Some famous people have lived and worked in Bath. Many more not-so-famous people have also lived here. And some families have stayed for generations: their names crop up frequently across time – Oliver, Peirce, Falconer, Cotterell – though maybe not much outside the city. But in the case of John Palmer, his name recurs several times in connection with Bath, but none of them are related. There are at least six, all in different professions, from the 14th century to the 21st century. Palmer isn’t a particularly unusual name – 15th most common in Somerset in 1881 – but it does seem strange that so many John Palmers were associated with Bath and made an impression on the city that has survived through history .
1. John Palmer (fl.1377-1394). Our first candidate is probably the most obscure of the John Palmers on offer. He stood as MP for Bath in the November Parliament of 1384 and the February Parliament of 1388. A lawyer by profession, he worked in the local courts in Somerset and those at Westminster itself, making him well-placed to act as MP at a time when the post was often unpaid, and the city Council, Mayor and Aldermen held most of the power in Bath. He qualified to sit as MP by owning land in Bath, but his principal residence was in Butleigh, and he owned land at Kilmersdon as well. He represented Wells once, but spent most of his Commons career representing Bridgwater.
2. John Palmer (c.1738-1817). Our second candidate is probably slightly more familiar to those of you who know some of the history of the architecture of Bath. The son of a glazier, he was in partnership with architect Thomas Jelly by 1765, and was one of the Commissioners for the Improvement Act of 1789. He benefitted from the downfall of Thomas Baldwin in 1792, taking over as City Surveyor and completing many of the projects then underway, as well as his own private contracts. This included the additions to the General Hospital [Royal Mineral Water Hospital], Green Park, Norfolk Crescent, St James’s Square and the Theatre Royal (which was designed by George Dance the Younger). He was responsible for completing the refurbishment of the Grand Pump Room, including reducing the costs of the overhaul, and for renovating the Cross Bath to reposition it with reference to the new Bath Street, facing east. His own projects included St Swithin’s Church in Walcot (with Thomas Jelly) and the double curves of Lansdown Crescent, designed for developer and coachbuilder Charles Spackman, with the associated proprietary chapel of All Saints, unfortunately destroyed during the WWII Bath Blitz.
3. John Palmer (1742-1818). This John Palmer is, perhaps, the most familiar of all our candidates. He was a postal reformer, theatre proprietor, MP, Alderman and Mayor of Bath. But he wasn’t an architect. Some people are very capable entrepreneurs and have a wide range of interests over the years. They have ideas, make them work as a business and bring it to fruition before moving on to the next thing that might interest them – think Richard Branson in a wig (actually, maybe not).
Palmer’s first career was as a theatre proprietor. He took over the running of the theatre in Old Orchard Street from his father, John Palmer (another one). As a move to promote the theatre he was granted a Royal warrant in 1768, making it the first licenced Theatre Royal outside London. He also acquired the Bristol Theatre Royal (licenced in 1778). Many of the acting company, props, stagehands etc. were shared between the two theatres and Palmer developed a speedy coach service between the two to facilitate transfers. It was this principal of fast communication by coach, rather than a slow post-boy or cart that Palmer brought to the attention of William Pitt (then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and about to become Prime Minister). Pitt authorised a trial on the Bristol-London route in 1784 which was so successful that the idea quickly spread and fast post coaches using the growing turnpike network were instituted across the country. Palmer, resigning as proprietor of his theatres, was appointed as Comptroller of the Post Office (second only to the Postmaster General) until 1793. He ran into several jurisdictional and financial arguments relating to this appointment, but he did manage to introduce several modifications within the Post Office.
After his tenure at the Post Office Palmer concentrated more on his civic responsibilities within Bath. He had been elected a Councillor in 1775, and was a Comissioner for the Bath Improvement Act (alongside the ‘other’ John Palmer). He became a turnpike trustee in 1793, and alderman in 1795 and served as Mayor twice, in 1796 and 1809. Between his mayoralties he also served as MP 1801-07. His son, Major General Charles Palmer replaced him as MP.
