Henry Spencer Palmer

Photo courtesy of BC Archives
Call Number A-01701

"...Lieutenant Palmer has been the subaltern of the detachment, but upon one or two occasions he has conducted exploring trips through the colony with great credit to himself, and has done good service in fixing points and distances in the upper country."

--His Excellency, Governor Douglas, 1863

Much of the following information comes from Jiro Higuchi's excellent website at

Jiro is a grandson of Henry Spencer Palmer, and we are most grateful for the use of his research.

Right:  Mary Jane Pearson Wright, 1861 (the future Mrs Palmer)


Below: Henry Spencer Palmer

Photo courtesy of BC Archives
Call Number G-03067
Henry Spencer Palmer was born on April 30, 1838, at Bangalore, East India, son of Colonel John Freke Palmer, of Madras Staff Corps, and Jane James, daughter of John James, Esquire of Truro, Cornwall, and sister of Lieutenant General, Sir Henry James, R.E. 

Palmer was the third son, loosing his mother one month after his birth.

Photo courtesy of BC Archives
Call Number A-01702

He was educated at a private school in Bath, where his father lived after retiring from the East India Company's service, and was educated by private tutors at Woolwich and Plumstead.

In January 1856, Palmer successfully competed his studies for admission to the Practical Class of the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich.

Palmer's maternal uncle,
Lieutenant General
Sir Henry James, RE

He gained the 7th place among the 40 successful candidates.  He was the youngest in the class, being just under the prescribed age of 18 (an exception having been made in his case by the authorities).

On graduating from the RMA at the end of 1856, he took second place, owing to his proficiency in mathematics and surveying.

Palmer was gazetted a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers on December 20, 1856, and immediately stationed at Chatham, the headquarters of the Corps of Royal Engineers.

Palmer spent the year of 1857 studying at the School of Military Engineering.  Completing his studies he was posted to the Isle of Wight at a Company Commander.

As a Lieutenant, Palmer's Regimental Pay would have been 125 Pounds per Annum plus a Colonial Allowance of 250 Pounds per Annum.

In September 1858 he received his appointment to join Colonel Moody and Columbia Detachment in the Colony of British Columbia.

The Columbia Detachment of the Royal Engineers consisted of 2 officers, 1 staff Assistant Surgeon, 118 non-commissioned officers and men, 31 women, and 34 children, the whole under the command of Captain H.R. Luard, R.E.  

They sailed from Gravesend, England, on the clipper ship Thames City--commanded by Captain Glover--on Sunday, 10 November, but were wind-bound in the Downs until 10 p.m., Sunday, 17 October.

Lt. Palmer

Photo Courtesy BC Archives
Call Number A-01700

Palmer and Corporal Sinnett, R.E., had planned to publish a weekly journal on the ship during the voyage.  Their senior officer, Captain March, R.E., approved and furnished the necessary materials.  Eventually, Captain Luard, R.E., read the handwritten journal to those on the quarter-deck every Saturday afternoon.  The journal, called The Emigrant Soldiers' Gazette and Cape Horn Chronicle, was published every week, except twice, from No. 1 dated November 6, 1858 to No. 17 dated April 2, 1859.

Palmer occasionally wrote the editorial of the Journal and regularly contributed the articles on the Natural History of the voyage under the name of "Naturalist".

We know, all of us, that of our duties to one another, the chief is at all times, and never more so in our own cases than now, a constant feeling of brotherly love and kindness, a resolution to avoid offence, a desire to please and be pleased, and a readiness to contribute, each in his ability, to the common fund of content and cheerfulness.

As one means towards this desired end, a thoughtful friend on shore, whose name should be held in honour, among us, has provided us with the means of establishing a small Newspaper, to be kept by our own contributions.

Let us set about it with good will and heartiness.

Some little amusement and instruction will be sure to follow.

Any trifling matter recorded now it will be a pleasure to refer to hereafter as a memorial of the peaceful and happy days of our voyage, contrasted with the turmoil and excitement, that await us in the Colony of British Columbia.

In conclusion, we earnestly appeal to all interested in our success to give their hearty support to this interesting publication, and feel sure that provided each does his best the production of the rare talent hitherto lying dormant on board the Thames City cannot fail to ensure a long life and glorious success to the Emigrant Soldiers' Gazette and Cape Horn Chronicle.

--from The Emigrant Soldiers' Gazette
and Cape Horn Chronicle,
Editorial, Issue No. 1, 6 November 1858

Palmer's Natural History of the Voyage was very popular.  In his foreword he writes:

The study of Nature is one which ought to interest the most listless of observers at all times, but if there is one time more calculated than another to inspire man with reflections on the wonders and beauties of the world we live in, and fill his mind with feelings of gratitude towards the Architect of the Universe for his bountiful goodness in arranging all things for the good of his creatures, it is when like ourselves, he is on a long voyage traversing the vast and boundless ocean, where at times nothing is discernible around him but the wide circumference of water and the vast canopy of Heaven apparently meeting the waters at the boundary commonly known as the horizon.

With the exception of the ship beneath our feet, we are entirely surrounded by natural objects.

We have beneath and around us the briny deep calm, and unruffled at one moment, boisterous, foaming, and angry at another, we have over our heads the spacious firmament at times presenting one beautiful rich blue even curtain, and at others displaying the most dismal looking black clouds, forewarning us of the heavy rains, furious winds and tempestuous seas.

Then again we cannot help feeling interested in the animated creatures which constantly present themselves to our view.

Scarcely a day passes without our attention being called to some poor little wandering bird whose appearance is as unexpected as it is mysterious, or to some one of the numerous finny tribes which frequently follow vessels for several hours at a time in the hope of picking up scraps of food for their subsistence, and which in the clear waters of the southern seas are visible many feet below the ship's keel.

Now, though we all of us more or less see and observe these objects, still how few there are who think of enquiring into their nature and habits, and who ask themselves why and wherefore the winds blow, the waves rise, the clouds form, the rain falls, &c.

The object of our paper being to afford us all amusement, instruction, and useful information as will tend to illustrate the nature and habit of such fish and birds as may happen to come across us during the week, and the causes and effects of the various natural phenomena which will constantly present themselves in the course of our voyage, constituting in fact a Journal of the Natural History of the Voyage.

