William Banks (1811-1878)

William Banks

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupations: Clothing Manufacturer and Exporter

Early Life and Family

William Banks was born in Keswick on 16th January 1811 and baptised nearby at Crosthwaite Church on 25th November that year. His father was also William Banks (1780-1860), a Keswick weaver and woollen manufacturer, as had been his grandfather Joseph Banks Senior (c1750-1817) and several generations before him. On 13th April 1800 at the same church William Banks Senior married Sarah Pearson (1783-1856), the daughter of John Pearson of Greenside Hall. They had 12 children in all, six sons and six daughters, of whom William Banks was the second eldest surviving son. His elder brother Joseph Banks (1807-1860) initially worked as a weaver in the family business but then in 1833 struck out on his own by becoming a pencil manufacturer at Greta Works in Keswick under the name of Banks, Son & Co. That business survived until 1894 when it was taken over by Hogarth & Hayes; their successors (after many subsequent takeovers) are still in business today in Workington and the industry in general is commemorated in the Keswick Pencil Museum. Their younger brother Thomas Donald Banks (1823-1854) was also to play an important part in the clothing export business which was to make the family fortune. William and Sarah Banks lived in Keswick all their lives, latterly at Greta Cottage where each in turn died, and both are buried at Crosthwaite Church. 

William Banks was schooled in Keswick and although intended for the family business, at his own request was sent to London. He thus began his career in business there in the late 1820’s with Messrs. Flint, Ray & Co., retail drapers, before moving back to Cumberland in 1835 to manage the linen, woollen and cotton goods manufacturing and exporting business of Joseph Hodge (1772-1846) and his sister Jane (1775-1842). On the 1841 Census William Banks is accordingly described as a ‘manufacturing manager’ and he was living with the Hodges at their Highmoor home in Wigton. It was to prove a most felicitous relationship.

The Business in Australia

John Hodge (c1750-1828) began a check manufactory business in Wigton in 1793, his father and uncle having originated the production of gingham and other types of cloth before him. His children Joseph and Jane carried on the business with success but following the deaths of all three principals in short succession and without further issue, in 1846 William Banks inherited both the Hodge family business and their house. He entered into partnership with a fellow Wigton merchant and entrepreneur John Henderson and they re-named the firm Banks, Henderson & Banks in 1851. John Henderson however soon left and once in total control, William refocused the trade from linen and woollen drapery in England and the Continent to the export of factory-made clothing to Australia, where the Gold Rush of 1851 had caused a rapid increase in demand. He opened a warehouse in Melbourne in 1852 and recruited his younger brother Thomas to be the local manager, alongside their cousin William Bell of Bolton. Sadly Thomas died at St Kilda in Melbourne within two years of his emigration to take up that post and was buried in Melbourne General Cemetery, where he is commemorated by a tombstone from 1854. However by dint of his efforts, the firm’s trading position was by then well-established and, known thereafter as Banks Bros, Bell & Co., it continued to prosper, so that in time it became perhaps the largest business exporting clothing and later other soft goods into Australia and engaging in their wholesale distribution. Contemporaneous accounts describe no less than thirteen large importing houses in Flinders Lane in Melbourne, ‘each with an enormous turnover’. The company account books for 1855/6 refer to the purchase of gold from miners as well as its use as payment for goods bought and, even with a heavy import tax upon return to England, the company made huge profits both from its core clothing business and its trade in gold. On the 1861 Census William described himself simply as ‘Australian merchant’. 

The profits from the business enabled William to take a part-share in a ship (renamed ‘Highmoor’ in 1875), by when he had become a Director of the Lancaster Shipowners’ Company Limited. He also invested in the purchase of land in Cumberland and made further profit from it by granting both agricultural leases and mining leases where minerals were discovered. His regular appearance as a petitioner in bankruptcy proceedings shows that he was prepared to enforce his rights where he could. By the time of his death William was in consequence a very wealthy man, although reports that he was by then a millionaire were exaggerated; he was however described as a gentleman rather than a merchant as befitted his wealthy status. The Australian business continued until 1927 when it went into liquidation; the Cumberland business failed to survive the events of 1908 described below.

