Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, Henry Spencer

PALMER, HENRY SPENCER (1838–1893), major-general royal engineers, youngest son of Colonel John Freke Palmer of the East India Company's service, by his wife Jane, daughter of John James, esq., of Truro, Cornwall, and sister of Lieutenant-general Sir Henry James [q. v.] royal engineers, was born at Bangalore, Madras presidency, on 30 April 1838. He was educated at private schools at Bath, and by private tutors at Woolwich and Plumstead, and in January 1856 obtained admission to the practical class of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, at a public competition; he secured the seventh place among forty successful candidates, of whom he was the youngest. He was gazetted a lieutenant in the royal engineers on 20 Dec., and went to Chatham to go through the usual course of professional instruction. From Chatham he went to the southern district at the end of 1857, and was quartered at Portsmouth and in the Isle of Wight.

In October 1858 Palmer was appointed to the expedition to British Columbia under Colonel Richard Clement Moody [q. v.] The expedition was originated by Lord Lytton, then secretary of state for the colonies, and consisted of six officers and 150 picked artificers, surveyors, &c., from the royal engineers, with the double object of acting as a military force to preserve order and to carry out engineering works and surveys for the improvement of the newly created colony. During Palmer's service with the expedition he was actively engaged in making surveys and explorations, among them a reconnaissance survey of the famous Cariboo gold region in 1862, accomplished under great difficulties. In that year he and his party were only saved by his coolness and address, and his knowledge of the Indian character, from massacre by the Bella Coola Indians at North Bentinck arm. The reports and maps prepared by him in connection with these surveys were published from time to time in the parliamentary and colonial blue-books. Palmer also had a share in superintending the construction of roads, bridges, and other public works in the colony, among them the wagon road through the formidable cañon of the Fraser river, between Lytton and Yale.

Palmer returned to England at the end of December 1863, and joined the ordnance survey. He went first to Southampton and then to Tunbridge, Kent, from which place, as headquarters, he conducted the survey of the greater part of Kent and East Sussex, and parts of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. He was promoted second captain on 4 March 1866.

In the autumn of 1867 he was appointed one of the assistant commissioners in the parliamentary boundaries commission, under Mr. Disraeli's reform act, having for his legal colleague Joseph Kay [q. v.] Their district embraced the parliamentary boroughs in Kent and East Sussex, and the subdivision of West Kent and East Surrey for county representation. At this time he was engaged with his friend, Pierce Butler, of Ulcombe Rectory, Kent, in setting on foot a project of a survey of the Sinaitic Peninsula, which was ultimately brought to a successful issue. He went to Sinai in October 1868, and returned to England in May 1869, when he resumed his survey work at Tunbridge. Palmer contributed to the handsome volumes (published by the authority of the treasury) which were the fruits of the expedition, some two-fifths of the descriptive matter, together with the computation of the astronomical and other work of the survey; the drawing of several of the maps and plans and the part editing of the whole work also fell to his share. After his return home he often lectured on the subject. Palmer was promoted major on 11 Dec. 1873. In this year he was recommended to the astronomer-royal by Admiral G. H. Richards, then hydrographer to the admiralty, for a chief astronomership in one of the expeditions to observe the transit of Venus. He was nominated chief of the New Zealand party, and went through a course of practical preparation at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, during which he gained the full confidence of Sir George Airy. He left England in June 1874, accompanied by Lieutenant (now major) L. Darwin, R.E., and Lieutenant Crawford, R.N., as his assistants. For his exertions and achievement in the work of observation of the transit he was highly praised by the astronomer-royal in his ‘Report to the Board of Visitors,’ 1875.

Before leaving New Zealand, Palmer, at the request of the governor, the Marquis of Normanby, undertook an investigation of the provincial surveys throughout the colony, with the view of advising as to the best means of placing the whole system on an intelligent and scientific basis. He spent three or four months on this work, and embodied his recommendations in a blue-book report. He received the thanks of the government, and his report was adopted as a guide for future reforms. He rendered assistance to the French in determining the longitude of Campbell Island, for which he received the medal of the Institute of France. Palmer returned to England in June 1875.