Some of his topics of discussion were:

(1) Trade winds
(2) The phosphorescence or luminosity of the sea medusae
(3) General character of the Ocean, its saltness, temperature, depth, pressure, formation of waves.
(4) Huge whale to the luminous animalculae
(5) Stormy petrel, sea swallow
(6) Majestic albatross, penguins
(7) Bonitos, pilot fish, flying fish, porpoises, and whales
(8) The classifications of animals into species, classes, and orders.
(9) Thunder and lightning, electric fluid.

The object of these articles on the Natural History of the Voyage has been to direct the attention of the student of Nature to the consideration of a few of the many objects of interest more or less directly connected with the sea, and, by describing the causes and effects of those phenomena which from time to time come under our notice, to lead the mind to contemplate the beauty and grandeur of the world in which we live, and to impress us with the infinite power and wisdom displayed in the miracles of nature by the Creator of the Universe.

It is to be hoped that the subject has proved worthy of interest, and that not a few will be found prosecuting their researches in Natural History in the new Colony to which we are bound, and which by all accounts teems with objects for the study of the Naturalist, who will undoubtedly be amply repaid for any exertions which he may deem fit to make towards acquiring a knowledge of Nature, and an acquaintance with God's creatures.

--The Emigrant Soldiers' Gazette and Cape Horn Chronicle,
No. 17, April 2, 1859

Wasn't there a young chap-Lieutenant Palmer, I think his name was.  He was a regular swell.  They said he was the Assistant Editor of the Gazette and I think he must have been, for there were many interesting scientific articles in the paper which I think must have been written by him, for he was a clever fellow.   I have heard it said that he was a wonderful man at figures, could add up pounds, shillings and pence all at once, just run his fingers up the three columns of figures and tell you the total, in a jiffy.

--Pioneer Reminiscences by Wolfenden

The journal was so popular amongst the passengers of the Thames City that, in 1863, the NCOs and the Men got together a subscription and paid Mr. John Robson, editor of the British Columbian, to print up a copies of their handwritten Gazette as souveniers.

After a six month voyage, the Thames City arrived at Esquimalt on the April 12, 1859, and the main body immediately proceeded to New Westminster.

STEAMER Eliza Anderson left yesterday for Queenborough. She took up a detachment of Royal Engineers, twenty  men in charge of Lt. Palmer, with about 50 tons of government stores from the Thames City, - and also about fifty tons merchandise and forty passengers . She is expected here this morning and will leave again today for Queenborough, returning so as to depart on her regular day, on Tuesday morning.

--16th April, 1859
The British Colonist

Palmer was assigned to the Surveying Unit under command of Captain Parsons, R.E., spending most of his time in Surveys and explorations.

As the first Christmas in the Colony neared, the Camp was filled with activity.


We have had a gay time during Christmas here.  Out Lt. Gov. Col. Moody, gave a dinner on Friday last, to which a large party were invited.  On Saturday, many private parties were given in camp, and the Men employed in cutting various trails came into the city; these, joined the Men employed on the wharves, formed themselves into a band, each armed with a candle, and gave a serenade at nearly every home.  A Christmas Carol in a noisy way.  All the inhabitants received them well, with scarcely any exception, and were only too glad to see the bones and sinew of the country enjoying themselves, and received the honor that was done them in the best of spirit, paying all largesse required.  Christmas Day being Sunday, was of course devoted to its proper use, without festivities.  On Monday, the Non-commissioned officers gave a Ball at the theatre, that they have erected by private subscription amongst themselves, which went off very well, to which most of the inhabitants received an invitation, and on Tuesday the festivities were ended by the Officers giving a grand dinner at their Mess-room, to which several ladies received invitations, and every thing passed off pleasantly.

--7th January, 1860
The Weekly British Colonist

Palmer worked under Grant on the Harrison River during the Spring of 1860. While in Temporary Command, Palmer wrote the following letter to Colonel Moody.

RE Camp, Harrison River,


I deeply regret to have to report that Sappers “Elliot”, “Manstree” and “Roe” of this Detachment were accidentally drowned last evening, while attempting to return in a canoe from the mouth of the Harrison River, during a severe storm.

From the evidence of Sapper Brown, the only one of the Canoe’s Crew who was saved, it would appear that after spending an hour or so at Mr. William’s house at Carnarvon, they started on their return in opposition to his (William’s) advice about 6:30 pm, being anxious to get back to camp by dark.

On rounding a point a mile below this camp the canoe became exposed to a heavy sea and swamped, but being in shallow water, they got out – hauled her on the beach and emptied her.

They then tracked her along the shore for 300 or 400 yards and again attempted to cross the river – The violence of the gale however precluded the possibility of steering, and driving before it, she gradually filled and soon upset in deep water.

Brown, who had light boots on, swam to the canoe, and got astride her, and, having kept hold of his paddle, managed to reach the shore, and crawl nearly dead into camp.  Of the other three poor fellows who had Gum boots on, Brown says that One (Sapper Roe) held on to him for a short time but soon sank exhausted – of the other two he saw no more.

Immediately on Sapper Brown’s arrival in camp, I took every means in my power by sending boats and men to the spot, to rescue any that might still be floating or have been thrown on the beach, but I regret to say all my efforts were unsuccessful - The Storm was one of the most terrific I ever witnessed.

Could I possibly have foreseen that men would have been rash enough to venture out in a light canoe in such weather, I would have sent down to stop them if possible, and deeply as I lament the melancholy loss of 3 fine young fellows I cannot but remark on the recklessness of the second attempt to cross the river, when the canoe had already been swamped with them in shallow water.

Brown assures me that the men were all quite sober and kept their presence of mind till the last minute, and I think the loss of at least one, viz: “Manstree”, who was the most powerful swimmer in the Detachment, was owing to his having long boots on, which must have utterly incapacitated him for swimming.

I have not yet succeeded in recovering the bodies, as the wind has been too strong to cause any extensive search to be made: but when it lulls, I trust that the clearness of the water will admit of their being found.

I should remark that the canoe, which was a long, light, frail affair, belonged to Sapper Roe, one of the poor fellows we have lost.

Feeling as I do the responsibility of the charge of so many men, I trust you will allow me to observe that an occurrence of this nature could not possibly have been foreseen.  The weather, when the men went down from this camp, was nearly calm.  The Storm came on without any warning, and as but an hour elapsed between its commencement and the occurrence of the accident there would hardly have been time to stop the men even if I had sent a messenger down immediately. – Again expressing my deep regret that I should have to report the loss of so many men of a Detachment under my temporary command.