4. John Palmer (1776-1809). I know very little about this John Palmer, so he intrigues me. The only reference I have found to him is as an author of Gothic novels at the turn of the 19th century. At nineteen he wrote The Haunted Cavern followed shortly by The Mystery of the Black Tower. His third, and last, book was The Mystic Sepulchre in 1807. He was a schoolmaster in Bath and lived in Chapel Court at the Cross Bath with his wife. They both died in 1809 at young ages, so we will never know whether this John Palmer may have become a more familiar author, such as his contemporaries Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen.
5. John Palmer (c.1950-2015). ‘Goldfinger’ once lived at the lodge at Battlefields on Lansdown outside Bath, and was, at one time, a scrap metal merchant, a bullion-dealer and ran a jewellery chain. Infamous over the last thirty years, he was found dead in his gated home in Essex in June 2015. Initially thought to have died of natural causes, following heart surgery, a later post mortem found he had been shot. Even in death this John Palmer courted controversy.
The ‘Goldfinger’ nickname was coined when he was implicated in the Brinks-MAT gold robbery at Heathrow airport in 1983 after being spotted melting gold ingots in his back garden at Battlefields. Acquitted of this charge in 1987, on-going investigations into his financial affairs highlighted his involvement in a timeshare swindle. The resulting fraud trial in 2001 was one of the longest in English legal history, and he was sentenced to eight years, reportedly conning 20,000 people out of £30 million. The courts failed to seize the profits of this fraud and, after serving four years of his sentence he was declared bankrupt in 2005. But he didn’t change, and was again arrested for various offences, this time in Tenerife, in 2007. Held on remand for two years, Palmer was released on bail in 2009. It is presently unconfirmed whether his sudden death was related in any way with his earlier business dealings.
6. John Palmer (b.1957). Our last Bath-related John Palmer is our only sporting Palmer. Captain of an undefeated Rugby Union Prior Park College XV, this John Palmer went on to play for Bath Rugby and England during the pre-professional era of the sport. His international career was unfortunately shorter than it perhaps should have been due to injuries, but his contribution to the development of the Bath team in the mid-1980s is still remembered.
7. John Palmer (1742-1798). I’ve included this John Palmer on the most tenuous of excuses. An actor predominately known for performing on the London stage, Palmer only infrequently graced the stage of John Palmer IV’s Theatre Royal at Old Orchard Street. ‘Plausible’ Jack Palmer (his nickname helped distinguish him from another actor known as ‘Gentleman’ Jack Palmer of the same era) never had a stellar career. His break came when ‘Gentleman’ Jack fell ill and our Jack stepped into the part. His career grew steadily – faltering at times, such as trying to open a new theatre against the opposition of the of large London theatres around Covent Garden. He is probably most famous for originating the part of Joseph Surface in The School for Scandal, written by another son of Bath, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He died on stage in the fourth act of his last performance. Perhaps not the strongest of Bath connections, but I did like the synchronicity of the actor John Palmer playing a part written by a man who lived in Bath, also having performed in a Bath theatre owned by another John Palmer.
8. ‘John Palmer’ (1738). There is really no excuse for including this John Palmer in the list, other than it seemed to be an appropriate addendum to the rogues gallery of John Palmers. Short-lived, John Palmer was the recorded alias used by Dick Turpin in York when he was arrested for disturbing the peace in York in 1738. Later charged with horse-stealing, he was hanged in April 1739. Ironically, the alias he gave wasn’t even John Palmer. It was John Parmen – after his father, John Turpin, and mother Mary Parmenter.
Obviously, these aren’t all the John Palmers that have lived in Bath – there were three in the 1809 Bath Directory and 14 in the 1841 census (this number reduced over the following census’). These are the ones that I’ve found out about and did something to attract attention, and because I used to get the architect and theatre owner/postman/MP muddled up. Now, I wonder if there are any other famous names out there that aren’t related to each other…
Images copyright Bath in Time-Bath Library (where image refs given), unless stated otherwise