PALMER, John (1742-1818), of 25 The Circus, Bath, Som.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1 June 1801 - Jan. 11808

Family and Education

b. 1742, s. and h. of John Palmer, brewer, tallow-chandler and theatre proprietor, of Southgate Street, Bath by w. Jane née Long of Bath.1 educ. Rev. Needham’s acad. Colerne, Wilts.; Marlborough g.s. to 1756. m. (1) ?, 4s. 2da.; (2) 2 Nov. 1786 Sarah, née Pratt (d. 2 Jan. 1807), s.p. suc. fa. 1788.

Offices Held

Comptroller-gen. of Post Office Oct. 1786; surveyor and comptroller-gen. of the mails July 1789-Apr. 1793.

Alderman, Bath 1795, mayor 1796, 1809.

Biography

Like his father, Palmer was a man of enterprise, but his ambitions were on a larger scale. ‘His education, though not classical, had been respectable; but his mind made up every scholastic deficiency, by its clearness, vigour, steadiness and solidity.’2 His attempts to elude the consequences of a series of compromises arising out of the conflict between ambition and duty eventually made him a claimant on public time and money for 20 years. His father wished to make a clergyman of him but he preferred the army: the solution of starting in his father’s brewery did not work. He took over the Bath theatre (with a 21-year monopoly which he had helped to secure) from his father in 1776 and leased the Bristol theatre in 1779, but subsequently mortgaged his Bath business interests to a more lucrative speculation, inspired by the success of a former citizen of Bath, Ralph Allen.

Palmer’s basic plan, presented to Pitt in 1782, was for the improvement of the Post Office by the introduction of a network of mail coaches (carrying passengers as well) to link London and the provincial towns. He was encouraged to go ahead with it at his own expense and, when Pitt came to power in 1784, to begin the experiment, despite opposition from vested interests in and outside the Post Office. By verbal agreement he was to receive a fortieth of the profits; this was to have been commuted into a patent office for life of £1,500 p.a., but Pitt having taken up his proposal for a postal tax worth £90,000 a year, a draft Treasury patent of December 1785 awarded him both the office with £1,500 p.a. and the percentage, provided the postal revenue exceeded £240,000 p.a. The patent was objected to by the attorney-general as contrary to statute and Palmer had to be satisfied with a temporary appointment in August 1786, enabling him to recover some expense arrears. After he had extended his plan for mail transport to link with Scotland, France and Ireland, he was recommended for his percentage by the commissioners of inquiry into the Post Office in December 1788. A new appointment was made out in July 1789, entitling him to his salary and percentage arrears, but it did not cover his arrears of expense, or give him permanence. (The year before he had suggested that his becoming secretary would achieve this end.) Pitt’s assurance that the postmasters-general would not interfere with him proved unavailing: impatient of their control, he quarrelled with the two peers and in March 1792 was suspended. His friend (his wife’s kinsman) Lord Camden wrote to Pitt, 15 Feb. 1792, that Palmer’s success had caused him to be ‘so high in his own conceit, as to place him above control and made him too proud to serve in the execution of the business, where he thought he had a right to command’. The betrayal by his deputy, Charles Bonnor, of some private correspondence from Palmer which revealed his cavalier attitude towards the postmasters-general spoilt his chances of reinstatement and ‘a handsome and liberal allowance’ was the best that could be hoped for him. Camden’s son, Lord Bayham, assured Pitt, 18 June 1792, that he was worthy of it; that he wished his dismissal not to be made public until a settlement had been reached, lest it be thought he had been guilty of a more heinous offence; that his fault was not corruption, but ambition and over-confidence in the backing of the Treasury. An imprudent style of life and domestic misfortune completed this tale of woe. In April 1793 he was paid off with a pension of £3,000 p.a., with which he was not satisfied.3

