Brothers and Sisters

Joseph Palmer and his wife Sarah had eight children, five sons and three daughters. The Brothers damned by The Illustrated London News January 19th 1856 (from their Special Correspondent):

The sons were divided, as the sons of the middle class are when there is money enough to start all, into the different professions, one was sent into the church, another to the law, another to trade, another to medicine. It so happened that not one of the sons has, in his own life, purified the name of Palmer, to a proper extent, in the nostrils of Rugeley and its neighbourhood; while, on the other hand it is to be feared that they had not the advantage of a good mother – some of Mrs. Palmer’s letters to a man of the name of Duffy, and left by him in a portmanteau at a low public – house, having been unfairly disclosed to the town, and having been considered to justify the accumulated comments of fifteen years of scandal. The marriages of some of the sons were so unlucky as to increase the popular conviction that the family was not amiable. Neglect, drunkenness and separations seem to have been the rule.

The comment “.. not one of the sons has, in his own life purified the name of Palmer.” seems unduly harsh when one was a clergyman, one a lawyer and one a timber merchant albeit that one was a bankrupt and an incurable drunkard.

Of Walter the article said:-

Walter Palmer is spoken of as “the best of the brothers;” and he was a bankrupt in trade, and so confirmed a drunkard that his wife, partial to him, and willing to be his nurse, found it impossible to endure the horror and disgust of living with him. 

His Brothers and Sisters: A General summary of the facts

The baptismal records for St. Augustine’s Church show us who his brothers and sisters were:

Name Baptised on
Mary Ann Palmer
Joseph Palmer
Twins George Palmer
& Sarah Palmer (first Sarah died aged 11months)
Walter Palmer
William Palmer
Thomas Palmer
Sarah Palmer (also named Sarah)
 9th August 1816
8th February 1818
25th March 1821
25th March 1821
29th March 1823
21st October 1824
8th October 1827
5th January 1832


Palmer’s brothers and sisters were a mixed bunch, some good and some bad. Mary Ann the eldest child led a life of indecent scandal, married a Mr. Heywood from Haywood and drank herself to death.

Joseph Palmer: In the Illustrated Life, Career, and Trial of William Palmer of Rugeley (page 13) published by Ward and Lock in 1856 we learn that Joseph, the eldest son, started out as an apprentice to the firm of Halhead Fletcher and Company timber merchants in Liverpool. After five or six years he returned to Rugeley and started his own timber merchant business like his father before him. Not long after this he was introduced to the family of Mr. Milcrest, of Liverpool and soon married his eldest daughter “with whom he obtained a considerable fortune”. Later he bought a colliery on Cannock Chase where he was an unsuccessful colliery manager before marrying a rich lady and retiring from business altogether and going to live with his family in Liverpool. However, Fletcher in his book published in 1925, states that, “Joseph moved early to Liverpool, where he held a good position and reputation”. Fletcher also states Joseph was born in 1819 (which disagrees with the baptism records). Joseph died, before the scandal, in about 1853. Fletcher (page 54) tells us that, “Joseph had married a Miss Milcrest, one of the three daughters of a shipbuilder, and was prosperous in business. Walter persuaded a younger Miss Milcrest to marry him much against the advice of her sister and her husband, his brother Joseph”.

George Palmer: George was one of the twins born in 1821. In the 1856 book, Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley (page 13), it states that George was, “an attorney in Rugeley” and, “He is also, by marriage, connected with a Liverpool family, having married Miss Clarke, a daughter of Mr. Clarke, of Seacombe, formerly an iron merchant in Liverpool.”

However George Fletcher in his book, The Life & Career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley published in 1925 (page 31), tells us that George –

“was a solicitor, and helped with family matters and had a fair practice at Uttoxeter where he married Miss Flint, daughter of Mr. A. A. Flint, the Coroner. George Palmer died in 1866 aged forty-six and his wife Eliza Catherine died in 1870. Both were carried to be buried in the family vault at Rugeley.”

Sarah: Born 1821, the other twin died aged 11 months. Rugeley burial records show that she was buried on 2nd March 1822.

Walter: Born 1823, the fourth son was a bankrupt and a drunkard who many believe was poisoned by William in 1855 when he was thirty two years old. Others believe that he simply drank himself to death.

Fletcher in his book published in 1925

Walter had been a corn-merchant, but was always a lazy, indolent drunkard who neglecting his business, had been made bankrupt in 1849. He went to live for a few years in the Isle of Man, but his drinking habits brought on an attack of delirium tremens, and he was again made bankrupt. He returned to Liverpool – for one reason, to be nearer his widowed mother in Rugeley with her £70,000, and near his eldest brother Joseph, who was living in Liverpool, a respectable citizen and a timber-merchant. Joseph married a Miss Milcrest, one of the three daughters of a shipbuilder, and was prosperous in business. 

The book goes on to tell us that Walter never supported his wife financially and after his second attack of delirium tremens*, sometimes referred to as ‘the shakes’ she was “compelled to separate from him, much to her sorrow, for she seems to have had some affection for him, in spite of his dissolute life”.

*Delirium Tremens is the most serious form of acute alcoholism. The tremors or shakes affect the whole body but especially the hands and tongue. The condition is accompanied by horrific hallucinations often referred to as the ‘blue-devils’.

William: Born 1824, the subject of this web site.

Thomas: Born 1827, became a clergyman and was twenty eight years old at the time of the trial and living at Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire. For twenty seven years he was the Rector of Trimley St. Martin, near Felixstowe. He died in 1887 and always maintained that he believed that William had not poisoned John Parsons Cook.

Sarah: Born 1832, the last of the children was also named Sarah. She was said to have had a kind heart and devoted herself to good causes. She married Alexander Brodie (1831-1867) in Aldgate, London on 29th December 1856 (the same year in which William was executed). Her husband Alexander went on to become a vicar. Sarah died on 15th January 1907 at Amberley, The Park, Chiselhurst, Kent. Sarah and Alexander had 8 children. * I am indebted to Debra Watkins a genealogist from Western Australia who pointed out that the first daughter who was one of twins died aged 11 months and that when a daughter was born late in 1831 she was also christened Sarah. Ian Brodie one of her descendants also e-mailed me to confirm the information about there being two daughters named Sarah.