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Sir Arthur Hunter Palmer (1819–1898)

by J. X. Jobson

This article was published:

Arthur Hunter Palmer (1819-1898), by A. Lomer & Co.

Arthur Hunter Palmer (1819-1898), by A. Lomer & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an25066291

Sir Arthur Hunter Palmer (1819-1898), pastoralist and politician, was born on 28 December 1819 in Armagh, Ireland, son of Arthur Palmer, naval lieutenant, and his wife Emily, née Hunter, of Dublin and Downpatrick. Educated at Youghal Grammar School and by a private tutor in Dublin, Palmer sailed in the City of Edinburgh and arrived at Sydney in 1838. In 1839 he worked on a property in the Illawarra district, probably as a jackeroo, and in 1840 became manager of the New England pastoral holdings of Henry Dangar. Increasingly involved in the affairs of the family, Palmer was entrusted with the care of all their properties and affairs while Dangar and his wife visited England in 1852. More than once Palmer mediated in disagreements between Dangar and his children. On his return in 1856 an agreement was drawn up making Palmer general manager of all the Dangar holdings, thereby enabling him to accumulate much capital and stock. Despite his worth to the family they refused him permission to marry Margaret Dangar in 1857. He did not press his claims and continued to manage the Dangar affairs until 1863 when the conditions of the agreement were fulfilled. From the profits Palmer had by then begun his own pastoral endeavours in Queensland.

After failing to obtain suitable land in the Mitchell District, Palmer leased thirteen runs totalling 900 sq. miles (2331km²) near the Belyando River in the South Kennedy District in 1863; he called his station Beaufort. According to C. A. Bernays, Palmer gained his earliest experience in Queensland as a bullock-driver. This seems very unlikely; he did own bullock drays but only for use on his holdings and as a business enterprise. To improve his stock he bought rams at the Darling Downs Sheep Show in July 1864. Over the years he expanded Beaufort and speculated in other land holdings, but with the succession of financial crises, the application of land Acts to large stations and Palmer's troubles as a director of the Queensland National Bank, Beaufort passed from his possession in 1897.

Once established as a successful pastoralist, Palmer began to take an active part in local politics. In 1865 he acted as a magistrate in the Port Curtis District. By then he felt secure enough to contemplate marriage. He sought the hand of Cecilia, daughter of a close associate, Archibald Mosman, for whose wife's marriage settlement in 1847 Palmer had been a trustee. Though he proposed to Cecilia in December 1863 and received parental approval, they were not married until 8 June 1865 in Sydney.

In 1866 Palmer was elected for Port Curtis to the Legislative Assembly and as expected aligned himself with the squatter party. After the Macalister government fell in 1867, Palmer became colonial secretary and secretary for public works under R. R. Mackenzie. In this 'political apprenticeship' Palmer proved his worth as an administrator. The ministry had come to power in difficult times, and Palmer initiated stringent economies in the government departments. Because of his affiliation with the squatter party and his retrenchment policy, he was bitterly criticized by the liberal faction, odium that he was to carry long into the next decade. The Mackenzie ministry fell in November 1868 and Palmer joined the Opposition.

When Charles Lilley's ministry fell in May 1870 Governor Blackall asked Palmer to take the reins of government. This request came as a complete surprise for he had arranged to retire from politics and leave Brisbane. The party he gathered around him was the best-organized and cohesive group that the colony had hitherto seen. Palmer was colonial secretary and premier, holding office until January 1874.

Even though his supporters were well integrated, Palmer cannot be said to have been instrumental in producing much legislation. The colony had no tradition of self-government and little awareness of parliamentary procedure. On the other hand, what members lacked in experience they made up with zeal. Since the party system had not developed any close discipline, regionalism and private interest were rife. During his premiership general elections were held in September 1870, September 1871 and December 1873. The tactics adopted by the Liberal opposition made proceedings difficult for the government; public meetings, petitions to the governor, persistent attacks through the Brisbane press and deliberate absence from the House were among the methods employed by the Opposition. Because of the depressed economy in 1870 Palmer again adopted a retrenchment policy, an action far from popular with city dwellers. In 1871 the most significant issue was railway extension. The Opposition sought the completion of the Brisbane-Ipswich line while the government wanted to extend the railway to north Queensland. Later that year attention turned to electoral reform. However, by August 1872 a working compromise had been reached and important bills were passed. Most significant for Palmer was the Electoral Redistribution Act which divided the colony according to the proportion of adult males and allowed one member for each electorate, although it was probably responsible for shattering Palmer's majority in the next general election. Other successful bills dealt with the Brisbane-Ipswich railway, stimulus to European immigration, and a Homestead Areas Act which provided for the resumption of runs in the Darling Downs and the Moreton District to permit the increase of small-scale settlement on the land, then the most liberal land regulation in Australia. Permission was granted for floating a loan in England for public works and other government projects.

