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


Slugs and snails are unpopular creatures, the gardener’s voracious 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 a tasty delicacy, 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 printer, 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 years later 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 his parents bought a holiday house in Pannal, where he could roam the countryside and study its teeming natural life: butterflies, bees, insects, and particularly molluscs, all enthralled him. He found friends who shared his passions. He and three others founded the Leeds Shell Club, exploring, collecting and classifying their finds. 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 a national society: the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, founded in 1876 (one of the first of its kind in the world). Later, 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 molluscs across the country which became known as ‘Roebuck’s census’ and laid the foundation for other similar studies of species distribution.

In 1870 he helped to found the Leeds Field Naturalists Club and was the inspirer and organiser of 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’. He instituted new ventures like the popular annual ‘Fungus Forays’ which got people out fungus-hunting and recording their finds. 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 – in his honour a new ‘large and peculiar’ specimen of slug found in Zanzibar was named after him! He contributed to important studies of bees and was author of the entomological chapters in the respected Victoria County Histories for the northern counties. 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 a lifetime member of the Philosophical and Literary Society and the Thoresby (Historical) Society, and a founder and later president of the Leeds Philatelic Society – he had the pleasure of showing his extensive, unique collection of postage stamps and labels to King George V, another stamp enthusiast, on the royal visit to Leeds in 1915 (now in the University’s Special Collections). He was widely travelled, in India and Africa. He never married but lived most of his life with his parents and sisters, 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
(revised) January 2019