Poet, historian, botanist, politician, philanthropist, abolitionist… All words to describe one of Liverpool’s most famous, sons, William Roscoe. I was always aware of Roscoe and his role in the cultural society of Liverpool but was amazed when I found a connection to my family.
Born on March 8th, 1753, in Mount Pleasant, he left school at the age of twelve after developing an interest in literature and poetry. At the age of fifteen, after working for a short time in a book shop, he became articled to John Eyes, a solicitor, my 7x great-uncle. He remained with John Eyes for six years and described this time as, “the most painful part of my life.”
As part of the conditions of his apprenticeship, Roscoe was sent to board with John Eyes’ sister, Emblin. Emblin’s husband, James Sherman, was a captain in the slave trade who had retired on his savings. In a letter to his sister-in-law, Mrs Moss, in 1831, Roscoe recalled a particularly troubling time:
I had not been domesticated there long before I was disturbed at midnight by cries and shrieks proceeding from the bedchamber of the captain and his wife. When rushing into the room, I found the captain struggling to get through the window, restrained only by his wife, who was nearly exhausted by the effort. Our joint efforts prevailed, however, to retain them in the room, when he proceeded to put on his clothes and taking a candle in his hand, set out on an excursion to visit his neighbours… after having knocked to no purpose at the doors till a late hour in the morning he returned home.
Roscoe goes on to say that, at the time, there were rumours of a war on account of the Falkland Islands and that Sherman feared being press-ganged. He continues, though, by saying that Sherman had also aquired a habit of drinking ‘ardent spirits’ and that this sort of behaviour was a regular occurrence. At the age of sixteen, Roscoe also prevented Sherman from committing suicide by stopping him from cutting his throat – he had already partly succeeded.
The arrangement ended abruptly as, in 1770, James Sherman died. This was followed the following year by the death of John Eyes who, according to Roscoe, was also ‘an unfortunate victim of intemperance.’
Despite Roscoe’s unhappy times whilst apprenticed to John Eyes, it is Eyes who has been credited with discovering Roscoe’s talents after finding some verses he had written on Shenstone the poet. He introduced Roscoe to the Academy of Arts – Eyes had been one of the founding members of the institution which became the Liverpool Academy of Arts.
Roscoe would go on to be member of parliament for Liverpool in 1806, creator of the Liverpool Botanic Gardens and would write pamphlets against the slave trade. He died in 1831.