• Full Name:
    Robert Palk
  • Role:
    Unregistered practitioner
  • Occupation/s:
    Mineral surveyor, lay homœopathic practitioner
  • State:
  • Date first identified using homoeopathy in Australia:
palk-feb 2013 pics 065b-s
                                Robert Palk

  Photograph courtesy Larry Palk of Sth Africa,

                    a descendant of Robert Palk.


(Material researched & presented by Barbara Armstrong)


[1813 - 1890]


Robert Palk was born on 19 November 1813 at Ashburton, Devon, the son of Robert Palk and Mary Carrington.  On 14 November 1838 he married Jane Smerdon (1820 - 1865). According to the 1841 census, Robert, his wife and his first child, Mary, were living in Waverley Cottage, Lower Bowdley, Ashburton, Devon, occupation "Ind" - meaning "independent means". According to the 1844 edition of Pigot's Directory for Ashburton, Devonshire, Robert Palk was living at Waverley Cottage and was listed under the category of "Nobility, Gentry and Clergy".


Robert and Jane eventually had seven children.


In December 1852, Robert Palk arrived in Melbourne aboard the Posthumous. Accompanying him was his wife Jane, his widowed mother Mary, and his four surviving children. According to the shipping lists, daughter Mary Jane was 12, Elizabeth Vaughan was 8, Eliza Camilla Carrington was 4, and young Robert was 1. (Two other daughters and a son, born before the move, did not survive to make the journey. Camilla died in 1846; another son, also named Robert, died in 1847; Frances died in 1850. Sadly, the second young Robert died soon after his arrival in Melbourne, in 1853.)


Newspapers reported that there had been eight deaths on the journey to Australia.


It appears that Robert Palk's first occupation in Victoria was as a mineral surveyor, as there is a reference to him in Melbourne's newspaper, The Argus of 27 October, 1853, under the heading "Good News for Everybody". The notice was from Mr Charles Terry, manager of the Ovens Mining Company, stating that his mineral surveyor, Mr Palk, had returned and that "the colony is in possession of a valuable workable coal field." The coal seam had been discovered by a Mr Davis and Charles Terry had hired Robert Palk to investigate further and provide a full report. At a public meeting to announce the discovery of the coal seam, Mr Palk stated that he had been "connected with coal mines before his arrival in this country". (According to the 1850 edition of White's Directory for Ashburton, Devonshire, there is an entry for Robert Palk, mine manager. According to the 1851 Census, Robert was a tin and copper mining agent.)


By August 1854, Robert had taken on the title and occupation of ‘Doctor’. The first evidence for this change in occupation is found in a published list of undelivered mail, with an entry for Dr Palk and subsequent entries for Dr Robert Palk.



 Map of Emerald Hill 1857

Showing location of R. Palk residence in Coventry Street

Map courtesy State Library of Victoria



By 1855 Robert and his family were living in the Melbourne suburb of Emerald Hill.  (Note - Emerald Hill is now called South Melbourne.)  According to the 1855 Rate Records for Emerald Hill, they were living in York Street in a rented property described as being a 'shop' made of zinc, consisting of two rooms and a small kitchen.  In the following year the Rate Records show that the family occupied a 'tile and wood house' in Coventry Street, which consisted of six rooms and a shop.  This was on the North side of Coventry Street near the corner of Cecil Street.  The property was owned by G. Warren and its location is shown on the 1857 map of Emerald Hill produced by Clement Hodgkinson (refer map at left).   In the Electoral Roll of 1856 he was listed as a surgeon in Coventry Street, Emerald Hill.  In addition, in the 1857 Tanners Directory of Melbourne (businesses in operation in 1856) he was listed as Robert Palk MD (homœopathic) at Coventry Street, Emerald Hill.


Although Palk was listed as R. Palk MD, he did not appear under the separate listing for medical practitioners, probably because he did not have formal medical qualifications. It should be noted that at this stage in Victoria's history it was not illegal for anyone to assume the title of "doctor", even if the person did not have formal medical qualifications.  However, the Medical Act of 1862 altered this situation.  Practitioners were required to submit evidence of their qualifications, and it became illegal for non-registered practitioners to use the title 'Doctor'.


In 1859 Palk attended the first meeting of people interested in establishing the Melbourne Homœopathic Dispensary, and was appointed to the committee. This was only one of the many committees to which Robert Palk was appointed during his years in Melbourne. In fact, he made a considerable impact on the early development of Emerald Hill.


Prior to 1855 Melbourne's inner suburbs were controlled by the Melbourne City Council, although these suburbs did have local committees. In 1854, Palk was a member of the Local Committee for Emerald Hill. When the Melbourne Council fought against the legislation which would enable those suburbs to form their own municipal councils, in April 1855 Robert Palk took part in a meeting of local delegates which voiced their concerns and protests. As a representative for Emerald Hill, he seconded one of the motions. A few months later, he was appointed as one of Emerald Hill's first municipal councillors. He remained a councillor until 1862 and was Chairman from 1859 to 1860.


