Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, John (1742-1818)

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PALMER, JOHN (1742–1818), projector of mail-coaches, born at Bath in 1742, was the son of John Palmer, a prosperous brewer and tallow-chandler, and a member of an old Bath family. His mother, Jane, was one of the Longs of Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire [see Long, Sir James], and she and her husband are commemorated on a tablet in the chancel of Weston Church, Bath. John Palmer the elder died on 18 April 1788, aged 68, and Jane Palmer on 4 Jan. 1783, also aged 68. Young Palmer was educated at first privately at Colerne, and afterwards at Marlborough grammar school. His father designed him for the church, but, although he preferred the army, he was ultimately placed in the counting-house of the brewery. He kept up his spirits by hunting with a pack of hounds which belonged to a clerical relative; at the end of a year's hard work, however, his career as a brewer was terminated by incipient consumption, and he was compelled to leave Bath.

His father had in 1750 become proprietor of a new theatre in the centre of Bath, and, encouraged by its success, had opened in 1767 another theatre in Orchard Street in a new district of the city, which also proved a profitable speculation. In 1768, having the support of the corporation, he accordingly obtained from parliament (8 Geo. III, cap. 10) an act granting him a practical monopoly of theatrical property in Bath for twenty-one years. The young Palmer acted throughout this business as agent for his father in London, where he made some important friendships, but soon after his return to Bath, with restored health, he took the main control. The elder Palmer withdrew from the affairs of the Bath theatre in 1776, and on 12 April in that year a new patent was granted to 'John Palmer the younger, citizen of Bath,' and his executors, licensing him to establish a theatre at Bath for eight years, from 26 March 1789 (Patent Rolls, 16 Geo. III, pt. iv.) In 1779 Palmer became lessee also of the Bristol theatre, but he confided the management to others (Latimer, Annals of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century, p. 439). By working the two houses together, however, he was able to give excellent entertainments in each city, usually on alternate days. The Bath theatre became famous for the performances of Henderson, King, Abingdon, Elliston, Siddons, &c., whom it introduced to public notice.

In the course of his journeys on business connected with the theatre, Palmer had observed that the state post was the slowest mode of conveyance in the country. The mail took three days between London and Bath, a journey Palmer frequently accomplished in one; and letters of importance were constantly sent by stage-coach, in spite of heavy fees. Palmer was well acquainted with the wealth which had been acquired by Ralph Allen [q. v.], of Prior Park, through the institution of cross-posts, and in 1782 he prepared a plan for the reform of the postal service, the main idea of which was that the mails should be conveyed by stage coaches instead of by postboys on worn-out horses. The coach was to be guarded, to carry no outside passengers, and to travel at a speed of eight or nine miles an hour; and the mails were to leave London at eight in the evening, instead of after midnight, and were not to be detained for government letters. In October the plan was brought under the notice of Pitt, then chancellor of the exchequer, through Mr. Pratt, afterwards Lord Camden, Palmer's friend. One of Palmer's arguments was that the service would be so much improved that an increase of the postage would be justified; and Pitt, anxious to avoid an increased coal-tax, at once took up the question, which was referred to the post office for observations. In August 1783 the post office declared that the plan was impracticable. But on 21 June 1784 Pitt held a conference, at which were present the postmasters-general, Palmer, and the officials who had reported against the scheme, with the result that Pitt directed that the plan should be tried on the London and Bristol road. Palmer assisted at the departure of the first mail-coach from Bristol on 2 Aug. Every obstruction was placed in the way by the local postmasters on the route, but they were at once warned to strictly obey Palmer's orders. On 23 Aug. the treasury suggested that the mail-coach service should be extended to Norwich, Nottingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, By the autumn of 1785 mail-coaches were running, not only to those towns, but also to Leeds, Gloucester, Swansea, Hereford, Milford Haven, Worcester, Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Holyhead, Exeter, Portsmouth, Dover, and other places. A service to Edinburgh was established in 1786. In February 1785 the Bristol merchants and the Bath corporation passed resolutions of thanks to Palmer (Bath Chronicle, 24 Feb. 1785).

The services to places lying off the main roads were for a time thrown into much disorder. But these difficulties were gradually overcome, and the post-office revenue during the quarter ended 5 Jan. 1787 was 73,000l., as compared with 51,000l. in the corresponding quarter of 1784. The number of letters conveyed grew larger in spite of the increase in the rate of postage, the explanation being that the temptation to send correspondence clandestinely at a heavy charge was now removed.

Palmer was not a disinterested reformer, and he pressed for a substantial remuneration. He had been verbally promised through Pitt's secretary, Dr. Pretyman, in case the plan succeeded, two and a half per cent. on the increase of the post-office revenue during his life, with a general control of the office and its expenditure. But delays arose in settling the terms. In March 1786 the postmaster-general endeavoured anew to procure the abandonment of Palmer's scheme. Pitt, however, was satisfied with Palmer's refutation of the allegations made against him, and on 11 Oct. Palmer was appointed comptroller-general of the post office.

