William Palmer
by Hazel Austin

William Palmer, the founder of Palmer’s School, was descended from Henry Palmer of Evington in Leicestershire. Henry’s son William married Jone, daughter of Richard Turke of London. Their second son, Edward a merchant in London, married Anne, daughter of Sir Hugh Hammersley, Alderman of London. Their son and heir, William Palmer, was born in April 1633. He had three sisters, Mary and Hester plus Elizabeth who only lived for nine months. Their father died in November 1638 when William was only five years old. Prior to his death, in 1637, Edward Palmer bought the manor of Grays from Edward Kyghley. The manorial estate consisted of 840 acres and 12 dwellings and cost �7,500. He later acquired another 52 acres from Mr Kyghley. William inherited the estate which was held in Trust until he became of age. His mother married her co-trustee, John Benthall, a successful merchant who traded in the West Indies. William probably followed his step-father’s trade. At the time of his marriage in 1657, aged 24, he was described as a merchant. He married Anne, third daughter of Robert Smyth of Upton parish at West Ham.

William had influential connections in the Corporation of London. His maternal grandfather, Sir Hugh Hammersley and his brother-in-law, Sir James Smyth, served as Lord Mayors of London. The Palmers probably lived in or near the City of London so that William could carry on his business but the next record, in 1669, shows him living alone in Stifford. There is no record of his wife’s death but it is possible that either the Great Plague in 1665 or the great Fire of London in 1666 had caused her death. In 1669 William married Elizabeth Sandford, aged 22, of St Andrew Holborn. The Sandford family had connections all over Essex including a branch at Horndon-on-the-Hill.

Grays Parish church with the first Palmer's school building at the side.  There is some artistic licence because the school was actually further back than shown.

The coat of arms of William Palmer

In December 1678, shortly before leaving Stifford, William was chosen for the Office of Sherriff of Essex. Between 1678 and 1697 he and his wife lived in Grays, probably in the manor house, Grays Hall which stood on the road out of Grays where Park View Gardens is now. Tradition has it, some historians believed, that William Palmer built and lived in Sherfield House, a large dwelling which stood opposite Grays Town Wharf. If he did it must have been during his last few years in Grays. In 1685 the Archdeacon of Essex, the Venerable Thomas Turner, held an official Visitation at Grays and William Palmer is mentioned as the Lord of the Manor. He presented a silver paten to Grays Parish church which bears the crest of William Palmer and the inscription “The Parish of Graies Thurrocke, 1685” He was also a Justice of the Peace in the County of Essex during the turbulent religious upheavals which occurred throughout the reign of the Catholic James II, the Established Church of England being Protestant.

An article in the London Gazette in 1689* gave details of a burglary at the Palmers’ house in Grays. The list of stolen items gave an indication of their very comfortable lifestyle. Despite his two marriages, William had no direct heirs. In 1706 he set up a trust, funded with rents from some of his properties in London, to provide an education for the poor boys of Grays. The school house was built adjacent to the parish church. The Trust also funded the salary of the school master, coals for the school house in winter and various other charitable purposes in Grays.

William Palmer died in 1710 but the charity school he founded developed into schools providing secondary education for boys and girls in the 19th century, Grammar schools in the 20th century, and now to Palmer’s Sixth Form College. So his name lives on to this day and the college and particularly the students are supported by funds from the Trust which he founded.

Sources: William Palmer and his School by Herbert E. Brooks.
Robbery at William Palmer’s House in Grays by J R Hayston MA, Panorama10
Also, thanks to John Webb, Patron TLHS, for editing the text.

Translation of the motto:  "A memorial more enduring than bronze."

*the date of the robbery in Brooks' book is given, in error, as 1698.