Palk was very active in the Emerald Hill community, with positions on several committees, resident magistrate for the Emerald Hill police courts, and as mentioned above, a councillor on the municipal council.


The following were some of these appointments as listed in the post office directories of the time:

palk-feb 2013 pics 063b-s

Photograph caption:-


Accompanying text:                                       

Presented to Lieut Palk, No 3 Battery, Emerald Hill, RVV Artillery; -  As a token of the esteem and respect of his Sergeants, on his retiring from the command of the Battery; and as a recognition of the eminent services rendered by him in the Volunteer Movement during the last Seven Years.

April 5th 1862


                      Photograph courtesy Larry Palk of Sth Africa, a descendant of Robert Palk



  • 1857 & 1858 – 2nd Lieutenant of the Victoria Volunteer Artillery Regiment, R. Palk is listed as 2nd Lieutenant . (He helped establish the Eastern Hill regiment.)
  • 1858 & 1859 - In addition to the above, also listed as a Councillor of the Emerald Hill municipality
  • 1859 - Also listed under the heading of Police Courts, listed as one of the four magistrates resident within the district of Emerald Hill.
  • 1860 - 2nd Lieutenant R. Palk is listed under the Victoria Volunteer Artillery Regiment, Emerald Hill Division (He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant during 1860.);
  • Also listed as a Resident Magistrate for Emerald Hill, Robert Palk, MD;
  • Also listed as Chairman of the Municipal Council for Emerald Hill, Chairman - R. Palk MD, JP.
  • 1861 - Vice President of the Emerald Hill Choral Society, R. Palk, JP;
  • President of the Emerald Hill Dramatic Club, R. Palk, JP;
  • President of the Mechanics Institute, R. Palk JP; (He was appointed to the committee which originally established the Institute in Emerald Hill.)
  • Police Courts Resident Magistrate for Emerald Hill, Robert Palk MD;
  • Municipal Council for Emerald Hill, Councillor R. Palk, MD JP


In 1855, at a meeting of local members of the Church of England, Palk was appointed as one of five trustees who were given the job of actively working towards the erection of "a handsome stone church" on Clarendon Street, eventually called St Lukes Church. 


Mrs Palk was appointed to the committee of the Emerald Hill Ladies' District Visiting Society, run by the local Church of England. The aim was to provide "relief for the needy and suffering".


The local council was progressive in its operation and in its plans for improvement of their surroundings and conditions. Robert took an active part in all these activities, sometimes leading delegations to the State Parliament on behalf of the people of Emerald Hill, for example, when requesting a new bridge to connect Emerald Hill across the Yarra River to Melbourne.


In January 1860, when Robert was Chairman of the Municipal Council of Emerald Hill, the Council voted that all future municipal contracts would be conducted under the principle of eight-hours' work per working day, except where this was impracticable or where the worker wished to work longer hours.


In December of the same year Palk put forward a proposal (which was accepted by the Emerald Council) that the destruction of snakes would be accelerated if a reward were paid for each snake destroyed. This recommendation was also sent to other municipal councils in the colony, as it was considered that there was a rapidly increasing number of these reptiles in the vicinity of townships and inhabited areas.


A street named after Palk was constructed in Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) on the west side of Moray Street, between Coventry Street and Dorcas Street. It first appeared in the street directory of 1862, although it was first mentioned in a newspaper advertisement of 1858. The street has since been demolished, replaced by the houses of Emerald Hill Court.


In Victoria, the Medical Act of 1862 was passed. This law made it compulsory for 'properly qualified medical practitioners' to become registered. Practitioners were required to submit evidence of their qualifications, and it became illegal for non-registered practitioners to use the title 'Doctor'. As Robert Palk did not have the necessary formal qualifications to become registered as a doctor, he would have lost the title and recognition to which he had become accustomed.

The next stages of Robert Palk's life have been discovered and untangled following examination of public records, including England's census records and the documents provided for his next two marriages in England, as well as his divorce from his second wife.

The Argus reported that on 10 April, 1862, just a few days after the presentation of the above regimental photograph, Robert sailed to England aboard the Suffolk, leaving behind his wife, his mother and children. He had deserted them. According to a news item in The Record & Emerald Hill & Sandridge Advertiser in December 1876, Robert did not correspond with his Australian friends and relatives at any point following his departure.

Also on board the Suffolk were Mrs Syme and family. This refers to Jane Hilton Syme, widow of newspaperman Ebenezer Syme who had died in Melbourne in 1860. Judging from later events, it appears that Robert Palk and Jane Hilton Syme had planned to travel to England on the same ship.


The England and Wales Civil Register of Births Index for 1837 - 1915 records that Robert and Jane Hilton Syme had their first child during the July - September quarter of 1862, soon after their arrival in England. Their daughter was registered at Halifax, Yorkshire West Riding. Therefore Jane Hilton was already pregnant when she boarded the ship. Their child was listed under the surname of Palk but her middle names were Alice Maude Hope. Their subsequent children were born at Rotherfield, Oxfordshire: Robert in 1865, Reginald in 1867, Margaret in 1869, and Lilian in 1871. Lilian died in 1874, aged 3. Census records show that the whole family - parents and children - used the surname 'Hope' instead of 'Palk'.


