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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story

 SIR JOSEPH BANKS (1743-1820) 

Sharon Middleton

Sir Joseph Banks was one of the most influential Englishmen of his time. A companion of Captain James Cook, a friend of George III and President of the Royal Society, he was a respected botanist, explorer and naturalist who was involved in nearly all the significant scientific initiatives and voyages of explorations of the time. His name is linked to many discoveries including the genus Banksia, which he identified in Botany Bay with the help of his friend, Swedish scientist Dr Daniel Solander, and also with the introduction of the eucalyptus and acacias to the Western world. The Banks Islands named after him are a group of volcanic islands near Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean and in Australia. There is a place called Revesby in New South Wales and one called Boston in South Australia.

A colour portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, pictured seated in a blue-green jacket with a silver 8 pointed star medal. The medal is for The Order of the Bath.

Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks by Thomas Phillips, RA, painted for the corporation of Boston and now hanging in the town’s Guildhall Museum. (used by permission)

Illustration of a Banksias plant which was named after Sir Joseph Banks. The flower is a large, yellow spiky flower around a wooden core. The image also shows the plant seed pod which is a large woody cone with multiple seed pods.

Banksias, one of the many Australian plants named after Sir Joseph Banks. (Mary Findell)

Born in London in 1743 and educated at Harrow and Eton before attending Oxford University. Banks was a dedicated student, particularly of botany and entomology. In 1764, at the age of 21, when his father died, he inherited Revesby Abbey along with a large fortune. In 1766, he made his first voyage of exploration to Newfoundland and Labrador, returning home in 1768 as an experienced natural history collector and the creator of the first scientifically categorised collection of specimens.

Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, Banks next headed the team of botanists and artists on Captain James Cook’s voyage of 1768-1771 to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti and to explore the uncharted lands of the South Pacific. This time Banks returned with the first natural history collection of specimens from the South Seas and Australia to be seen in Britain. Boston honoured him for his “pursuit towards the increase of natural knowledge and for the discovery of new countries so beneficial to the commercial interests of these kingdoms” by making him a freeman of the Borough.

Image of Australian bank note featuring a black and white engraving of Sir Joseph Banks. The bank note has a purple, pink and yellow gradient.

Australian five-dollar note featuring Sir Joseph Banks.

In 1772 he went on an expedition to Iceland with Dr Solander and after his return, Banks became a sought after advisor to expeditions, taking particular interest in the young Captain Matthew Flinders from Donington. In I778 he became President of the Royal Society and in 1781 he was made a baronet. The ‘Conversaziones’ funded out of his personal fortune gave Fellows of the Royal Society an opportunity to demonstrate their research and it is now the Royal Society’s public Summer Exhibition.

Sir Joseph continued to divide his time between his London home and Revesby where he tried, but failed to introduce a kangaroo colony. The parkland he landscaped contains many examples of the plants and trees he brought back from his explorations. Active in the local politics of Lincolnshire as well as in the navigation, drainage, surveying and accurate mapping of the county, Sir Joseph was a local magistrate and in 1819 was awarded the largely honorary title of ‘Recorder’ for Boston, the town’s senior magistrate or judge in the local courts. Sir Joseph died in 1820