Robert Palk

Robert Palk

Sir Robert Palk, 1st Baronet (December 1717 – 29 April 1798) was an English cleric and politician. He is mostly known for his involvement with the British East India Company and his term as governor of the Madras Presidency.

Early life

Robert Palk was born in December 1717 at Lower Headborough Farm on the outskirts of Ashburton, on the road towards Buckland in the Moor, and baptised on 16 December, 1717 at the Old Mission House, Ashburton. His father Walter Palk, born in 1686, was of yeoman farmer stock and his mother, Frances, was the daughter of Robert Abraham. Walter Palk supplemented his income by acting as a carrier of serge, from the cloth mills just down the road, over Haldon Hill to Exeter. Walter had three children, Walter, Robert and Grace. It was Robert who was to bring the family fame and fortune.

Doubts have arisen in some journals as to the exact birthplace of Robert Palk because although there were Palks recorded as living at Ambrooke in the late 1400s, in 1717 the Neyle family apparently owned Ambrooke. Robert Palk mentioned Ambrooke in reference to his line of descent, and some historians have assumed that was where he was born.

Educated at Ashburton Grammar School, he was sponsored by his godfather (who was also his maternal uncle) Robert Abraham, to attend Wadham College, Oxford, graduating in 1739.


Palk was ordained as a deacon in 1739 at Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Weston and held two curacies in Cornwall at Egloskerry and Launcells, before going to London in 1741.

During his spell in London he attracted the attention and favour of Sir Robert Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, under whose auspices he was sent to India.

In 1747 he was appointed naval chaplain to Admiral Edward Boscawen on the "Namura", bound for India. He arrived at Fort St David in 1748, at the time when the French were in control of Fort St George in Madras. Trade supremacy was the order of the day, with the French and British both vying for the major share of the market. For a time it was merely a trade war, with a minimal presence of armed troops, whose task it was to guard the warehouses. Soon the situation evolved into armed fighting between the French and British, and eventually the British Government recognised they were in fact, now at war with France over who controlled India.
General Stringer Lawrence was given the task of forming an army, and history now remembers him as the ‘Father of the Indian Army’. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1773, which effectively took control of Indian interests away from the Company and its shareholders and placed it into the hands of The Crown.


Early in 1749 the chaplain at Fort St David, Francis Fordyce, publicly insulted Robert Clive, leading to dismissal, which resulted in Robert Palk taking his place. This important promotion led to disagreements regarding the seniority of Palk over other chaplains. Palk sailed to Bombay in October 1750 with the intention of resigning his post and to seek formal employment with the East India Company. However, matters were resolved and he was reinstated and returned to Fort St David in March 1751. It was at this time that Palk made the acquaintance of Stringer Lawrence, after which time they remained life-long friends.

Robert Clive was an army officer in the East India Company and later became Governor of Bengal. He arrived in India almost penniless, and due to his hard work and dedication to the King and the East India Company, he was well rewarded with many opportunities by his mentor, Stringer Lawrence. He later became the first Baron Clive of Plassey and the fortune he made from India was probably a lot greater than Palk or Stringer Lawrence could ever have dreamt of. In 1752 Robert Palk was appointed to the lucrative position of ‘Paymaster and Commissary in the Field’ to Lawrence’s army. In January 1754 Palk and Henry Vansittart were appointed to discuss the terms of a peace settlement with the French who had control over a large part of India. It took a year before a settlement was finally reached.

It was noted during these years that, according to Robert Orme (a colleague of Palk's in Madras) that ‘Palk had long since given up studies of history and theology and had thrown himself into active engagement with the contemporary affairs of the British at Madras.’

Palk was starting to amass a small fortune, thanks mainly due to Stringer Lawrence putting lucrative deals in his direction, but the directors of the company soon instructed Palk to confine himself to his religious duties.

This did not sit well with Palk and he returned to England. He renounced his vows and on 7 February, 1761 married Anne Vansittart, the sister of Henry, his wealthy and well-respected colleague in India, whose family home was Shottesbrooke Park in Berkshire.