I have etc., etc.,

H. Spencer Palmer
Lieutenant Royal Engineers

P.S. Brown I am happy to say is quite recovered this morning.


To Colonel R.C. Moody RE
Etc. Etc. Etc.

Sunday, 18th March, 1860 

Balls appeared to be part of the fabric of the Camp.

"As a birthday "treat" I must try and give you a full line and particular account of the rise, progress and termination of the ball at the Camp.  I told you that we were intending to have a little party.  Dr. Seddall took the entire management and arranged everything.  We now have the whole house to ourselves, so we have plenty of room, the Drawing Room, Library and Dining Room are all down-stairs, the Library is the only one we have furnished and we use it as a Drawing Room.  The Dining Room was the Doctor's,  the Drawing Room was Captain Luard's.  The Doctor fixed to have the Dancing in the empty drawing room, and he had it all decorated for the occasion, the large recess of the bow window was fitted as an orchestra, the windows curtained with Scarlet blankets, relieved with golden Chinese banners.  The Ceiling was festooned with evergreens and faded leaves, the walls decorated with bayonets festooned, lamps and garlands, Scarlet, blue and white bunting plaited in hanging loops all 'round the ceiling, a J.B. over the mantle piece.  You have no idea how nice the room looked, how I wish you could have seen it!  The library drawing room was used as a Tea room, the dining room decorated as a supper room, flags and banners etc.  We mustered 10 ladies all dressed in ball costume, Mrs. Grant in pink beige with flowers, Mrs. Bacon pink Moire Antique, Mrs. Homer in white, Mrs. Spalding in blue Moire, Mrs. Pritchard in black net, Mrs. Moody in black net decorated with pink ribbons.  I apprise you I felt quite respectable, once more!

They all came at 8, soon after dancing began which was kept up till 3 A.M!  Richard allowed me to dance all night and I assure you I thouroughly enjoyed myself.

We sat down 26 to supper, and about 8 were left without seats. I took very little trouble in the party, the Doctor did it all his own way.  He laid the Supper, cut the sandwiches etc. Mr. Sheepshanks cut the bread and butter for tea, and superintended the final arrangements for supper.  Everybody in the Camp helped.  3 of the Men performed the music, the officer's Servants helped to wait, we borrowed the Mess table, tablecloth, Napkins, Candle-sticks, Cups, Plates, etc. glasses and candlesticks from Mrs. Grant.  Tea tray from one of the women.  You have no idea how well it all went off, everybody enjoyed themselves.  Certainly the Doctor deserves great credit for all his trouble.  We thought you would all have enjoyed to have taken a peep at our new mode of "roughing it in the bush".  I really was not very very tired after so much dancing.  I feared I should be as stiff as an old horse the next day, however, tho' I was obliged to get up at 6 the next morning I did not feel too tired.  I had not danced since I married before.  Captain Parsons and the Doctor wanted to persuade me to allow Zeffie and Dick to sit up, however I would not listed to that and packed them all off to bed before I went to dress."

--15th October, 1860
from The Letters of Mary S. Moody

In the summer of 1862, Palmer was ordered to survey of the Cariboo district and at the same time examine and report on the proposed Bentinck Arm Road.

(1) To proceed by the first opportunity to North Bentinck Arm and after laying out a townsite, and Indian reserve and mapping the location of all buildings

(2) To travel as soon as possible along the proposed road to the Junction of Swift River and the Fraser, altering the line as he may think proper

(3) To examine and report on the lines of communication in the Cariboo district and lay out reserves for several townsites

(4) To return to New Westminster by way of the proposed line of the Cariboo Waggon Road and map it and report thereon.

--Colonel Moody, 1862

Palmer and his Sappers' lives were saved at North Bentinck Arm, by his coolness and knowledge of the Indian character.

He also took his share at different times in superintending the construction of roads, bridges, and waggon road through the formidable canyon of the Fraser River, between Lytton and Yale.

The reports and maps prepared by him, in connection with these surveys were published from time to time in the Parliamentary and Colonial Blue Books, etc.

Among them, the four progress reports forwarded personally from Palmer en route to Col. Moody clearly reveal their mutual resentment of interference by outsiders in anything relating to the survey of the Colony.

The relationship between Moody and Governor James Douglas, had deteriorated to the point where communication existed only through the Colonial Secretary at home.

Mr. T. K. Fleming of Vancouver writes as follows:

Obviously Governor Douglas was very fortunate that Lord Lytton had dispatched the Royal Engineers to the Colony so promptly.

He was less fortunate in the appointment of Colonel Moody as commanding officer and Lieutenant Governor.

Fortunately Governor Douglas was of a strong character and would not brook Moody's interference nor Moody's attempts to by-pass Douglas when reporting matters to London.

Moody's disrespect for the non-elitist Governor culminated in the Governor declining to communicate directly with Moody.

Douglas's disdain for Moody was not matched by Palmer's apparent affection for his commanding officer, judging by Palmer's correspondence.

Or was this further evidence of Palmer's astuteness and discipline?

For reference purposes, the writer would like to quote on the comment on Palmer by Douglas as follows;

Lt. Palmer is an exceedingly clever young officer who, being on the spot and faut de mieux, might make a good successor to Colonel Moody in the office of Chief Commissioner of Lands.

As to Palmer's activities, Mr. Fleming writes as follows:

Having carried out his Harrison-Lillooet survey in summer of 1859 and his Fort Hope to Fort Colville survey in autumn of 1859, Lieutenant Palmer became active in superintending road building locally until Governor Douglas decided to commence construction of the Cariboo Wagon Road in the summer of 1861.

A further interruption was caused by Palmer's North Bentinck Arm to Fort Alexandria survey in the summer of 1862 and its continuation to the Cariboo gold fields in the autumn of 1862.

Palmer also actively participated in various cultural activities; such as drama played by the Royal Engineers.  Palmer played "Mr. Cox" in the farce, "Box and Cox" with Captain Luard and Dr. Seddall.

He took part actively as the preparatory committee for British Columbia to exhibit their products to the Industrial Exhibition in London in 1862.

"Sleighing" was the general amusement. Mr. Palmer had a very nice one, and the children have had sundry drives in it, one day I went with the Doctor, for a drive and enjoyed it very much." 