Palmer was urged by Camden and Bayham not to press further claims at the time; but the latter was indebted to him for maintaining his interest (and that of his colleague) at Bath and, knowing Palmer’s ambition to be in Parliament, warned him in April 1793 that if a vacancy then arose for Bath, he would probably be disqualified. On 6 Aug. 1793 he wrote an explosive letter to Bayham, noting that nothing had been done about his claims and he thought the public should know it. He claimed that Pitt might have proved his sincerity to him by making him postmaster-general, for which the opportunity had lately occurred: his not doing so exposed the ‘trash’ of the widely held view that ‘if you can but give proof of ability you may walk upstairs without interruption’. He announced that he would offer for Bath at the next opening and use his Post Office experience to demonstrate ‘that reform is no bugbear’. He added:

I have a right surely, if I can, to represent my native city to wipe away the disgrace so infamously fixed on me and to recover if I can to my family that fortune I have been so dishonestly robbed of—at least I shall endeavour to do it, perfectly careless as to any threatened consequences that may attend it.

It seems that he expected about £5,000 a year. In December 1794 he applied to the Treasury for his percentage arrears for 1793-4 (minus his pension). His claim was at length denied, August 1795. On 6 Jan. 1796 he sent in a remonstrance, threatening to have recourse to Parliament, but it was rejected. He was by then an alderman of Bath, but at the election of 1796 did not disturb the sitting Members. He went instead to Boston, but declined a contest. His Post Office improvements had earned him the freedom of 18 towns. In the ensuing year, he was a ‘liberal and magnificent’ mayor of Bath and a subscriber to the loyalty loan.4

On 16 May 1797 Palmer petitioned Parliament for redress. As he asked for money relating to the public service without crown recommendation, the petition was not received; but a week later a select committee of 22 was appointed to review his Post Office agreement, to which were added the Members for 19 English counties and 19 other Members. On 26 June instructions to the committee to give their opinion on the agreement and on his dismissal were rescinded in favour of a request for the evidence only, at the instigation of the chairman William Dundas, and his report of 13 July was printed. On 27 Apr. 1798 the report was refused committal for the same reason that Palmer’s petition had not been received the year before, and on 7 May his champion, Benjamin Hobhouse, had to admit failure for that session. Palmer was warned by Camden that he could not expect Pitt’s support: Camden believed that he had only himself to blame for his showdown with the postmasters-general and that his acceptance of the £3,000 pension told against him. He suggested to Palmer that his real grievance, as he ‘often lamented’, was that ‘you had no longer a scope for the activity of your mind to work upon’.5 It was not until 17 Apr. 1799 that the House appointed a committee to review the evidence. Their recommendations were reported on 31 May, in favour of Palmer’s agreement being honoured as his plan had been a success, quadrupling Post Office revenue since 1783. Four eminent legal opinions were quoted in his favour. Only his correspondence with Bonnor could be held against him, for the postmasters-general vouched for his integrity. The ensuing debate foreshadowed others, in which Pitt and his friends (supported by the law officers) used the Bonnor letters as evidence of ‘a positive degree of malversation’, questioned his sole credit for the Post Office’s achievements and held out against any further compensation. As far as they were concerned, Palmer’s claims ended with his employment and were satisfied by his pension. The case for Palmer, espoused by Hobhouse and other independent Members and by Whigs like Sheridan and Jekyll, was that he had been dissatisfied with the pension from the start, had been unjustly treated and was legally entitled to the fruits of his original agreement. Pitt carried the day by 112 votes to 28.

Palmer secured his election for Bath on a vacancy in 1801. He was opposed on the grounds that his pension disqualified him, but he had legal assurance on that point. For the next six years nothing was heard of his claims in the House. Nor was he conspicuous there. He voted for the continued prohibition of corn distilling, 14 Dec. 1801, and on 31 Mar. 1802 was in the minority for inquiry into the Prince of Wales’s revenues. The Prince had made his son John his chaplain the year before and ‘warmly espoused’ his cause. In lists of May and September 1804 he was listed ‘Prince’. He had helped raise volunteers the year before and had been satisfied with Addington’s defence measures. He opposed Pitt’s second ministry, joining the minority against the additional force bill, 11 June 1804. He further joined the opposition on war with Spain, 12 Feb. 1805, and on defence questions, 21 Feb., 6 Mar. After voting against Melville on 8 Apr. and 12 June, he was listed an opponent of the ministry in July 1805. He went on to vote for the Grenville ministry’s repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, and was considered a friend by Lord Grenville at the general election.6 On 25 Nov. Lady Spencer wrote from Bath:

Palmer is driving some job at the Treasury about his pension, and it is supposed here that if he can get it from Lord Grenville, that he has entered into some bargain with Lord Castlereagh to vacate his seat here in his favour.

