The Banks family
Masons and labourers of Lacock
Matilda Talbot, in a broadcast made on the BBC Home Service on 13th September 1954, said: “The medium in which most of the Lacock men liked to work was stone, and the quarries of the famous Bath stone were within four miles. Many of them, therefore, became masons and were very good stone carvers”. Masons were commonly found in and around Lacock doing work on the Lacock estate and to the abbey well before Matilda’s time. Everything needed to be kept in good condition and it seems from bills we have in the Lacock archive, and some letters, that some owners of the estate were extremely concerned with the maintenance of the cottages and the abbey itself. We have masons’ records from the 17th century and particularly for the 18th and 19th centuries, when we find large bills submitted to the Talbots for building and repair work all over the estate, at farms, in the small village cottages, mills and bridges. We can also find references to masonry work from even the earliest records, as any reference to building work would have been looking at local masons and builders. The most common family to do masonry work for the Talbots were the Banks family.
Various members of the Banks family were involved in important jobs in the estate, good examples being George Banks who along with John Gale built the Lacock workhouse in 1833 and Frederick Banks who did most of the estate work in the early 20th century for Charles Henry Talbot. Charles was a very keen on history and archaeology, and ensured more than any other owner of the estate that the standard of the buildings and their state of repair was kept high, and he also took care to maintain the standard of the abbey building itself, commissioning a lot of restoration work and taking interest in the history of the building and how it used to function. Reliable stonemasons were therefore in demand in Lacock, judging by the length of some of their bills. Masonry is the industry that the family tended to stick to, and there are bills from many different generations of Banks for building and repair work on the Lacock estate.
Records of the Banks family doing work on the Lacock estate go back to the 18th century, where they regularly provided bills for work done in gardens and to cottages on the estate. An Edward Banks produced some bills for plants and seeds, so we can assume he was a gardener of some sort. In the late 19th century, we can find James and Daniel Banks who were labourers who did a lot of ditching work, faggoting, hedging and chopping for the estate at various farms and cottages.
There is one very detailed bill showing payments by William Styles to both James and Daniel Banks for work such as making bounds and banks, chopping wood and other jobs at Naish Hill and various estate properties.
So these members of the family were not masons but they still did a lot of work around the estate. The stonemasons must have been heavily involved with John Ivory Talbot’s work on the great hall and other remodelling of Lacock Abbey in the mid-18th century. He changed the look of the front of the abbey to a Gothic style with the grand flight of steps, and a Gothic arch. Unfortunately there aren’t many bills in the archive for his work on the Great Hall at the time, which is a shame as it was a large project and there were clearly more bills than were kept.
However, there are some of John Ivory Talbot’s account books for the time, which show some payments to masons and other workers possibly for work on the project, as well as some other bills for around that time which could easily be for the work done at Lacock Abbey, although this is hard to prove. There is simply not enough detail in the account books as they were just John Ivory Talbot’s notes of who he paid for work, not what they did.
In the 19th century, George Banks did a lot of work for the Feilding family and William Henry Fox Talbot whilst they were living at Lacock. George and others provide many bills and some account books, as well as appearing in the owners’ account books as doing the work.
George Banks’ bills show the diversity in his work: for example, one bill of 1838 is for repairs to Admiral Feilding’s tomb, taking down an iron railing, fixing a stone and fixing ironwork.
A mason called Banks can also be found in one of Admiral Charles Feilding’s account books for Lacock, making a window at the blacksmith’s shop in 1832, and there is also a record of Banks doing labour and John Gale working on trellis work benches, a good example of the partnerships between the two businesses.
George Banks also writes bills for work to the school in the 1820s for William Henry Fox Talbot, which was a building project that probably needed a large number of experienced and apt stonemasons working on the building when it was first designed in the 1820s and when it was enlarged in the 1860s.
In the Lacock archive, we have a cutting from the Toronto Globe and Mail featuring Walter Banks, who was photographed for the “Lacock as Propaganda” series by Harold White for the British Council in 1942. The village of Lacock was selected by the British Council as a “perfect specimen of the development of English village life”. The picture of Walter Banks is used next to an image of a sleepy Lacock street whose inhabitants are fighting in the war. The caption reads “Like his father, his grandfather and his ancestors before them, Mr Banks, the village mason, still has their pride of craftsmanship. He’s carrying on work from which he retired before the war, since his sons are in the armed forces”. Other pictures featured in the paper are one of a wheelwright and carpenter, the landlord of one of the pubs pouring beer, and of New Farm.
In 1902, the Banks’ were involved in the restoration of the chancel in Lacock Church for the Fox Talbot memorial, commissioned by Charles Henry Talbot and using designs worked on by Harold Brakspear. (My thanks go to Brian Howells Banks who has done so much research on his family and their work in Lacock, and has provided these photographs):
This is a great photograph of the workers standing around the scaffolding during the restoration work, and helps us see how many people it took to do the work and who was involved.
Members of the Banks family also worked as coal merchants at Lacock Wharf during the 18th and 19th century. There are many bills from George and Elizabeth Banks in the 19th century for providing coal, especially for Lacock School, and it seems that Elizabeth Banks was as business-like as George as many of the bills are from her. We can also find a Banks managing the Carpenters Arms in the 1841 census.
Sadly, we also find records of members of the Banks family living in the workhouse: in 1851, there are two Banks children, John aged 13 and Ann aged 9, living in the Lacock workhouse in Church Street. This was by no means uncommon: I have also found records of other common Lacock names, such as Gale and Ring, living in the workhouse as children.
As far on as 1902, there is a mention in a letter to Charles Henry Talbot by P Delme Awdry of George Banks and his wife having moved to the Chippenham workhouse and their affairs to be settled by their son. It could be said that the workhouse itself was another business, and the building of it provided employment for workers in and around Lacock: the materials for it would have been hauled and provided locally, and John Gale and George Banks were noted as being involved in the construction of the third workhouse in 1833. Unfortunately, the third workhouse was only open for a few years and then people moved to the larger one in Chippenham, so the work done to build it was short lived, although it does still stand and is now a pottery and bed and breakfast. So the masonry work and building work carried out by Gale and Banks can still be seen and enjoyed, and this is great because much of the other work they did was to repair and replace buildings. It was just a shame that members of George Banks’ own family lived in a workhouse when he was such a successful and respected builder.