had profited from the slave trade and those connections can be linked to both the institutions that eventually became LJMU and the University of Liverpool (as well as other institutions across the city).
Find out more about Malik’s lecture.