Christopher Palmer


John Palmer, shipwright, and his wife Sarah of Portsmouth had two sons, John and Christopher, plus five daughters.  Both sons came to Australia on the First Fleet.   Much has been researched and written about John, but very little has been documented about Christopher.


Christopher Palmer was born on 27 July 1767 and baptised on 27 September 1767 at St Thomas Church, Portsmouth.


On 1 May 1787 Christopher boarded the HMS Sirius for the voyage of the First Fleet to Australia, He was a civilian servant to Andrew Miller, the Commissary of Stores for the colony.  Like all other First Fleeters he arrived in Port Jackson on 26 January 1788.  Soon after he arrived in Port Jackson Christopher left his employment with Miller and on 30 January was taken on the Sirius as an Able Seaman. On 10 June he was appointed as Clerk on the Supply, by ‘preferment’ i.e. someone with influence had helped him obtain the appointment.


After the sinking of the Sirius at Norfolk Island in 1790 the Supply was the only ship available to support the colonies at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island.  The Supply made ten trips between the two settlements and between April and September 1790 made a trip to Batavia to procure food and stores.  On 26 September 1791 the Supply left Port Jackson and reached Portsmouth on 21 April 1792 before proceeding to Deptford, arriving on 8 May 1792, where the crew, including Christopher, was laid off.


On 27 Dec 1792 Christopher joined the HMS Royal William, a guard ship, as an Able Seaman, later becoming the Ship’s Clerk.  In March 1793 he transferred to the HMS Queen, a three deck 90 gun second rate ship of the line, as Clerk.


With Arthur Phillip’s resignation from the governorship of New South Wales in July 1793, John Hunter applied for the position in October and in January, 1794, he was appointed Governor. 


HMS Reliance was commissioned to replace the Sirius and to take Hunter to Port Jackson.  He sought the appointment of Henry Waterhouse with the rank of Commander to captain the ship and with power to act in his absence.  Waterhouse was duly appointed and took charge of the Reliance in July 1794.  Earlier, on 23 April, 1794, Christopher had transferred to the Reliance as Purser, a position which he held until the Reliance returned to England in August 1800.  At the time of Christopher’s appointment, the ship was under the command of Captain Nathanial Portlock.  Waterhouse took up his appointment on the Reliance in July, 1794.  Hunter, Waterhouse and Palmer had all been on the Sirius for the voyage of the First Fleet, Hunter as Captain, Waterhouse as a midshipman and Christopher as a servant. 


Departing England in February 1795 the Reliance arrived in Port Jackson on 7 September, 1795.  Among her crew and passengers were Matthew Flinders, midshipman, George Bass ship’s doctor, John Hunter, the Governor and Aboriginal Bennelong.


A year after her arrival at Port Jackson the Reliance went to the Cape of Good Hope to buy stock for the colony.   As Purser, Christopher would have been responsible for all negotiations and purchases on behalf of the ship and the colony.  Waterhouse and Lieutenant William Kent bought twenty-six Spanish merinos after Commissary John Palmer, Christopher’s brother, had refused them.  John Palmer was returning to England on the Britannia.  The Reliance and the Britannia had sailed from Port Jackson to the Cape together.  These were the first merino sheep imported into the colony, and Waterhouse supplied lambs to many of the settlers including John Macarthur and Samuel Marsden.


The Reliance also made a number of voyages between Norfolk Island and Port Jackson and carried out charting work in New Zealand.


In February 1800 Christopher Palmer assigned the rents that he was receiving from a farm at Northern Boundary, near present day Kings School, to Catherine Rourke, a 27 year old convict who had arrived aboard the Sugar Cane in 1793.  The farm had been mortgaged to Christopher by Daniel Spencer for 35 pounds and had been forfeited.


Also in February 1800 the Reliance was deemed unfit for service in the colony and on 26 February, departed Port Jackson for England, sailing via Cape Horn.  The ship called into Rio de Janeiro and while there ‘Christopher was taken so ill that his life was despaired of, so that he was not able to attend to his duty, and after his return to England in the Reliance he was, the greatest part of his time, confined to his bed’.  The Reliance arrived in England on 26 August, 1800, having taken over six years from 23 April, 1793, when she left England until her return. Christopher had been the Purser for the entire voyage.


