Banks Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Banks Surname Meaning

The Banks surname is of English and Scottish origin. It is a topographic name for someone who lived on the slope of a hillside or by a riverbank, from the Middle English and Old Danish banke.

Banks Surname Resources on The Internet

Banks Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland
  • to Germany, America, Canada and Australia

England. Banks has been very much a northern English surname, found primarily in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The early spelling tended to be Bankes.

Yorkshire.  Simon Bankes married the daughter and heiress of Robert Caterton of Newton in the Craven district of north Yorkshire in 1319. Newton thereafter became Newton Banks. From this line came Richard Bankes, a Baron of the Exchequer in 1410, and the Yorkshire Bankes of Whitley. This line may have led (although it probably did not) to Sir T.C. Banks, the bogus genealogist of the early 19th century.

Henry Bankes, born about 1500, appears to have been the progenitor of the Banks of Giggleswick in the Craven district. Joseph Banks of this line made his fortune in Sheffield as an agent for the Dukes of Norfolk, Leeds, and Newcastle. He acquired the Revesby estate in Lincolnshire in 1714. His grandson, also Joseph Banks, was the famous botanist and patron of the natural sciences who made his name accompanying Captain Cook on his great voyage to the South Pacific in the 1770’s.

Also from this line came James Bankes who made his fortune as a goldsmith and banker in London. He acquired the Winstanley estate near Wigan in Lancashire in 1596. His descendants prospered through their mining activities in the Wigan area. This Tudor building remained in Banks family hands until the year 2000.

Elsewhere.  Banks were merchants at nearby Keswick in Cumberland from the 1550’s. These Banks supplied early settlers to America in the 1630’s. Later Banks there were graphite miners and pencil-makers.

There is a plaque on a house in the market square of Keswick that commemorates Sir John Bankes who was born there in 1589 and rose to be Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas under Charles I in 1640. He, however, made his home in Dorset. His family established themselves at Corfe Castle in Dorset (until it was destroyed by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War) and at Kingston Lacy.

William Bankes was a 19th century explorer and Egyptologist who, however, had to flee England in 1841 because of his homosexual indiscretions. A latter descendant Henry Bankes bequeathed Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle to the National Trust on his death in 1981. It was the largest donation the trust has ever received.

One Banks family made money as woolen drapers in London in Elizabethan times and married into a well-connected Kentish family. The son Caleb built upon this wealth from a naval supply contract and acquired the former Carmelite priory at Aylesford. He was three times mayor of Maidstone. Caleb’s son Sir John became a baronet and was one of the richest men in England in his time. But he died in 1699 without male heirs.

Scotland.  The Banks name in Scotland is thought to have originated in the Orkney islands. It was recorded in registers in the small hamlet of Canisbay in Caithness on the mainland in the 1650’s. Banks have continued living there in succeeding centuries.

Other Banks surfaced in Edinburgh in the 17th century. William Banks and his son Thomas were pipe-makers in the city at that time. Iain Banks, the contemporary author who died recently, was born in nearby Dunfermline.

Ireland. The Banks name in Ireland may have had English or Irish origins.

Banks in Ireland could be an anglicized form of the Gaelic O’Bruachain, descendant of Bruachan(a byname for a large-bellied person), first found in Connacht. This name was close to the Gaelic bruach which means “bank.” The largest number of Banks in Griffith’s mid-19th century Valuation was in Sligo.

Germany. There was a Banks family  that established itself in Germany in the late 1700”s when William Banks, an English merchant, arrived there and stayed. His descendants established themselves in Hamburg society. His grandson Edward was a Hamburg senator in the 1840’s; his great grandson, also named Edward, a member of the newly formed German parliament in 1871.

There were others in Germany named Bank that sometimes became Banks in America.

America. Virginia and New England, as might be expected, were the main early arrival points for Banks.

Virginia.  According to family lore, five Bankes brothers came to America in the 1630’s. James Bankes arrived in 1635 and settled in the Northern Neck of Virginia. His line of descendants was covered in Mary Storey’s 1991 book Grandpap’s Family: A Banks Family Genealogy.

Another Virginia Banks family originated with James and Mary Banks of Bedford and Prince George counties. These Banks were later found at Mantapike, Virginia and Abbeville county, South Carolina where James and Rivers Banks saw Revolutionary War service with the local militia.

Ralph Banks of this family appeared after the war in Elbert county, Georgia. His son Richard was a prominent physician after whom Banks county, Georgia was named. Sarah Banks Franklin’s 1937 book The Banks Family of Elbert County covered the line. The largest number of Banks today in America is in Georgia.

New England. Two Banks with a large number of descendants were:

  • Richard Banks from Kent who came to York, Maine in 1645. Some of his descendants perished in the Indian massacres of the late 1600’s. But many remained in Maine and across the border in Nova Scotia. Their numbers included the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Charles Banks’ The Banks Family of Maine appeared in 1890.
  • and John Banks from Yorkshire who arrived in Windsor, Connecticut around the same time. Joseph Banks, born in 1690, was the forebear of the nearby Fairfield line.

