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Reference group
Roscoe circle (act. 1760s–1830s) was a predominantly Unitarian network—centred on Liverpool and closely connected with the historian, lawyer, and poet William Roscoe—that participated, both at a civic and national level, in politics, the arts, sciences, and education, and in the anti-slave trade movement.

Traditionally the circle has been seen as a select society that came together during the 1780s and early 1790s, principally to discuss literature. In the first biography of Roscoe (written in 1831, the year of his death) Thomas Stewart Traill described a ‘small private literary society’ that comprised, in addition to Roscoe, the Unitarian ministers William Shepherd, John Yates, and Joseph Smith (c.1755–1815); the physicians James Currie and John Rutter (1762–1838); the poet and abolitionist Edward Rushton; the merchant and philanthropist William Rathbone; Ralph Eddowes (1751–1833); and a ‘Mr Tattersall’. In his 1833 biography of his father, Roscoe's son, Henry, also included the historian William Smyth—a member of the Church of England—as one of a circle who met fortnightly and devoted themselves ‘to the reading of papers or the discussion of literary questions’ (Roscoe, 1.127). This particular group ceased its gatherings amid the anti-Jacobin fervour of 1792. As Roscoe wrote soon after to the marquess of Lansdowne, a longstanding friend and correspondent:
I have, for upwards of ten years, been a member of a little society of about a dozen people (Dr Currie and others) … The object of our meeting was merely literary; but suspicion has for some time gone abroad about us, and I have good reason to believe we have been thought of importance enough to be pointed out to the Government. (ibid., 1.128)
Despite the enforced cessation of these meetings, the regular association of Roscoe, Currie, Shepherd, and others continued, as was recalled in 1837 by Thomas De Quincey, who as a young man had been introduced to Roscoe's ‘well-known coterie’ in 1801 while visiting relatives in Liverpool. In ‘A literary novitiate’ (Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, Feb 1837), De Quincey launched a harsh and controversial attack on the group's intellectual and literary pretensions, and on the genuineness of their political radicalism, paying particular attention to Roscoe, Currie, and Shepherd (then the only surviving member of the literary group) whom he considered ‘the chief’ participants.

Late twentieth-century accounts have likewise considered the activities and influence of Roscoe's circle after 1792, albeit in terms more sympathetic than De Quincey's. In 1967 Ian Sellers used the term the ‘Roscoe circle’ to describe those who participated with Roscoe in radical politics between 1787 and 1807. More recently it has been argued that the circle is better seen as a loose gathering of dissenting ministers, Edinburgh-educated physicians, and supporters of the arts and sciences, of which Roscoe's immediate associates formed the second cohort of an extended association. The personal, political, theological, and intellectual connections of this broader circle may be traced to the early 1760s and the establishment of Liverpool's Octagon Chapel—whose founders included the porcelain manufacturer Thomas Bentley and the physician Matthew Dobson—and continued to the mid-1830s with a third cohort that included Thomas Traill and the Liverpool MP William Ewart. Common to this broader network was a sense of alienation as Unitarians, opposition to forms of local government and to the slave trade, and a commitment to the promotion of knowledge through the arts. This ensured that the circle's political engagement was closely interlinked with other activities including the founding, in Liverpool, of artistic and literary societies, of the athenaeum, and the lunatic asylum, and later the botanic garden, the fever hospital, and the Liverpool Royal Institution. Though such activities were principally focused on Liverpool, the circle—and in particular its later members—also established wider geographical connections with dissenting groups around the country.

Origins of a Unitarian circle

The roots of the Roscoe circle's philosophy lie in Liverpool's recent political and religious history. In 1753, the year of Roscoe's birth, the Marriage Act forced dissenters to marry in an Anglican church, and the Jewish Naturalization Act, later repealed, allowed some religious liberty for Jews. Together these focused attention on dissent, the strength of which was emphasized in Liverpool when the town elected John Hardman as its first Unitarian MP in 1754. Hardman was a member of the congregation and an executor of the will of the Unitarian minister Henry Winder, whose chapel at Benn's Garden Roscoe later attended.

