William John Bankes, born on 11 December 1786 was the second son of Henry II Bankes and his wife Frances.
William set off in 1812 on a Grand Tour. Initially he spent time in Spain and Portugal but then travelled on to Alexandria. Egypt captured his imagination and he started to plan a longer trip south, up the Nile. He wrote to his father that he would be travelling “en grand seigneur… I have a noble barge with a cabin” and he engaged a gentleman called Giovanni Finati as his guide. Finati greatly assisted William during his time in Egypt and they became close friends on their travels, with the two collaborating on a narrative of their journey that was published in 1830.
William embarked on his first journey up the Nile in September 1815, and travelled through Middle and Upper Egypt, passing the first cataract on the Nile and reaching Nubia. It inspired in William an interest in Egyptian architecture and hieroglyphics: he realised that a breakthrough in understanding this ancient language was a possibility.
After that initial trip, he travelled through eastern Europe but yearned to explore Egypt further. He returned in 1818 where he met Henry Salt, the British Consul General. From October 1818 to the early summer of 1819, William made his second, longer Egyptian expedition leading Henry Salt’s flotilla in a 14-oared Nile boat, otherwise known as a Canja. Salt described William as:
‘a most delightful companion, from his extraordinary powers of memory, and the opportunities he has had for observation’.