John Banks married Elizabeth Grusey in Boston in 1744. His descendant Nathaniel P. Banks, born in Waltham in 1816, rose to political prominence as Speaker in the US House of Representatives and Massachusetts Governor in the years prior to the Civil War.  

“In the longest contest in U.S. history, Nathaniel P. Banks was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1855 after three months of balloting. Several historians have described this event as the birth of the Republican party because northern men from disparate parties came together for the election. Almost all who voted for Banks ran as Republicans in the next election.”  

Nathaniel P. Banks, however, was a failure as a Union general during the Civil War.  

Canada. Robert and Mary Banks were said to have come on the Lovely Nellie from Scotland to Prince Edward Island in 1774. They made his home in Annandale. Some of their descendants crossed the border to settle in Connecticut in the late 1800’s.

Meanwhile Moses Banks had crossed the border the other way – from Maine to Nova Scotia – in the 1760’s. Moses died in 1838 back in Maine. But his descendants stayed put in Nova Scotia.

Australia.  William and Ellen Banks from Lincolnshire who came in 1843 and settled in Melbourne. However, they were not to stay there for very long. Converting to the Mormon faith, they set out for Utah a decade later.

Captain James Alfred Banks from Norfolk, a master mariner, who came to Australia in the early 1850’s. For a time he operated a small ship trading along the NSW coastline. He and his wife Cecilia settled in Raymond Terrace, NSW.

New Zealand.  Robert Lindsay Banks from Scotland came to South Island around 1860 and was an early settler at his Cheetwood farm near Otanomomo. His son of the same name was clerk and county engineer for the Mackenzie county council for forty years from 1889 to 1929.

Banks Miscellany

The Siege of Corfe Castle.  Corfe Castle had recently been acquired by staunch Royalists, the Bankes family. When war broke out in 1642, the formidable Lady Mary Bankes made it her home while her husband Sir John was away serving the King.

Within a year, almost all of Dorset came under the control of Parliament. Yet Corfe stood firm. In 1643 Lady Mary and a garrison of just 80 soldiers saw off a six-week siege. When Sir John died in December 1644 Corfe Castle was the last remaining Royalist stronghold between London and Exeter.

Pressure increased during 1645 and by October the castle was again under siege – this time by a larger and more determined enemy force. By now the reputation of ‘Brave Dame Mary’ was growing and February 1646 saw a daring attempt to rescue her. A young Royalist officer slipped through enemy lines with a small force and offered her the chance to escape. Typically, she refused to leave her home.

But her days of defiance were numbered. Later that month an officer of her garrison sealed the castle’s fate with an act of treachery when he allowed enemy troops disguised as reinforcements to enter. Lady Mary was forced to surrender after 48 days under siege. She was allowed to keep the seals and keys of the castle in recognition of her courage.

Parliamentary sappers set to work with gunpowder to reduce the castle to the ruin we see today and the Bankes’ estate was seized. However, Lady Mary had the last laugh. She lived to see her estate returned and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Her memorial read:

“To the memory of Lady Mary Bankes, the wife and widow of Sir John Bankes, late Lord Chief Justice of His Majesty’s court of Common Pleas and of the Privy Council of His Majesty King Charles I of blessed memory, who having had the honor to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex a noble proportion of the late calamities and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661.”

Sir T.C. Banks the Bogus Genealogist.  Thomas Christopher Banks claimed descent on his father’s side from Richard Bankes, a Baron of the Exchequer, and from the ancient Bankes family of Whitley. He also asserted on his mother’s side that his ancestors were the Nortons of Barbados, baronets of Nova Scotia. Each of these claims was dubious to say the least.

However, thus equipped, he styled himself Sir T.C. Banks, Baronet of Nova Scotia, and from around 1810 began to offer his services as a reputable genealogist. In fact he was notorious for assisting several claimants to dormant peerages, based on the very flimsiest evidence which he strengthened with imaginary pedigrees.

His own baronetcy had been purportedly granted to him by a certain Alexander Humphrys who, supported by Banks, had laid claim to the dormant Earldom of Stirling on the basis of forged documents. He gave proof of his own personal faith in the claims of Humphrys by allowing the pseudo-earl, in accordance with rights conferred on the real Earl of Stirling by King James VI of Scotland to create him a baronet of Nova Scotia, and by accepting from him in anticipation a grant of 6,000 acres of land in Nova Scotia.