In his capacity as comptroller-general Palmer corrected many of the irregularities of the service, but the parliamentary commission of inquiry of 1788 still found numerous gross abuses in the post office. Of Palmer himself, however, they reported that he had exceeded the expectations held forth by him with regard to despatch and expense; the revenue was augmented, and answers were returned to letters with a punctuality never before experienced, at a lower rate per mile than of old. They therefore thought Palmer entitled to the compensation he claimed, viz. his expenses up to 2 Aug. 1784, and two and half per cent, on the total increase of revenue, as compared with an average of the revenue at that time, such allowance to include salary and expenses.

From June to October 1787 Palmer was in France, by direction of the treasury, for the purpose of settling with the intendant-general of the posts there a daily communication with England under improved regulations, as well as a similar plan for other parts of the continent. He did not succeed, and before his return Lord Walsingham, a man as energetic as Palmer himself had become postmaster-general. Palmer's jealousy was aroused as soon as Walsingham gave any instructions affecting the inland post, and the friction between the postmaster and the comptroller quickly became intense (Joyce, History of the Post Office).

A commission of inquiry was held in 1789 to consider Palmer's appeals for payment for his improvements in the postal service, and, after much discussion, the treasury, on 2 July 1789, granted two warrants, one for the payment of arrears, the other a warrant in place of that of 1786, appointing Palmer surveyor and comptroller general. Among further reforms which Palmer now introduced was the establishment of a separate newspaper office; before the postmaster-general knew anything about it, the office was established, a staff of sorters appointed, and their wages fixed. When Walsingham asked for particulars in order that the plan might be properly sanctioned and the appointments confirmed, Palmer refused to comply with the request. Pitt pointed out that Palmer had power to suspend, but not to appoint, post-office servants. To this decision, however, as in other cases, Palmer paid no attention. Thenceforth the breach between Palmer and his official superior widened. In March 1790 Lord Chesterfield was joined with Walsingham in the office of postmaster-general, and Palmer's autocratic policy was more effectually hindered. A quarrel between himself and his friend Charles Bonnor [q. y.], whom he had made deputy-controller, further jeopardised his position. Matters came to a head early in 1792, when the postmasters-general, in consequence of some discrepancies in the accounts, directed that letters for the city for the first delivery should be checked. The merchants in the city met on 15 Feb. and complained of the consequent delay in the receipt of their correspondence. Bonnor, the deputy comptroller, who owed everything to Palmer, published a pamphlet ('Facts relating to the Meeting on the Fifteenth of February at the London Tavern'), in which he alleged that the meeting had been promoted by Palmer to obtain an enlargement of his powers; that Palmer had supplied to the chairman material for the attack, and that the delay complained of was a wilful contrivance of Palmer's. A few days afterwards Palmer suspended Bonnor, and the postmasters-general, failing to extract from Palmer any explanation of this step, suspended him (7 March). On 2 May Pitt suggested that there should be a court of inquiry into the whole controversy. Soon, however, Bonnor gave Walsingham a number of private letters, many of them compromising, which had passed between Palmer and himself during their intimacy. Pitt thereupon agreed that the postmasters-general must take their own course. Palmer was dismissed, but not in express words; a fresh list of the establishment was prepared, and from this list Palmer's name was omitted. A little later Pitt granted Palmer a pension of 3,0001. (from 5 April 1793). Bonnor became comptroller of the inland department, but after two years he was dismissed.

Palmer's plan had brought with it economy as well as safety and speed. Before 1784 the annual allowance for carrying the mails was 4l to 8l. a mile; in 1792 the terms for the conveyance of mails were exemption from tolls and an annual allowance of rather over 3l. a mile. Palmer had estimated the total cost of his plan at 30,000l. a year; the actual cost was slightly over 12,000l. (Joyce, History of the Post Office, p. 290). Before 1784 there had been constant robbery of the mails, involving great expense in prosecutions; from 1784 to 1792 no mail-coach was stopped or robbed. In 1788 no less than 320 towns which had formerly had a post thrice a week had one daily. The speed had been increased from five or six miles to seven miles an hour, in spite of badly made and hilly roads; and the old and unsatisfactory coaches had all been replaced by 1792 by coaches supplied by a patentee named Besant (ib. pp. 282-3). Honours came to Palmer from many quarters. He had been presented with the freedom of Liverpool, York, Hull, Chester, Macclesfield, Edinburgh, Ennis, Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow, Gloucester, Inverness, and other towns; tokens had been struck in his honour, and a silver cup given him by the Glasgow chamber of commerce; this was presented in 1875 to the Bath corporation by his granddaughter (Malet, Annals of the Road', p. 29). Palmer would have held a higher position as a postal reformer if he had aimed at cheapening postage instead of merely so improving the service as to justify increased rates.