The political alliances that existed between dissenters and low-church Anglicans in Liverpool were cemented in religious terms with the formation of the Octagon Chapel in 1762—a measure intended to bring them together with a formal liturgy. The Octagon's secretary was Thomas Bentley, who became Josiah Wedgwood's business partner. The first to be baptized there was the physician Matthew Dobson, who had graduated from Edinburgh with Erasmus Darwin, later a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Bentley, Wedgwood, and Darwin took the Octagonian concept of the liturgy to London chapels. This network also gave Liverpool Unitarians links with Priestley and Jeremy Bentham through the Bowood circle of Lord Shelburne (from 1786 marquess of Lansdowne), links that continued as William Roscoe came to prominence in Liverpool's intellectual circles from the 1770s. Shelburne's son was later instrumental in getting William Smyth his regius chair of history at Cambridge.

Another founder of the Octagon was the Liverpool merchant James Percival, who was also treasurer of Winder's chapel and one of his executors. He was also a founding trustee of the dissenting Warrington Academy, and the close links between it and the Liverpool circle were later reflected in the circle's enthusiasm for improving education. One of the academy's first pupils was Percival's nephew, Thomas Percival, founder of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, which made James Currie a member in its first year. Another member of the society, Peter Ewart, uncle to the future Liverpool MP William Ewart, asked the city's bankers for help in his business without success, and a meeting with him prompted Currie's Jasper Wilson pamphlet of 1793 opposing war with France, an indication of the continued activity of Roscoe's wider circle after the dissolution of his literary association in the previous year. There were also links between Warrington Academy, the Octagon, and Roscoe's chapel at Benn's Garden. In 1770 the minister of Benn's Garden, William Enfield, moved to the academy, and was followed by another minister, Nicholas Clayton, who had been at the Octagon until its closure in 1776. On Enfield's departure he was succeeded by a former academy pupil, Joseph Smith, whose previous Shrewsbury chapel, influenced by Theophilus Lindsey, had followed the Octagon in adopting a liturgy. Smith married the daughter of James Clegg, an Octagon founder. Clegg's father, Joseph, another member of Winder's chapel, a mayor of Liverpool, was prominent in the 1750s in Liverpool's continuous political disputes.

Local and national politics

During these disputes members of Roscoe's circle allied themselves with the opposition to the high-Anglican Liverpool common council. In 1791–2 they were involved in legal battles to wrest power from the council and return it to the mayor, bailiffs, and burgesses, winning two cases but giving up in the face of the council's determination to continue to engage them in costly trials. In Chester, too, the corporation ignored the success of a case brought in the House of Lords by Ralph Eddowes, a freeman and a member of Roscoe's literary group, to restore an early charter. The Lords failed to award Eddowes his £2000 costs, and his disappointments were referred to by the physician John Aikin—a supporter of Roscoe and his associates—in his essay on Liverpool's political battles. Eddowes, who had been taught by Priestley at Warrington Academy, emigrated to America in 1794, as James Currie and William Shepherd considered doing. He built an octagonal Unitarian chapel in Philadelphia, and published a book of sermons that included a quotation from Roscoe in an attack on intolerance. Roscoe described him as his ‘particular friend’, and sent a copy of his biography of Pope Leo X to Thomas Jefferson through Eddowes (Roscoe, 1.321–2).

William Shepherd's support for radical activity is indicated by his care of the son of the biblical scholar Gilbert Wakefield during his imprisonment in 1798 for anti-government writing, and his visits to Wakefield in gaol. Wakefield had turned to dissent during his brief Anglican curacy in Liverpool in 1779, becoming a tutor at Warrington Academy. In 1824 Shepherd wrote the satirical history Dick Liver as a stinging attack on Liverpool's common council, whose members, he said, were mere servants who had evicted their master and taken over his property. In the sequel of 1830, written in the midst of a row over William Ewart's election to the Liverpool parliamentary seat, Shepherd also attacked the sugar trader and former MP John Gladstone for his changeable political allegiance after turning against the Roscoe circle's radicalism. Roscoe's decision in 1823 to become chairman of the Liverpool Anti-Slavery Society was another source of conflict. Gladstone, a prominent member of Liverpool's Scottish-born mercantile community, had been resident in the city from 1786, and had met Ewart's father (also William Ewart, (1763–1823)) at the Newington presbyterian chapel in Renshaw Street. In turn Gladstone had named his son, the future prime minister, after the elder Ewart before a rift separated the families. According to John Gladstone, the younger William Ewart was one of the young men of Liverpool infected with the radicalism of Roscoe, Rathbone's son (also William), and Traill (Checkland, 224).