Resuming military duty, he went to Barbados in November 1875. He was appointed aide-de-camp to the governor, Sir John Pope-Hennessy [q. v.] and remained in this post through the riots of 1876, and until the governor's departure from the colony. In January 1878 he went to Hongkong, where, in addition to his ordinary duties, he was appointed engineer of the admiralty works, and was again given the post of aide-de-camp to the governor. On 1 July 1881 he was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel. In this year he designed a physical observatory for Hongkong, to comprehend astronomical, magnetical, meteorological, and tidal observations. The design and report were approved by the Kew committee of the Royal Society. Though the scheme was somewhat reduced for economical reasons, the observatory was built in conformity with the design, and competent authorities regard it as a standard guide for observatories of that class. Palmer declined in 1882 to take charge of another expedition to observe the transit of Venus, but he made in that year an exact determination of the Hongkong observatory station at Mount Elgin, Kowloon, with instruments lent to him from the United States surveying ship Palos.

On 1 Oct. 1882 Palmer was promoted regimental lieutenant-colonel, and was ordered home. On his way he stayed at the British Legation in Tokio, Japan, and was requested, at the instance of Sir Harry Parkes [q. v.] by the Japanese government to prepare a project for waterworks for Yokohama. He completed two alternative schemes of water-supply, one from Tamagawa, and the other from Sagamigawa.

On Palmer's arrival in England in July 1883, he was appointed commanding royal engineer of the Manchester district. In the autumn of 1884 the Japanese government applied to the British government for Palmer's services to superintend the construction of waterworks in accordance with his design. Permission was given, and Palmer reached Japan in April 1885, and the works were at once started. On 1 July 1885 Palmer was promoted brevet colonel, and on 1 Oct. 1887 he retired on a pension, with the honorary rank of major-general. The same date saw the successful completion of the waterworks, and in November he received from the emperor of Japan the third class of the order of the Rising Sun, in recognition of his services. Subsequently he received the queen's permission to wear the order. He also designed water-supply works for Osaka and Hakodate, and harbour works for the Yokohama Harbour Company, and a water-supply by means of a large irrigation siphon for Misakamura in Hiogo Ken, which was successfully carried out under his direction in 1889. His scheme for a water-supply to Tokio is now being executed. In 1889 he undertook the superintendence of the Yokohama harbour works which he had designed, and was appointed engineer to the Yokohama Docks Company. It was while engaged in designing an extensive system of graving docks and a repairing basin that he died at Tokio on 10 March 1893.

Palmer was a man of clear, vigorous intellect and breadth and liberality of view. He had an extraordinary faculty for rapid calculation, and a rare power of assimilating and marshalling facts. He took a lively interest in Japan, and his graphic letters to the ‘Times,’ written in a genial and sympathetic spirit, did much to familiarise Englishmen with the remarkable people among whom he dwelt. He possessed a keen sense of humour and power of anecdote.

Palmer married, on 7 Oct. 1863, at New Westminster, British Columbia, Mary Jane Pearson, daughter of Archdeacon Wright, by whom he left a large family.

Palmer was a frequent contributor to magazines and periodical literature. He was also the author of the following works: 1. ‘Ordnance Survey of the Peninsula of Sinai, &c., by Wilson and Palmer,’ fol. 1869. 2. ‘The Ordnance Survey of the Kingdom: its objects, mode of execution, history, and present condition;’ reprinted, and slightly altered, from ‘Ocean Highways,’ 8vo, London, 1873. 3. ‘Ancient History from the Monuments: Sinai from the Fourth Egyptian Dynasty to the present day,’ London, 1878, 8vo; new edition, revised throughout by Professor Sayce, 8vo, London, 1892.

[Royal Engineers' Records; War Office Records; private sources; Royal Engineers' Journal, May 1893, obituary notice.]

R. H. V.