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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Palmer, Thomas (1858–1927)

by M. A. Clements

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Thomas Palmer (1858-1927), educationist, was born on 4 January 1858 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of James Henry Palmer, Irish-born miner, and his Scottish wife Anne, née Harper. Palmer passed the University of Melbourne's matriculation examination at 14. After becoming an apprentice lithographer and draughtsman, he entered the Education Department's Training Institution in 1876 and next year gained, with first-class honours, the trained teachers' certificate. Over the next decade he studied part time at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1882; M.A., 1888; LL.B., 1891). On 14 February 1884, at Williamstown, he married Margaret Douglas Paterson, with Presbyterian forms.

After teaching at Williamstown State School for five years and Carlton College for one, Palmer became foundation proprietor and headmaster of South Melbourne College, which he opened with four pupils in July 1883. A dynamic teacher and shrewd businessman, he recognized the importance of good matriculation results. South Melbourne College quickly came to be regarded as one of Victoria's leading secondary boarding schools and a pioneer of co-education.

In 1889 J. B. O'Hara became co-principal with Palmer; in 1893, in the depths of the depression, Palmer sold his interest to O'Hara. However in 1894 Palmer leased the magnificent new Training College buildings from the Education Department and opened another boarding school, University High School. At a time when leading church-controlled 'public schools' were struggling to survive, it rapidly acquired a reputation for academic excellence and its matriculation results were second only to South Melbourne College. As at that institution, Palmer encouraged girls to prepare for matriculation physics and chemistry.

In September 1897 Palmer accepted an invitation to become headmaster of Wesley College. He promptly dismissed the entire staff, including L. A. Adamson who urged parents to transfer their children to University High School where he became co-principal with Otto Krome. But despite the controversy surrounding his appointment Palmer was extraordinarily successful at Wesley, which gained its best matriculation results for many years and increased enrolments from 74 in 1897 to 250 in 1901. Although he was sometimes depicted as a savage pedant who flogged youngsters unmercifully, school records suggest that the Wesley College committee was delighted with progress under Palmer, who was also remembered by a former pupil as a gifted teacher, greatly respected by his students. He employed Martin Hansen as a specialist teacher of the natural sciences and supplied him with funds which provided the best scientific laboratory in Victorian schools. In 1900 Palmer published Definitions and Formulae in Physics for the Use of Candidates for Matriculation.

An active member of the university senate for many years, Palmer was prominent on committees investigating the need for government registration of teachers, the establishment of teacher-training courses at the university, reform of the matriculation examination, and ways of improving the teaching and examining of natural sciences in secondary schools. Palmer was a radical in religion and politics. He rejected the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity and was a supporter of Dr Charles Strong's Australian Church for which he led discussions on social and industrial questions and lectured at the Collingwood Working Men's Club. He railed against the greed of capitalists and publicly praised socialism, calling for limitation of profits and for large-scale land reform.

In January 1902 the Wesley College committee discovered that Palmer had embezzled more than £1000 from the school's funds. He was dismissed and left, in disgrace, with his family for Cape Town, South Africa, where he became a sub-editor on the Cape Times. About 1904-05 he also edited a weekly, the Owl. He continued to teach privately and, for a time, at a Marist Brothers' college. He later established Palmer's University Classes, and in 1910-26 wrote or edited thirty text-books on English and mathematics. His wife was murdered, allegedly by a female domestic servant, in 1911. In 1925 he spent a year in England with his Norwegian second wife Ragnhild. Thomas Palmer died in Cape Town on 29 March 1927. His wife and four sons of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. J. de Garis, Victories of Failure (Melb, 1925)
  • G. Blainey et al, Wesley College. The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1967)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1901, 3, p 547
  • University High School, Report and Prospectus, 1894-1902
  • Cape Argus, 5, 6 June 1911
  • Cape Times, 30 Mar 1927
  • M. A. Clements, Relationships Between the University of Melbourne and the Secondary Schools of Victoria (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1979)
  • Wesley College, Committee minutes, 1897-1902 (Wesley College Archives)
  • Eggleston papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

M. A. Clements, 'Palmer, Thomas (1858–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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