Now back in England Christopher was appointed Purser on the Pandow, a RN Transport Board ship, on 18 June, 1801, and then on 8 July, 1803, he was transferred to HMS Lowestoft, a new ship under construction.


Obtaining leave from the Admiralty due to ill health, on 6 December, 1803, Christopher departed Spithead, England, for Port Jackson on the ship, Experiment, arriving on 24 June, 1804.


On 1 January, 1806, he was granted 100 acres of land in the district of Mulgrove Place (Upper Half Moon Reach, Hawkesbury River).  The annual rental was 2/- after five years.


In 1809 he suffered a paralytic stroke that affected one side of his body and caused him to lose the use of all of his limbs, confining him to his bed for the last twelve years of his life.  During this time he was lovingly cared for by his brother, John.


It would appear that in May 1810 he transferred land at Evan, Castlereagh, to his brother John.


In December 1819 John Palmer received a letter dated 1 December from the Commissioner for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy in NSW.  It contained a copy of a letter addressed to ‘Christopher Palmer late Purser of His Majesty’s Ship Reliance’,  calling on him for the payment of a debt due from him to the Crown.  It would seem that if there was a shortfall in the accounts for a ship then the purser was personally responsible for the debt.  Apparently Christopher incurred the debt when he was purser on the Reliance.  Nineteen years after he left the ship the Admiralty was pursuing him for the payment of the debt.  Christopher’s explanation to John, contained in John’s reply is both interesting and revealing:


I feel it necessary to mention that I have done everything in my power to learn from my brother what could be the cause of his being so indebted, and all I can obtain is, that in the first instance he was obliged to take charge as Purser from the remains which Captain Portlock handed over to him without a Survey being taken and which upon his faith he received being assured by him and Mr Shenard then acting as Clerk and Steward, that everything was correct.


‘That on my brother’s arrival in Rio de Janeiro he was taken so ill that his life was despaired of, so that he was not able to attend to his duty, and after his return to England in the Reliance he was, the greatest part of his time, confined to his Bed, so that his concerns was entirely left to  the care of Mr Shenard, who was Clerk of the Ship, and who promised my brother after his arrival in England he would make up the accounts for him, and led him to believe he would have a considerable balance bill and he expected would have been the case from what Mr Shenard had asserted, as he Mr Shenard had the general overlooking and making out the Provision accounts.”


Accompanying John’s reply to the Commissioners for Victualling were letters of support from Mr J Harris former Surgeon of the 102nd and a Magistrate and from the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane.  Christopher died before this matter could be resolved.


The death notice in the Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser on 7 April 1821 read:

‘Died.  – On Tuesday morning last, at Parramatta, after a long and painful illness, Mr Christopher Palmer, brother to John Palmer Esq.’


Christopher is buried in the Palmer/Campbell family plot at St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta.



Sources and References


John Palmer – First Fleeter, Ian Andrew Palmer, 10 Jan 2013

Where First Fleeters Lie, Rod Best, Joyce Cowell, 1989

Founders of Australia, A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet, Michael Flynn, Yvonne Browning, Mollie Gillen, Library of Australian History, 1989.

The Founders of the Nation, Chart, July 2011, Fellowship of First Fleeters.

Wikipedia, online, HM Ships Supply, Royal William, Queen, Reliance, Pandour, Lowestoft.

NSW State Records – Colonial Secretaries Papers, (1821 -  1822), Debt owing to Admiralty by Christopher Palmer – Reel 6018, 4/3521 pp 305-311.

Ozships, online

Wikipedia, online, Henry Waterhouse, John Hunter, Location of Evan

NSW Register of Births, Deaths & Marriages, V1821 5035 2B/1821  &  V1821 1273  148/1821

National Library of Australia - Trove – Sydney Gazette & NSW Advertiser, 7 April 1821,  Death Notices

Australian Dictionary of Biography  - Henry Waterhouse – http//


Compiled and submitted by Don Cornford, 14.05.14.   Email:



Copyright Fellowship of First Fleeters