Papers of Sir Henry Roscoe

Scope and Content

The collection comprises two volumes, Eng MS 963-964, containing a collection of letters to Roscoe, and miscellaneous papers, printed cuttings and photographs relating to Roscoe, to his fields of activity and to other eminent scientists.

The collection is significant for studies of the history of chemistry and the chemical industry, industrial pollution in the 19th century, and the development of Owens College.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe was born in London on 7 January 1833, the son of a barrister and judge. He entered University College, London in 1848, graduating in chemistry in 1852. He then went to study at Heidelberg, receiving a Ph.D. in 1854, and undertaking research work with Robert Wilhelm Bunsen on the measurement of the chemical action of light. In 1857 Roscoe was appointed to the chair of chemistry at Owens College, Manchester. He came to Manchester when the College was at its lowest ebb, but he grasped the great need for scientific education in an industrial city. Roscoe took an active role in building up a school of chemical research at Manchester. He made the chemistry department at Owens College one of the most successful in the country and he was instrumental in reviving the College's fortunes more generally. In 1875 he constructed the first practical chemistry laboratories in any British university, based on Bunsen's laboratories in Heidelberg.

As a chemist Roscoe's most important work was on the isolation and classification of the element vanadium. His textbook, Lessons in Elementary Chemistry went through many editions, and the inorganic section of his Treatise on Chemistry was for many years the standard work. He also published on Dalton's atomic theory, in A New View of the Origin of Dalton's Atomic Theory, (jointly with Dr Arthur Hamer 1896), where he argued that the law of multiple proportions was not the genesis but the confirmation of the idea of chemical atoms.

Roscoe was keen to promote the industrial training of chemists at university. He was a member of the Royal Commission on Technical Education from 1882 to 1884, whose findings led to the Technical Instruction Act of 1889. He frequently acted as a consultant to local authorities over actions against pollution. Roscoe also worked to persuade industrialists of the importance of scientific training of personnel.

In 1885 he resigned his professorship on being elected Liberal MP for South Manchester. As an MP, Roscoe promoted legislation on the ventilation of weaving sheds, sewage disposal and the metric system. In 1896 he became Vice-Chancellor of London University at the time of its reconstitution. Roscoe was founder and first president of the Society of Chemical Industry, and also president of the Chemical Society and of the British Association in Manchester.

In 1863 Roscoe married Lucy (d 1910), daughter of Edmund Potter MP; they had one son and two daughters. He was knighted in 1884. He died at Woodcote, his summer home near Leatherhead, Surrey, on 18 December 1915.

Source: Robert H. Kargon, 'Roscoe, Sir Henry Enfield (1833-1915)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.


Description compiled by Jo Klett, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1937-1951 (English MS 963-964). There is also an unpublished handlist for this collection which contains an index of correspondents found in English MS 963.

Separated Material

Roscoe's student notebooks, drafts of lectures and 686 items of correspondence are held by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Related Material

The Roscoe additional collection (ROS Add), also held by the Library comprises:

  • A notebook, entitled Lecture Notes 1857-8, containing holograph notes of over fifty lectures;
  • Two letter-press copybooks: (i) letters 1866-1878 (ii) letters 1878-1883, the bulk of which relate to Roscoe's work as a consultant for local authorities in the analysis of industrial pollution.
  • Pamphlets, reprints of Roscoe's publications.

The following Roscoe papers are held in other institutions:

  • Cambridge University Library: 52 letters to Sir George Stokes, 1856-97 (ref.: GB 012 Add 7342, 7656).
  • Imperial College, London: 15 letters to T.H. Huxley, 1871-1892; 13 letters to H.E. Armstrong, 1871-1890 (ref.: GB 098 B/ARMSTRONG, B/HUXLEY).
  • Leeds University, Brotherton Library: 10 letters to Arthur Smithells, 1884-1906.
  • Oxford University: Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts: correspondence with Lord Kimberley, 1886-1899 (ref.: GB 161 MSS Eng a 2013-14, b 2047-49, c 3933-4514, d 2439-92, e 2790-97).
  • Oxford University: Museum of Natural History: letters to Sir E.B. Poulton, 1884-1906.
  • Royal Astronomical Society: report on the solar eclipse of 1870, with 8 letters to the Royal Astronomical Society's Solar Eclipse Committee (ref.: GB 112 RAS papers).
  • Royal Society: 39 letters to Sir Arthur Schuster, 1879-1915.
  • Royal Society of Chemistry: 4 student notebooks kept in London and Germany, 1849-1855; 48 drafts of his lectures, 1855-1889; 686 items of correspondence; and letters to Roscoe (and the Chemical Society) from Sir F.A. Abel, 1882-1891.
  • Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine: correspondence with the Lister Institute (ref.: GB 0120 SA/LIS).


For further biographical information, see H.R. Roscoe, The Life and Experiences of Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, Written by Himself (1906); and T.E. Thorpe, The Right Honourable Sir Henry Roscoe: a Biographical Sketch (London, 1916). See also Robert Bud and Gerrylyn K. Robert, Science versus Practice: Chemistry in Victorian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984); and Michael Sanderson, The Universities and British Industry 1850-1970 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).

Geographical Names