On the morning of Wednesday 14th July 1714, disaster struck at Kingston Hall. The reign of John Bankes III (or the Elder) came to an abrupt end. At just 49 years of age, John Bankes’ death was a sudden and sullen shock.
At around 6am on the morning of the 14th, Bankes rang his bell for his servant, Thomas Sawyer. He required Sawyer to help him out of bed, and then out of his of his nightgown and cap; he then helped him put on his coat and periwig. A quarter of an hour later, Bankes asked Sawyer to fetch down his blunderbuss and pistols which were hung up in crooks (hooks) above a repeating clock by his bedside. Bankes wanted the guns cleaned because they had been charged for a long time. He then reached up to get the guns himself and hand them to Sawyer. However, according to Sawyer’s testimony, the blunderbuss either got caught on the top of the clock or by entanglement in Bankes’s nightgown and, as a consequence, Bankes accidentally shot himself. The inquisition, dated 15th July, states that as Bankes lifted the blunderbuss down:
‘… by some meanes or other it so hung in the topp of the clock or his nightgowne sleefe that it unfortunatly went off and shott him through the head the bulletts gooing in just above his right eare and out through the hinde part of his head of which mortall wound the said John Bankes instantly dyed…’
The inquisition concluded that the official cause of death was that of ‘…misfortune and not by any other means…’.
It is tempting to wonder whether Sawyer’s testimony presented a version of what really happened, to avoid any suspicion of suicide. However, a survey of the family’s finances does not suggest any particular difficulties. Although he had inherited debts from his father, Sir Ralph, John Bankes and his wife Margaret had worked hard to manage and repair the estate’s finances. This is particularly well-evidenced by Margaret’s scrupulous account-keeping. Indeed, her annual tabulations of income and expenditure demonstrate relative monetary stability with only modest debts owed for an estate of the size and prestige of Kingston Lacy.
It is perhaps worth noting the number of payments to apothecaries and doctors – there were 12 in the year preceding John’s death. By modern-day standards this might seem a lot. However, no such payments were recorded in July 1714. It is unfortunate that there is no record of diagnosis or any treatment.
In terms of finances or health, then, it appears that there was nothing notable leading up to the 14th July that would give grounds for suspecting anything other than death by ‘misfortune’ – as concluded by the inquisition. So it seems that this was the sad passing of a man who did much to improve the estate’s stability. The hefty expenditure on funeral and mourning expenses, represented by a figure of £295.10.00, corroborates the depth of the family’s sorrow.