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Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820)

by L. A. Gilbert

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Joseph Banks, by Thomas Phillips, c1808-09

Joseph Banks, by Thomas Phillips, c1808-09

State Library of New South Wales, Original : DG 25

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), naturalist and patron of science, was born on 13 February 1743 (2 February, O.S.) at Westminster, England, the only son of William Banks (1719-1761) and Sarah, née Bate (1720-1804). The family home at Revesby Abbey, Lincolnshire, had been bought in 1714 by his great-grandfather, Joseph Banks 'the first' (1665-1727) who, like his grandfather, Joseph 'the second' (1696-1741), and father, William, entered parliament. Young Joseph was educated at home before going to Harrow in April 1752, and thence in September 1756 to Eton. After illness caused by smallpox inoculations, Banks did not return to Eton in September 1760, but entered Christ Church, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner in December 1760.

Banks maintained that he first became interested in botany at Eton, through the beauty of the local wildflowers. He read avidly in his leisure, not to improve his Greek and Latin which were regrettably weak, but to learn more about plant life. In the next vacation at Revesby, Banks was delighted to find John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (London, 1597), but at Oxford he was shocked to learn that tuition in botany was unavailable because the Sherardian professor of botany, Humphrey Sibthorpe, did not lecture. Banks thereupon prevailed upon Sibthorpe for permission to seek a botany teacher at Cambridge, and taking letters of introduction to the Cambridge professor, John Martyn, he returned with Israel Lyons, a botanist and astronomer.

After his father died in September 1761 his mother moved to Chelsea, London, and Banks was able to go botanizing and fishing with his friend, John Montagu (1718-1792), fourth earl of Sandwich, another Chelsea resident who often held important offices in the government.

Banks entered on his inheritance in February 1764, bought a house in New Burlington Street, and divided his time between London, the university and Revesby. Now blessed with considerable means, he left Oxford without taking a degree and chose to devote his leisure to natural science. Instead of making the 'grand tour' among the antiquities of Europe, he joined H.M.S. Niger and between May and October 1766 studied and collected rocks, plants and animals in Newfoundland and Labrador. He returned in January 1767 with a mass of material, destined to become part of one of the most remarkable collections in Europe, and with valuable experience of the difficulties of transporting specimens by ship in bad weather. In 1766 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and attended his first meeting on 15 February 1767. Soon afterwards he began a series of extensive tours to study plants, animals, rock formations, archaeological sites and historic ruins.

When the Royal Society persuaded the Admiralty to send James Cook in command of an expedition to observe the transit of Venus, it urged that 'Joseph Banks … a Gentleman of large fortune … well versed in natural history' should be permitted to join the expedition 'with his Suite'. Probably the earl of Sandwich influenced agreement to the request, and Banks joined the ship with a staff of eight: Daniel Solander and H. D. Spöring, naturalists; Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson, landscape and natural history artists; James Roberts and Peter Briscoe, tenants from Revesby; Thomas Richmond and George Dorlton (Dollin), negro servants. Only four of this party survived the voyage, Banks himself, Solander and the two Revesby men.

Banks ensured that his party was well equipped for collecting, studying and preserving natural history specimens, and took 'a fine Library of Natural History … all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing … a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom to a great depth, where it is clear … many cases of bottles with ground stoppers, of several sizes, to preserve animals in spirits … several sorts of salts to surround the seeds; and wax, both beeswax and that of Myrica'. Solander asserted that Banks's contribution to the expedition would amount to £10,000.

The Endeavour sailed from Plymouth in August 1768. At sea the naturalists studied their books and collected specimens of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, coelenterates, birds, etc., which were examined, described and sketched before being preserved, when possible. On calm days Banks and his assistants worked from a small boat, returning to the Endeavour with marine specimens which kept the draughtsmen busy.

They made collections and observations at Rio de Janeiro, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, and during the survey of New Zealand. They took full advantage of landings on the eastern coast of Australia, especially at Botany Bay (28 April–5 May 1770) and at Endeavour River (17 June–3 August), where, however, the beaching of the holed ship unfortunately caused water to flow sternwards, thereby destroying some of the plant specimens, which Banks had 'for safety stowd in the bread room'. By now the 'collection of Plants was … grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books'. Banks recorded his general impressions of the Australian east coast, noting plants, insects, molluscs, reptiles, birds, fish, quadrupeds, etc. as well as Aboriginal customs. Further observations were made on the New Guinea coast and the island of Savu on the way to Batavia, where many members of the expedition, including Banks and Solander, fell victims to fever. Yet studies in natural history and ethnology were continued, vocabularies were compiled, and the journal was kept up to date. Further collections were made at the Cape and St Helena.