Palmer had given up the management of the Bath Theatre in 1785, appointing others to carry on that business, as well as a large spermaceti manufactory in Bath which belonged to him (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vi. 514-15). In 1796, and again in 1809, he was chosen mayor of Bath, and while occupying that position published a circular letter, proposing a general subscription for the public service. He himself gave liberally, and his wife's relatives, the Longs, contributed three thousand guineas (Annual Biography, 1820, p. 72). Palmer was chosen M.P. for Bath in 1801, 1802, 1806, and 1807; but he accepted the Chiltern Hundreds in 1808, when his son, Charles Palmer (1777-1851) (see below), was elected in his place.

From 1794 Palmer pressed his grievances connected with the post office upon the treasury. A committee of the house reported in Palmer's favour in 1799, but his claims to remuneration beyond his pension of 3,000l. were overruled by Pitt's government. After Pitt's death the question was reopened, the agitation being henceforth mainly conducted by the claimant's son Charles. Finally, in 1813, Lord Liverpool's government introduced a bill for the payment to Palmer of 50,000l. from the consolidated fund without any fee or deduction, and without affecting the pension of 3,000l. a year granted in 1798. This bill (53 Geo. Ill, cap. 157), the fourth which had been introduced, was read a third time in the commons on 14 July 1813, and was at once accepted by the lords, who thus brought to a close a struggle which had cost Palmer 13,000l.

Palmer died at Brighton on 16 Aug. 1818. His remains were conveyed to Bath, and laid in the abbey church in the presence of the mayor and corporation; but there is no inscription. Palmer married, on 2 Nov. 1786, Miss Pratt, probably a relative of his friend, Lord Camden (Gent. Mag. 1786, ii. 995); but this must have been a second marriage, for in 1788 he described himself as having six children, and his eldest son was born in 1777. Besides his eldest son, Charles, a son John became a captain in the navy, while a third son, Edmund Palmer, C.B., also in the navy, distinguished himself in 1814 by capturing a French frigate, and married a niece of Lord St. Vincent. This lady had in her possession (1864) a painting of her father-in-law——a man of heroic size——by Gainsborough.

Charles Palmer (1777-1851), the eldest son, born at Weston near Bath on 6 May 1777, was educated at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, and entered the army as cornet in the 10th dragoons in May 1796. He served during the whole of the Peninsular war with his regiment, of which he acted as lieutenant-colonel from May 1810 to November 1814. The prince regent appointed him one of his aides-de-camp on 8 Feb. 1811, and he held the appointment until he was promoted major-general on 27 May 1825. He represented Bath in the whig interest from 1808 to 1826, and again from 1830 to 1837. He was a large vine-grower in the Gironde, and became, upon his father's death, the proprietor of the Bath theatre. He died on 17 April 1851, having married Mary Elizabeth, eldest daughter of John Thomas Atkins of Hunterscombe House, Buckinghamshire. He printed a 'Speech on the State of the Nation on the Third Reading of the Reform Bill,' 1832 (Royal Military Calendar, 1820, iv. 243; Smith, Parliaments of England, 1844, i. 27-28; Gent, Mag. 1851, ii. 92).

[The fullest and best account of Palmer's work at the post office is to be found in Joyce's History of the Post Office, 1893. The subsequent parliamentary struggle is described at length in the Parliamentary Debates, vols. ix. xi. xiv. xx. xxiii. xvi. The Papers relative to the Agreement with Mr. Palmer, 1797, contain the best representation of Palmer's case. The reports of the various select committees which considered Palmer's case were reprinted in 1813 in a parliamentary paper numbered 222; the evidence taken in 1813 is given in paper 260. Murch's Ralph Allen, John Palmer, and the English Post Office, 1880, and Lewins's Her Majesty's Mails, 1865, may also be consulted. For Palmer's connection with Bath, reference should be made to Peach's Historic Houses in Bath, 2nd ser. 1884, pp. 115-19, Rambles about Bath, 1876, pp. 217, 284, and Street Lore of Bath, 1893, p. 140; Penley's Bath Stage, 1892, pp. 24, 25, 33-8, 47-9, 64, 96, 117, 122; Warner's History of Bath. 1801, pp. 214, 836, 364; Earle's Guide to the Knowledge of Bath, 1864, pp. 227-9; Annual Biography, 1820, pp. 66-83; Genest's Account of the English Stage, vols, v. &c.; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vols. v. and vi. The writer of this article has been indebted for information to the Rev. E. H. Hardcostle, and for suggestions to both Mr. Joyce, C.B., and Mr. Peach of Bath.]

G. A. A.