While back in England, the East India Company was experiencing various trading difficulties in India. At the Company’s London Headquarters during discussions concerning who might be able to help with the problem, one of the members declared: ‘Gentlemen, you forget, we have Palk at home.’ With one voice the members replied ‘The very man!’ So Robert Palk returned to India in October 1761. He was invited to serve on the Council of the Company, and was appointed to membership of the Treasury Committee. He also served as the Export Warehouse Keeper.

When George Pigot resigned in November 1763, it made way for Palk to take up the post of Governor of Madras. With his new-found authority Palk dived deeper into the world of trade, all the time enlarging his personal wealth.

Palk eventually left India in January 1767 at the age of 50, and was well received by both the King and the Court of Directors on his return. However, returning to England was not the end of his involvement with India. He introduced and was patron to many, who, like him, went with the intention of making themselves a fortune from India.

His nephew Jonathan Palk said this of his Uncle Robert: ‘"Rectitude of mind and benignity of heart formed the outline of his character. Uncorrupted by the luxury of the East, he was an encourager of bodily and mental exertion, furnishing his friends with the means not of idleness, but of being active for their own good and the good of society. My father was a little farmer with a large family; for him my uncle bought an estate, which enabled him to live a credit to his mother, and respected by his neighbours".’

Election to parliament

Robert Palk was MP for Ashburton in 1767 and again between 1774 and 1787. In the intervening years he held the office of MP for Wareham, between 1768 and 1774. This was due to the influence of Calcraft, at the time Secretary for War. His brother Walter Palk also became an MP for Ashburton.

Despite living in Torquay and then at Haldon House near Exeter, he remained involved with Ashburton for a long time. He owned land around Ashburton and even supplied the church with a new organ.

Robert Palk took a great interest in political matters, mainly supporting the government, but taking an active interest in any matters concerning India and the British East India Company. Palk was a Tory in sentiment but resented Lord North's Act, passed in 1773, for the regulation of the East India Company.

The Warren Hastings Correspondence in the British Museum contains a large number of letters written by Robert Palk to Warren Hastings between 1767 and 1782. Hastings was the first Governor General of India and often wrote to Palk back in England. Some of the letters in the ‘Palk Manuscripts’ were from Hastings asking favours of Sir Robert. Diamonds were a key issue, which were used as a way of sending large sums of money back to England. One letter concerning the precious stones is dated March 1770:


Robert Palk was made a baronet on 19 June 1782 during the reign of King George III. This was in recognition of his efforts in securing India for Britain. His coat of arms portrayed an eagle displayed and the crest had a semi-terrestrial globe of the northern hemisphere with an eagle rising from it, supported by two Asian Indians in loincloths and turbans. The family motto was "Deo Ducente" meaning ‘God is my Guide’. This was followed by the Mayor of Exeter adding him to the centuries-old roll of the City of Exeter Freemen, a privilege that his son and successive heirs retained until 1883.

With Anne, he had a son Lawrence, whose godfather was General Stringer Lawrence; and three daughters, Anne, Catherine and Emelia. Both Catherine and Emelia died young, while Anne who had married Sir Bourchier Wrey, 7th Baronet in 1786, died at the age of 24.

Sir Robert Palk died at Haldon House on April 29, 1798, ten years after his wife Lady Anne.They were both buried in Dunchideock Church.

Palk Bay and the stretch of sea between India and Sri Lanka, The Palk Straits, were named after Robert Palk. A range of hills near Madras, the Palkonda Hills, were also named after him.


*Fraser, Iain - "Hennock: A Village History", 2004.
*Polwhele, R - "History of Devonshire", 1793.
* Love, Colonel H. D. (1922) Report on the Palk Manuscripts, in the possession of Mrs. Bannatyne of Haldon, Devon. Historical Manuscripts Commission. London.
*Worthy, Charles – "Devon Parishes", 1889
*Fraser, Iain - "Palk Family of Haldon House", 2008

ee also

*Palk Strait

External links

* [ Haldon Belvedere]
* []

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