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Palmer, Thomas Fyshe (1747–1802)

by John Earnshaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Thomas Fyshe Palmer (1747-1802), Unitarian minister and political reformer, was born in July 1747 at Ickwell, Bedfordshire, England, the son of Henry Fyshe of an ancient family who assumed the added name of Palmer by reason of an inheritance, and Elizabeth, daughter of James Ingram of Barnet. After receiving his early education under Rev. Henry Gunning of Ely, he spent five years at Eton and in 1765 entered Queen's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1769; M.A., 1772; B.D., 1781). He was ordained in 1771. At Cambridge seeds of doubt had been sown by his teachers and in 1783, after being curate at Leatherhead in Surrey for a short time, he became dissatisfied with certain doctrines of the Church of England, embraced Unitarianism, and for the next ten years preached that faith to Scottish congregations in Dundee and other Scottish towns. He displayed considerable Biblical learning by publishing in The Theological Repository a series of tracts under the pseudonym Anglo-Scotus, and became acquainted with the celebrated Dr Joseph Priestley and his radical Birmingham circle. He was equally distinguished in his zeal for political reform, and became closely identified with a Dundee group, 'The Friends of Liberty', who were fervently advocating this cause. When George Mealmaker, a Dundee weaver, wrote an 'Address to the People' on the subject of parliamentary reform, Palmer arranged for its printing and distribution. For this he was tried at Perth on 12 September 1793 on a charge of seditious practices, convicted, and sentenced to seven years transportation.

He sailed for New South Wales in April 1794 in the transport Surprize, which also carried his fellow Scottish Martyrs, Thomas Muir, William Skirving and Maurice Margarot. When in the tropics, Captain Campbell, master of the Surprize, acting on ill-founded charges of incitement to mutiny, confined Palmer and Skirving under conditions of extreme hardship, which were the subject of complaints laid before Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose on their arrival at Sydney on 25 October. A narrative describing his sufferings was taken back to England by Surgeon John White and published in 1797.

During his seven years of exile in Sydney Palmer was free from the usual convict restraint and engaged in various enterprises to supplement his private means. Apart from a farm which proved unproductive, he entered into a partnership with John Boston and James Ellis, two young free settlers who had also come in the Surprize; the latter was a son of a Dundee staymaker who had been Palmer's companion and protégé for several years and had given evidence at the trial. This partnership, known as Boston & Co., was one of the pioneer trading concerns in the colony. Their major undertaking was in shipbuilding. By August 1797, with the aid of an encyclopedia brought by Palmer from England, they built a small craft for the Norfolk Island trade. After this craft was lost at sea, a second vessel, the Martha, 30 tons, was built, and taken as far afield as Norfolk Island and the sealing grounds of Bass Strait. Little is known of these voyages, some of which were made without Governor John Hunter's consent, but there is some evidence that they had reached as far as King Island before the end of 1798. Palmer was a close friend of Surgeon George Bass, the explorer, who left his well chosen library of books in Palmer's care when he sailed for England in 1799; the two men exchanged information on the maritime exploration of south-east Australia, a subject of much comment in Palmer's letters to friends in England. Several of these letters were published anonymously as broadsheets by Rev. John Disney; one of them, severely criticizing Hunter's administration and lack of initiative in exploration, reached the Duke of Portland who called on Hunter for an explanation. Hunter replied in his dispatch of 15 November 1799 and, while he did not openly name Palmer as the author of these charges, clearly indicated the friction then existing between the administration and Palmer and his associates.

When his sentence expired Palmer, Boston and Ellis bought the decrepit Spanish prize El Plumier and, with William Reid, a former seaman of the Sirius, as captain, sailed from Sydney for England in January 1801. After many troubles due to the need for repairs and a shortage of provisions, the ship, almost sinking, reached the Spanish island of Guam next January where it was condemned as unseaworthy. Enfeebled by the hardships of the voyage, Palmer died there on 2 June 1802; he left his papers and effects to Ellis, who was then in Manila, but these were lost.

Some years later news reached England that because of Palmer's religious beliefs the Catholic friars had refused him a Christian burial and his body was interred on the seashore 'among pirates'. It lay there until May 1804, when the American ship Mary called at the island on a voyage from Sydney to Manila, and her master, Captain Balch, knowing something of Palmer's history, obtained permission from the Spanish governor to remove his remains. They were taken to Boston and a tablet was placed over his tomb in one of the churches of that city, though no trace of it can be found. A memorial to the Scottish Martyrs was later erected on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, and there his name is inscribed.

Palmer was probably the most cultured of those who came to New South Wales in the early years of settlement. Humane in sentiment and advanced in political opinion, he gained the friendship of the more liberal minded surgeons, White and Bass; but his radical views on politics and religion were looked at with suspicion in a penal colony and aroused the animosity of certain officers who accused him of being a 'leveller', and of Governor Hunter who described him as 'the dark and infamous assassin' because of criticism of his regime. Although he probably never left the immediate vicinity of the settlements he showed the keenest interest in the natural history of the country, the discoveries made on adjoining coasts and of the future prospects of the colony for which he held high hopes. His descriptions of the Aboriginals, with whom he lived for a short time, show a tender understanding of their mode of life, habits, and unspoilt gaiety, while he is equally vehement in his protestations at the outrages inflicted on them by the soldiery. He is to be remembered as one who cheerfully suffered exile for opinions now commonplace, and as a pioneer in trade, manufacture and shipbuilding in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-3
  • Trial of the Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer (Edinb, 1793)
  • G. Thompson, Slavery and Famine, Punishment for Sedition (Lond, 1794)
  • T. Belsham, Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey (Lond, 1812)
  • H. Paton (ed), A Series of Original Portraits and Caricature Etchings by ... J. Kay
  • ... with Biographical Sketches and Illustrative Anecdotes, vols 1-2 (Edinb, 1838)
  • H. Cockburn, An Examination of the Trials for Sedition Which Have Hitherto Occurred in Scotland (Edinb, 1888)
  • E. Im Thurn and L. C. Warton (eds), The Journal of William Lockerby (Lond, 1925)
  • Monthly Magazine (London), Feb 1804
  • Monthly Repository, 1817
  • L. Baker-Short, ‘Thomas Fyshe Palmer: from Eton to Botany Bay’, Transactions, Unitarian Historical Society, 13 (1964)
  • Lindsey-Millar correspondence (microfilm, State Library of New South Wales)
  • W. Haswell, Remarks on a Voyage to Marianna Islands (microfilm, State Library of New South Wales)
  • Thomas Fyshe Palmer papers (Manchester College, Oxford
  • copy held by State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Earnshaw, 'Palmer, Thomas Fyshe (1747–1802)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-thomas-fyshe-2535/text3441, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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