--3rd January 1862, Mary S. Moody

21st June, 1862 - Fine.  Got a letter from Lieut. Palmer copied it in my Memorandum book in it it gives authority to the Contractor to go down the Pavillion Mountain at a grade of one in ten, at the same time it tells me that the points are in discussion spoken of in notes of the 5th June.

--From the Journal of Serjeant John McMurphy, RE

While on reconaissance on the North Bentink Arm in 1862, Palmer had an adventure.  It is told many years later by his wife to the local Vancouver, BC paper: "Palmer with Indians in his Pocket".

"I have not written since the 9th when we had grand rejoicings in honour of the Prince of Wales.  It was a very stormy night however they sent a waggon round for the Company so we got there dry, we had a nice little party of our own I mean from the Camp, 3 young ladies, the Archdeacon's family, the Officers and ourselves, so we got on very nicely.  We intended to have left early, but we really enjoyed it very much, and were much surprised to find it 5 minutes past 4 when we reached home!

The ball was on the 11th, on the 10th the Officers dined with us and the Archdeacon and his daughter, so we were quite gay you see."

--24th November, 1862
From the Letters of Mary S. Moody

"We have had a very quiet Christmas time.  The Children spent one day at the Grant's, on New year's day we had the Officers, Grants and Mr. Sheepshanks to lunch - 16 in all."

--7th January, 1863
from The Letters of Mary S. Moody

"Mr. Palmer too has gone away with 50 Men to make roads."

--12th May, 1863
from The Letters of Mary S. Moody

"We have been very gay lately.  Captain Luard and Doctor Seddall are engaged to two sisters, Miss Leggatts, and the ladies have just paid us a visit, nearly 3 weeks.  You can fancy that two such visitors have made the place quite gay -- a dinner party here and at the Mess, Concerts, Theatricals, Riding parties, and a Ball in the Mess Room -- Picnics,  &c &c &c  The Ball was quite a success -- five young ladies, four to engaged to be married -- I enjoyed it very much and danced until 5 am.  Richard got very tired but we were obliged to stay till the end.  The RE Band played beautifully, the room was prettily decorated and the Supper first rate - Mrs. Bonson.

The Ball did us all good, fancy there being want of gentlemen!!!  We were much vexed that Captain Luard would not send down to Victoria for some.  The Ladies were very nicely dressed.  The Miss Leggatts wore white silk plain, with cherry coloured sashes, broad rushings of the same at the top of the lace berthe, and one rose in their hair -- they looked so nice, we all felt quite proud of them, for now of course we feel that they belong to us (the Camp Family)."

--12 May 1863, Mary S Moody

July 23rd, 1863.

...Then descending the hill I came to the RE camp on the Thompson River, 18 miles from Cornwall's.  Here are about 60 men employed in making the road under command of Lieutenant Palmer, RE.  With him is Doctor Oliver, and here I shall sleep tonight.  It is quite refreshing to come upon this piece of civilization in this rugged country.  The officer's tents are pitched in a lovely little thicket through which murmurs a little brook which supplies them with water for every purpose; while in another place the branches are cut away and twined over head to make a sitting room impervious to the sun's rays.  It is a lovely and romantic spot. 

The men have a tough bit of road making to do here where the road is to wind round a steep bluff on the side of the river.

July 24th, 1863.

I left with regret the RE camp.

--From The Letters of Edmund Verney, Lt., RN

Obviously, the two young lieutenants made some sort of friendship because as Lt. Palmer's wedding approached, Lt. Verney wrote the following to his father.

12th September, 1863.

I am now living on board, and a chimney will be built at the bower (his cottage at Esquimalt), after which I shall lend it to Mr. Palmer of the Engineers and the Archdeacon's daughter: they are to be married on the sixth of the next month, and to spend their honeymoon at my house.

--Edmund Verney, Lt., RN

Lieutenant Palmer was married on October 7, 1863, to Mary Jane Pearson Wright.

3rd December, 1863

Mr. and Mrs. Palmer did not spend their honeymoon at the Bower, because they thought it too small: I was rather disappointed at this, as I had taken some trouble in preparing it for them, but after all, of course I only wanted them to do what they liked best.

--Edmund Verney, Lt., RN

Incidentally, Vancouver, British Columbia, the initial site of Palmer's achievements throughout his life and Yokohama, Japan, the site of his last achievements, are related to each other today as sister cities.

In November 1863, the British Columbian Expedition Forces of Royal Engineers were disbanded on completion of their terms of five years' service.

The men were allowed the option of either returning to Headquarters in England or taking the discharge in the Colony and receiving a free grant of 150 acres of land.

Most of the men decided to remain and become residents in the new Colony, but the majority of the officers left for the mother country.

He and his newly-wed bride, Mary, left New Westminster on November 11 for Esquimalt on Vancouver Island, and on the 18th left for England via San Francisco and Panama with other officers and families, including Col. Moody and Captain Grant.

They arrived at Southampton on December 30.

He immediately reported on the 31st to the Headquarters of Ordnance Survey and received appointment to the Ordnance Survey Office at Tunbridge, Kent from March 1, 1864.

Utilizing his Leave, he and his bride went to Bath, and visited his mother-in-law, step-sisters, and other relatives and came back to their new residence in Southborough near Tunbridge.

On March 1st, he reported to the Ordnance Survey office at Tunbridge, and from which place as headquarters, he conducted the survey of the greater parts of Kent and East Essex and parts of Berks and Bucks for about two years.

He received his Captain's commission on March 4, 1866.

In the autumn of 1867, he was appointed one of the Assistant Commissioners in the Parliamentary Boundaries Commission, under Mr. Disraeli's Reform Act, having for his legal colleague, Joseph Kay, Esq. of the Middle Temple.

Their district embraced the Parliamentary Borough in Kent and East Sussex, and the sub-division of West Kent and East Surrey for county representation.

In June 1867, Palmer was consulted by his friend, Rev. Piere Butler of Ulcombe Rectory, on setting foot the project of a survey of the Sinaitic Peninsula.

Rev. Butler, an Orientalist, had accompanied his brother, Captain Henry T. Butler, in the expedition to that country in 1853, and had keenly felt that it was most desirable that it should be resurveyed in full scale as he says that there is a great need of such Survey must be manifest to all students of Old Testament history; among the most important and interesting questions which are now subjects of inquiry, and on which it may be hoped that much additional light would be thrown by the proposed Survey, may be specified

  • The Passage of the Red Sea.

