BANKES, Henry (1756-1834), of Kingston Lacy, Dorset.

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



1780 - Jan. 1826
16 Feb. 1826 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 19 Dec. 1756, 2nd but o. surv. s. of Henry Bankes of Kingston by 2nd w. Margaret, da. of Rt. Rev. John Wynne, bp. of Bath and Wells, sis. and coh. of Sir William Wynne of Soughton Hall, Flints. educ. Westminster 1767-73; Trinity Hall, Camb. 1773; Grand Tour. m. 18 Aug. 1784, Frances, da. of William Woodley, gov. Leeward Islands, 4s. 2da. suc. fa. 1776.

Offices Held

Lt.-col. commdt. W. Dorset militia 1808.


To an estate of 60,000 acres Bankes added the accomplishments of a scholar and connoisseur, married to ‘one of the most remarkable beauties of the day’. Sitting for his own close seat, he made his parliamentary debut as an opponent of Lord North and was an early adherent of William Pitt. Yet Farington the diarist was told that ‘if every measure which Mr Pitt brought forward was not previously explained to him, he opposed it’; and also reported that ‘as Bankes sometimes voted against Pitt, he was asked ... if it made any difference between them; he replied not the least’. During his 51 years in the House, Bankes acquired a formidable reputation for independence, with a place of his own on the cross-benches known as ‘Bankes’ bench’. His friend Wilberforce described him, somewhat optimistically, as one of those ‘from whose general principles one may anticipate pretty confidently how they will act in given circumstances’. His general principles derived chiefly from his insistence on public parsimony. This meant constant vigilance over administration. He deplored the cost of war with France and of continental alliances and in peacetime called for retrenchment. He fought a campaign for the abolition of sinecures and reversionary offices and for the rationalization of administrative costs, and over the years became a firm advocate of the parliamentary committee as a check on administration, as well as an acknowledged expert on parliamentary procedure. Yet he did not inspire: he was, to quote his son’s friend John Cam Hobhouse, ‘a dull dog’.1

Bankes was inconspicuous in the Parliament of 1790 until he joined Wilberforce in his bid for peace, 30 Dec. 1794. He stated that he had approved the war at the outset as a defensive one: now its cost was becoming ruinous and negotiations for peace should be opened as soon as possible. Privately, he had written on 26 Dec.: ‘I have seldom felt more uncomfortable about politics than at this moment, and I am really much in doubt how to act; though I think in such a time it is not right to absent myself’. He added that in his view the French republic could not now be overthrown and it was better to treat with them before the allies deserted; if negotiations failed, ‘our people would see the necessity of continuing [the war]’.2 He further voted with the minority for a peace bid on 26 Jan. and 6 Feb. 1795, as well as against the imperial loan, 5 Feb. On 27 May he was a teller for Wilberforce’s plea for peace. The payment of the Prince of Wales’s debts from the public purse also met with his disapproval, 1 and 5 June. He criticized the inadequacy of the recommendations of the committee on the high price of corn, 11 Dec., believing that the rich should eat the same bread as the poor. He voted for the abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar. 1796, as he had done previously on 18 Apr. 1791, at which time he was reckoned hostile to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland.

Bankes’s ‘secession’ from the ministerial viewpoint was no passing phase. On 1 Mar. 1797, supporting inquiry into the stability of the Bank, he claimed that the cost of war had undermined it: ‘it was the nature of man to set too high a value upon the object of his heart and too little on the price he pays for obtaining it’. He became a co-editor of the Anti-Jacobin in December 1797 and approved the suppression of rebellion in Ireland, but opposed the sending over of the militia, on which he divided the House, 19 June 1798. Moreover, he was a keen critic of the project of union with Ireland, 12 Feb. 1799: Irish problems were best dealt with on the spot and ‘the state of Ireland was not such as we could incorporate with’. So he voted against it, 14 Feb. 1799. On 22 Apr. 1800, he described the Union as a ‘mere palliative, and no cure’, and on 25 Apr. spoke for the minority who voted against flooding Westminster with Irish Members. On 2 May he added that the mass of the Irish were ‘a very dangerous set’, and being unable to make common cause with them ‘we could not bring into this union the physical force of Ireland’. Besides, he thought a hundred Irish Members at Westminster was at least ten too many (5 May). On 19 Mar. 1801 he voted against the Irish master of the rolls bill.3

