"April, 1802. -- On Thursday evening, after a well-spent life of 77 years, died Stewart Banks. No information is given as to his personal history, but very warm praise of his life and conduct. He had been Sovereign of Belfast in 1755."
The above is the scanty information which Benn, in his History of Belfast (1823), gives regarding one whose name was closely associated with many important events in Belfast life, during the second half of the eighteenth century. His father, Thomas Banks, was a member of a well-known Hampshire family, and had settled in Belfast early in the century. Elected a Free Burgess, 8th December, 1711, he was appointed Constable of the Castle, 24th October, 1723, and was elected Sovereign of Belfast for the year ended Michaelmas, 1729. He was married to Elizabeth Montgomery, by whom he had, in addition to Stewart, a daughter, Catherine, who was married to William Macartney, second son of Isaac and M.P. for Belfast 1747-1760.
Thomas Banks died in 1746, and Stewart was elected a Free Burgess in place of his father, 28th May, 1746, and, eight years later, was appointed Sovereign for the year ended Michaelmas, 1755.
One of the provisions of the Charter, 1613, was :--
"Moreover wee grant that the Sovereigne of the Burrough aforesaid for the time being for ever shall be Clark of the Markett within the Burrough aforesaid and Libties of the same and, from time to time, they may have full power and authority to doe and follow all and singular in the office of the Clark of the Markett belonging to or pertaining... "
At an Assembly held on 24th June, 1755,
"The Soveraigne and Burgesses agreed that no Furriner be made free of this Corporation so as to injure the Customs and Dues of the Soveraigne and greater part of the Burgesses."
But before his year of office had expired, Stewart Banks acquainted the Lord of the Castle "of his removing hence to England on his own private affairs", and George Macartney, the eldest son of Isaac, was appointed in his place. He was not, however, allowed to retire without recognition of his "extraordinary care of the Markets" and the Body of Linen Weavers presented him with a Silver Bowl which is still preserved and treasured as a family relic.
On five subsequent occasions, Stewart Banks occupied the Sovereign's Chair, having been elected for the years ended Michaelmas 1758, 1762, 1766, 1771, and 1778. It was during his year of office as Sovereign, 1771, that he laid the Foundation Stone of the Old Poorhouse, with the following inscription, engraven on copper :--
"This foundation stone of a Poorhouse and Infirmary, for the benefit of the Poor and Sick of the Town and Parish of Belfast, was laid on the 1st day of August, A.D., M.DCC.LXXI, and in the 11th. year of the reign of His Majesty, George III. The Right Honourable Arthur, Earl of Donegall, and the principal inhabitants of Belfast, founded this Charity, and his Lordship granted to it, in perpetuity, eight acres of land, on part of which this building is erected."
As a Volunteer, Stewart Banks played a conspicuous and honourable part. On the day of his second election as Sovereign, he was presented with a sword and scarlet silk belt, on which was wrought :--
"The Compliment of the Young Volunteer Company of Belfast
to Stewart Banks, Esq., their Captain, --
September 29th, 1757."
Several years later, when Thurot entered the Bay of Carrickfergus, 21st February, 1760, and demanded from the Sovereign of Belfast, Stephen Haven, "30 hogsheads of wine; 40 of brandy; 60 barrels of beer; 6,000 lbs. of bread; and 60 bullocks", Stewart Banks appeared at the head of the Young Volunteer Company in defence of the town. Fortunately, the premeditated attack on Belfast miscarried and Thurot departed without carrying out his intended assault.
A more serious event happened during the American War, after France had thrown in her lot with the revolted Colonies. The Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant informed Stewart Banks, as Sovereign, in a letter dated 14th August, 1778, that in view of a possible attack on the northern coasts by a French squadron of Privateers,
"His Excellency can at present send no further military force to Belfast than a troop or two of Horse, or part of a Company of invalids, and his Excellency desires you will acquaint me, by express, whether a troop or two of Horse may be properly accommodated in Belfast, so long as it may be proper to continue them in that town, in addition to the two troops now there."
A few days later, a "proper force" was sent to defend the northern coast, and his Excellency "very much approved of the spirit of the Inhabitants of Belfast who have formed themselves into Companies for the defence of the town."