  • The Route and encampment of the Israelites.

  • The identification of the Mountain of the Law-giving.

Those who have given careful attention to these and many other points of interest connected with the Desert of Sinai must be aware how far from complete and how seriously the testimony of even the best maps tends to embarrass the student of this section of Biblical History by its imperfectness.

Entirely agreeing with him, Palmer approached Major-General, Sir Henry James, Director-General of Ordnance Survey, and sent him a written application for the plan.

Sir Henry had also been deeply interested in the project of Survey of Sinai, knowing from the concurrent testimony of many travellers in Sinai, how imperfect the existing maps were, and the diversity of opinion which prevailed in consequence, even as to the true place of the Mount Sinai in the Bible.

Mount Sinai

Consequently, Sir Henry accepted the application and obtained the sanction of the Secretary of State for War, to his undertaking this Survey on the same condition as that which had been formerly prescribed for the Survey of Jerusalem, viz., that the entire cost of the Survey should be paid by contributions from those individuals through the Royal Society and Royal Geographical Society who were desirous to have it done.

However, when Mr. Butler decided to go out to Egypt, to make preliminary inquiries and arrangements for the surveying party, after only several days of a sudden illness, he died at his home in Kent, on the very day on which he had proposed to leave England.  He was only 42 years old.

This was a sad blow to the undertaking, but every one who had had the good fortune to make Mr. Butler's acquaintance, and knew his energy of character and sweetness of disposition, felt that the best tribute of respect to his memory would be the completion of the work to which he had devoted the best energies of his latest days.

As it was, without breaking down this project, Sir Henry immediately proceeded to organize and equip the party for the survey.

It had been intended that the Survey should be made under the immediate direction of one officer, Captain H.S. Palmer, R.E., and had so arranged it.

But, on hearing of the proposed Expedition, Captain C.W. Wilson, R.E., who was at that time employed on the Ordnance Survey of Scotland, and had previously given clear proof of his abilities when carrying out the Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, volunteered, to join the Sinai Party.

Captain Palmer, though junior to Captain Wilson, recognizing the advantage of having two officers instead of one, very liberally waived all considerations of seniority, and at once expressed his willingness to agree for his part to Captain Wilson's proposal.

The agreement appeared to be a good one, and the Survey has accordingly been made under the joint direction of those two officers.

Luckily, Rev. George Williams of King's College, Cambridge, the well-known author of the Holy City, kindly undertook as far as possible to supply the place of Mr. Butler, and to become one of the Honorary Secretaries of the Sinai Survey Fund.

And fortunately enough, valuable cooperation of the Reverend F.W. Holland, M.A., who had been travelling in Sinai at the time of Mr. Butler's death was also obtained and he now, not only consented to act as an Honorary Secretary in conjunction with Mr. Williams, but also promised to accompany the party whilst engaged upon the Survey, affording them valuable aid in nearly every branch of the work.

In considering the arrangements to be made in order to produce as perfect a Survey as possible, the importance of having the correct orthography and meaning of the names of places was fully recognized; and, on the suggestions of Mr. Williams, Mr. E. H. Palmer, Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, an eminent Orientalist, was invited to join the Expedition.

Captain Palmer and Company at Sinai Peninsula
The Surveys of Palestine ran from 1865 to 1883.  They followed a series of phases from the original survey of Jerusalem through a separate Sinai expedition under Charles Wilson to the main Western Palestine survey that ran from 1872 to 1878.  Eastern Palestine was covered in 1881 and Kitchener himself returned in 1883 to clear up the last section of Sinai.  The original Jerusalem survey had been financed by Miss (later Baroness) Burdett Coutts, the remainder by the Palestine Exploration Society whose aim was principally to identify sites mentioned in the Bible.  The 1870 Sinai survey party is illustrated in two groups that respectfully separate officers from other ranks.  Fortunately Colour Sergeant MacDonald, whose brilliant photographs demonstrate both artistic and technical skill of a high order, must have entrusted his precious camera to one of the officers from the second shot.  The 1870 expedition comprised Captain Charles Wilson (leader, third from right with pipe), Captain Henry Palmer (who had worked in Canada under Moody (see page 102), Mr. E. H. Palmer (Arabic scholar), Mr. Wyatt (naturalist), the Rev N. W. Holland, Colour Sergeant James MacDonald, Corporals Brigley and Goodwin, Lance Corporal Malings from Ordnance Survey and guides Jemma, Hassan, and Salem.

--Follow the Sapper, by Gerald Napier

Going by certain details in the above two pictures, we feel it is same to presume that the below picture is also the work of Colour Sergeant James MacDonald.  Click on either of the above two pictures to see larger versions.

Mr. Palmer has rendered the most important services as a linguist and philologist, his mastery of Arabic greatly facilitating all those branches of the work which needed assistance or information from the natives, and enabling him to furnish them with a copious and valuable catalogue of the Bedouin's nomenclature, and a most interesting account of the people and their traditions.

He has, besides, successfully deciphered and translated the Sinaitic Rock inscriptions and also copied a large number of the Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions, from which, together with photographs taken on the spot, Dr. Birch of the British Museum, one of the ablest Egyptologists, has kindly consented to describe the interesting ancient remains.

The instructions, Director General gave to the officers were as follows:

(1) Special Survey to be made of Jebel Musa and Jebel Serbal, the "rival" mountains as they were called, for the honour of being the Mount Sinai of the Bible.
The surveys to be carried out with scrupulous care, and in such detail that accurate models of both mountains could be made from them.
(2) After the special surveys, a geographical survey should be made in the first place, of the district between Suez and Jebel Musa, including all main routes to Jebel Serbal and Jebel Musa, and then of as much of the remainder of the Peninsula as time would admit of.
(3) A special survey to be made also of the Convent of St. Katherins.

As it was considered necessary that the Expedition should set out from this country no later than the end of October so that the Survey might be completed before the return of the hot weather in spring, the surveying party, including Mr. Holland, embarked for Alexandria in the Peninsular and Oriental Company's steamer Ripon on October 24, 1868, and arrived in Suez on November 8 and at Ayun Musa (the wells of Moses) on the 12th.

