Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, Thomas Fyshe

PALMER, THOMAS FYSHE (1747–1802), unitarian minister, was born at Jekwell, in the parish of Northill, Bedfordshire, in July 1747. His mother belonged to the Palmer family of Nazeing Park, Essex [see under Palmer, George and John Horsley]. His father, who was therepresentative of the family of Fyshe of Essex, assumed the additional name of Palmer. Having received his elementary education under the Rev. Mr. Gunning at Ely, Palmer was sent to Eton, and thence to Cambridge, entering Queens' College in 1765, with the purpose of taking orders in the church of England. He graduated B.A. in 1769, M.A. in 1772, and B.D. in 1781. He obtained a fellowship of Queens' College in 1781, and officiated for a year as curate of Leatherhead, Surrey. While at Leatherhead he was introduced to Dr. Johnson, and dined with him in London; on which occasion they discussed, according to Boswell, the inadequate remuneration of the poorer clergy. About this time the writings of Dr. Priestley of Birmingham, advocating progressive unitarianism, so powerfully influenced Palmer that he decided to abandon the creed in which he had been reared, and to renounce the brilliant prospects of church preferment that were open to him. A unitarian society had been founded by William Christie, merchant, at Montrose, and Palmer offered his services as a preacher (14 July 1783). In November 1783 Palmer reached Montrose, and remained as Christie's colleague till May 1785. At that date he removed to Dundee to become pastor of a new unitarian society there, and he founded the unitarian church still in existence in that city. At the same time he preached frequently in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Arbroath, and Forfar, and formed unitarian societies in all these places. In 1789 he took temporary charge of the society at Newcastle. In 1792 his sermons in Edinburgh attracted the attention of literary circles, and several pamphlets were published in refutation of his doctrines.

