WILBERFORCE, Lionel Robert  [1861-1944]

Lionel Robert Wilberforce was a great-grandson of William Wilberforce the anti-slavery campaigner. Born in Munich on 18th April 1861 to Edward and his American wife, whose maiden name was the rather unfortunately sounding Fanny Flash.

After attending Trinity College, Cambridge he worked at the famous Cavendish Laboratory with Nobel Prize winning physicist J J Thompson. He arrived in Liverpool in 1900 to take up the appointment of Lyon Jones professor of physics at University College Liverpool and was to spend the next 35 years in the post building a reputation as one of the most outstanding teachers of his time. He was instrumental in the establishment of the University’s George Holt Physics Laboratory, opened in 1904, and spent much of his time developing apparatus and techniques for teaching. In this vein he invented the ‘Wilberforce Pendulum’ “which exhibits a curious motion in which periods of purely rotational oscillation gradually alternate with periods of purely up and down oscillation.”. He published a short book on the pendulum in 1909.

He was acting vice-chancellor of Liverpool University 1926-27 and on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1928 he wrote a short history of the university.

Wilberforce was well-known for his enlightening and entertaining public lectures, usually accompanied by illustrative experiments to create the greatest visual impact. Alarmingly one of his props was a small pellet of radium which he carried round, obtained by him in the days before its medical use was established. In an obituary in the Liverpool Daily Post (4th April 1944) it was noted that his help was once sought when an extremely valuable capsule of radium found its way into a dust-cart leaving the Royal Infirmary. By the use of an electroscope, after an arduous search, he was able to locate the missing capsule.

Wilberforce met his wife Margaret Raynes when they were both students at Cambridge, they married in 1891, they had no children. On first arriving in Liverpool they lived at 9 Princes Avenue L8, soon moving to ‘Kingsley’ 5 Ashfield Road, Aigburth L17 (I presume this to have been a fairly large house demolished post-war to make way for the houses now occupying that side of Ashfield Road). Margaret Wilberforce died in 1929, the Liverpool Daily Post, in reporting her passing commented on the sad coincidence that on the same day the wife of Wilberforce’s predecessor Sir Oliver Lodge had died. Lionel Wilberforce died on 4th January 1944 in London. A memorial service for him was held in Liverpool Cathedral at which the Bishop of Warrington paid tribute “the descendant of one of the greatest Englishman, he continued to add lustre to the family name”.

9 Princes Avenue L8

Wilberforce's first Liverpool home.


The Wikipedia entry is on the thin side, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography being more detailed.