THE year 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Wrexham’s historian, Alfred Neobard Palmer. To many even those that have resource to his books with any frequency A. N. Palmer is nothing more than a name printed in black or gold on the cover of a book. To many more especially those of the younger generation the name means nothing at all.
Palmer was born on July 10, 1847, the son of Mr. Alfred Palmer, a prosperous coach builder in the small market town of Thetford in Norfolk. He was educated at the local grammar school, one of the most ancient in the country.
There is no evidence that Palmer made any actual contribution to the history of his native town. Rather he turned his attention to more urgent and mundane matters, earning a living. On leaving school he was apprenticed to a chemist at Bury St. Edmunds. Young Palmer quickly evinced those qualities of pains taking research and careful work which were to stand him in good stead when undertaking the mammoth task of writing a history of Wrexham. He won one of the two Jacob Bell Scholarships offered yearly by the Pharmaceutical Society in fact, he so impressed the famous chemist Dr. Attfield that he was offered a position of assistant chemist at the society’s head-quarters in Bloomsbury Square.
He remained there only for a short period, deciding to accept an appointment as an analytical chemist in Manchester. Whilst working in this city the first link, slight though it may be, in his association with Wales was forged. He became engaged to and in 1878, at the age of thirty-one, married Esther, the youngest daughter of Mr. John Francis, a native of Caernarvon and chief surveyor to the city of Manchester.
While at Manchester Palmer devoted all his surplus time and energies to social work carried on in connection with the Moseley Street Schools. His health, never robust, began to suffer and was not improved by the atmosphere of a great city. He was forced to move, and in 1880 settled in Wrexham as analytical chemist to the long defunct Zoedone Company, leaving this concern soon after for the same position with the Brymbo Steel Company, who were at the time establishing their laboratory and experimental furnace. Still later he became research chemist for the firm of J. Meredith Jones at the Cambrian Leather Works.
Meanwhile the year 1883 saw the publication of the first of his researches into Wrexham’s history, a slender pamphlet entitled “The Town, Fields, and Folk of Wrexham in the time of James I.” It had not been long before he became aware of the practically untouched field of research presented by the local history of Wrexham and the surrounding district. Palmer was a stranger coming into contact with the survivals of a state of society that was absolutely different from anything that he had hitherto studied.
He could, there-fore, bring a welcome freshness and objectivity of approach to his topic—an approach which at the same time was not unsympathetic, for he learnt enough of the Welsh language to read books and to converse with country people during his investigations. Apart from being a senior member of the Public Library Committee and adjudicating at several eisteddfodau, persistent ill-health prevented Palmer from engaging in any public work as he had done at Manchester, indeed he had to retire from active analytical work, henceforth devoting his time almost exclusively to historical research.
In 1885 appeared “Ancient Tenures of Land in North Wales and the Marches” a book instantly recognised by English and Continental scholars as a classic in its field.
Its publication raised Alfred Neobard Palmer into the foremost ranks of economic historians. During the years that followed his pen was never idle, and by 1910 he had written eight volumes in which the systematic history of Wrexham and district is set forth, and fifteen or so papers for “Archaeologia Cambrensis”, the “Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion” and other antiquarian journals. Suffice just to mention “History of the Parish Church of Wrexham” (1887); “History of the Older Non-conformity of Wrexham” (1889); “John Wilkinson and the Old Bersham Iron Works” (1899); “History of the Country Townships of the Old Parish of Wrexham” (1903); “History of the Townships of the Old Parish of Gresford” (1905), and “History of the Town of Holt in County Denbigh” (1910).
An unpublished manuscript dealing with the history of Ruabon parish also survives.
During the last five years of his life he acted as assistant inspecting officer to the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales.
During the winter of 1914 he suffered continuously from attacks of influenza. He appeared to recover but developed pneumonia and pleurisy which proved fatal. He died on Sunday, March 6, 1915, at his residence, “Inglenook,” Bersham Road, Wrexham.
Wrexham was all the poorer. Who knew anything of the history of the town when Mr. Palmer began to write 115 years ago? Palmer’s works will always be valuable source books, yet only one book ever reached a second edition. In accordance with the law of supply and demand second-hand copies exchange hands at inflated prices, and we can only hope that in the near future some or all will be re-printed by an enterprising publisher.
Source: History Today; Graham Lloyd; Wrexham History.
This article first appeared on www.wrexham-history.com