He was born on 17 June 1760 to a shipwright, John Palmer, and his wife, Sarah (née Taylor), and was baptised the following month at St Thomas', Portsmouth. Following a childhood in this naval port, he joined the Royal Navy as a captain's servant, aged nine. His naval career climaxed in September 1781 when Richmond, aboard which he was serving, was captured off Chesapeake Bay during the American War of Independence. On release from being a prisoner-of-war he married, in 1783, an American, Sussanah Stilwell.


John Palmer travelled to the Colony as the purser aboard the flagship Sirius. After Sirius sank at Norfolk Island, he returned to Sydney and was ‘shipless’. As he was available he was temporarily appointed as Commissary General, replacing Andrew Miller who was ill, and who in fact died aboard ship returning to England. This was an influential and responsible position as it controlled not only the Government Stores but the drawing of funds on the Treasury in London.

He had by 1793 clearly determined to settle in the Colony for on 28 May that year he applied for leave to return to England to put his affairs in order before returning to stay permanently. The shortage of administrative officers delayed granting his request until September 1796 when he sailed in Britannia. Together with his wife, his children and his sister, Sophia, he returned to the Colony aboard Porpoise, arriving in November, 1800.


One factor which must have influenced his decision to remain in the Colony was his skill shown in farming — a skill in which he took considerable pride. A grant of 170 acres became Woolloomooloo Farm. (On this land today is First Fleet House.) Within twelve months this grant had been expanded by purchases of some 900 acres at both Toongabbee and the Hawkesbury. During his absence, in particular, he had been assisted by the First Fleet emancipist John Stogdell, his agent. He had so improved the agricultural techniques utilised on his Hawkesbury property by 1803 that he reduced the number of men employed there from 100 to 15.

His entrepreneurial endeavours flowed into other fields, such as sealing, carrying, baking, milling, and boat-owning (including George, John, and Edwin — all presumably named after his sons).


These endeavours and his own inclinations ensured that he was not aligned with the military in the Colony. As early as 1794 he was to have been the official second to Dr William Balmain in a duel with John Macarthur. The duel never took place. On the night of Governor William Bligh's deposition during the Rum Rebellion, Palmer, his brother-in- law, Robert Campbell, and their spouses were dining with the Governor. Through his failure to cooperate with the rebel administration he was eventually sentenced by the rebels to imprisonment.


While reinstated after the arrival of Governor Macquarie it was clear that the authorities in London considered that his actions were as much motivated from maintenance of his own position as from loyalty to the Governor. He was demoted to Assistant Commissary in July, 1811, and finally retired on half-pay in January, 1819. Certainly from 1817, if not earlier, he appears to have not wholeheartedly performed in his Government employ.


He was absent from the Colony in London between 1810 and 1814 giving evidence before various committees, especially relating to the rebel administration. Upon his return his affairs were clearly in a parlous state and remained so until into the 1820s. This necessitated the sale of his Woolloomooloo estate for far less than the amount for which he had mortgaged it, and a concentration, initially, upon his farm Waddon, at Parramatta, of some 30 acres. Also he held land at Hambledon, Bathurst, and on the Limestone Plains at Jerrabombera, near the present Canberra.


In 1822 he was dismissed as a magistrate by Governor Brisbane following a dispute over the affairs of Dr H. G. Douglass and a convict girl of his household, Ann Rumsby. Palmer and other magistrates, including Samuel Marsden, had indicated that they would no longer sit as magistrates with Dr Douglass as a consequence of his behaviour.


During his life he had been closely associated with Samuel Marsden, and appears to have held similar beliefs not only in relation to Christianity but also as to their roles in a new colony. His beliefs are demonstrated in a tangible form as it was said he had sold bread at a discounted price to the needy during the disastrous 1806 Hawkesbury floods. He served on the committee of the Female Orphan Institution from 1803 to 1824.


His wife, Sussanah, died in September, 1832, and he died only 12 months later on 27 September 1833.



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