BANKES, William John (1786-1855), of Kingston Hall, Dorset.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



2 July 1810 - 1812
27 Nov. 1822 - 1826
23 Mar. 1829 - 1832
1832 - 1834

Family and Education

b. 11 Dec. 1786, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Henry Bankes*, and bro. of George Bankes*. educ. Westminster 1795-1801; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1803. unm. suc. gt.-uncle Sir William Wynne to Soughton Hall, Flints. 1815; fa. 1834.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Merion. 1829-30.


In 1806, when his elder brother Henry was lost at sea on his way to serve in Sicily, Bankes became heir to the family estates and, in his father’s lifetime, realized an income of £8,000 p.a. He lacked the prudence and stolidity for which the Bankes family were famous: a puzzle to his father and the idol of his mother, he was handsome, easy going, flippant, and a talented conversationalist, whose personal magnetism made him, while at Cambridge, the ‘father of all mischiefs’ in the fast set he governed by lavish expenditure and eccentric behaviour. Lord Byron, his contemporary and friend, found him ‘good naturedly tolerant of my ferocities’. The more circumspect John Cam Hobhouse was outraged by Bankes’s reply to his question as to why the latter wished to buy a horse for hunting: ‘Oh ... you know in Dorsetshire I must hunt for popularity’s sake’, and commented ‘is not this complete Corfe Castle all over?’.1

Bankes came into Parliament in 1810 on a vacancy at Truro, where his prospective brother-in-law, Edward, 4th Viscount Falmouth, was the patron. He supported his father’s efforts to abolish sinecures by his vote. He was otherwise ‘as decided a friend as any in the House’ to administration, though except on the Regency, 1 Jan. 1811, no vote of his with them has survived. On 20 June 1811 he attended a ministerial dinner. His only speech was a singularly paradoxical one damning Catholic relief with faint praise, 23 Apr. 1812. He doubted whether the time was ripe and regarded the pro-Catholic ‘party’ as a group dangerous to political stability, doubting whether emancipation would bring strength and unity to the state as its advocates supposed. By one account he ‘floundered’ in this speech, ‘whilst deep in a rhetorical allusion to the lake of Geneva’. Wellesley Pole was astounded by this ‘maiden speech’: ‘like a ranting whining bad actor in a barn speaking a full tragedy part, and mix’d up with the drawls and twangs of a Methodist preacher’. It was not a promising debut.2

Bankes, together with Byron, was prominent in the London season of 1812 and gave up his seat in Parliament at the dissolution. After unsuccessfully proposing marriage to the future Lady Byron in November 1812, he set out, with Byron’s blessing, on an extended journey to the East; for some time he lingered with Wellington’s army in Spain, buying up art treasures to embellish his beloved Kingston in its wake. James Hamilton Stanhope met him at Oporto and described him as

a very extraordinary young man ... I never saw so singular a compound of eccentricity and judgement, of trifling and study; of sound opinions about others and wild speculations about himself, good talents applied to no future object and a most wonderful memory prostituted to old songs and tales of Mother Goose ... I like the man much for he appears to have an excellent temper, a good heart and a certain degree of freshness and independence in opinions.

Had Bankes returned home in the summer of 1815, he would have become, if he wished, his father’s colleague in the representation of Corfe Castle, but he went on to explore Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, before returning to Europe in 1819. On his arrival in England the following year, the reputation of being a great traveller (secured in advance by pirated editions of his travel journals) ensured him an admiring audience, though Henry Fox found that he had ‘a tiresome voice’. His father wrote, 26 June 1818, ‘Hunting for lost cities in the region of Decapolis would not excite in my mind so violent a spirit of enterprise, but he would laugh at me with as much reason for fatiguing myself in the pursuit of partridges or woodcocks’.3 He subsequently represented his university and a borough of Lord Ailesbury’s as a Tory, before succeeding to his father’s county seat, but his public career was damaged in 1833 when he was cleared of a charge of meeting a guardsman for ‘unnatural purposes’. In 1840 another such charge drove him abroad and, having made over his estates to his brother George, he took up residence at Venice, where he died 15 Apr. 1855.4

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


V. Bankes, A Dorest Heritage, 112 seq. is the best account of him.

  • 1. Byron: A Self Portrait ed. Quennell, 539; Bankes, 127-8.
  • 2. Teignmouth, Reminiscences, i. 300; NLI, Richmond mss 66/927.
  • 3. Heber Letters, 255; Jnl. of Mrs Arbuthnot, passim; Bankes mss, Mrs Bankes’s diary, 23 Mar. 1820; Jnl. of Hon. H. E. Fox, 106; PRO 30/9/16.
  • 4. The Times, 3 Dec. 1833, 3 Sept. 1841; Bankes, 177.