John Ruskin famously said, ‘I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles’ and I think that he might have been right. On a recent escape from Cambridge to the Lincoln Cathedral (visiting churches is cool, get involved) I encountered a good piece of Longitude tourism which is particularly fitting for a blog post today. A plaque mounted on the wall as you enter Lincoln Cathedral commemorates the life of Sir Joseph Banks, born in London in the February of 1743, and died on this day, 19th June, in 1820.
Banks was the only son of William Banks of Revesby Abbey, Lincolnshire and his wife Sarah, the eldest daughter of William Bate of Derbyshire. Lincoln seems very keen to prompt the Lincolnshire landowner and several other members of the Banks line, which included a Member of Parliament and a Sheriff for the county. So on a day trip to the city, after I had enjoyed a “Banks Bun” in a nearby tea shop, suspiciously similar to an iced spiced bun, I went over to the Cathedral to see the plaque my nephew had spotted. Missing from the plaque is any reference to his role as a Commissioner of Longitude and this is, perhaps, rather unsurprising given everything else he achieved in his life time. Further to this, the entry on Banks in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography tells us ‘He was one of the founders of the Linnean Society, assisted in the founding of the Royal Institution, and took an active interest in the affairs of the Board of Longitude.’ The Board of Longitude is also entirely absent from Banks's Wikipedia entry. This kind of understatement regarding Bank’s role in the Board in historical work is most likely the reason for its absence from the plaque in Lincoln Cathedral. The history of science has always been plagued by the problem of heroes and great men; shining brightly out of the past, they blinding us to the local, ordinary, and unspectacular activity of ordinary men of science. Banks was of course, a hero even in his own lifetime, after returning from his voyage to the south-seas with Captain James Cook, in 1771, he was publically celebrated and awarded a degree from Oxford, which he had failed to obtain whilst he was there. Yet, when it comes to remembering and memorialising men like Banks, not only do we seem to forget others around him who contributed to his work, for example Daniel Solander who was the other naturalist on Cook’s first voyage, but we also forget whole aspects of their careers, like Banks role as a Commissioner of Longitude. Banks automatically became a Commissioner of Longitude after his election as the President of the Royal Society in 1778. Many of the ambitions Banks worked towards during the rest of his career in the administration and encouragement of science were facilitated by his position on the Board and the influence it allowed him to have, particularly with regard to the continuing colonisation of New South Wales.
So I recommend a trip to Lincoln to see the Banksian sights and eat a bun. Not only is there the Cathedral plaque and a chance to look down on the Nave from ‘Banks’s view’, a supposed favourite spot for the man himself, but there is also The Sir Joseph Banks Conservatory tropical hot-house, which claims the world’s largest Koi, named “Fish-Zilla.” But don’t forget, that in all these memorials we only see one shade of the man they commemorate; it’s the job of projects like ours to remind you that there is often more to the people memorialised on plaques than what is written on them.