Shanks, James (1854–1912), farmer, agrarian activist, and self-taught naturalist and historian, was born 4 November 1854 on Ballyfounder farm, two miles south of Portaferry on the Ards peninsula, Co. Down. A presbyterian, after attending Portaferry no. 2 national school until age 18, he worked his home farm for the rest of his life. He had a number of interests, and became versed in the archaeology, botany, genealogy, geology, and history of the Little or Upper Ards. He built up a comprehensive collection of grapholites from the fossil beds at Tara Point and Tieveshilly, and of artifacts, such as worked flints and coins, also from the vicinity of his farm. In time objects were brought to him by others. An enthusiastic fieldworker, he was a member of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, and corresponded with experts in the areas of his interest. Honorary secretary of the Portaferry Band of Hope (a temperance society) from its inception (1876), he regularly displayed specimens of wild flowers at its annual flower show and at others in the district. He frequently gave talks to local groups, and published notes and articles in journals and newspapers, such as ‘Historical sketch of Portaferry Church’ (UJA, xiii (1899)).
Immersed in the life of his community, as an active campaigner for land reform he was chairperson at the first official meeting of the Portaferry Tenant Farmers’ Defence Association (January 1881). A member of Downpatrick board of guardians, in 1882 he spoke strongly in favour of an elected membership. He was secretary of the dispensary committee from 1882 until its dissolution in 1900. His personal book collection dealt mainly with history. He was particularly interested in the United Irishmen, and at his death was working on a sketch of William Steel Dickson (qv). Shanks married (c.1880) Susan McGimpsey (1859–1917), a teacher in Kearney national school, near Portaferry. Shanks suffered from ill health. Eight months after giving his last public address in Portaferry, he died 2 November 1912. He is interred in the presbyterian burying ground, Ballymanish, Deerpark Rd., Portaferry. A short biography by his friend and fellow fieldworker, Rev. James C. Rutherford of Portaferry (An Ards farmer . . . an account of the life of James Shanks . . . (1913)), includes a half-length frontispiece photographic portrait, a partial bibliography, partial specimen lists, and illustrations of artifacts from Ballyfounder. Shanks's specimens were sent to the NMI, and some of his papers are in the PRONI. He wrote poetry, some of which is in private hands; The Journal of the Upper Ards Historical Society, xx (1996) published a selection with biographical notes. His twin granddaughters continued to farm at Ballyfounder at the close of the twentieth century.