During the parliamentary recess from August 1872 to May 1873 Palmer revealed his growing liberalism by working on a bill for the complete reform of state education. Strangely enough, he was at one with Lilley, his staunchest political opponent, both believing that state education was the only form which government expenditure should support. He collaborated with Lilley in drafting the bill and as a private member introduced it on 3 June 1873. It recommended only one class of schools and one system of primary education, the administration of which was to be directly responsible to parliament under a ministry for education. The principle of free education was vital to Palmer. In this bill he proposed that, after free primary education, the students who passed examinations could proceed to free grammar schools and even to a free university. For Palmer, free education was also to be compulsory; 'he looked upon it as the first duty of the State—particularly in a colony like this, where every male adult possessed such large political privileges—to educate the inhabitants so that they might know how to value and avail themselves of these privileges'. This liberal stance lost Palmer much favour from his own party members, who preferred the church school system with state aid. The Roman Catholics and Anglicans vigorously opposed this system as they stood to lose all financial support from the state and no provision was made in the bill for religious instruction during school hours. It failed at the second reading with most of Palmer's colleagues voting against it and he resigned. The governor dissolved parliament to allow an enlarged House to be elected on the broader basis of the new Electoral Act.

The election resulted in leaving Palmer's party very much in the minority. When parliament assembled on 6 January 1874 Palmer was defeated and became leader of the Opposition. In 1875 Griffith introduced an education bill which Palmer claimed to be a conflation of the two bills he had prepared. He associated more and more with Thomas McIlwraith, who increased control of Palmer's political party. In 1878 he retired as leader of the Opposition in favour of McIlwraith and was elected for North Brisbane; McIlwraith became premier and in January 1879 Palmer was appointed colonial secretary, secretary for public instruction and president of the Executive Council. In 1879 their affairs became further intermeshed by McIlwraith's marriage to Harriette Ann, sister of Palmer's wife. For a time in 1879-80 Palmer acted as premier while McIlwraith was in England negotiating an ambitious loan of £3 million for public works. This close association was to bring Palmer certain misfortunes when, for example, in 1880 Griffith accused Palmer and McIlwraith of owning shares in the shipping firm of McIlwraith, McEacharn & Co. which had been granted the contract to ship steel rails for Queensland railway construction. Both were exonerated from this scandal by a royal commission in 1881. Palmer was appointed K.C.M.G. In December he resigned from the assembly and was called to the Legislative Council. From 2 May to 6 November 1883 and from 9 October 1888 to 1 May 1889 he acted as administrator of the colony in the absence of the governor and from 15 November 1895 to 9 April 1896 was the first lieutenant-governor of the colony.

In 1885 his wife had died, leaving three sons and two of their four daughters. Palmer's last years were not easy. He had poor health and suffered much from arthritis. He was also involved in financial scandals in association with McIlwraith. Perhaps the most dramatic was the result of his directorship of the Queensland National Bank. Through a policy of careless loans and mismanagement E. R. Drury, the general manager, over-extended the resources of the bank and in the financial crises of the early 1890s was forced to suspend payments. The new manager, Walter Vardon Ralston, discovered the extent of the bank's insolvency, but in McIlwraith's absence Palmer had to face the public outcry as one of the old directors. The Supreme Court found Palmer and the other directors not guilty of collusion and they were acquitted of the charges. This decision cleared his name but was issued after he died on 20 March 1898 at his home, Easton Gray, Toowong, Brisbane. He left an estate of £23,900.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Palmer, Early Days in North Queensland (Syd, 1903)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • A. D. Fraser (ed), This Century of Ours (Syd, 1938)
  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper: A History of the National Bank of Australasia Limited (Melb, 1958)
  • D. K. Dignan, Sir Thomas McIlwraith: A Political Portrait (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1951)
  • J. X. Jobson, A Biography of Sir Arthur Hunter Palmer (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1961)
  • Palmer-McIlwraith letter (State Library of Queensland).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. X. Jobson, 'Palmer, Sir Arthur Hunter (1819–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Hunter Palmer (1819-1898), by A. Lomer & Co.

Arthur Hunter Palmer (1819-1898), by A. Lomer & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an25066291

Life Summary [details]


28 December, 1819
Armagh, Ireland


20 March, 1898 (aged 78)
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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