During that Parliament Bankes had become active as a committee member. His first effort to sway the House as a committee chairman was unsuccessful when he had to abandon his project of encouraging potato growing among the poorer classes to counter the high price of provisions in March 1800. Nevertheless, he persevered as a committee man and, on his own admission, when he was not downstairs, he was upstairs.4 He gave a cool reception to Addington’s ministry, regretting that the address held out no prospects of peace, 3 Feb. 1801: it was ‘British gold and British obstinacy that kept the flame of war alive’. Nevertheless, he did not vote against the address.5 He did vote for inquiry into the fiasco of the Ferrol expedition, 19 Feb. He approved the armistice, 3 Nov., but feared that ministers were preparing for a renewal of hostilities and objected to continental entanglements, 20 Nov. He was in the minority on the civil list, 29 Mar. 1802, and disapproved the ‘new plan of finance’, 3 June, even if Pitt approved it. The peace establishment was ‘too large for economy and not sufficient for defence. It was a maxim of policy, that in great affairs nothing was so unwise as to pursue a middle course’ (9 June). On 8 Dec. he ‘threw out hints’ on defence: ‘our radical strength, a love of the constitution was a better security than the numbers of armies’ and, bolstered by insularity, forbade competition with a continental power like France. He advocated resumption of cash payments by the Bank, 7 and 11 Feb. 1803, and supported inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s claims on the duchy revenues, 23 Feb. He shared Wilberforce’s aversion to the resumption of hostilities, as his votes of 19 and 24 May showed, but had no wish to see a Whig junction with the ministry. He may have voted with Pitt on 3 June.

From 7 Mar. to 25 Apr. 1804 he was in steady opposition to Addington and was listed a Pittite then and in September. On 8 June he defended Pitt’s additional force bill against Addington and Fox and on 12 Feb. 1805 approved war with Spain. But he was critical of the civil list and of the militia enlisting bill in March. Moreover, he was in the majority censuring Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, and next day informed Pitt:

I sincerely lament the transaction upon your account, as well as upon Lord Melville’s; but with such a case confessed, it was impossible that any supplemental evidence would excuse the transgression of the law.6

Whitbread was prepared to nominate him to his proposed committee of investigation into Melville’s conduct, 25 Apr. On 12 June he was in the majority for criminal prosecution, which he preferred to impeachment: Lady Spencer reported on 10 June, ‘Bankes says he votes with us if Lord Melville does not, contrary to his expectations, clear himself in his speech tomorrow in the House of Commons’. He had also spoken and voted against the Duke of Atholl’s Manx claims, 7 June. A month later he was listed ‘doubtful’ from the ministerial viewpoint, though a letter from him to Pitt on 19 Dec. 1805 indicates concern for the minister’s health and continued support. On Pitt’s death he was opposed to public payment of his debts and avoided the debate on the subject.7

Bankes was not ill-disposed to the Grenville ministry: he voted (30 Apr.) and spoke (8 May) in defence of their repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, which had failed. He thought they were as good a set of ministers ‘as could be made out of such discordant materials’, though he had some reservations, notably about William Windham. He approved the latter’s training bill, 26 June, but thought the volunteers hard done by, 11 July. He had no time for the charges raised against Wellesley’s conduct in India (8 May, 16, 18, 25 June 1806, 26 Jan. 1807, 10 Mar. 1808), though he was disposed to listen to criticism of St. Vincent’s naval administration, 14 May 1806. On Fox’s death he thought ‘some addition of strength, as well as of talent’ was needed and was disappointed that Grenville did not resort to the Pittites.8 But he received ministerial endorsement in his unsuccessful bid for the county seat at the election of 1806.

