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Palmer, Thomas McLeod (1831–1915)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Thomas McLeod Palmer (1831-1915), pastoralist and dairy farmer, was born on 21 June 1831 in London, son of Frederick Palmer, an officer in the East India Co., and his wife Mary Eliza, née Wood. His father decided to try his luck in Australia and sailed with his wife and ten children in the Barke Madra, arriving in Van Diemen's Land in November 1838. Educated at Launceston Grammar School, Thomas worked for two years with the Launceston merchants, Marriott, Byars & Co. In February 1850 he left for the Californian goldfields and on the voyage learnt navigation and kept the second mate's watch. He had some success on the goldfields and helped to raise the Liberty Pole in San Francisco on 2 July 1850. He was drawn back to Australia by news of the gold discoveries but the return trip was interrupted as the ship was seized for debt at the Sandwich Islands. Palmer occupied his time by running a store and is reputed to have entered into an unsuccessful farming speculation with David Kalakaua, future king of the islands.

On 22 May 1854 Palmer arrived in Sydney and overlanded to the Ovens River district. With a brother he took up Dederang station and for the next ten years had mixed success as a pastoralist. Cattle disease and low prices finally persuaded the brothers to sell. In 1863 Thomas moved to the Western District and bought Grassmere station, where the land was so fertile that he ran fifteen sheep to the acre. In 1872 he bought Tooram on the Hopkins River and began a dairy farm. While owned by Palmer it was one of the greatest dairy farms in Victoria. The 1150 acres (465 ha), divided into paddocks by hawthorn hedges, were covered with rye, grass and clover. In good years the property carried 500 cows and Palmer's annual return was £8000. He also fattened pigs on the whey and the boiled-down meat of the calves, and had a bone-crushing mill.

At the end of 1882 Palmer imported twenty-eight Afghans to work on his farm. This step led to what one local newspaper described as a 'most unhappy misadventure'. He was evidently uneasy from the start about the experiment and carried a loaded revolver all day and slept with it within reach. When on 17 March 1883 a message came that the men were beating one of their number to death in the milking shed, Palmer rushed off with his gun and thoughts of the Indian mutiny in mind. His eyesight was poor and he seems to have lost his head and fired blindly into the milling men. Afterwards he took the greatest care of the wounded but one died. Palmer was tried for manslaughter at the Warrnambool Assize Court before Mr Justice Holroyd and successfully defended by Molesworth and Gaunt. The jury considered he had had sufficient cause to fear for his life and the Western District rejoiced that 'an honoured and worthy citizen had escaped from a deadly peril'. Admittedly Palmer was impulsive but most people agreed that he would never wittingly injure anyone. Palmer got rid of his coolies after his acquittal.

Palmer, a justice of the peace, was on the Warrnambool Shire Council and its president for five years. He was first president of the Warrnambool Club. In 1873 he formed one of the deputation which presented J. G. Francis with Warrnambool's claims for the construction of a breakwater. In 1886 he was embroiled in the town's dispute over the site for the railway station. His stand was seen as an example of his 'pushing enterprise and quick grasp of business essentials'; less complimentary things were also said.

An operation on his eyes in September 1883 was successful but by 1890 failing sight and poor health forced Palmer to retire from active life and sell Tooram. Predeceased in 1888 by his wife Elizabeth, née Miller, he died on 31 July 1915, survived by one daughter and two sons.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • C. E. Sayers, Of Many Things: A History of Warrnambool Shire (Olinda, 1972)
  • Warrnambool Standard, 20 Mar, 5 May 1883
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Dec 1884, 2 Aug 1915
  • Warrnambool Independent, 1 Apr 1886.

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Palmer, Thomas McLeod (1831–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/palmer-thomas-mcleod-4360/text7087, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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