When the documents on which Humphrys founded his claims were discovered to be forgeries, Banks ceased to make use of the bogus baronetcy. However in his obituary notice he was nevertheless styled a Baronet of Nova Scotia and Knight of the Holy Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

The Banks Graphite Miners and Pencil-Makers of Keswick.  According to legend, the basic material for the pencil-making industry, graphite, was discovered in Borrowdale. At some time, probably in the 16th century so the story goes, a tree (ash or oak) was blown over to uncover a deposit of wadd, as it was locally known, or graphite. Graphite was in use by the 1580’s when it was being used by artists “to draw their lines.”

Borrowdale graphite turned out to be very pure graphite and was considered a very valuable commodity. It was used not only in pencil-making but also by local shepherds for marking sheep and for treating illnesses such as colic. Taken in white wine or ale, it “easeth the pain of gravel, stone and strangury.” So precious was graphite that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1752 to stop stealing.

A Banks family was prominent in the graphite mining at Borrowdale from early times and later was part of the pencil-making community at Keswick. By the 1830’s “Banks and Co, Greta Pencil Works and Black Lead Mills” was in business at Forge Mill.  The mill remained in Banks’ family hands until 1908.

Five Bankes Brothers to America.  The family legend (from a Banks descendant in America) ran as follows:

“Five Bankes brothers came from England to Virginia in the 1600’s. They came one at a time on different ships so that if one ship sank all would not be lost and some would be left to carry on the name. Two of them are said to have died on the way over, leaving three. These two were supposedly Henry and Edward.

The Bankes’ seat in England was Keswick. Black lead was found on the farm there. It was the only known black lead in the world fit for making pencils. We descend from James Bankes from the Northern Neck of Virginia.”

The alternative maybe more factual version ran as follows:

“In the year 1635, five Bankes men took the “Oath of Supremacy and Allegiance to the Church of England” and set sail for the New World. One Bankes man each month sailed from London. William and Edward sailed for the Island of Barbados and the others for Virginia. These men are believed to be the legendary five brothers, sons of James Banks.”

Ralph Banks in Georgia.  Georgia Butt Young, taking information froma Georgia medical journal report in 1885, said the following about Ralph Banks, the progenitor of the Banks family in Elbert county, Georgia who had arrived there from North Carolina in 1785.

“Ralph Banks was an intelligent, successful and prosperous Georgia farmer, cultivating tobacco as a principal crop and marketing the hogshead in which it was compressed at Augusta until the cotton gin provided him with a more profitable staple.

The inventory of his estate at his death showed scores of slaves, thousand acres of land, horses, sheep, cattle and goats, wheat, barley, corn, oats and – alas! good Methodist that he was – one hundred gallons of peach brandy, sundry barrels of hard cider, and a barrel of wine.

He and his wife raised twelve children, from whom sprang some of the leading families of Georgia. Every one of the ten sons attained distinction, several of them acquired great wealth, and all of them preserved their Methodist connection.”

William and Ellen Banks’ Sojourn in Australia and Beyond.  William and Ellen Banks had been married in Dowsby, Lincolnshire in 1841. He was a farm laborer with little advancement prospect. So when the British Government started advertising the colonization of Australia he was attracted by the new land and its “liberality” and decided to emigrate there.

They set out for Australia in 1843 in a journey that was to take six months. During the journey both of their children died. Two year old Fanny was consigned to “the depths of the briny sea” in October 1843 and eleven month old Rosetta in January 1844.

William and Ellen eventually settled in Melbourne, joining up with William’s brother Joseph who had married Ellen’s sister Charlotte. When gold fever came William left for a time to find work at Ballarat.

When he returned to Melbourne, however, he found that his family had gone! Family stories told how, on his way back to the mines, he passed through a small village and saw a small curly-haired boy playing. He asked the boy who his father was. All the time he was saying to himself: “Dash my rage, if that’s not my boy!” The boy’s reply was: “Oh, I am William Banks’ boy.” Imagine the joy.

By 1854 William and Ellen had been inducted into the Mormon faith. They immediately made plans to depart for the Mormons’ new home in Salt Lake valley, Utah. It took two rather unseaworthy vessels to get them to Hawaii where the second of their vessels sunk, taking most of the family possessions with them. They did eventually reach California, staying for a while in San Bernardino before striking out for Utah. William died in Parowan, Utah in 1889.

Banks Names

  • Sir John Bankes was Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas to Charles I in 1640. 
  • Joseph Banks was the famous botanist and patron of the natural sciences who made his name accompanying Captain Cook on his great voyage to the South Pacific in the 1770’s.   
  • Ernie Banks played baseball for the Chicago Cubs as shortstop and first baseman between 1953 and 1971. He is considered one of the finest players in the 20th century. 
  • Gordon Banks was England’s goalkeeper when they won the football World Cup in 1966. He is considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world during the 20th century. 
  • Ian Banks was a popular Scottish fiction writer who died recently.

Banks Numbers Today

  • 29,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 35,000 in America (most numerous in Georgia)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Banks and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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