The Surveying party suffered very much from the country which was so extremely rugged and confused, as well as from the rigour of a cold winter.

However, after their four and half months surveying and investigations in Sinai, they confirmed the locations where the Israelites, during their escape from Egypt guided by Moses,

(1) the passage of the Red Sea
(2) the routes and encampments of the Israelites in Sinai
(3) the identifications of the Mountain of the Law-Giving, all mentioned in the Old Testament history

And all members returned safely homeland in May 1869.

Having no time to banish the fatigue of the Expedition, while Captain Palmer occupied himself in preparing to draw the official Report, he was also, often called upon to speak and lecture on the subject.

In the next two/three years, he addressed several important meetings, such as those at the University of Cambridge in 1870, the Church Congress in 1870, and the Archaeological Congress in 1872.

When in April 1987, the writer visited the Municipal Library of Cambridge accompanied by Mrs. Jean Walker, the wife of Bishop Walker of Ely Cathedral, and one of the great-grand daughters of Henry Spencer Palmer, he was fortunate enough to find, amid the bulk of old newspapers, the article quoted The Great and Terrible Wilderness in the Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal dated December 10, 1870, in which the joint lectures by Mr. E.H. Palmer, Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge and Captain H.S. Palmer, R.E., held on December 5, by Church of England Young men's Society was found.

Please permit the writer to quote the following remarks which Captain Palmer made quite impressively in conclusion of his lecture.

I hope I said enough to prove that sacred geography had an important function to perform as an handmaid to Divine Truth, by confirming where necessary and illustrating the narrative of Holy Scripture.

The Sinaistic Peninsula in its physical character answered in a most remarkable degree what they should expect to find from the accounts therein contained, and the result of such inquiries, if conducted in an honest and humble spirit, so far as they might go, serve to establish beyond doubt the literal accuracy and fidelity of the Inspired Book of God.

To the magnificent volumes, published by the Authority in 1872, under the title of ORDNANCE SURVEY OF PENINSULA OF SINAI (1869), with the special budget amounting to 500 pounds, which were the fruits of that Expedition, Captain Palmer contributed largely some two-fifths of the descriptive matter, together with the computation of the astronomical and other works of the survey, the drawings of several of the maps and the part editing of the whole work having fallen to his share.

The report consists of five massive folio volumes of which one contained the letter-press accounts, while three are filled with photographs and the fifth with maps and plans.

The descriptive matter was enriched by articles, such as;

  • Preface by Major-General Sir Henry James F.R.S.

  • Introduction by Rev. G. Williams, B.D., titled On the Exodus, and the necessity which existed for having an accurate survey to elucidate and its history & etc.,

Let the writer introduce the portion of Captain Palmer's description in Volume 1, Chapter IV as follows:

Our last march across El Gaah was one which I am sure none of us will easily forget.

It was performed at night, on one of those nights seldom seen except in the Desert, calm and intensely still, the sky perfectly cloudless, with a moon of surpassing brilliancy, paling the stars, illuminating hill and sea and plain, and casting our shadows far back over the waste.

Men and animals wound sleepily, almost noiselessly, along; before and around us stretched the blank barren plain; beyond it the glittering sea; beyond, the gaunt shadowy outlines of the mountains of Sinai, amid which we had spent more than four months of hard, but pleasant, and, as we hoped, useful work.

The Times dated September 26, 1872, gave three columns for reviewing the newly-published ORDNANCE SURVEY OF PENINSULA OF SINAI in which The Times quoted three passages on the conclusive and scientific evidence of Jebel Musa as the Mountain of Law Giving which Captain Palmer wrote in the said Report.

Palmer was very pleased with it (the fact that his writings were quoted in The Times and he made a ballad titled A Virtue Rewarded as follows;

It was a great Archbishop,
  On his Cathedral throne,
The oiliest Archbishop,
  The Church hath ever known.
He read "The Sinai Survey,"
  And laughed aloud with glee,
They'll want to know who wrote it,
  And p'haps they'll think it's me.
It was the Poet Laureate,
  With laurels on his brow,
Ho, bring me here my "Times" he said,
  I fain would read it now.
He read the "Sinai Survey"
  Now by the Table Round
No language like this article
  Can in my works be found
Men call me sweetest songster.
  They vote me quite divine,
But I would give my Laurel Crown
  Were those three columns mine.
It was the Duke of Cambridge,
  A mighty man was he,
On Salisbury Plain, amid the rain,
  He fights right merrily
On Aide de Camp and General,
  Who to my orders yield,
Come lay a copy of the "The Times"
  Upon the tented field
He read the "Sinai Survey,"
  And tore his hair with rage,
Now did I think the Royal George,
  The Phoenix of the age.
But by far the War Department,
  And by our autumn fight,
The greatest man in England,
  Is he who thus can write.
It was the Times Reviewer,
  Was dining with the Queen,
(Where ever since a knife and fork,
  Have at his service been)
Now welcome bold Reviewer.
  For by this Royal hand,
Thou art the ablest writer,
In all our English land.
Thy welfare and thy children's
  Shall be our Royal care,
Rise up Sir Times Reviewer
  Of Printing House its Square.

As Ordnance Survey of Peninsula of Sinai (1869), the official Report of the Expedition, was so voluminous and costly that it was beyond the reach of most readers.  Hence, Captain Palmer hoped for the publication of its popular edition, and obtained the permission of Major-General Sir Henry James, Director-General of Ordnance Survey Office.  And on March 1878, this popular edition was published in 215 pages from the Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge with the title of Sinai as one of the series of Ancient History from the Monuments, while hewas staying in London on his way from Barbados to Hongkong.  In the edition, he efficiently arranged the booklet in 6 chapters. viz.,

(1) Description of the country
(2) Climate of the country
(3) Zoology
(4) The people
(5) Ancient Monument and Remains and early history
(6) On the topography and other circumstances of the Exodus

As previously explained, after Captain Palmer returned to Ordnance Survey Office in Tunbridge, from the Sinai Expedition in 1869, he occupied himself in preparing the official report and lecturing on the Expedition for a couple of years.

He also published in 1873 from Messrs. Edward Stanford a booklet in 77 pages titled Ordnance Survey of the Kingdom, the objects, mode of execution, history and present condition after his many years' experiences of the surveying.

He introduced exhaustively and plainly to the general public the mission of the Ordnance Survey and the contents of the work.

