Bankes’ early years occurred in a notable period of turmoil in British history: he was born during the interregnum, just three years after the execution of Charles I. But it was also a time of increasing national prosperity, as foreign trade was growing in importance to this country. In the midst of this growing prosperity, however, there were many poor people applying for relief from the parish, and so it fell to the newly prosperous merchant tradesmen to play a large part in the alleviation of this widespread poverty. In fact merchants and tradesmen were responsible for some 70% of charity and charity endowments in the 17th century.
So it was in this context that the hugely successful John Bankes decided to set up a Charitable Trust, to be administered by the Master and Wardens of the Haberdashers’ Company, and part of his benefaction was that certain ‘sums should be annually paid, for putting out apprentices, helping to set up in business, or towards the marriage of the descendants of my relations, in such proportions as my Trustees should think fit.’ Thus as succeeding generations claimed their benefits under this bequest, each had to state the basis of their claim and this meant they had to provide documentary evidence of their parentage etc, to the trustees of the charity and how it linked back to one of the half-siblings of John Banks. This evidence may have taken the form of sworn statements or, after 1837, registration certificates.
These ‘genealogical’ details were meticulously recorded by the Haberdashers' Company because in John Banks’s will, the Master, Wardens and twelve Assistants were appointed as his Trustees (this Trusteeship document has recently been discovered and now hangs in the display room of the Hall). In return for this work he left money to provide the Court with dinner after their half-yearly Trustee meetings and it is this act that is the origin of today’s annual banquet in his honour. The noting of the relationships of the various claimants has today resulted in a large `family tree' of claimants, which stretches back to 1716. The cash benefaction relating to kin was wound up only some years ago, due to the ‘too numerous applications and much dwindling sums.’ In its course it had been in existence for approximately 260 years.
Meanwhile many other charitable payments are included in Banks Trust, making funds available to poor and elderly men and women, inhabitants of parishes such as Battersea, St Benet Paul's Wharf and St Mary Overy in addition to several annuities to specific relatives; all together the bequests totalled £912. The poor people were selected by the Company acting as trustees as being suitable persons to benefit from charity; many of them were of the yeomanry, or widows of freemen.
To provide funds for this Charity, John Banks bequeathed his leasehold estate in St. James’ Parish, Westminster along with property in Clerkenwell to the Master and Wardens of the Haberdashers’ Company and their successors, upon trust, to pay out of the rents and profits and residue of same the sum of £10,000 and interest. This estate originally included 72 houses in Westminster, held by lease under the Crown, and two further freehold houses in Clerkenwell. Banks left instructions that the lease from the Crown was to be renewed upon expiry, but in 1822 the Company were advised by two consultants that the terms of renewal of the lease were `unreasonable' so the lease was not renewed and the 72 houses in Westminster ceased to form part of the charity.
One can only guess at the likely value of these properties to the trust had they still been part of its assets. Amongst the charitable bequests there is an intriguing instruction to make a payment of £2 per annum for a sermon to be preached on each of the ‘half-yearly days’ (ie every six months) at the meeting house/chapel that once adjoined the 2nd Hall; this seems to raise the possibility that John Banks was a non-conformist by religion but it is also recorded that he was buried ‘beside the Bishop of Winchester's Palace in London’ (now the site of the Borough Market), so for this to have been possible it seems unlikely that he was overtly known to be a religious dissenter.