Dissenting status prevented graduation from the English universities and sent many to Scotland for their qualifications. In turn Scottish physicians found work in the growing port of Liverpool, and a succession of Edinburgh-educated doctors attended Roscoe or associated with him over a broader period than that of the core circle. Thus, as Matthew Dobson left Liverpool in 1780, James Currie arrived with introductions from his cousin; and as Currie planned to move to Bath, Thomas Traill set up in the town in 1803 with letters of introduction from Currie's nephew. The doctors John Bostock, elder and younger, were Liverpool-born products of Edinburgh University, as was John Rutter. All of these medical men were prominent in their profession, through research or the establishment of institutions. Another medical member of the circle was ‘Mr Tattersall’: William Tattersall. After education at the dissenting Daventry Academy he became a minister in Preston, leaving in 1788 and turning to medicine, which he practised first in Liverpool and then in London. He wrote a paper on the anatomical arguments in favour of materialism in response to a work by Dr Ferriar published by the Manchester Lit and Phil. It was published by the Liverpool-born Joseph Johnson, with whom Tattersall dined in 1797 with fellow guests the artist Henry Fuseli and William Shepherd, who was visiting London (Ridyard, 66).

Promotion of the arts

Study at the Edinburgh medical school brought members of the Liverpool circle into contact with Scottish medical theories on the functioning of the body, the balance between body and spirit, and the concept of disease as an imbalance. Translating these ideas into the social sphere, James Currie noted that ‘a strong government, like a strong man, is magnanimous in its conduct; while that which is weak, like a weak individual, is jealous and irritable’ (Currie, 2.25). For Roscoe, writing in 1817 on the opening of the Liverpool Royal Institution, ‘A jealous and suspicious government, whether it be a monarchy or a republic, or by whatever name it may be distinguished, locks up the faculties and deadens the energies of a people’ (On the Origin and Vicissitudes of Literature, Science and Art, 31). Roscoe also used his Renaissance biographies of Lorenzo de' Medici (1795) and Leo X (1805) to illustrate the iniquities of the transfer of power from the many to the few, as had occurred in Liverpool under the common council. As he indicated through the comparison with late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Florence—flourishing in the time of Lorenzo and descending into oligarchy in Leo's reign—Liverpool was oligarchic and unstimulated. Improved education in the arts and sciences—producing active, balanced individuals—was the method by which the population could be liberated from lethargy or factionalism into a balanced society.

James Currie, who wrote on madness and the mind, similarly described human mentalities in terms of a balance of characteristics, with imagination, or the arts, mediating between reason and passion to create a balanced individual. In doing so he drew on the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, whose work described the arts as a third branch of knowledge, mediating between those concerning the material and the immaterial. This emphasis on the arts explains the Roscoe circle's persistence in establishing societies for both the arts and sciences as a means of stimulating individuals and encouraging change in Liverpool. Roscoe's praise of engraving, for example, was a direct result of his desire to see knowledge disseminated to a wider audience. It was an interest further reflected in the enthusiasm, both of his immediate circle and later adherents, in the Liverpool Royal Institution, established by Roscoe, Traill, and John Bostock the younger, for the creation of London University, which was supported by John Yates's son, James Yates, and stepson, the younger Bostock; and also in John Rutter's determination to create a Liverpool medical institution and medical library.

