General Summary from the Books Newspapers in 1856:

William Palmer was the son of Joseph and Sarah Palmer. Sarah had two boyfriends, one was a steward for the Marquis of Anglesey but he was a married man so she married Joseph. He was a lowly sawyer but, with help from some of Sarah’s men friends, made his fortune, partly from stolen timber. Joseph was born in 1777 died in 1837, he dropped dead suddenly at home whilst eating bread and cheese. William was then twelve years old and his father, the once penniless sawyer left £75,000 in his will. He left each son £7,000 and the remainder to his wife providing that she did not remarry. His mother did not remarry and remained in Rugeley even after the infamous trial and hanging.


If, as the stories in the newspapers said, Joseph was “penniless” when he met Sarah, he would have had to steal timber on a colossal scale to have died leaving £75,000 in his will. Is it the case that newspapers tended to discredit people and their families who were accused of being murderers?

Newspapers discredit Palmer’s Family

Palmer’s Father damned by The Illustrated London News January 19th 1856 from their Special Correspondent:-

The founder of the Palmer Family was a sawyer, commencing life as a working man. He was a coarse, unscrupulous, insolent, pushing fellow, who had no friends, and who yet made a fortune. He made the money by going into the timber trade and buying up, from the neighbouring nobility and gentry, ” those excrescences of nature grown by Providence to pay the debts of gentlemen” – trees. Stories are rife of his sharp practices with careless sellers and dishonest stewards and agents. It is enough to know that when he died he left (to his widow chiefly, for her life, with portions to each of the sons) a considerable fortune – about £100,000, it is said – and an excessively bad fame. But he died suddenly, and it was said (it is not now said) of apoplexy.

Another “less criminal” explanation for Joseph making his fortune was provided by the Staffordshire Advertiser 14th June 1856. Joseph had seasoned oak from the Bagot Estate at a time when timber was in much demand to build ships for the Napolionic War and prices rocketed. The background to this situation was that in the Dutch Wars of the 1660’s England had used up much of its oak supplies rebuilding its navy without having a policy of replanting oak trees. As a result they had had to import German oak, but unlike English oak that hardens in salt water, the German oak rotted more quickly, thus still leaving England short of seasoned oak for its ship repairs and rebuilding.

In the Illustrated Times February 2nd 1856, a full three months before Palmer’s trial, they wrote the following about his grandfather on his mother’s side:-

Mr. Bentley, the father of old Mrs. Palmer, and grandfather of William Palmer (the prisoner), lived, as it is commonly known in Rugeley, with a female who kept a house of ill-fame near Derby. This woman, from time to time, sent Bentley with the proceeds of her house to the bank, where, instead of delivering the money to the receiving-clerk, as the property of his mistress, he entered it on the books as his own. Finally he drew out the amount, and deserting his female companion, became the owner of a farm in the neighbourhood of Lichfield, where Mrs. Palmer was born.

Palmer’s mother damned by the press

In the same paper they reported local gossip about Palmer’s mother and love letters written to a younger man named Duffy :-

In the Market place, and close to the Town Hall, we find the “Shoulder of Mutton” public-house kept by “Thomas Clewley”, as the sign board informs us, where, until seized by the police, you could see love letters which the youthful, fascinating, and unfortunate Duffy received from the giddy, aged, and rich Mrs. Palmer, senior.

Later in the same newspaper they printed a statement taken from the Landlord of the Shoulder of Mutton:

I am the landlord of the Shoulder of Mutton public-house. There was a strapping chap of the name of Duffy – a good-looking fellow – who used to come to lodge with me. He was rather a dull chap in the house, and he’d sit still and drink. He did not run up a very big shot. The first time he came here, Mr. William Palmer paid for him. The second time he came, Mr. William Palmer told me he wouldn’t pay, so I gave Duffy the bill, but he did not pay me then; he said he should have some money coming in a day or two. Soon after, he went out of the house without saying anything, and I never set eyes on him again. We gave him three or four years for coming back again; but as he didn’t come, and his boxes began to smell very bad, my missus opened them – there was only a lot of dirty shirts and things. He hadn’t no clothing only what he had on his back. In the trunks I found some letters, not put by with any care, as if they were particular valuable, but just careless. They were only courting letters, and were from Mrs. Palmer (the old lady), written to him. I should think Duffy was about forty years old, and Mrs. Palmer was from about fifty-five to sixty. She has sons now as is above forty. I think Duffy was in the linen drapery line. I never paid no more attention to him than that he was a traveller. The police has been here and got Duffy’s traps.

The letters finished off with loving and kissing. they made appointments to meet at a many different places; but I was in no way interested in their loves, and I never troubled my head about it: it was the women as exposed the whole business – nobody would have seen ’em or known anything about the letters if it had not been for them. I should have burn ’em or kept ’em secret. No, I never charged sixpence a-head to see ’em, I only showed ’em for a lark. The way in which they came to be seen was this – My Missus got speaking of ’em and one or two young chaps came here and gammoned the Missus to show ’em. they spent one or two shillings in grog to have a look; then come another and another, and at last I took ’em away: but the Missus got ’em again. There’s no keeping the women quiet in these matters. I can’t say how many letters there was – they was mixed up with trades-men’s bills and that sort of thing.

It should be remembered that Mrs. Palmer Senior was by then a widow and, in her late husband’s will it stipulated, that she kept the money left to her only on the condition that she never remarry.

Why would the police seize these letters? Would newspapers today print such “tittle-tattle”?

Mrs. Palmer lived on in her house in Rugeley until her death in 1861 aged sixty- seven.