Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Palmer, Joseph (1841–1930)

by Stephen Salsbury

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Joseph Palmer (1841-1930), stockbroker, was born on 5 January 1841 in London, son of Thomas Palmer, gilt jeweller, and his wife Mary, née Richardson. Joseph was educated by a private tutor and at the day school attached to Scots Church, Regent Square. In 1853 he accompanied his parents to Sydney where his father entered business as an importer of English fancy goods. Palmer started work for the auction house of William Dean & Co. in 1855, but in 1859 left to assist his father. In 1863 he became a clerk in the office of Josiah Mullens, one of only three stockbroking houses in Sydney. On 28 November 1866 he married a Baptist, Annie Maria, daughter of Henry Smith, builder.

From 1871 New South Wales experienced a major mining boom: hundreds of companies were formed and dozens of men entered stockbroking in 1871 and 1872. Palmer began his own stockbroking office on 13 April 1872 and joined the Sydney Stock Exchange, founded the previous year. His business thrived and from 1890 he began taking his sons into partnership. From 1872 he issued a monthly stock and share report which contained stock prices and information about the share market and continued for many decades. He served on the exchange's committee in 1874-94 and in 1912-24, and was chairman in 1889 at the peak of the Broken Hill silver mania. His business judgements were usually sound. In January 1890 he correctly warned the investing public that the price of silver shares was 'simply preposterous'; he also condemned speculation on borrowed money. He blamed much of the crisis of the 1890s on unsound loans by Melbourne banks.

Palmer always had a strong interest in mining. In the 1872 boom he floated gold-mines at Hill End. He traded silver shares on his own account and did a big commission business in such shares between 1888 and 1891, but lost heavily when the market fell rapidly in 1890 and some clients could not pay their accounts. When the troubled Queensland National Bank pressed the failed Sydney Agency and Finance Co. Ltd's shareholders (including Palmer) for uncalled capital, he had no ready cash and used the bankruptcy law to protect his assets. On 27 February 1894 he went bankrupt, but retained his Stock Exchange seat, and on 19 February next year was discharged. His personal bankruptcy did not involve the firm which carried on under his son Joseph Smith Palmer.

After 1910 Palmer became the largest shareholder in Broken Hill's Junction North mine, now producing lead and zinc concentrates. When World War I disrupted base-metal smelting Junction North became unprofitable and there were unsuccessful attempts to unseat the Palmer management.

A deeply committed Baptist and later an elder, Palmer in his youth was a founder of the Juvenile Missionary Society (later New South Wales Bush Missionary Society). As its secretary in the 1870s he combined inspections of investment prospects on the goldfields with efforts to bring the gospel to the diggers. He wrote four books on the Bible from 1899. In The Central Event of Universal History: A Study of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ From the Dead (1918) he attacked the 'amazing stupidities of the German higher criticism of the Old and New Testaments'. Fiercely loyal to the Empire he supported Australian participation in the South African War. He belonged to the Royal Society of New South Wales and on 18 September 1901 delivered an address, 'A White Australia', which he 'totally opposed' for practical and moral reasons.

Personally, Palmer believed in observing the letter of the law and he interpreted agreements literally as he did the Bible. This made him self-righteous, humourless and litigious. He died on 7 May 1930 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. Eight of his twelve children survived him; his grandson Joseph Richardson Palmer took over his Stock Exchange seat. Joseph Palmer & Sons remains a family business and is the second-oldest surviving stockbroking firm in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15, 18 Apr, 15, 18 May 1872, 8 May 1930
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 1 Jan 1883, 13 Jan 1890, 17 Dec 1901
  • Bulletin, 12 Oct 1889, 21 Dec 1901, 5 Oct, 2, 30 Nov 1916
  • Sydney Stock Exchange, company records
  • bankruptcy file 7944 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Stephen Salsbury, 'Palmer, Joseph (1841–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-joseph-7949/text13837, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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