He had already been suspected of collusion with Camden in Castlereagh’s unsuccessful candidature at Bath the month before and Lord Spencer was advised to caution Grenville about him. He approved the conduct of the peace negotiations, so he assured Viscount Howick, 1 Jan. 1807.7 His only known speech in the House was a brief defence of the unsuccessful Bath Common division bill, 16 Mar. 1807.

Palmer had certainly urged the chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Henry Petty, to have his claims reviewed by the House. He had, moreover, petitioned the King on the subject and Petty went so far as to offer a select committee. It did not materialize before the ministry fell, but he at once secured the new chancellor Perceval’s consent to a committee, though not his support. On 27 June 1807 the House authorized the printing of the petition and of the proceedings of the previous committee. The way being now paved for a fresh committee of inquiry, Palmer resigned his seat at the beginning of the next session in favour of his son Charles, who was henceforward his champion in the House. His health was described soon afterwards as ‘such that his life is precarious’.8

The report of the fresh committee (a comprehensive one like that of 1797) was presented to the House on 12 May 1808. It recommended £1,500 p.a. plus a fortieth of the Post Office revenue in excess of £240,000 p.a. since 1793, minus £3,000 (Palmer’s pension), for life. Charles Palmer produced all the evidence he could muster in his father’s favour, but Perceval objected and would have no truck with the percentage which would award £97,000 arrears and £10,000 p.a. in future, a great drain on the public purse. Charles Long and George Rose then and thereafter opposed the claims on Pitt’s behalf. Whig speakers complained that it was being made a party question. An amendment proposed by John Wilson Croker, who objected to the basic £1,500 as the conversion of a salary into a reward, to omit it, was accepted by Charles Palmer and the question was thus carried in favour of his father by 137 votes to 71. On the second reading, 16 May, Henry Bankes led the opposition as self-styled guardian of the public purse, but Turton claimed it was supported by ‘the independence of the House and the sense of the country’. The House voted against adjournment by 137 to 87, and Speaker Abbot, who unlike Addington in 1799 favoured Palmer’s claims, provided procedural advice to enable the House to give Palmer his ‘due’. This consisted of a recommendation of the percentage arrears to the committee of supply, to be incorporated in the Appropriation Act and a bill to secure the future percentage. Bankes failed to thwart the former mode in favour of a separate Act by 63 votes to 21, while the Speaker vindicated Palmer, the gallery having been cleared. Bankes contrived to obtain a committee to scrutinize the percentage arrears, which were reduced from over £68,000 to £54,702 0s. 7d. The House approved the reduction, 13 June, by 93 votes to 73. Perceval, following Bankes’s line, then sabotaged progress. After securing a private admission from the Speaker that he had stated the case for the inclusion of the arrears in the Appropriation Act too strongly9 as far as the precedents went, he moved on 23 June that the arrears should be the subject of a separate bill. This was two days after the Lords had rejected the future arrears bill, the third reading of which in the Commons Perceval had himself moved, without consulting Turton, who was to have moved it. Amid the protests of Charles Palmer and leading members of the opposition, Perceval carried his point by 186 votes to 63. Palmer gave up the substitute arrears bill after its first reading, 25 June.