Bankes was satisfied that the breakdown of the Grenville ministry’s negotiations with Buonaparte was not their fault and he approved their ‘new plan of finance’, 19 Feb. 1807, though he wished foreign investments in British funds to be taxed, 9 Feb. 1807, 15 June 1808, and was hostile to the subsidy to Prussia, 5 Mar. 1807. Grenville had gratified Bankes by making him chairman of the committee appointed on 10 Feb. 1807 to vet public expenditure, thinking him ‘in general disposed to be right-headed’ and hoping that he could be controlled, particularly as the committee was empowered to recommend reductions.9 The Whig majority on the committee were anxious to start reporting before the dissolution of 1807, but Bankes demurred. Certainly he brought in a preliminary resolution on 24 Mar. that no office should in future be granted in reversion, and this was not only carried unopposed but provided the pretext for depriving the new chancellor of the Exchequer, Perceval, of the emoluments of the duchy of Lancaster for life. Bankes otherwise disappointed Whig hopes.10 He had already criticized public support for Catholic education in Ireland, 20 Feb., 4 Mar., and he did not side with the outgoing ministers on Brand’s motion of 9 Apr. He stated on 15 Apr. that he saw ‘no reason to refuse confidence’ to the Portland ministry and countenanced a stand against Catholic claims, acting as teller for government.

Bankes again failed to secure the county seat in 1807, though he was nearer to success than in 1806. On 29 June he reintroduced his bill to abolish reversions, which had been interrupted by the dissolution. Ministers did not oppose it and it passed on 9 July, but was rejected in the Lords on 4 Aug. Perceval, aware of the widespread support for the bill by country gentlemen and Members for populous boroughs, personally assured Bankes that no reversions would be granted until the question was revived. On 10 Aug. Bankes carried an address to stop any such grants until six weeks after the start of the next session. The bill was again passed on 1 Feb. 1808 but, despite ministerial backing, defeated by the ultras headed by Perceval’s brother in the Lords. Bankes, egged on by the Whigs, promised to try again: he voted with opposition on the mutiny bill, 14 Mar., though he supported the orders in council. His third bid was hampered by the threat of amendments from Perceval, but on 4 Apr. he compromised with Perceval for a limitation of the bill to just over a year, pending the third report of the public expenditure committee. The bill then passed both Houses. The committee’s first reports on the pay office, 22 July 1807, had speedily caused that department to put its house in order; and the second report on the management of the national debt, calling on the Bank to reduce its charges, was implemented in Perceval’s budget of 1808. The third report on places and pensions, 29 June 1808, was more controversial. Bankes had resisted Cochrane’s bid on 7 July 1807 to restrict the inquiry to the emoluments of MPs and their families, but, as he feared, Perceval’s counter-bid to embrace all places and pensions slowed up the inquiry and Perceval’s remodelling of the select committee, 30 June 1807, enabled ministerial Members to hamper progress. The report, for which he wrote a controversial preface, was less incisive than Bankes wished, though it envisaged savings of over £80,000 p.a.; and a supplement of January 1809 revealed the interesting fact that of 76 MPs who were placeholders, 28 held sinecures. But Bankes opted out of the committee for that session, 24 Jan. 1809. Instead he attempted to cut a figure in the debates on the Duke of York’s alleged abuse of army patronage. On 10 Mar. he suggested an amendment to the proposed censure, charging the duke with immorality rather than corruption. It was supported by the ‘Saints’, but defeated. Bankes thereupon criticized the whole proceedings of the House in the affair, 17 Mar. He supported Porchester’s sale of offices prevention bill, 20 Apr. In June he failed to secure an amendment to Curwen’s reform bill and ‘moved a dozen peevish crotchetty amendments’ on the judges’ salary bill—all negatived.11

