Thomas Fyshe Palmer

Thomas Fyshe Palmer

Thomas Fyshe Palmer, the son of a Bedfordshire landowner, was born in August 1747. After being educated at Eton and Queen's College, Cambridge, he became a curate at Leatherhead in Surrey. Palmer came under the influence of the radical preacher, Joseph Priestley. Palmer became dissatisfied with the doctrines of the Church of England and moved to Montrose in Scotland where he joined a group of Unitarians who had opened a chapel in the town.

For the next few years Thomas Fyshe Palmer toured Scotland making speeches and helping to form Unitarian groups. He played an active role in the campaign in Scotland for religious toleration. Palmer also wrote and published pamphlets on his religious views. As well as Unitarian tracts, Palmer wrote pamphlets advocating parliamentary reform and universal suffrage.

In April 1792, Charles Grey, Richard Sheridan, Major John Cartwright, Lord John Russell,and a few other politicians in favour of parliamentary reform established the Friends of the People. Palmer decided to form a similar organisation called Friends of Liberty in Dundee. Government spies attended these meetings and on 12th September 1793 Palmer was arrested and charged with writing a seditious pamphlet, Dundee Address to the Friends of Liberty. The authorities claimed that Palmer was guilty of "writing or printing seditious or inflammatory writing, calculated to produce a spirit of discontent in the minds of the people against the present happy constitution and government of this country, and to rouse them up to acts of outrage and violence". At the trial, George Mealmaker, a weaver from Dundee, gave evidence that he, and not Palmer, had written this pamphlet criticizing the British government.

At his trial Palmer was accused of supplying William Skirving of Strathruddle with 100 copies of Dundee Address to the Friends of Liberty for distribution in Scotland. It was also claimed that Palmer had been attending meetings of the Friends of the People. The prosecutor called Palmer "the most determined rebel in Scotland" and suggested that if it were not for "societies calling themselves Friends of the People, there would be no war with France, since the French would never have been so mad as to attack the British nation." Palmer was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation.

In February 1793, Palmer and three other men found guilty of writing and publishing pamphlets on parliamentary reform, Thomas Muir, William Skirving and Maurice Margarot , were placed on prison Hulks on the Thames in preparation for their journey to Australia. Radicals in the House of Commons immediately began a campaign to save the men now being described as the Scottish Martyrs. On 24th February, 1793, Richard Sheridan presented a petition to Parliament that described the men's treatment as "illegal, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional". Charles Fox pointed out in the debate that followed that Palmer had done "no more than what had done by William Pitt and the Duke of Richmond" when they had campaigned for parliamentary reform.

Attempts to stop the men being transported failed and on 2nd May 1794, The Surprise left Portsmouth and began its 13,000 mile journey to Botany Bay. While the ship was at sea, a group of convicts, including Joseph Fyshe Palmer and William Skirving, were accused of being involved in a plot to kill the captain and crew. Later, Palmer wrote a pamphlet accusing Margarot of exposing the plot to the captain. However, an investigation carried out by Francis Place, found that there was no evidence to support Palmer's accusations.

As a political prisoner Palmer enjoyed more freedom than other convicts and was allowed to establish a successful business transporting goods to Norfolk Island. Unlike some of the Scottish Martyrs, Palmer appeared to get on well with the military in New South Wales.

Palmer's sentence expired in September 1800 and at the beginning of 1801 he sailed for Britain in a captured Spanish ship. After a bad storm the ship was forced to seek refuge at Guam. The island was under the control of the Spanish and the passengers and crew of the ship were taken into captivity. Held as a prisoner of war, Joseph Fyshe Palmer died of dysentery on 2nd January 1802.

In 1845 Thomas Hume, the Radical MP organised the building of a 90 feet high monument in Waterloo Place, Edinburgh. It contained the following inscription: "To the memory of Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Erected by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in England and Scotland." On the other side of the obelisk, based on the model of Cleopatra's Needle in London, is a quotation from a speech made by Muir on 30th August, 1793: "I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause - it shall ultimately prevail - it shall finally triumph."

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas Fyshe Palmer, speech at his trial on 13th September 1793.

My life has been employed in the dissemination of what I conceived to be religious and moral truths. my friends know with what ardour I have done this, at the sacrifice of all my worldly interests. But during the late great political discussions, it was naturally impossible, in a man of my sanguine disposition to remain an unconcerned bystander.

(2) George Mealmaker, Dundee Address to the Friends of Liberty, a pamphlet that Thomas Fyshe Palmer was accused of writing.

Is not every day adding a new link in our chains? Is not the executive branch seizing new and warrantable powers? Has not the House of Commons (your only security from the evils of tyranny and aristocracy) joined the coalition against you? Is the election of its members either fair, free or frequent? Is not its independence gone, while it is made up of pensions and placemen?

You are plunged into a war, by a wicked ministry and a compliant parliament, who seem careless and unconcerned for your interest, the end and design of which is almost too horrid to relate, the destruction of a people, merely because they will be free. By your commerce is sore cramped and almost ruined. Thousands of your fellow citizens, from being in a state of prosperity, are reduced to a state of poverty and misery.

(3) Patrick Campbell, captain of the Surprise, sent a message to the Commissioners of the Navy on 2nd July, 1794.

There has been a most diabolical scheme laid, and very near attempted to be put into execution, and Messrs Palmer and Skirving apparently the advisors and ringleaders of it. I must say in justice to Mr Muir, say that he does not appear to have had any hand in the plot. Mr Margarot has throughout the whole of this business, and ever since he came on board, behaved in a manner honourable to himself, and not only pleasing but serviceable to us.

(4) Thomas Fyshe Palmer, A Narrative of the Sufferings of T. F. Palmer and W. Skirving (1794)

Margarot had from the beginning been paying his court to Campbell, and from the time of this pretended discovery of the mutiny, unblushingly appeared as his councillor, friend and confidant. Whenever he spoke it was in a confidential whisper. At all times and in all hours they were in deep consultation and Margarot was observed to say to Campbell, with a significant wink, "keep an eye on the old gentleman", meaning me.

(5) Thomas Fyshe Palmer wrote a letter to a friend on the last days of Joseph Gerrald (23rd April, 1796)

Gerrald was at my house the last two months and lay in my rooms. I attended him night and day, and the attention of my friends who live with me was equal to mine. Some few hours before his death, he called me to his bedside, 'I die', said he, 'in the best of causes and, as you witness, without repining'."