From the time he landed at Deal on 12 July 1771, Banks found himself the centre of scientific inquiry. With Solander he was presented to George III in August, and in November Oxford honoured both naturalists with the degree of doctor of civil law. Meanwhile the huge collections of seeds, plants, shells, insects, bottled specimens, native implements and reams of notes and drawings were taken to Banks's London house, where Solander was soon installed as secretary and librarian. Linnaeus was delighted, but his attitude changed when he learned that Banks was determined to join Cook on another expedition in H.M.S. Resolution before the natural history results of the first voyage were fully assessed. Banks proposed to take a dozen or so assistants, but he fell out with the Navy Board over accommodation and withdrew, finding compensation in leading an expedition of his own in 1772 to the Isle of Wight, the western islands of Scotland and Iceland. More specimens and curiosities poured into the London house. The following year Banks visited Holland with Charles Greville and toured Wales with Solander. About this time his advice was sought by the King who wished to develop the Kew Gardens. Thus Banks began, under royal patronage, the establishment of a great collection of exotics from all over the world. In 1776 he moved his London headquarters to 32 Soho Square, a large house where Solander could do justice to the ever-increasing library and museum. On 30 November 1778 he was elected to succeed Sir John Pringle as president of the Royal Society, a decision which widened the rift between the mathematicians and the naturalists and led to a crisis in the society in 1783-84. In 1779 Banks gave evidence, strangely at variance with his impressions of 1770, before a House of Commons committee and he strongly recommended Botany Bay as a suitable place for a penal settlement. He was created a baronet in 1781, appointed K.C.B. in 1795, and a member of the Privy Council in 1797. He ultimately belonged to a host of clubs and societies: the Royal Society and the Royal Society Club, the Society of Arts, the Dilettante Society, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Institution, the Engineers' Society, the Literary Club, the Horticultural Society, the Institut de France, the Linnean Society and various dining clubs. He became a trustee of the British Museum, and an influential member of the Board of Longitude, the Coin Committee and Committee of Trade of the Privy Council. Yet the squire of Revesby did not neglect his Lincolnshire estate, and sheepbreeding and farming always remained favourites among his varied interests. Banks attracted an inner circle of accomplished collectors and botanists, of whom Solander, Jonas Dryander (1748-1810) and Robert Brown were in turn his botanist-librarians. He warmly supported the settlement of New South Wales and corresponded with all the governors from Phillip to Macquarie. William Bligh was his nominee; Dennis Considen, William Balmain, William Paterson, George Bass, Robert Ross and the captains of various ships were all concerned with sending Banks great numbers of animals and plants, the latter often in special 'Plant Cabbins' made to Banks's specifications. He also received letters from David Collins, Samuel Marsden, Ensign Barrallier, Gregory Blaxland and others associated with the early days of the colony, and he corresponded with missionaries going to the Antipodes.

Collectors for King George and Sir Joseph Banks, often victualled by the one and paid by the other, went to the Cape (e.g. Francis Masson and James Bowie), West Africa (e.g. Mungo Park), the East Indies (e.g. Mungo Park), South America (e.g. Allan Cunningham), India (e.g. Anton Pantaleon Hove), Australia (e.g. David Burton, George Caley, Robert Brown, Allan Cunningham, George Suttor) and on world voyages (e.g. David Nelson on Cook's third voyage and on Bligh's voyage to the South Seas, and Archibald Menzies on Captain George Vancouver's voyage). Masses of living plants, dried specimens, seeds, drawings and notes were sent to England for the King's gardens and Banks's herbarium, and it has been estimated that during George III's reign some 7000 new exotic plants were introduced into England, chiefly by Banks.

He became the acknowledged authority on New South Wales, and on an amazing range of other subjects: colonization, exploration, currency, botanic gardens, merino sheep, earthquakes, plant diseases and leather tanning. He thus attracted the attention not only of savants, but also of lampooners and caricaturists who sometimes dealt indelicately with 'the great South Sea Caterpillar' which had been 'transformed into a Bath Butterfly'. Yet Banks maintained his position of remarkable influence, some indication of which is provided by documents on Matthew Flinders' expedition in the Investigator. Banks asked in April 1801, 'Is my proposal for an alteration in the undertaking for the Investigator approved?' The reply was 'any proposal you may make will be approved. The whole is left entirely to your decision'. Thus the Investigator sailed with Robert Brown as botanist, Peter Good as gardener and Ferdinand Bauer as botanical artist. Flinders dutifully responded, when reaching Spencer Gulf in South Australia in March 1802, by naming Revesby Island in the Sir Joseph Banks group.