It is very interesting to note that the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Japanese Government had purchased five copies of the booklet in 1877 for the study of the interested party and that they are today in the possession of the National Archives in Tokyo.

The Dictionary of National Biography by Oxford University Press says that, in 1874, Henry Spencer Palmer went to New Zealand as the chief of the New Zealand Observation Party for the Transit of Venus.

In June 1985, letters written by Palmer to Sir George Airy, Astronomer Royal, and Captain Tupman, then chief of the British Observation Party for the Transit of Venus in 1874, were discovered at the Airy Archives in the compound of the Royal Observatory in Hurstmonceux in East Sussex, England, that discussed the 1873/4 Transit of Venus.

Sir George Airy, Astronomer Royal

Regarding the Transit of Venus, A.J. Meadows writes in the Greenwich Observatory (1975):

Transit of Venus across the solar disc occur in pairs spaced eight years apart, with over a century elapsing between successive pairs.  Though the 18th century pair, in 1761 and 1769, had proved disappointing for the measurement of solar parallax, it was felt that the technical advances in astronomy made since then should help ensure the success of observations of the next pair in 1874 and 1882.  All the leading astronomical nations therefore began preparations for the first of these transits; in the U.K., the organization of the expeditions devolved on Airy, the Astronomer Royal of Royal Greenwich Observatory.  The first decision had to be where the expedition should be placed, and this, in turn, depended on the observing technique adopted.

The 18th century transit observations had used a method devised by Halley, which required observations of Venus at ingress and egress.  Airy, however, felt that the transit of Venus of 1874 would best be observed by an alternative method proposed by Delisle, which only required observations of Venus at one limb of the Sun.  When Airy announced his decision, he came under heavy fire from some of his fellow astronomers in Britain, especially R.A. Proctor, then a leading member of the Royal Astronomical Society.  Ultimately, and reluctantly, Airy gave way a little, and allowed for both methods of observations to be attempted.  The overall result was that British parties were placed at strategic intervals across the Pacific (The area of the world from which the transit could best be seen).

In March 1873, Palmer was recommended to the Astronomer Royal by Admiral G.H. Richards, then hydrographer to the Admiralty for a chief astronomership in the enterprise for observing the transit of Venus.

Sir George soon afterwards nominated him as chief of the new Zealand party as Palmer by then, well known to have many years of experiences in British Columbia in Canada, in the Peninsula of Sinai, and in England in the field of astronomy, and ordnance survey.

For this service, Palmer, in August 1873, moved from the Ordnance Survey Office at Tunbridge Wells to the officers' quarters in the Naval Academy at Greenwich and received a course of practical preparations at the Royal Observatory for about ten months.

He was nominated Major, having been promoted to that rank in December 1873.

His appointment on the Ordnance Survey was relinquished on May 31, 1874, after 10-1/4 years of service.

At about this time, in January 1874, he wrote a letter to Capt. Tupman, his best friend, as follows:

Dear Tupman,

The Times have agreed with me to write an article on the Transit of Venus preparations and I am going to ask you to be so kind as to give me a little of your valuable help and advice.

It is a chance people don't often get, and it should be a pity not to make the most of it, and I am sure your help and advice will be of the utmost value.

I send you a rough draft of what I have written which perhaps you will look through, if you can make it out and if you have time, tomorrow morning, I think I shall send 3 columns (4,800 words) which will allow of about another page besides those already written.

Pray keep the Times news a strict secret.

in haste,
yours truly,
H.S. Palmer

The Times dated April 6, 1874 published the article written about the preparation for the Observation of the Transit of Venus in 1874. (In Yokohama, Japan, The Japan Weekly Mail dated December 6, 1874 reprinted it in complete form.)

About two months later, the Transit Observing Party under Major Palmer, arrived at New Zealand, and with the hearty cooperation of the New Zealand Government, Burnham, 18 miles from Christchurch was chosen as the best spot suitable for the Transit of Venus Observatory and several other places were also chosen as the subsidiary stations.

Major Palmer wrote in the local newspaper The Lyttleton Times dated October 3, 1874 to encourage the amateur astronomers about the observation of the Transit of Venus as follows:

Any amateur astronomer competent to undertake independent observation at places distant from Christchurch will have a great facility of personal communication with the observatory party, so as to obtain hints as to the surest mode of working, by which they can give substantial and reliable assistance.

On November 18, Major Palmer also distributed the bulletin titled The Transit of Venus 1874 which he wrote for the convenience of the observers at various stations.

And the party and amateur astronomers waited for the Big Day, December 9, after completion of all the necessary preparations.

But Alas!!, as the cable despatched by Major Palmer to Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy quotes:


The weather was so cloudy in New Zealand at the critical phase of the Transit on December 9, that, though every phenomenon that could be seen was carefully observed and noted by Major Palmer, he believed and reported that his observations were valueless.

An agreeable surprise, however, awaited him.

In 1877, after the eye observations at all the stations had been reduced and compared, it was found that Major Palmer has achieved a result of great value, being, in fact, almost identical with the mean derived from the rest of the observers at the other stations.

In short, as Sir George Airy remarked, "The preliminary phenomena which it was found were most to be relied upon, had been very well observed by him."

Let the writer introduce a portion of the letter sent by Palmer to Cap. Tupman on December 21, 1874 as follows:

Many thanks for your letter from which I am glad to hear that all was going well with you and your party, and I only hope that on the 9th your exertions were covered with perfect success.

We, alas, as you may have heard, had a day of desperate weather and could do nothing at all.

I saw the sun for a few seconds at a time in several glimpses while ingress was going on, but so faintly that I could only just make out the Limb without any covered shade.

Micrometer work was absolutely impossible, and at second contact everything was hidden.

There was a finer interval about a quarter of an hour after ingress when Darwin got about 20 photos and I some (probably useless) measures of Limbs.

Then the sun wasn't seen again till 10 minutes after fourth contact.

The Jansen could not be tried at ingress because no image of the sun could be got to plant the instrument on.

It is a bitter disappointment to us all, as you may suppose.

We were perfectly prepared and fit and only waited a decent day.

I am sorry for Sir George Airy too, to whom each failure must be a source of worry and disappointment.

What made our luck even worse, was that in my five stations, distributed over both islands, and covering a range of 650 miles of country, were all as unfortunate as myself and saw neither contact.