When Perceval became prime minister, Bankes, who doubted if the ministry could do without Canning, remained ‘out of invitation distance’.12 Perceval had resisted his manifesto of 8 June 1809 that every superfluous office should be abolished and the salary reduced to that of the acting deputies. On 31 Jan. 1810 Bankes was re-elected unopposed to the finance committee and resumed the chair. Opposition had encouraged him by rejecting three of Perceval’s nominees and when Perceval in return resisted the revival of the reversion bill, the House called for the bill by acclamation. Bankes remained independent: he had voted for the address, 23 Jan., but with the opposition majority for the Scheldt inquiry on 26 Jan. and again on 23 Feb. On 1 Mar. he was prepared to oppose the army estimates, had there been a division. On 5 Mar., however, he was in the government majority, denying the cabinet’s right to veto Chatham’s confidential report to the King on the ground that the cabinet had no constitutional existence. On 9 Mar., in the debate on the subsidy to Portugal, he opposed ministers violently. The Whigs were not surprisingly ‘doubtful’ of him, though he was in the minority on the conclusion of the Scheldt inquiry on 30 Mar. Meanwhile, his fourth reversion bill had been rejected in the Lords on 26 Feb., and a fifth, brought in on 20 Mar. against his better judgment, was likewise rejected. On 31 Mar. he announced his opposition to parliamentary reform, which he had supported only ‘at a time that he supposed the respectable part of society wished for these changes’. He voted against the release of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr., and against Brand’s motion for reform, 21 May.

Bankes’s initial emphasis in his campaign against sinecures on the need to reduce the power of the crown had shifted to making it a moral end in itself, without counting the cost. On 16 May to meet his critics, he proposed to replace sinecures by a pension fund whereby government might reward services rendered. The proposal was rejected by 99 votes to 93. Nevertheless, he obtained a select committee to investigate sinecures, securing the support of Canning and his friends as well as of opposition. In this, Fremantle reported, he was ‘inexorable, and completely assumed the character of opposition by haranguing us in the lobby and imploring us to stay’.13 He voted with opposition on the Regency questions of 1 and 21 Jan. 1811, and on the latter day his nominees were accepted on the renewal of the finance committee and the select committee on sinecures. Government resisted his sixth reversion bill of April 1811, which went to the Lords but was rejected there. On 31 May he was an ambiguous supporter of Catholic claims, who did not wish for immediate relief: only a week before there had been ‘a most curious scene in the House ... between Bankes and all the Irish’, when he called for the extension of the property tax to Ireland.14 In presenting the tenth report of the finance committee, 24 June, Bankes criticized military accounting. He was a spokesman for the resumption of cash payments by the Bank in July 1811, and so remained until 1818.

By 1812 Bankes’s prestige was at its height. Scarcely a debate of importance occurred in which his voice was not heard. Wilberforce anticipated (mistakenly) that William Morton Pitt would resign the county seat in Bankes’s favour.15 His committees were renewed without question, 27 Jan. 1812. His seventh reversion bill was rejected in the Lords in February, but he secured a token victory in his violent attack on the ‘sinecure’ paymastership of widows’ pensions, intended for Col. McMahon, 24 Feb. (Yet he cheered Perceval against opposition on the question of the droits of Admiralty that week.)16 On 10 Mar. he tried a temporary bill to veto reversions until 28 Feb. 1814, which passed both Houses. It had taken eight attempts to secure a bill that involved only 40 reversionaries. On 4 May he succeeded in launching a sinecure regulation bill, which Perceval ‘in vain attempted to oppose’, by 134 votes to 123.17 It passed the Commons on 17 June, but was rejected by the Lords. Bankes also aligned himself with opposition that session on the framework bill, 17 Feb., the barracks estimates, in April, delays in Chancery, 6 May, and the Admiralty registrar’s bill, 19 June. He reluctantly supported the leather tax, but opposed the penitentiary scheme, 1 July. On 13 July he supported and was teller for the preservation of public peace bill. He did not vote on the question of a stronger administration, 21 May, but was teller for Canning’s Catholic relief motion on 22 June. He favoured Liverpool’s negotiations with Canning in July, but advised Canning to strike a hard bargain and congratulated him on his ultimate refusal to parley.18