In his last years Banks was crippled by gout, yet he remained, even in his wheel chair, a venerable and formidable figure, especially when presiding at the Royal Society in full court dress and wearing the Order of the Bath. On 16 March 1820 Banks proposed to resign, but the society would not agree. He died at his house at Spring Grove, Isleworth, on 19 June 1820, and was buried in Heston church, near Hounslow.

Before sailing with Cook, Banks's name had been linked with that of Harriet Blosset, but on 23 March 1779 at St Andrew's church, Holborn, he married Dorothea (1758-1828), daughter of William Western Hugessen of Provender, Kent. They had no children, and Banks's papers passed through several hands before being dispersed by Lord Brabourne, a grandnephew of Lady Banks. Banks's sister, Sarah Sophia (b.1744), who helped to run the household, predeceased him.

Banks published little. He proposed a grand botanical work on his Endeavour voyage, and accordingly had many fine copper plates prepared. Some of these were later published with Solander's Latin descriptions in Illustrations of Australian Plants Collected in 1770 During Captain Cook's Voyage Round the World in H.M.S. Endeavour … edited by James Britten (London, 1905). Banks did, however, publish short articles in Archaeologia, in the Transactions of the Horticultural and Linnean Societies and in Young's Annals of Agriculture. He also published an anonymous tract on The Propriety of Allowing a Qualified Exportation of Wool (1782); A Short Account of the Causes of the Disease in Corn Called by Farmers the Blight, the Mildew, and the Rust (1805), and a small work on the merino sheep (1809), a breed which he was instrumental in having introduced to England.

Although he possessed tremendous energy and enthusiasm, it was as an indulgent patron rather than as a writer and investigator that Banks won a high place in the annals of science. He was the key figure in the botanical and, to some extent, the zoological investigation of Australia during the first thirty years of settlement. Despite charges of being a dabbler, it is clear that Banks possessed a wide, if not academically profound, knowledge of natural history in its various departments. His journals testify to his ability as an informed observer, and his immense correspondence to the universality of his interests. Banks was usually good-humoured and generous, a fluent conversationalist, and selfless in the promotion of science. He could be stiffly polite and withering in rebuke, but many found him an interested and liberal benefactor. He remained aloof from politics, except when it was necessary to bring those in office 'into the … happy disposition' of appreciating the worth of scientific investigations. Of himself, he confided to Governor John Hunter: 'I am a bird of peace. My business as an encourager of the transport of plants from one country to another is suspended during war, and then, as I am no politician, I am the least employed when all other people are in hurry and bustle'. Accordingly he returned to the French, unopened, parcels of specimens which, collected by La Billardière, had fallen into English hands by the fortunes of war; he also worked for the release of Flinders from Mauritius and interceded for the Icelanders during the wars with Napoleon.

Because of his keen interest in the colony Banks has been called 'the Father of Australia'. Bankstown was named after him; a monument to his memory is at Kurnell; and the north headland of Botany Bay was named Cape Banks by Cook. His name has been commemorated in the notable plant genus, Banksia Linn.f. and by some Australian plant species, e.g. a red spider flower, Grevillea banksii R.Br.; the seaweed known as 'Neptune's necklace' or 'Bubble-weed', Hormosira banksii (Turn.) Decaisne; a sundew, Drosera banksii R.Br.; a wild pepper, Piper banksii Miq.; Tenterfield woollybutt, Eucalyptus banksii Maiden.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Duncan, A Short Account of the Life of the Right Honourable Sir Joseph Banks (Edinb, 1821)
  • G. Mackaness, Sir Joseph Banks. His Relations with Australia (Syd, 1936)
  • H. C. Cameron, Sir Joseph Banks, K.B., P.R.S.
  • the Autocrat of the Philosophers (Lond, 1952)
  • W. R. Dawson (ed), The Banks Letters (Lond, 1958)
  • J. C. Beaglehole (ed), The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1962)
  • H. B. Carter, His Majesty's Spanish Flock: Sir Joseph Banks and the Merinos of George III of England (Syd, 1964)
  • L. A. Gilbert, Botanical Investigation of Eastern Seaboard Australia, 1788-1810 (B.A. thesis, University of New England, 1962)
  • Joseph Banks papers (State Library of New South Wales, and National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. A. Gilbert, 'Banks, Sir Joseph (1743–1820)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joseph Banks, by Thomas Phillips, c1808-09

Joseph Banks, by Thomas Phillips, c1808-09

State Library of New South Wales, Original : DG 25

Life Summary [details]


13 February, 1743
London, Middlesex, England


19 June, 1820 (aged 77)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death


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