Charles Palmer was advised by the Speaker, 2 July 1808, that it was ‘impossible’ for him to revive the subject next session, but indulged in false hopes of a ministerial proposal of compromise. There was none, as they derived from his misapprehension that James Graham’s* advice to him to accept a settlement, if offered, had some official basis. On 25 May 1809 he proposed an unprecedented mode to the House: an address to the King to submit the case of Palmer versus the receiver-general of the Post Office to a jury. Perceval and his friends insisted that in the absence of a legal agreement in the first place, Palmer must be non-suited and, unless this could be prevented, even his friends admitted that it would not do. Nevertheless he carried the day by 127 votes to 123. The King lamented ‘that so large a proportion of the House of Commons may be influenced by private solicitation upon a public question’.10 On legal advice, Charles Palmer did not even attempt a legal remedy. The Speaker refused to discuss the matter with him, 28 May 1810, and when he returned to the fray, 21 May 1811, he took up the procedure suggested by Turton and other friends in 1809, which he had then rejected.

This was a motion for an address to the Prince Regent to pay the £4,702 0s. 7d. recommended in 1808, to be made good by the House (the method by which Pitt’s debts had been paid). It was carried by 107 votes to 42. Perceval, rebuked for invoking the authority of the Lords against the claims, had recourse this time to the Regent’s and on 24 May the Prince answered that he would supply the money ‘whenever the means shall have been provided by Parliament’. Apart from highlighting the Regent’s desertion of Palmer’s cause this led to Whitbread’s motion of 30 May complaining of the violation of ‘good understanding’ between crown and Commons, for which the Speaker privately concluded there was some justification. During the debate, Charles Palmer broke down in frustration.11 He reported that, after refusing an overture for compromise last session, he had changed his mind, on being ordered abroad with his regiment, only to find that Perceval disavowed it. The belief that his father’s days were numbered had induced him to revive the question, against his friends’ advice. Whitbread’s motion was defeated by 161 votes to 68; on 1 July Palmer promised to bring in a bill next session as a final solution to the problem and on 18 Feb. 1812 sent Lord Grey a statement of the present state of the claims.

When he did so, 22 June 1812, Perceval was out of the way. His bill proposed £54,000 arrears up to 1808 plus subsequent arrears and a future percentage for life (amounting to less than one per cent). The new chancellor, Vansittart, was no match for the Palmerites and there was no division on the second reading. In the committee of supply the arrears were assessed at £78,344 12s. 9d. since 1793 and the assessment was carried by 48 votes to 11. Next day their inclusion in the bill was carried by 40 to 9, against Vansittart’s opposition. Only Bankes opposed the third reading, 29 June. The Lords accepted the bill by small majorities in the committee stage, but on the third reading threw it out by 104 to 98.

Palmer next offered to submit the matter to arbitration, but government rejected the overture. On his return from Spain, he made what he knew must be his final effort in the House, 20 May 1813, reviving the recommendation of 16 May 1808 for the percentage (minus the pension).12 Vansittart, after consulting his colleagues, insisted on a select committee (the third on the subject) and had his way, 31 May. The ensuing bill was committed on 15 June by 76 votes to 28. On 21 June Stuart Wortley failed by 77 votes to 44 to secure its recommittal to reduce the compensation by over a third, but Palmer had to accept a reduction of the award to £50,000, to secure ministerial approval on the third reading, 14 July 1813. The bill passed as 53 Geo. III c. 157.

Palmer died at Brighton, 16 Aug. 1818. The pursuit of his claims was supposed to have cost him about £13,000. He left £33,600 in three per cents in trust for his children and his theatrical interests to his son Charles.13

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne

Notes

DNB; N. and Q. (ser. 5) vi. 514; Public Characters (1802-3), 543-83; Gent. Mag. (1818), ii. 276-80; Annual Biog. (1820), 66-83; Farington, v. 64; PRO 30/8/232, 233; H. Joyce, Hist. Post Office (1893), 208-80; K. Ellis, The Post Office in the 18th Cent. (1957), 99 seq.

  • 1. Allegedly one of the Longs of Wraxall, Wilts. C. R. Clear in John Palmer Mail Coach Pioneer (1955) says Palmer’s mother was née Figgins of Devizes, married to Palmer senior at Christmas 1737, so Jane Long may have been his second wife.
  • 2. Warner, Literary Recollections, ii. 126.