Bankes gave up the idea of contesting Dorset at the election of 1812. He was listed ‘doubtful’ by the Treasury: with justice, for he was in the minorities on the gold coin bill, 11 Dec. 1812, and the vice-chancellor bill, 11 Feb. 1813. On 29 Mar. he again induced the Commons to approve his sinecure regulation bill: it was virtually an open question there, but the Lords again rejected it. He did not try again, nor did he seek to renew the veto on reversions when it expired. Even if he had grown weary of the campaign and the House coughed him down, 15 June 1813, he had made his point. Goulburn’s colonial officers bill in 1814 was a concession to his ideas and the Liverpool administration showed marked sensitivity to them in the next few years.19 He had ceased, meanwhile, to be a political threat to the government. The turning point came when he became ‘Protestant’ Bankes in 1813. On 25 Feb. Peel wrote that Bankes, who had been rallying the anti-Catholics and

who voted with Canning last year, will lead the opposition to Grattan this night. It is contrary to all general principles to employ as a leader a deserter from the enemy’s camp, but it is justifiable in this case, I think, as well as politic, and it will greatly encourage all relapsed and relapsing Protestants.20

He remained militantly anti-Catholic. He also voted in favour of Christian missions to India, June-July 1813.

Although Bankes continued to press for public economy, the Whig opposition took the subject over from him henceforward and he was reluctant to join forces with them. He remained critical of parliamentary reform and in November 1813 attempted to foist a £10 franchise on Helston, if the freeholders of the neighbouring hundreds were enfranchised. On 20 May 1814 he championed the select committee on the corn trade to which he was appointed on 6 June; when he came out in favour of agricultural protection, the mob attacked Sir Joseph Banks’s house in mistake for his. He set his face against industrialization: ‘instead of having a peaceable, easy governed society, they would place the population of the country in a state that the peace of the community would depend upon their being constantly kept in employment’, 27 Feb. 1815. He defended coercion in Ireland, 23 June 1814; opposed the international abolition of the slave trade, 28 June, and favoured the continuation of the property tax provided it was extended to Ireland, April 1815. He remained vigilant against abuses in government departments and opposed the civil list and new public building programmes. He deprecated expensive alliances against the returned Buonaparte if France rallied to him, 7 Apr., 26 May 1815. After Waterloo he expected France to pay for her defeat, and after a visit to Paris advised English withdrawal from the Continent, 29 June 1815, 20 Feb. 1816. He opposed the army estimates in March 1816 and, although he voted for the renewal of the property tax on Mar. and for the civil list on 24 May, joined opposition in other divisions on retrenchment that session. On 7 May he moved for a committee of inquiry into public offices, to no avail. Bankes was named to the select committee on public income and expenditure in 1817, 1818 and 1819, but when he tried to smuggle in his own ideas, was snubbed, only Tierney supporting him; and when the ministry proceeded to replace sinecures by pensions, adopting some of Bankes’s proposals of 1812, no acknowledgment was made to him. He now voted with opposition only on questions of retrenchment and, with reservations of his own, on the resumption of cash payments by the Bank. He was in favour of the suspension of habeas corpus, 28 Feb., 23 June 1817, and supported ministers steadily on that issue. Canning, in a speech of 29 Jan. 1817, stated with respect to Bankes:

My hon. friend is well known for the independent manner in which his speeches and his votes are directed, sometimes to this, and sometimes to that side of the House; a manner the most conformable to the theory of a perfect Member of Parliament.