Life in Cumberland

William Banks became a JP and Chairman of the Wigton Bench, Deputy Lieutenant for Cumberland and in 1871 he was High Sheriff for the county. He was Chairman of the Wigton Water Works Company, the Wigton Local Board of Health and the Wigton Highway Board. An oil painting of him hung in Wigton Parish Council offices. He stood unsuccessfully as the Conservative candidate for Carlisle in 1873 and in 1878 was the prospective Conservative candidate for Berwick-on-Tweed before failing health forced him to withdraw from the contest. Indeed in his later years William Banks had to spend the winters in Italy for his health and it is ironic that it was in that country that he contracted his fatal illness. He died of malaria at his London home Bolton House in Surrey en route back to Cumberland on 1st May 1878, aged 67. He was buried in Wigton Cemetery and there are memorial windows dedicated to him both in the north aisle of St Mary’s Church, Wigton (designed by Ward & Hughes) and at the west end of Christ Church, Silloth (designed by Heaton, Butler & Bayne). William Banks’ will was proved at Carlisle on 21st May 1878 (effects in England under £140,000) and administration of his goods in Australia was granted on 27th May 1880 at Melbourne (estate £33,025). He bequeathed the family home to his widow Sarah for life and she continued to live there with their younger son until her death on 6th September 1901.

His marriage and his sons

On 16th November 1843 William Banks married Sarah Barwise Dand (1813-1901), the daughter of William Dand of Monkhill in Cumberland. They lived with Joseph Hodge after their marriage and in time, after inheriting Highmoor upon his death in 1846, employed there three or four domestic servants as well as farm hands and a coachman. They had two sons. The eldest Henry Pearson Banks (1844-1891) was born at Monkhill on 5th March 1844. He was educated at Trinity College Cambridge where he matriculated in 1864 before being awarded a BA in 1871 and an MA in 1874. He was admitted to the Inner Temple on 28th January 1871 aged 26 and was called to the Bar there on 26th January 1874. He maintained a set of Chambers at 3, Essex Court in the Temple and was a member of the North Eastern Circuit. However he never practised as a barrister-at-law to any significant level, dividing his time between London (where he was a member of various clubs) and Cumberland, as befitted his position as a landowner. He had no involvement at all in the family clothing business but followed his father by becoming a JP in 1871, a Deputy Lieutenant for Cumberland and High Sheriff for the county in 1886. He became a Freemason in 1884 and, with his younger brother, jointly funded the building in 1887 of Wigton Conservative Club (later the Kildare Hotel). Henry Banks never married and died at Hastings in Sussex on 19th January 1891. Administration of his estate was granted to his younger brother on 7th March 1891 and his effects were valued at £17,463.

Their younger son Edwin Hodge Banks (1847-1917) was born in Wigton on 7th April 1847 and baptised there on 28th July of that year. He followed his elder brother both to Cambridge where he attended Jesus College (matriculated 1866, BA 1870, MA 1874) and then to Inner Temple (admitted on 15th October 1868 aged 21, called 30th April 1873). He however never practised as a barrister but returned to Cumberland to play a part in the family firm, of which he became senior partner in 1878, a position he maintained for a decade until his retirement in 1888. He also followed his father and brother into public office in Cumberland, becoming a JP, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, Captain in the Cumberland Yeomanry Cavalry and an Ensign in the Wigton Volunteer Corps. He was High Sheriff of Cumberland in 1889.

Edwin Banks also followed the family tradition as a Conservative in politics and served as such as Chairman of the Wigton Local Board (1878-1888), a County Councillor for Wigton (1889-1908), an Urban District Councillor and member of the Wigton Board of Guardians. He was director of the Wigton Gas Company, Wigton Market House and was a Governor of both of the linked Nelson School for Boys (1896) and the Thomlinson Grammar School for Girls (1899), being Chairman of the Governors of each in 1908. He was a freemason from 1869 and was noted for his philanthropy in the Wigton area, in which he followed the man whose name he bore, Joseph Hodge, who had left £1,500 on his death in 1846 for the purposes of clothing and education in the Wigton area. Edwin Banks’ public works included building and equipping the baths in the field behind the schools in 1902/3 at a cost of £2,500 and which were then leased to the town. He also paid for the refitting of the interior of St Mary’s Church, Wigton. His good works were acknowledged by his being the dedicatee of the volume of monumental inscriptions of Wigton parish edited by Reverend James Wilson and published by T McMechan in 1902 as well as his presentation with his portrait in that same year when he was described by Council Speaker Gully as ‘a man of few words, but of many deeds’.