When the agitation for political reform began in 1792, Dundee became one of its chief centres in Scotland. A society called the ‘Friends of Liberty’ was formed in 1793, and met in the Berean meeting-house in the Methodist Close, beside the house where Palmer lived in the Overgait. The society was composed mainly of operatives. One evening in June 1793 Palmer was induced to attend a meeting, when George Mealmaker, weaver in Dundee, brought up the draft of an address to the public which he purposed circulating as a handbill. Mealmaker's grammar was defective, and Palmer revised it, modifying some strong expressions. When it left his hands it was no more than a complaint against the government for the extravagant war taxation in which the country had been involved, and a claim for universal suffrage and short parliaments. The address was sent to be printed in Edinburgh in July 1793. The authorities were foolishly alarmed, and interpreted the dissemination of this and similar documents as the beginning of a new reign of terror. They determined to meet the anticipated revolution in time, and, in the belief that they were attacking a revolutionary leader, Palmer was arrested in Edinburgh on 2 Aug. on a charge of sedition as the author of the document. At the preliminary legal inquiry he refused to answer the questions put to him, pleading his ignorance of Scots law. He was confined in Edinburgh gaol, but afterwards liberated on bail. An indictment was served upon him directing him to appear at the circuit court, Perth, on 12 Sept. to answer to the charge of treason. The presiding judges were Lord Eskgrove (Rae) and Alexander, lord Abercromby; the prosecutor was Mr. Burnett, advocate-depute, assisted by Allan Maconochie, afterwards Lord Meadowbank [q. v.]; and Palmer was defended by John Clerk, afterwards Lord Eldin [q. v.], and Mr. Haggart. A number of preliminary objections to the indictment were offered, one of these being founded on the spelling of his name ‘Fische’ instead of ‘Fyshe,’ but these were all rejected. One of the first witnesses was George Mealmaker, who admitted that he was the author of the address, and stated that Palmer was opposed to its publication. Other officials of the ‘Friends of Liberty’ corroborated, and the evidence proved nothing relevant to the charge beyond the fact that Palmer had ordered one thousand copies to be printed, but had given no instructions as to distribution. Both the judges summed up adversely, and, when the jury found the accused guilty, he was sentenced to seven years' transportation. The conviction of Palmer, following so close upon that of Thomas Muir [q. v.], raised a storm of indignation among the whig party throughout the kingdom; and during February and March 1794 repeated attempts were made by the Earl of Lauderdale and Earl Stanhope in the House of Lords, and by Fox and Sheridan in the House of Commons, to obtain the reversal of the sentence. But the government, under Pitt, was too strong for the opposition, and these efforts were unavailing. Palmer was detained in Perth Tolbooth for three months, and was thence taken to London and placed on the hulk Stanislaus at Woolwich, where he was put in irons and forced to labour for three months with convicted felons. On 11 Feb. 1794 he, Skirving, and Muir were sent on board the Surprise with a gang of convicts to Botany Bay. Their embarkation took place at this date in order to forestall the debate on their case in the House of Commons, though the vessel did not leave Britain till the end of April. The sufferings they endured on the passage, and the indignities put upon them, were fully detailed in the ‘Narrative’ which Palmer wrote after landing. The vessel arrived at Port Jackson, New South Wales, on 25 Oct., and as Palmer and his companions had letters of introduction to the governor, they were well treated, and had contiguous houses assigned to them. In two letters (now in the possession of the Rev. H. Williamson, unitarian minister, Dundee), dated June 1795 and August 1797, Palmer speaks enthusiastically of the climate and natural advantages of the infant colony, which had been founded in 1788. ‘I have no scruple,’ he writes, ‘in saying it is the finest country I ever saw. An honest and active governor might soon make it a region of plenty. In spite of all possible rapacity and robbery (on the part of the officials), I am clear that it will thrive against every obstacle.’ Besides cultivating the land, the exiled reformers constructed a small vessel, and traded to Norfolk Island, establishing a dangerous but lucrative business. At the close of 1799 Palmer and his friend James Ellis—who had followed him from Dundee as a colonist—combined with others to purchase a vessel in which they might return home, as Palmer's sentence expired in September 1800. They intended to trade on the homeward way, and provisioned the vessel for six months; but their hopes of securing cargo in New Zealand were disappointed, and they were detained off that coast for twenty-six weeks. Thence they sailed to Tongatabu, where a native war prevented them from landing. They steered their course for the Fiji Islands, where they were well received; but while making for Goraa, one of the group, their vessel struck on a reef. Having refitted their ship, they started for Macao, then almost the only Chinese port open to foreign traffic. Adverse storms drove them about the Pacific until their provisions were exhausted, and they were compelled to put in to Guguan, one of the Ladrone Islands, then under Spanish rule, though they knew that Spain and Britain were at war. The Spanish governor treated them as prisoners of war. At length Palmer was attacked with dysentery, a disease that had originated with him when confined in the hulks, and, as he had no medicines with him, his enfeebled constitution succumbed. He died on 2 June 1802, and was buried by the seashore. Two years afterwards an American captain touched at the Isle of Guguan, and, having ascertained where Palmer had been buried, he caused the body to be exhumed and conveyed on board his vessel, with the governor's permission. The remains were taken to Boston, Massachusetts, and reinterred in the cemetery there. Of Palmer's immediate relatives three is no survivor, the last of them being his nephew, Charles Fyshe Palmer, who was member for Reading from 1818 to 1834, when he retired. A monument was erected in the Calton burying-ground, Edinburgh, in 1844 to commemorate Palmer, Muir, and their fellow-martyrs in the cause of reform. Palmer's publications were few and fragmentary, being mostly magazine articles and pamphlets. To the ‘Theological Repository’ he contributed regularly in 1789–90, under the signature ‘Anglo-Scotus.’ In 1792 he published a controversial pamphlet entitled ‘An Attempt to refute a Sermon by H. D. Inglis on the Godhead of Jesus Christ, and to restore the long-lost Truth of the First Commandment.’ His ‘Narrative of the Sufferings of T. F. Palmer and W. Skirving’ was published in 1797. Several of his letters have been published in the biographies of leading contemporary unitarians.

[Millar's Martyrs of Reform; Monthly Repository, vi. 135; Belsham's Memoir of Theophilus Lindsey, p. 352; Turner's Lives of Eminent Unitarians, ii. 214; Heaton's Australian Dict. of Dates, 1879, p. 160; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Birkbeck Hill, i. 467, iv. 125 n.; Annual Reg. 1793, p. 40; Scots Mag. 1793, pp. 565, 617; Christian Reformer, iv. 338; Monthly Mag. xvii. 83; Trial of Palmer, ed. Skirving, 1793; local information.]

A. H. M.