William Denison Roebuck, FLS (1851 – 1919)
Naturalist, Collector, Writer

WILLIAM DENISON ROEBUCK, FLS (1851 – 1919)Slugs and snails are unpopular creatures, the gardener’s enemy, but for William Denison Roebuck they were endlessly fascinating subjects for examination and investigation. A friend remembered him sitting at the tea table with a slice of bread and butter in one hand and a jar of recently collected snails in the other – not as part of his tea, but to gaze at while he ate, in the hope of identifying a rare specimen.

He was born in Leeds in 1851, the son of a woollen draper, David Roebuck. He was seven when Charles Darwin published his ground-breaking work ‘On the Origin of Species’ and perhaps this was one of the triggers which led him to devote his life and energies to the pursuit of the natural sciences, observing, collecting, writing, and creating a system for the collection of data which would make his name nationally known. He certainly admired Darwin’s work, and in 1880 it was he who arranged and led a deputation from the Yorkshire Union of Naturalists to Darwin’s home at Down in Kent to present him with a memorial address.

In his youth he found friends who shared his passion and in the 1870s he and three others founded the Leeds Shell Club, exploring, collecting and classifying the shells they found. This was a time of intense interest in natural history and new methods of scientific investigation, and other enthusiasts soon joined them. A Yorkshire Conchological Society was formed with William Roebuck as its Hon. Secretary, which evolved into the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. In later years, in the 1890s, he pioneered through the Society a national scheme for the compilation of a systematic record of the distribution of British land and freshwater mollusc species which became known as ‘Roebuck’s census’ and laid the foundation for other similar studies of species distribution.

In the meantime he was active in the local Leeds Naturalists Club and in the Yorkshire Union of Naturalists, which brought together some forty naturalist societies with thousands of members across the county.  For thirty years he was the dedicated Secretary of the Union and editor of its influential journal, ‘The Naturalist’. Under his guidance the Union became a powerful and successful instrument of local scientific research. (150 years later it still flourishes, as does its journal). He became a recognised authority on slugs and snails, here and abroad (a foreign specimen was apparently named after him!), and he contributed to studies of bees. His work led to his election as Fellow of the Linnean Society (FLS). An enthusiastic communicator, he collaborated in various publishing ventures:  ‘A Handbook of the Vertebrate Fauna of Yorkshire’ in 1881, which became a standard work; ‘Land and Freshwater Shells: an Introduction to the Study of Conchology’ in 1889 (aimed at young collectors); and ‘A Monograph of the Land and Freshwater Mollusca of the British Isles’ in 1894.

His enthusiasms extended into other fields: he was president of the Leeds Philatelic Society, and a member of the Philosophical and Literary Society and the Thoresby (Historical) Society. He was widely travelled, in India and Africa. He never married but lived most of his life with his parents, originally near the centre of town but from about 1899 in Hyde Park Road, overlooking Woodhouse Moor. His heart seems to have been totally dedicated to his work and specialist interests. In 1915 his achievements were recognised by the University of Leeds with the award of an honorary degree of Master of Science.

He died in 1919 aged 68, after a stroke, acknowledged as a pioneer in the scientific, methodical investigation of the natural world, and a born naturalist - ‘No living creature, however lowly it might appear on the scale of creation failed to interest him’.

Eveleigh Bradford
September 2011