The French Fleet was again threatening the coast of Ireland in 1781, and at that critical time the following Address was sent to the Lord Lieutenant, Earl of Carlisle :--
"We, the Officers and Privates of the Belfast Battalion of Volunteers, think ourselves called upon by the present general alarm occasioned by the enemy's hovering on our coasts, to testify our loyalty and zeal; and, therefore, we beg leave to assure your Excellency that, in case of invasion, we are firmly determined. to act in such a manner as shall appear to he most conducive to the general protection and safety of this Kingdom.
Signed, by desire of the Battalion.
11th September, 1781."
But the days of the Volunteers were numbered and the Rt. Hon. Secretary, R Hobart, sent, in a letter dated 11th March, 1793, to the Sovereign of Belfast, a Proclamation stating, "if any body shall again assemble in arms in Belfast, the Magistrate will exert himself to prevent the same." Within four years, however, the Government were only too glad to have their co-operation. The Sovereign of Belfast, John Brown of Peter's Hill, summoned a meeting for 31st December, 1796, to consider the propriety of arming themselves "in the present alarming situation of the country, when the fleet of the enemy is upon the coast." As a result of that meeting, the Belfast Yeomanry was formed, with Charles Ranken as Captain of the Cavalry; and R Wallace, as Captain of the Infantry, which formation was sanctioned and approved of by the Lord Lieutenant.
After the Battle of Ballynahinch, the Yeoman Cavalry issued the following Declaration, dated 18th June, 1798 :--
"At this most awful period, when a most savage and unnatural rebellion has broken out in some parts of this kingdom, the Belfast Troop of Yeoman Cavalry think a general declaration of loyalty and fidelity to his Majesty and the constitution absolutely necessary.
"Resolved therefore -- That every member of the troop and all persons who may hereafter be admitted, shall subscribe the following Declaration :--
"We, whose names are hereunto subscribed, in the presence of God, do solemnly declare our utter abhorrence and detestation of all foreign interference in the affairs of this kingdom, of the atrocious insurrection now existing, and of all secret cabals and private conspiracies to subvert or new-model the constitution, without the joint consent of King, Lords and Commons in parliament; and that we will use our utmost endeavours to defeat the designs of all seditious and disaffected persons, whether existing under the denomination of United Irishmen, or other traitorous association.
Among the fifty signatures attached thereto were :--
|W. RAINEY, CAPTAIN||R BRADSHAW|
|THE EARL OF BELFAST||GEORGE LANGTRY|
|C. SKEFFINGTON||CUNNINGHAM GREG|
|ARTHUR CHICHESTER||VALENTINE JOYCE|
|JAMES BRISTOW||GEORGE LANGTRY|
|JOHN S FERGUSON||JOHN HOLMES|
|J GALT SMITH||JAMES DOUGLAS|
|NICHOLAS GRIMSHAW||EDWARD MAY|
Stewart Banks was not a member of the Belfast Yeomanry, having passed the Psalmist's allotted span at the date of its formation, but he was a signatory to the following Declaration, issued a few days later :--
"We, the subscribers, Inhabitants of the town and suburbs of Belfast, who are not enrolled in any military corps, having seen the Declaration of the Belfast Troop of Yeoman Cavalry, do hereby approve of the same."
He was also one of the signatories to a series of Resolutions, passed by the Magistrates of the County of Antrim, held at Antrim, on Saturday, 12th November, 1796, one of which was as follows :--
"Resolved -- That as men and magistrates, we will use our best exertions to stop the progress of sedition, outrage, and assassination, in whatever form they may appear, and preserve the peace and tranquillity of the county; and should efforts for that purpose be unsuccessful, we will not shrink from the duty, however we may lament the necessity, of taking the steps prescribed by the law, to decIare the county in a disturbed state."
Although Stewart Banks died in April, 1802, his successor, as a Burgess, was not elected until June, 1806, as the following entry in the Corporate Records shows :--
"This is to give Notice that there will be an Assembly of the Sovereign and Burgesses of the Borough of Belfast on Tuesday, the 24th day of June, next, to elect a Burgess in the Room and Stead of Stewart Banks Esq. deceased.
June 16, 1806"