Henry Spencer Palmer

An interesting cove, Henry Spencer Palmer.

I first encountered him earlier today when flicking through a reprint of Murray’s nineteenth century travel guide to Egypt. Murrays were basically the Lonely Planet guidebooks of their day, and like Bradshaw’s railway guides, they told the Victorian traveler what to see and how to get there.

In fact Murray’s will tell you when something is not worth visiting, or that the journey is not worth the effort, and in one case except if one is a young man in good health with a knowledge of Arabic.

They also provide sensible advice on visiting the ruins, and not using oil lamps or rag torches for the risk of damaging the engravings and wall paintings.

They are also quite important for the early history of Egyptology in Britain, as when Marianne Brocklehurst and Amelia Edwards went up the Nile in 1873 they basically followed a Murray’s guide.

What I hadn’t realised until a day or so ago until I heard Meira Gold speak on the LadyScience podcast about her research on nineteenth century Egyptology, was just how crucial Brocklehurst’s and Edwards’s trip was for the founding of British Egyptology.

At the time of their trip, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities was basically under the control of the French, who had a strong preference for granting excavation permits to French expeditions. The consequence was that what study of Egyptology that there was in Britain was carried out on objects in public and private collections, and that there was a large informal network of correspondents who would write to each other.

This of course had nothing at all to do with HS Palmer, except that this quotation from him made its way into Murray’s guide when discussing travel in Sinai:

Clearly from that little bit of text he was a character, as well as Victorian over achiever, first of all working for the Royal Engineers in British Columbia, where he met his first wife Mary Jane Pearson who was 15 years old at the time of their marriage. Palmer would have been 24 or 25 when he married Mary Jane.

Palmer went on to work for the Ordnance Survey in the UK, which of course was a military mapping agency, and carried out mapping work around the world, including Sinai,

as well as leading an expedition to New Zealand as part of the Royal Society’s expeditions to observe the 1874 transit of Venus.

One of the other people to take part in the expedition was Leonard Darwin, and he mentions Palmer in a letter to his mother, describing the journey out on the Merope.

The expedition was unsuccessful due to bad weather, but while in New Zealand, Palmer provided advice on the establishment of an official survey body.

After that Palmer was off again to Hong Kong and Japan, where he became an adviser to the reforming Meiji government, and was responsible for the Yokohama waterworks.

All this was too much for Mary Jane, and they separated, with Mary Jane returning to Canada where she lived on to 1934. Some time later, in 1890, Palmer married a Japanese woman Uto Saito, before dying of typhoid in 1893 at the age of 54.

Palmer’s writings, including his collected letters from Japan show him to be a witty and distinctly unstuffy writer as well as shrewd observer of life.

Most definitely a cove, and perhaps one who should be better known …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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