The collections of Sarah Sophia Banks

Catherine Eagleton (British Museum)

Curator of Modern Money
Coins, paper money, tokens, credit cards, and other money-related objects from the last 300 years

Subject – The collections of Sarah Sophia Banks
Location – Horncastle College

Sarah Sophia Banks, the younger sister of Joseph was born on 28 October 1744, in London. The siblings grew up together in Lincolnshire, and then when Sarah Sophia was 17, she moved back to London, to live in Chelsea with her mother.

In the 1760s, her older brother had begun the travels that were to make his name, Sarah Sophia took a keen interest in his travels, and they corresponded regularly. In a note from Joseph at Labrador Bay in 1766, he relates his attempts to play guitar, and thanks her for sending him some bark to ease his fever. He also hoped that Mr Lee, the nurseryman at Hammersmith, had:eagleton

…been very civil & given you nosegays as often as you have been to him, if not tell him he shall not have one of my insects when I come home, give my comp[limen]ts to him also & tell him that if I did not think it might endanger cracking some of your Ladyships teeth I would let him know by you some of the hard names of the things I have got.[1]

After Joseph had moved into his new house at 32 Soho Square in 1777, and married Dorothea, Sarah Sophia soon moved in with them, and the three members of the Banks household went everywhere together. The problem for anyone writing a biography of Sarah Sophia is that after this point, she no longer writes to her brother – even this limited evidence from which we can see something of her earlier life, stops.

Happily, some of her contemporaries described Sarah Sophia, including John Thomas Smith, who was later to become Keeper of Prints at the British Museum from 1816. He said that she was “in the prime of life; a fashionable whip; and drove a four-in-hand,” and also that later in life she “was looked after by the eye of astonishment” because:

Her dress was that of the Old School; her Barcelona quilted petticoat had a hole on either side for the convenience of rummaging two immense pockets stuffed with books of all sizes. This petticoat was covered with a deep stomachered gown, sometimes drawn through the pocket-holes, similar to those of many of the ladies of Bunbury’s time, which he has introduced in his prints. In this dress I have frequently seen her walk, followed by a six-foot servant with a cane almost as tall as himself. [2]

When Sarah Sophia Banks died in September 1818 – as a result of a carriage accident on returning home from dinner – her obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine in November described her love of natural history, and explained that her collections had been presented to the British Museum. These collections, although less well-known than her brother’s huge collection of botanical and other specimens, were also extensive. From the 1770s onwards, she had collected coins, medals and tokens, as well as prints and printed ephemera, and the collections at her death numbered more than 30,000 objects. Now split between the British Museum, British Library, and Royal Mint Museum, they give us remarkable insights into the life and interests of Sarah Sophia.

The numismatic collection included around 9,000 objects, as well as a large library. Sarah Sophia was particularly interested in collecting contemporary objects – a contrast to other collectors at the time, many of whom focussed on ancient coins. Joseph Banks, of course, was also interested in contemporary coinage, through his work on the Privy Council Committee on Coin, but his sister’s numismatic collection dwarfed his – he had only 100 coins and medals in it at his death.

In 1791, Sarah Sophia began to systematically list who gave her objects for her numismatic collection, as well as the people to whom she gave coins, tokens, or medals. These remarkable lists of the provenance of more than 8,500 objects were compiled up to her death, and provide a remarkable resource. It is possible to identify more than 500 individuals, ranging from Princess Elizabeth, to Mr Vacary the Porter, and of course including Joseph Banks, who gave her about 1,600 objects. As well as acquiring objects as donations from friends and correspondents, Sarah Sophia also bought objects for her collections, and gave coins, medals and tokens to other people, keeping lists of these as well as the lists of donations to her.

As well as collecting the objects themselves, Sarah Sophia collected and recorded information about them, keeping scraps cut out from newspapers, as well as memoranda of things told to her by her contacts and her brother’s correspondents. She, like her brother, was interested in archaeology, and occasionally recorded where objects were found or dug up. Some of the information preserved in these newspaper clippings and notes is available from no other source – details of who made particular tokens or medals, and when, for what purpose the objects were used, or when they were collected.

The numismatic collections were stored in wooden cabinets, in her bedroom on the first floor of the house at 32 Soho Square. As an aid to finding objects, Sarah Sophia compiled a catalogue of her collection in about 1815, in 7 volumes. This shows us that the objects in her collection were organised geographically, beginning with coins from England, before moving on to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. Within each country, the coins were organised according to the rulers and the metals from which they were made. So, in a similar way to that in which Joseph’s collections organised and classified the natural world, so Sarah Sophia’s numismatic collection organised and classified the political world, through its rulers and the currencies they issued.

Today, Sarah Sophia’s numismatic collections are an exceptionally rich resource for understanding the history of collecting of coins, tokens, and medals. The information she collected about them tells us about the contexts in which these objects were made, used, collected, and understood – in some cases, information that is available from no other source. Moreover, the collections also give us a way to learn about Sarah Sophia Banks herself, who would otherwise be so difficult to disentangle from her much more famous brother.[3]

 


[1] Letter received by Sarah Sophia Banks from Joseph Banks, 11 August 1766 (Series 93.01) NSW (online at http://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks/).

[2] John Thomas Smith, A Book for a Rainy-day, or, Recollections of the Events of the Last Sixty-six Years. London, 1845, p. 214.

[3] Catherine Eagleton is currently writing a book about Sarah Sophia Banks and her numismatic collections. See also C. Eagleton, ‘Collecting African money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and her collection of coins’ in Museum History Journal 6:1 (2013), pp. 23-38.