Reverend John Banister
Colonel John Banister was the grandson of Reverend John Banister (1650-1692), who is believed to have been the original owner of the property later developed as the Battersea estate. Rev. John Banister was a clergyman and noted botanist with an M.A. from Oxford. He was sent by Henry Compton, bishop of London, to perform clerical duties in the New World and was the first member of the Banister family to arrive in Virginia, in 1677. While having limited personal wealth, his scientific studies retained the sponsorship of wealthy and influential individuals such as William Byrd I. Largely through his social and financial contacts, Rev. Banister was able to successfully launch the Banister family into gentry status.
John Banister, II
Colonel Banister’s father, John Banister II, was raised by the Byrds of Westover after his father’s death and became a prominent planter and business associate of William Byrd II. During the 1730s, Banister emerged as a prominent individual in the area as evidenced by his position as magistrate for Prince George County and vestryman for Bristol Parish. In 1733, he accompanied William Byrd II and Major William Mayo on their expedition to lay out the cities of Richmond and Petersburg. Banister was one of the original trustees of Petersburg, which was officially established as a town in 1748. Sometimes he is referred to as Captain John Banister.
Colonel John Banister
Colonel John Banister (1734-1788), was educated in England. In 1753, he was admitted to the Middle Temple in London, where he studied law but was not called to the bar. After his return to Virginia, Banister married Elizabeth Munford in 1755. Following her death, he married Elizabeth “Patsy” Bland in the late 1750s or early 1760s.
After Banister returned to Virginia, he began a long career as a mill owner as well as a career in public service. He created an industrial complex of flour and saw mills on the south bank of the Appomattox River just west of Petersburg known as the Banister Mills. Ideally situated at the falls of the Appomattox River, the mills were quite profitable. They were already operating by the 1770s, because in 1775, Banister converted his saw mill for gunpowder production for the war effort. In the same complex, Banister operated a bakery and a coopering operation. Banister owned many slaves and probably employed craftsmen such as coopers and millers.
As Banister prospered, he gradually assumed greater political roles. After serving as sheriff of Dinwiddie County, he became a justice of the peace for Dinwiddie in 1769. In 1764, he was elected to the vestry at Blandford Church, and in 1771, he was made a warden. Banister served in the House of Burgesses for Dinwiddie County with one brief interruption from 1766 until the Revolution.
In 1768, Banister built a large and fashionable residence at his estate of Battersea just west of the town of Petersburg. At this time, Battersea was still in Dinwiddie County. The name “Battersea” may have been derived from an estate in England by the same name which introduced and sold many plants and vegetables to Virginia. This would have been fitting considering the horticultural interests of Rev. John Banister, the first owner. Battersea was considered the “most handsome” house in the Petersburg area prior to the Revolution. In addition to Battersea, Banister owned Hatcher’s Run, which he had inherited from his father and which was located in Dinwiddie County a few miles southwest of Petersburg. Banister also owned a plantation in Prince George County called Whitehall, several lots in Petersburg, and land in Kentucky. Following the death of his second wife, Elizabeth Bland Banister, John married Ann “Nancy” Blair of Williamsburg in February 1779. They had two sons, Theodorick and John Monroe.
Despite significant financial losses during the Revolution, Banister managed to emerge afterwards as one of Petersburg’s wealthiest citizens and continued to hold public office. In 1782, the General Assembly elected Banister to the Council of State, but he attended only a few meetings before resigning in early November. In 1784, he served as the first Mayor of Petersburg under its new charter. When Petersburg was incorporated as a town in 1784, the western boundary was extended just far enough into Dinwiddie County to include the house at Battersea, apparently allowing its resident to participate in local elections. According to Russell Perkinson, owner of Battersea from 1947 until 1970, Battersea “was included within the enlarged limits of the town in order that John Banister, builder and owner of Battersea, might be made Mayor of Petersburg.” The part of the Battersea estate west of the city line remained part of Dinwiddie County. During this period, a massive two-level portico was built on the front of the house, covering most of the center block.
On September 30, 1788, Banister died of an unknown illness at Hatcher’s Run, where he was buried. Banister was survived by six children at the time of his death, including a son named John, who was the eldest, and John Monroe, from his last marriage. His wife, Ann, left Petersburg at this time, and the elder John did not act on the purchase option on Battersea provided in his father’s will. The estate was not completely settled until 1828 when John F. May, then owner of the house, cleared up the last details with John Monroe and Theodorick.