From celebrity to outcast: William Bankes MP (1786-1855)

Today’s blog is the second of three posts to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. In this blog we hear from Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the House of Commons 1832-1868 project, about William Bankes who fled the country to avoid prosecution for homosexual offences …

William Bankes was one of the most famous explorers of Regency England. A swashbuckling early 19th-century ‘Indiana Jones’, his discovery of lost ancient sites in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia made him a household name. A close friend of Lord Bryon, who deemed him the ‘father of all mischief’ during their student days together at Cambridge University, he was renowned for his risqué wit, remarkable good looks and captivating conversation. He was also a serious scholar. His contribution to the emerging field of Egyptology – especially his work helping to de-cipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – is now widely recognised.

In 2017 Bankes’s sexual orientation became the focus of a high-profile National Trust exhibition at his former stately home, Kingston Lacy in Dorset. Visitors were reminded about how Bankes had been forced to flee into exile after being charged with committing a homosexual act (then still punishable by death) for a second time in 1841. Despite living abroad, and being declared an ‘outlaw’, Bankes managed to continue remodelling Kingston Lacy into the remarkable Italianate mansion that exists today. He also used his wealth and expert eye to assemble its world-class art collection, which includes a recently authenticated Tintoretto.

Kingston Lacy House remodelled by William Bankes

Bankes’s accomplishments, however, were not just limited to archaeology, architecture and art. He was also an enigmatic MP, whose die-hard Tory political attitudes may surprise some modern observers. After a brief spell sitting for the pocket borough of Truro, 1810-12, he astonished everyone by standing for Cambridge University in a by-election in 1822, abandoning his plans to mount an expedition to discover the source of the Nile in Africa.

By now his affair with a ‘very young and very handsome’ Anne Glover Hampden-Hobart, wife of the 5th Earl of Buckinghamshire, had become a public scandal. Anne had reportedly been trying to elope with Bankes to Africa, ‘disguised as a boy’. Despite powerful political opposition and threats of criminal seduction charges from the Earl of Buckinghamshire, Bankes triumphed in the by-election, aided by his staunch opposition to Catholic emancipation and brilliant performance as a canvasser. He lost the subsequent 1826 election, but later represented Marlborough, 1829-32 and Dorset, 1832-35.

Throughout his dozen years as an MP Bankes steadily opposed all attempts to give Catholics, Dissenters and Jews civil and religious rights. He condemned the Tory government for ‘surrendering’ to outside pressure when it conceded Catholic emancipation in 1829, and spoke out against all forms of franchise extension and parliamentary reform, accusing the Whigs of gerrymander and ‘trickery’ with their famous Reform Act of 1832. He even voted against abolishing the death penalty for forgery.

His speeches often caused a stir, and not just because of his extreme views. In a debate on the Church in 1824, for instance, he caused uproar in the Commons by ‘inadvertently’ demanding that ministers promote the merging of the ‘sexes’, rather than ‘sects’. One junior minister described his lapse ‘sexes for sects’ as ‘the funniest thing I have heard … you never heard children laugh more’.

Bankes’s reputation as a philanderer proved useful to him during his first trial for homosexuality. On 6 June 1833 he was caught by a policeman partially undressed in a Westminster toilet with a guardsman, James Flower, whose braces were ‘undone in the front’. Both men were arrested and charged with an ‘unnatural offence’. In the ensuing trial much of the political establishment rallied to Bankes’s defence, including the former prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, whom Bankes had once served as aide-de-camp. What really swung the case, however, was evidence of the defendants’ ‘manly’ qualities and heterosexuality, or what one witness termed being ‘quite the reverse – the other way [a laugh]’ to what was being alleged. After hearing personal testimony from Bankes’s friends and family, including his father and brother, both men were cleared of what one courtroom lawyer called the ‘most abominable and unnatural’ crime which ‘mankind … could be guilty of’.

Bankes’s decision to quit as an MP in 1835 remains something of a mystery. Wellington was certainly keen that he avoid ‘exposing himself to the world for some time’, despite his acquittal, but this did not prevent Bankes being ‘as much in society as if nothing had happened’. In 1841, however, he was arrested for another suspected homosexual act in a London park. ‘Bankes has been again caught with a soldier!!! Monstrous madness’, lamented his former Cambridge contemporary Sir John Hobhouse MP.

Bailed for £1,000, Bankes made over all his confiscable property and wealth to his younger brother and fled to Europe, rather than run the risk of conviction. Just six years earlier, James Pratt and John Smith had been publicly hanged outside Newgate prison after being found guilty of homosexual acts. Bankes remained in exile, living in France and Venice, until his death in 1855.


Further reading:
D. Seyler, The Obelisk and the Englishman (2015)
A. Sebba, The Exiled Collector (2004)
P. Usick, Adventures in Egypt and Nubia: The Travels of William John Bankes (1786-1855)  (2003)

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