Detrosier, Rowland (DNB00)

DETROSIER, ROWLAND (1800?–1834), popular lecturer and political reformer, was the illegitimate son of a Manchester man and of a Frenchwoman named Detrosier, who deserted him when he was a month old. Brought up by a benevolent fustian-cutter as one of the family, he was apprenticed to that trade at the age of twelve, and as a boy was noted for his quickness, vivacity, and good nature. Reading and writing he learned at a Sunday school. Marrying at an imprudently early age, he and his family knew actual want at times of depression in his trade, and he afterwards described himself as ‘for whole days without food.’ He turned, however, his enforced leisure to account, and when half-starved studied assiduously his own few books, and such as he could borrow, teaching himself French and Latin, and acquiring some knowledge of physics, mathematics, and natural history. He took a principal part in the direction of a school connected with a Swedenborgian chapel in Hulme, a township of Manchester, where he encouraged the teaching of much more than elementary knowledge. He had considerable skill in exposition, and obtaining apparatus he formed classes, to which he lectured. When himself in a state of destitution, and without any aid from his superiors, he founded mechanics' institutions in Hulme and Salford, said to have been the earliest of the kind in England. About 1821, being in extreme distress, Mr. Shuttleworth, who after his death wrote a biographical sketch of him, procured him a situation as clerk and salesman in a ‘spinning concern,’ his employer allowing him to lecture on science to classes, which he might form in the towns round Manchester. After holding several other situations he entered into partnership with a manufacturing chemist, and introduced into processes of production some important improvements, which would have made the firm prosperous had not the commercial crisis of 1826 put an end to it. It was probably after this that, having left the Swedenborgians, and been an occasional preacher in Manchester and elsewhere, he collected and ministered to a congregation at Brinksea, Stockport, in what was called ironically the Beefsteak Chapel, because Detrosier and several of his hearers were vegetarians. Richard Carlile preached his atheism in it in 1828, after having had in his periodical, the ‘Lion,’ a controversy with Detrosier, who defended the argument from design, and whom he speaks of as ‘a very warm and zealous theist or deist’ (The Lion, i. 9). Detrosier framed and published a liturgy for his chapel, with a preface, in which his criticisms on orthodox liturgies seem to have been trenchant. He was also clerk and buyer to a foreign house in the twist trade. On 5 Jan. 1829 he delivered at the opening meeting of the Banksian Society of Manchester, of which he was the founder and the president, a popular address on ‘The Benefits of General Knowledge, more especially the Sciences of Mineralogy, Geology, Botany, and Entomology.’ It was afterwards published, and a posthumous London edition of it calls itself the seventh. Published also and reprinted, both in London and Glasgow, was his ‘Address delivered to the Members of the New Mechanics' Institution, Manchester … 25 March 1831, on the Necessity of an Extension of Moral and Political Instruction among the Working Classes.’ Detrosier urged emphatically that unless the working classes improved in morality no political change could ameliorate their condition. ‘Science,’ he said, ‘creates wealth, but it is morality that perfects man.’ This address aroused a curiosity respecting Detrosier, even in London, which was very imperfectly satisfied by a brief and meagre memoir of him prefixed to some early reprint of it. Lady Byron commissioned a friend to find him out in Manchester, and presented him with 20l., giving him also an invitation, of which he subsequently availed himself, to visit her in the neighbourhood of London. Jeremy Bentham was so interested by his address that he opened up a correspondence with Detrosier, to whom he sent some of his books. Having also taken a prominent part at public meetings in Manchester in favour of parliamentary and other reforms (Prentice, p. 371, where he is called ‘a very eloquent young man’), he was offered and he accepted the secretaryship of the National Political Union, founded in London (31 Oct. 1831), to aid in carrying the first Reform Bill. When this measure became law, Detrosier reverted to his occupation of popular lecturer. On the title-page of a London edition of his address at the Manchester Mechanics' Institution he is described as ‘lecturer at the New Mechanical Hall of Science, Finsbury.’ He died in London 23 Nov. 1834 of an illness caused by a cold taken when delivering the opening lecture at the Mechanics' Institution, Stratford. Like Bentham he bequeathed his remains to be utilised for scientific purposes. In his essay on Ebenezer Elliott, published in 1832 (Miscellanies, edition of 1840, iv. 235), Carlyle couples with the corn-law rhymer ‘a Manchester Detrosier’ as a phenomenon ‘astonishing and alarming’ to the ‘clearer-sighted’ among the aristocratic idlers of that time.

[Obituary notice (by the late Mr. Alderman Shuttleworth of Manchester) in Manchester Times for December 1834; reprinted with emendations in a posthumous edition (not in the British Museum Library) of the Address on Moral and Political Instruction; Prentice's Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester, 1851.]

F. E.