Gaskell House Blogs

Science and the Gaskells – Henry Enfield Roscoe

2nd March 2023
in blog, People

At the end of last year, we posted a fascinating blog by Gordon Chancellor detailing the scientists Elizabeth Gaskell would have known. When we’re exploring Elizabeth Gaskell’s world, we tend to focus on her literary friends and acquaintances, but the first industrial city that was Manchester attracted many people from the fields of science and technology, who could be found working in education and also within the cotton industry, both directly in cotton production but also in those industries supporting the manufacture of the cloth.

One of these was Henry Enfield Roscoe. Gordon’s blog entry reads: Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833-1915) trained in Heidelberg with Robert Bunsen. In 1858, when he was 24, he followed Edward Frankland as Professor of Chemistry at Owens College and did important work on vanadium. He was President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He organized lectures for unemployed mill workers during the cotton famine. The Roscoe Building on Brunswick Square is named after him.

But what more do we know about him and his connections to the Gaskell family? Let’s fill in some details…

Henry Enfield Roscoe

He was an extraordinarily talented chemist, particularly noted for his work on vanadium and photochemical studies – the mineral roscoelite is named after him. He founded the School of Chemistry at Owens College and developed it from its rather disreputable beginnings to become one of the foremost Schools in the country. He was active in the foundation of the Manchester Victoria University and knighted in 1884. A blue plaque on Quay Street in Manchester celebrates his tenure as the first President of the Society of Chemical Industry. In 1896, he left Manchester to become the Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, a role he held until 1902. When his son died, he resigned from London University and became MP for South Manchester, living when Parliament was sitting at a house in Queens Gate lent to him by Mrs Edmund Potter – more of the Potter connection later!

Roscoe was a Unitarian. He was given the name Enfield to celebrate his great grandfather William Enfield, who was a colleague of Joseph Priestley’s at the Warrington Academy.

He was close to Edmund Potter and his wife Jessy. This is the Edmund Potter who was at Glasgow University with William Gaskell and with whom William Gaskell spent many holidays. It was at their house, Dinting Lodge, that Roscoe met his special interest, their daughter Lucy. They were married in 1863 by their friend the Reverend Charles Relly Beard who we know as a colleague of William Gaskell’s. William Gaskell and Charles Relly Beard trained together at Manchester New College in York. Roscoe’s marriage to Lucy Potter made him Beatrix Potter’s uncle and he was very supportive of her when she was attempting to put her pioneering work on fungi before Kew Gardens and the Linnean Society of London.

William Gaskell and Beatrix

We’re circling the Gaskell family here!

In his diary, he describes how on Monday evenings after he had finished teaching his evening classes, he would walk home from the Owens College in Quay Street with ‘my old friend Reverend William Gaskell, the husband of the great novelist, himself a remarkable and charming character. He lectured to our evening students on English Literature of which his knowledge was profound. He was an excellent conversationalist, sparkling with wit and humour, whilst his knowledge of Lancashire folk-lore was unsurpassed. Among his stories I remember the following: a Todmorden man with long legs was riding a kicking pony and losing his stirrups while the pony’s hind foot got caught in the stirrup iron. ‘Nay’ said the man ‘ an thou be coming oopo’ that soide, I mun get down at t’uther’

He describes the house at Plymouth Grove as being ‘ unlike any other house in Manchester, for during Mrs Gaskell’s lifetime one had the chance of meeting the literary celebrities of the time and many other interesting wayfarers. ( ) The house kept up its peculiar interest through the attraction of the daughters who have always been dear friends of ours.’

Do read the blogs – you’ll find out more about the Gaskell connections to Beatrix Potter and William Gaskell as a Unitarian Minister. This lovely illustration is by Beatrix Potter and is called A Dream of Toasted Cheese. She drew it as a gift for her Uncle Harry who published it in his autobiography.

Lesley Burn, House Volunteer

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