Edwin Banks was the owner of a thirty foot steam yacht ‘Neptune’ which he kept on the Solway and used extensively for entertaining and social purposes. He was a member of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS) from 1885 and a frequent attender at meetings before he left Cumberland in 1909. He farmed and bred thoroughbred horses for racing and one horse which he bred, ‘Old Joe’, won the Grand National in 1886, although by then Edwin Banks had sold it. He inherited the family home upon the death of his mother in 1901 and became a member at Lloyds. However he had also made some unwise investments and by 1907 he had accumulated losses of nearly £100,000, both as a result of this and his underwriting liabilities.  Edwin Banks was thereupon made bankrupt in 1908 and all his assets including the family home were sold. He was obliged to terminate all his public appointments and he retired to the south coast where he lived in circumstances far removed from the grandeur of his life in Cumberland. He also never married and died in Brighton on 20th August 1917, being cremated at Norwood Cemetery before his ashes were interred in the family mausoleum at Wigton. His will was proved on 12th November 1917 and he left estate of only £396. He had fallen a long way.

Highmoor House, Wigton

As Pevsner says: ‘it started out harmlessly enough’. The estate ‘which stands on a gentle eminence commanding extensive prospects about half a mile south of the parish church’ was sold by Mrs Campbell of London in 1817 to John Hodge. He began the building of the present house which initially involved a relatively modest five bay two storey stuccoed villa with a pediment over the central three bays, and which was finished by his son Joseph. This building still forms the east end of the present structure. On the death of Joseph Hodge in 1846, the house passed under his will to William Banks, whose fortune enabled him to enlarge it to the west in about 1870. In time a tall Italianate stone belvedere ‘Osborne’ tower was added and the park was enclosed with two miles of iron fencing, most of which is still in situ. On William’s death the house passed to his widow who lived there for the rest of her life and was then succeeded as owner on her death in 1901 by her younger son Edwin. In the meantime in 1885-1887 their two sons had made the tower into a folly, raising its height to an excessive (or ‘crazy’ according to Pevsner) 136 feet (42 metres), and installing a great bell called ‘Big Joe’ which weighed 8 tons 16 cwt and which could be heard nearly 12 miles away. There was in addition a full carillion of ten bells cast by Severin Van Aerscholdt of Louvain in Belgium, all housed in an elaborate superstructure of ‘Mixed Renaissance’ pedigree, considered by many to be ‘rather vulgar’. It had a gilded eagle on top of a green copper dome of ogee outline, then an octagonal drum for the carillion , below which were four gablets and four corner turrets at the base. Edwin and Henry also extended the house further, adding two irregular two-storeyed ranges which wrap around the base of the tower.

 The architect is unknown but may have been Charles Ferguson (1840-1904), the well-known Carlisle architect (who designed the Skinburness Hotel for them in 1878 and in 1898/9 the Library Block and new Hall for the conjoined Wigton schools) or the estate builder James Henderson (1810-1882), who built the hotel for £22,000 and to whom ‘was entrusted the important work of beautifying Highmoor House by the erection of the fine and unique tower’ as his obituary puts it. He was certainly responsible for building the two lodges (known as ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’) to the north, which had bamboo-like supports to the porches and dragon finials. A llama was housed in the bailiff’s cottage which now bears the animal’s name. A family mausoleum was also created on the house estate which is of fine quality, expensively constructed in two colours pf granite, with a granite door, a stained glass window in the opposite elevation and a white marble figure of justice on top. It fully reflected the family’s wealth and achievements. The estate itself exceeded 100 acres by 1900 with landscaped grounds and a large ornamental lake. Edwin’s financial difficulties however meant that in 1909 Highmoor House was sold to Elizabeth Bell whose trustees leased it, apparently as several properties, and then sold it in 1920 to J Coulthard of Wigton who in turn sold it to Ernest Thompson of Wigton, a property developer who divided it into fourteen flats in 1934-35; these were renovated in 1972 and again in 2007. A housing estate was built around the house in the 1930’s ‘not quite close enough to ruin it completely’ (Pevsner).


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