In 1820, when Joseph Banks was 77, he had been suffering from gout for nearly forty years. Long-continued gout, it appears, affects not only joints but also heart, the great arteries, liver and kidneys. On 16 March, 1820, he took the chair at a meeting of the Royal Society for the last time, and some weeks later tendered his resignation, which was not accepted. So he replied,
Sir Joseph Banks begs leave to inform the Council of the Royal Society that his motive for offering his resignation of the office of President was a conviction that old age had so far impaired his sight and his hearing as to render him by no means so well able to perform the duties of that respectable office as he has been. He is gratified in the extreme by finding that the Council think it possible for him to continue his services without detriment to the interests of the society, and he begs leave to withdraw his resignation, assuring the Council that his utmost exertions shall never be wanting to conduct, as far as may be in his power, the affairs of the Society.
Eighteen days after writing this letter he died, as he had lived so long, President of the Royal Society. He asked to be buried, “in the most private manner in the Church or Church yard of the Parish in which I shall happen to die. I entreat my dear relatives to spare themselves the affliction of attending the ceremony and I earnestly request that they will not erect any Monument to my Memory.”
The parish in which he happened to die was that of Heston, and according to his wish he was buried in Heston church with nothing to show, not even the place of his grave.
Why did he happen to die in Heston parish?
He owned a house and estate called “Spring Grove” in Isleworth, that in those days was part of the parish of Heston. In 1645, Sir John Offley built the first house on the Spring Grove site. It was purchased in 1754, by Elisha Biscoe, who demolished the building and built Spring Grove House. He died in 1776, and three years later his son, another Elisha Biscoe, leased the house to Banks for 21 years, at an annual rent of £200.
Banks bought the house in 1808 for £6000, and he and his wife lived there for the next 12 years, when they weren’t at Soho Square, until his death in 1820.
Its thirty-four acres ran along the northern side of the London Road, Isleworth, and contained a natural spring, an important attraction to Banks. At nearby Hounslow Heath he undertook experiments in measurement from which the whole country was measured to produce the Ordinance Survey Maps. In the late 18th Century Banks was once arrested while collecting specimens on Hounslow Heath, under the suspicion of being a highwayman!
Banks spent much time and effort on this secondary home. He steadily created a renowned botanical masterpiece on the estate, achieved primarily with many of the great variety of foreign plants he had collected on his extensive travels around the world.
As Banks is often known as a vigorous, extrovert wealthy gentleman with an extraordinary range of interests, his humble last will intrigued me particularly.
So it was out of question that during our “Tour de Londres” in May, 2015,1 that Helene Nymphius, Teija and Michael Spiekien, and I could miss Heston—we didn’t know about Spring Grove then! Teija phoned the parish to arrange for us a day and time when the church would be open for a visit, and local historian Lynda Hardy would be able to tell us more about Banks and his final resting place. Helene was our specialist for the public transportation, and so we met on the morning of Sunday, 3 May, at 10:30 am at Hounslow East tube station, from where we were to take bus number 111 or 120 towards Cranford or Southall—at first we took the wrong direction, so when you plan your visit be careful and don’t do that!
St Leonard’s Church is located on Heston Road, Hounslow.2 Parts of it date back to the 14th Century. We were greeted by the vicar and, later, by Lynda, who explained fervently everything she knew about the church, Joseph Banks and his grave. He and his wife, Dorothea, had their own pew in the church. It is very likely that he was buried in the vault beneath the apse so Dorothea could have “a look at him” every Sunday.
At the church we saw a copy of The Daily News, 24 August, 1867.
A letter addressed by Dr. Gray, the eminent naturalist, to Dr. Sharpey, Secretary of the Royal Society, on the subject of Sir Joseph Bank’s grave has been sent to us for publication:- “British Museum, August 20. – My dear sir, - Mr. John Smith, the late curator of Kew Gardens, having mentioned to me that he was the only person living who knew where Sir Joseph Banks was buried, not finding it in Weld’s Biography, I wrote to the Rev. E. Spooner, the vicar of Heston near Hounslow, the place Mr Smith indicated, to make inquiry, and received the following reply:- “Sir Joseph Banks was buried in Heston Church in 1820. During the late re-building it was found necessary to open the vault: his coffin was seen there with the name on it and in a very good shape of repair. There is no tablet of any sort to his memory.”
Today this vault is no longer accessible as it was closed for good after flooding had occurred and had set the whole vault under water. Of course people didn’t heed Banks’s last will, and in 1867, the vicar set up a tablet at the northern wall “due to public pressure for some commemoration”. On a window sill we found a framed picture of Joseph together with some remarks about his life and achievements.
When I finally asked Lynda why he was buried at Heston we were told about Spring Grove and instantly wanted to go there. I wanted to know how to get there, so Lynda took me next door to the church hall, where parish members were having their after-eucharist-refreshments and introduced me to a kind elderly gentlemen who was a living bus time table. He said we could board any bus right in front of the church with the numbers 110, 111, 117, 235, 237 or H37, as they all stop at West Thames College.
Losing no time we did exactly that, and after a few minutes we arrived at West Thames College. There, we were at a loss looking for the house, which we had seen only in a book at the church—we had no idea at that time that the house was actually on the grounds of West Thames College. Finally, Michael spotted it through a huge iron gate. We circled the whole property (of course, being a Sunday it was closed), until we found another gate that let us have a better look. We later discovered the house had been substantially extended and rebuilt by later owners, and is now part of West Thames College.
On one hand for eager enthusiasts like us it is a pity that the vault is no longer accessible. On the other hand you can imagine Joseph and Dorothea smiling that their remains indeed can rest in peace together.
My thanks to Helene Nymphius and Michael Spiekien for several of the photos illustrated here. The others are mine.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 23, volume 38, number 4 (2015).
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