A year later he acquired neighbours on his cross-bench when the Grenvillite ‘third party’ moved over.

In 1818 Bankes published his Civil and constitutional history of Rome from the foundation to the age of Augustus, a reflection of his abiding interest in constitutional history. It showed him to be ‘one of the most accomplished gentlemen in England’.21 As a trustee of the British Museum, he promoted its interests in the House. In the ensuing session he was one of the secret committee on the Bank. He voted with opposition on the Windsor establishment and royal household bills, 22, 25 Feb. and 19 Mar. 1819; also for criminal law reform, 2 Mar., against Admiralty salaries, 18 Mar., against delays in Chancery, 20 May, and against the navy estimates. He supported reform of the Scottish burghs, 1 Apr., and the extension of the franchise at Penryn, 22 June. His vote against Catholic relief on 3 May was disallowed, as he came in late. He stood by ministers on 29 Mar. and 18 May in hard-pressed divisions and also supported the foreign enlistment bill, 10 June. On 1 July he carried a resolution laying down the mode of accounting for public works. In December he was a spokesman for repressive legislation, ‘essential to the maintenance of our liberties and to the salvation of the state’. After staying in town to the end, he yet doubted whether the Acts went far enough. The danger came from ‘this new state of knowledge’ which arose from popular education.22 Lady Shelley wrote of him, 23 Nov. 1819: ‘Bankes is all for economy, and yet for severity in the Game Laws, and for arbitrary power in every way. Canning said the other day, that Bankes’ ideal government would be a cheap tyranny.’23 He would not have agreed, but he was certainly not a happy politician. Grattan aptly described him as ‘a political dry bob always in a state of irritation but never coming to a crisis’.24 It was doubtless his wish to be remembered as ‘one who endeavoured throughout a long public life, faithfully and honestly to fulfil the functions of an independent representative’.25 He died 17 Dec. 1834.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. Viola Bankes, A Dorset Heritage, 107 seq.; Farington, i. 171; iii. 299; Life of Wilberforce (1838), iii. 438; Broughton, Recollections, ii. 125, 127.
  • 2. Dorset RO, Bond mss D413, Bankes to Bond, 26 Dec. 1794; Life of Wilberforce, ii. 66.
  • 3. Glenbervie Diaries, i. 45; Colchester, i. 120.
  • 4. Parl. Deb. xi. 907.
  • 5. The Times, 5 Feb. 1801.
  • 6. Dacres Adams mss 6/41.
  • 7. PRO 30/8/111, f. 104; Rose Diaries, ii. 212, 238.
  • 8. Bond mss D413, Bankes to Bond, 3, 16 Feb., 28 Sept. 1806.
  • 9. Wilberforce Pprs. 139; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 121.
  • 10. Buckingham, iv. 197; Grey mss, Temple to Howick, 1 Apr. 1807.
  • 11. Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 15 June 1809.
  • 12. Camden mss C86/5/5; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 437.
  • 13. Add. 41858, f. 87; 48228, f. 140.
  • 14. NLI, Richmond mss 65/773.
  • 15. Life of Wilberforce, iv. 62; Bankes mss, Pitt to Bankes, 15 Jan. 1812.
  • 16. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 427, 433.
  • 17. Geo. IV Letters, i. 66.
  • 18. Richmond mss 74/1896; Leveson Gower, ii. 440.
  • 19. J. Breihan, ‘Economical Reform during Ld. Liverpool’s Administration 1812-17’ (Camb. Univ. diploma, 1972).
  • 20. Colchester, ii. 438; Add. 40281, f. 88.
  • 21. Ward, Letters to Bishop of Llandaff, 203.
  • 22. Colchester, iii. 101, 103; Pellew, Sidmouth, iii. 272; HMC Laing, ii. 765.
  • 23. Diary of Lady Shelley, ii. 89.
  • 24. HMC Fortescue, x. 427.
  • 25. Gent. Mag. (1835), i. 323.