“You didn’t come here to talk to me about button mushrooms and birds.”*

*Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File” (1965)

From Andrew Esposito’s blog:

“As I wandered through a deserted back-lot of Rookwood Cemetery in south-west Sydney, my thoughts were of the somber scene that had unfolded nearly a century ago, a funeral ‘numerously attended.’ The location I sought was obscured in long grass – distinctly different from the manicured graves that proliferated one of New South Wales’s largest cemeteries.

A row of dilapidated gravestones, their inscriptions faded, stood huddled alongside a weed-covered path. Despite having a plot number located in the Church of England section and an ‘x’ on a map – I found the flat terrain offered few landmarks. Yet I’d seen the Interment Register. I knew I was nearing the final resting place of Henry Charles Palmer, British bird collector for Sir Lionel Walter Rothschild.

After three years of searching, I was about to confirm the final details of Henry’s life, a man who had erroneously been reported as ‘obscurely murdered on the goldfields’ of Australia.

The last gravesite at the end of the path was the best maintained of all the surrounding graves. Here stood a brownish headstone, the grave-footing decorated in hexagonal white tiles with a black and white diagonal border.

And there he was: ‘Henry Charles Palmer. Late of Petersham.’

The inscription on Henry’s headstone confirmed that he ‘died… on his 54th birthday,’ as had been mentioned in a 1920 newspaper Family Notice after his death. It had always bemused me that the 8th February was also the birthday of Walter Rothschild, an uncanny co-incidence that has never been acknowledged.

Henry’s grave answered another of my ponderings. Nelly Palmer, Henry’s beloved wife, shares his grave. Nelly lived to 73 and survived Henry by 19 years.

I was so engrossed with the details on the headstone that I did not immediately notice the effigy atop of it. To my delight, it was a bird. After a twenty-six year career as a Petersham News Agent, here was a symbol that celebrated Henry’s three year stint of bird collecting in New Zealand and Hawai’i.

A newspaper obituary reported that ‘a bird was named after him’. Of the fifteen or so Hawaiian bird species that Henry discovered it was in fact four that were named in his honour by a grateful Rothschild:

* Laysan Crake Porzanula palmeri

* Puaiohi – Small Kaua’i Thrush Mysdestes palmeri

* Hopue – Greater Koa Finch Psittirostra palmeri

* Akohekohe – Crested Honeycreeper Palmeria dolei

None of his namesakes resembled the figurine on the headstone, but the family sentiment was obvious. Only two of the bird species, the Puaiohi and the Akohekohe, still cling to a precarious existence in the 21st century.

I looked across the cemetery grounds. Henry had travelled far from his home in Soham, on the outskirts of Cambridge in England. There were a few palms interspersed throughout the long grass and shrubs near his grave. It was a typical hot summer’s day in Sydney. Several white cockatoos screeched over-head.

The bulk of Henry Palmer’s specimens from the 1890s now reside in the American Museum of Natural History, New York and the Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, UK.

Discover more about the life of Henry Palmer and his Hawaiian bird collecting expeditions in Killing Paradise, now available for Kindle and also iPad & iPhone (via Apple Store free downloadable Kindle apps).”

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