I had given a great deal of time and trouble to these stations, as I found several good instruments and observers in the country, and was glad to press them into the service, and coach the men so as to multiply our chances of success.

Concerning the observation of the Transit of Venus in 1874, as far as Japan is concerned, observing parties from various countries; viz., France, United States of America and Mexico, arrived in Nagasaki, Kobe, and Yokohama and busied themselves in the preparations for the Big Day.

Japan was in her infancy in the field of the astronomical observations and Hydrographic Bureau of the Japanese Navy was the only one government Office that specialized in it.

Captain Yanagi, Director of the Hydrographic Office of the Japanese Navy, utilizing this opportunity, is said to have undertaken to let his officers accompany the foreign experts who visited Japan so that they may learn the observing techniques and obtain information on various brand-new observing instruments, books, celestial maps and so forth.

Japan herself, observed the Transit of Venus at the naval Observatory in Iikura, Azabu and Gotenyama in Tokyo and in Hakodate.

In Yokohama, five experts of the Mexican party established the observing stations at Iseyama and on the Bluff in the Foreign Settlement.

While Major Palmer failed to observe the Transit of Venus in New Zealand due to bad weather, the Mexican party was successful in the observation on December 9 thanks to very fine weather.

Palmer wrote a memorandum concerning the recommendations in eleven clauses for the coming Transit of Venus in 1882 and furnished (date unknown) it to the Astronomer Royal of Greenwich Observatory, Sir George Airy.

In it, concerning the weather, he suggested to immediately apply the New Zealand Government to have observations made and recorded at a number of points in the Colony on December 5, 6, 7, for seven years from 1875 to 1881, to ascertain the amount of cloud at 6, 8, 10 am, or such other hours as may be preferred; the registers of these observations to be sent to the Astronomer Royal.

The writer understands that Palmer furnished the memorandum from his own steady character so that he may be successful in the observation on the second Transit of Venus in 1882 which is the last chance left in his life.

In fact, he wrote several letters to Sir Airy asking to volunteer for new Zealand Party in 1882.

Before leaving new Zealand, Major Palmer, at the request of the Governor, the Marquis of Normanby, undertook an investigation of the provincial surveys throughout the Colony with the view of advising the Government as to the best means of evolving order out of the chaos that then existed, and of placing the whole future system on a uniform, intelligent, and scientific basis.

Between three and four months were given to this work, at the end of which Major Palmer submitted a Blue Book Report embodying his results and recommendations, for which he was warmly thanked by the Government, and which was adopted as the guide to subsequent reforms.

On his way back to England, he called at Campbell Island, a French territory, and helped its latitude determinations.

He finally returned home on June 4, 1875.

Major Palmer worked for a few months under the Astronomer Royal, reducing his observations and preparing his report.

Returning to Corps duties, he found himself at the head of the roster for foreign service, and he obtained furlough until November 1875.

Palmer, staying in London during the furlough, wrote two letters to Captain Tupman.

In his letter of September 14, he wrote as follows:

You spoke some little time since of having a sum of 600 or 700 pounds which you wished to invest at 5%, and I suggested to you that I might be glad to borrow such a sum on those terms if I should go to New Zealand in order to get an outfit & etc.

It is now morally certain that I shall go out, and I am arranging with that view, and I write to say that if the money is still disengaged, I shall be very glad to borrow it for such period as may be most agreeable to yourself.

My two half brothers, Major-General Palmer and Captain Palmer, would, I know, be perfectly willing to become my securities (executing a joint bond with me for repayment) so that the money would be entirely safe; and as a precaution in the event of my death, they would be protected by a life policy securing the amount to them. Let me know what you think of this. Can you come down next Saturday, or Saturday week? (p.s. If the whole 700 pounds is not available, perhaps 500 pounds is.)

In his second letter to Cap. Tupman, dated October 27, he wrote as follows:

New Zealand after all is put off another year, and the War Office ordered me to Barbados, which, in this beastly weather, seems less dreadful, than it might do otherwise.

I write this to ask you if you will kindly send to me at Barbados, West Indies, a presis of the final results for longitude of our station at Burnham, when they are known, as I promised the Colonial Society I would get the information for them.

I am afraid I shall not be able to run down to Greenwich before I start, so I will say goodbye and goodluck to you.

I hope we may meet again before very long.

After posting the above letter of October 27, on his way to his new post in Barbados, he called on Southborough to pick up his family.

With Mrs. Palmer and their two younger children, they departed for Barbados.


Enderby, BC, 4th Nov. 1924

Dear Mr. Jackman,

Remembering you in the past and having seen in the last Saturday's "Daily Province" with pleasure that you are still living in BC and thinking that you may not have forgotten an old friend -- my late husband then Lieut. H.S. Palmer RE, who came out with you all round "Cape Horn" in the Thames City.

I am remembering to write this letter hoping the address will find you no doubt you may also remember having known Archdeacon and Mrs. Wright's family who lived in Sapperton at the Rectory -- well the writer of this letter is the Miss Wright of old -- their eldest daughter -- who ever remembered the 7th of October 1863 when one and all of the dear RE's did their very best to make that happy wedding day the very brightest one for the Bride and her dear husband.  Which could be wished.

It would be a great pleasure to Mrs. Palmer to hear from Mr. Jackman.  She greatly enjoyed reading the account of his life.  Indeed a most interesting one she thought.

She only wishes she could have a chat with him one of these good old days in New Westminster.  The Rectory is still standing and she went over it when last ion New Westminster and a short time of there were two old trees of olden days there!  Mrs. Palmer believes she is the only one living of the ex-officers and their wives!

She has been trying to get information of Mr. Edwards or his family but all she can hear of them is that Emily, his daughter, was school mistress for some time in the Royal City. 

Mrs. Bushby, Gov. Douglas' daughter is living in Cheltenham, England, doing good.  church work.

The Mails are now being called for Mrs. Palmer.

Much said this letter

With her best wishes.

Addressee would like from Mr. Jackman in reply.

--From Mrs. Palmer to Philip Jackman

For more about Henry Spencer Palmer, we strongly recommend:

The webmaster, Jiro Higuchi, has done an amazing job creating an in-depth and informative website about his grandfather, Henry Spencer Palmer, who died in Tokyo 10 February 1893.

Thank you, Jiro, ありがとう