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The Library has acquired an important addition to our collection of Joseph Banks papers – a letter his sister, Sarah Sophia Banks, wrote to Joseph during his first major voyage.
Sent while Joseph was studying natural history onboard the HMS Niger in Newfoundland and Labrador, the letter contains gossip about mutual friends, and enquiries about Joseph’s progress with learning the guitar ('trifling as it is, is better than nothing' - Joseph having advised in his previous letter that he had foresworn the flute). However what is most interesting about this letter is Sarah’s offer to financially support Joseph with a bequest she has inherited.
Sarah writes ‘I have now you know been of Age above a year, and know exactly the State of my Affairs, by which I find I have full enough to make me happy…it would give me a great deal more pleasure that you should have it…’ This inheritance (the source of which remains unknown) seems to have been in addition to the fortune Sarah came into on her majority.
Although Joseph also inherited impressive estates and fortunes from their parents, joining a voyage was expensive - his costs in joining the Endeavour voyage were rumoured to be around £10,000. It is possible that the financial support Sarah offers in this letter enabled him to join this important journey. Joseph's participation in the Endeavour voyage had a profound effect on Australian history - it was his glowing recommendation of the geography and climate of Botany Bay that influenced the British government’s decision to choose New South Wales as a penal colony.
This letter, previously unrecorded, is the only known letter from Sarah Sophia Banks to Joseph. It is also of interest to the Library because it is a direct reply to one of Joseph's which the Library already holds (11 August 1766). Although Sarah and Joseph were close, there are few extant pieces of correspondence between the siblings, and what does survive has been penned by Joseph. Written in a familiar style, when Sarah was 22 and Joseph 23, this letter is evidence of the affection between the two (and possibly of some teasing from Joseph - Sarah responds to an offer Joseph makes to send her a sealskin gown 'perfumed with train oil' from the ‘Esquimaux ladies’).
Joseph and Sarah remained close all their lives, living together in Soho Square after 1779. Joseph was the heir to the Revesby Abbey fortune, and Sarah evidently came into enough of a fortune to remain independently wealthy and additionally finance her brother’s voyages.
Sarah was an important collector in her own right and is remembered as a serious antiquarian, collecting fashion plates, admission tickets, visitor cards, press-cuttings, satirical prints, frontispieces, political caricatures, invitations, maps, and playbills. She also took an interest in fashion, as this milliner's invoice for '2 Dozen Scarlet Feathers' shows. Sarah had the means to purchase these artefacts, but she also added to her collection through exchange and gifts from other collectors, making use of her brother’s wide travel and networks. When this collection was donated to the British Museum after death, it was calculated that it contained over 19,000 items - the largest and most varied collection of ephemera and printed material the Museum had ever accepted.
Sarah took a keen interest in her brother’s travels and supported her brother’s career in many ways, not just financially. She later moved into his Soho Square home, and with his wife Dorothea took care of his hothouses and nurseries while Joseph was away. This letter is early evidence of Sarah’s interest in natural history and exploration. It is also a record of the female support behind Joseph Banks’ significant achievements.
The Library is currently transcribing the Banks papers. You can view the transcribed papers (or to contribute to the transcription project yourself) here.
Amy McKenzie, Librarian, Collection Strategy and Development