Liverpool's growing prosperity in this period owed much to the slave trade, to which members of the circle shared a common opposition. Roscoe himself wrote anti-slavery poetry that raised money for the abolition cause and won the praise of the abolitionists. In 1788 John Yates offended many of his congregation by preaching a sermon against the trade. Roscoe went on to collaborate with James Currie on a further anti-slavery poem, and first-hand information was available from Edward Rushton, a vocal anti-slavery campaigner and a member of Roscoe's literary group, who had been second mate on a slaving ship. Currie promoted the act of 1789 that forced slave ships to carry a doctor. As Quakers, the cousins William Rathbone and John Rutter were also in opposition to the trade, with Rathbone's merchant family refusing to supply slave-ships. In 1806–7 Roscoe briefly served as Liverpool's MP, speaking twice in parliament in favour of the act abolishing the slave trade.

Beyond Roscoe's main contacts, the circle's associates included John Aikin, who introduced Roscoe to Italian literature, Aikin's sister Anna Letitia Barbauld, who praised Roscoe in verse, and his daughter Lucy Aikin, whom Roscoe advised to focus on memoirs rather than attempt historical writing, after his own biography of Leo X had been vehemently criticized. Among other supporters were the publisher Joseph Johnson, the artist Henry Fuseli, and the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft; the Cook voyagers David Samwell and (Johann) Reinhold Forster [see under Forster, (Johann) Georg Adam]; the botanist Sir James E. Smith, who visited Liverpool to lecture at the Royal Institution; Thomas William Coke, first earl of Leicester, whose Norfolk library Roscoe catalogued; and Henry Brougham, Lord Brougham, who composed Shepherd's epitaph, erected in 1850, three years after his death.

A man of enormous energy and activity, Roscoe continued to work until he suffered a series of strokes four years before his death in 1831. In the 1830s the Roscoean commitment to public education was maintained by the city's MP, William Ewart, a third-generation member of the circle who introduced a bill to establish free public libraries and was appointed chairman of the select committee on art and manufactures (1835–6), which resulted in the setting up of schools of design. Ewart shared Roscoe's enthusiasm for engraving as a means of public education and drew his notion of art education from the work of James Currie, Thomas Reid, and others. Ewart also supported the Municipal Reform Act, and Currie's son, William Wallace Currie, became the first mayor of Liverpool in the reformed council. Through actions like these, of the sons of former members, the influence of the Roscoe circle lasted well into the nineteenth century, and was experienced far beyond its origin in Liverpool.

Ian Sutton


T. S. Traill, biography of Roscoe read to the Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society, 1831, Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (1832); repr. T. S. Traill, Memoir of William Roscoe (1853) · H. Roscoe, The life of William Roscoe, 2 vols. (1833) · I. Sellers, ‘William Roscoe, the Roscoe circle, and radical politics in Liverpool, 1787–1807’, Lancashire and Cheshire Hist. Society, 120 (1968), 45–62 · I. Sutton, ‘The extended Roscoe Circle: art, medicine and the cultural politics of alienation in Liverpool, 1762–1836’, British Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies, 30 (2007), 439–58 · I. Sutton, ‘Unitarians and the construction of history and biography, 1740–1820’, EngHR, 125/513 (2010), 314–39 · A. Holt, Walking together: a study in Liverpool nonconformity, 1688–1938 (1938) · J. Aikin, A description of the country from thirty to forty miles round Manchester (1795) · Shepherd papers, Harris Man. Oxf. · H. Ridyard, ed., A selection from the early letters of the late Revd. William Shepherd (1855) · W. W. Currie, ed., Memoir of the life, writings and correspondence of James Currie, 2 vols. (1831) · S. A. T. Yates, ed., Memorials of the family of the Rev. John Yates (1891) · E. F. Rathbone, William Rathbone: a memoir (1905) · S. G. Checkland, The Gladstones: a family biography, 1764–1851 (1971) · minutes of the Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society, 4 Feb 1825, Liverpool Central Library · VCH Chester, 5.1 · T. Belsham, ‘A list of students educated at the academy at Daventry’, Monthly Repository, 17 (1822), 163–4, 195–8, 284–7 · W. Tattersall, A brief view of the anatomical arguments for the doctrine of materialism: occasioned by Dr Ferriar's argument against it (1794)