In the 1864 Trade Directory for Oxfordshire, Robert Hope was listed under the heading for Chemists and Druggists. He identified himself as being a homœopathic chemist at Gravel Hill, Henley-upon-Thames. Note that at this stage he did not identify himself as a doctor.


Back in Australia, the first Mrs Jane Palk died of typhoid fever in September, 1865. Shortly after Jane's death, a report of the Emerald Hill Burrough Council's fortnightly meeting appeared in The Age:

begraafplaas potch alexandrapark _137_

                         Headstone of Robert Palk

                                 Located in South Africa



The Mayor mentioned that the children of Dr Palk were in great distress being for a long time now deserted by their father, and having been recently deprived of their mother by death.  On the Mayor's recommendation the Council agreed to allow them the sum of £10 from the Burrough funds.


It is likely that Robert or Jane received news from Australia regarding his ex-wife's death, as a few months later, on 16 April 1866, Robert married Jane Hilton Syme at St Peter's in Hackney, London. According to the wedding certificate, Robert was 48, a widower and homœopathist.

Robert and Jane next appear in the 1871 England census. They were still recorded under the surname of 'Hope', most likely because it would have been awkward for the couple and their children to suddenly have a different surname.


According to the census, the family was living on a farm/mill property just a few miles south of Rudgwick, Sussex. There were only six houses/cottages which comprised the holding - three at Hill Farm (including the owner of the farm and mill), and three at the Gibbons Mill area. The Hope family was listed as living at 'Gibbons'. It is possible that the Hope family home was the Miller's House at Gibbons as this was the largest house of the Gibbons Mill complex.


Jane Mary Syme, age 16, was listed as the step-daughter of Robert Hope and Jane Hilton Hope. Robert was aged 55, a retired homoeopathic practitioner living on income derived from foreign sources. This income was possibly the result of Jane Hilton's inheritance from Ebenezer Syme. Also living with the family were three servants - a general servant, a groom and gardener, and a governess. The name of the governess was Emily Helmore from South Africa.

Robert did not remain retired, as in 1874 Post Office Directory he was listed as a 'homœopathist' at Carfax in the centre of nearby Horsham, Sussex.


It is likely that by that time Robert and Jane Hilton had already separated, as on 21 August 1877 Robert married Anne Sophia Helmore, a sister of the previously-mentioned family governess, Emily Helmore. Anne (1844 - 1936) was born in South Africa, one of several daughters of Rev. Holloway Helmore, a Congregational Clergyman and missionary in South Africa. Robert and Anne were married at St Pancras Parish Chapel, Camden. At the time of their marriage, they were living at the same address in Horsham, Sussex. He claimed to be a 'widower', although his second wife, Jane Hilton Palk, was still alive.

It is interesting to note that Jane Hilton did not file her petition for divorce until 1880. It was filed on 17 March 1880 on the grounds of Robert's bigamy and adultery. In 1881 her marriage to Robert was dissolved.

Robert and Anne emigrated to South Africa. Robert and Anne had two children, both male.  The baptism records for Saint James Church in Worcester, South Africa (not England) record that their first son was born at Worcester on 27 November 1879, and was baptised 7 January 1880.


Robert's occupation on his marriage certificate to Anne was recorded as 'MD'. Also, Robert's occupation on the South African birth certificate for his first son was recorded as 'MD' and 'US'. It appears that he claimed to have formal medical qualifications from the 'US', although it is unlikely that he had attended the requisite lectures and in-person examinations to obtain a medical diploma or degree during the time since he had returned to England.


One possible reason for these inconsistencies is that he may have purchased a diploma from an American college or university. It is well-known that during the 1860s through to the 1880s some American organisations sold medical qualifications to their countrymen and to overseas applicants. Such organisations became known as 'diploma mills'. America's most notorious diploma mill, about which several articles and books have been written, was Dr John Buchanan's 'Philadelphia diploma mill', under the auspices of the American University of Philadelphia (which never had any students) and the Eclectic Medical College of Philadelphia. Diplomas were sold without requiring any course of study or even the personal attendance of the recipient.

Dr John Buchanan advertised via discreetly worded advertisements in British and American journals. His practices were uncovered and published in The Philadelphia Press of 1871. According to that article, 'students' did not have to attend lectures or take exams, but simply pay a fee to obtain the vital diploma document. Buchanan was finally charged in 1880 because of a 'sting' carried out by the Philadelphia Record, when the editor of the newspaper was able to purchase three medical diplomas. According to the Sacramento Daily Union of 19 June 1880, the diplomas showed that the holder of them had studied medicine for three years, had attended two full courses of lectures, and had passed a satisfactory examination in each of the seven branches of medicine. Five other diplomas were also purchased by the editor of the Philadelphia Record. The book, 'New England Nightmares' by Kevin McQueen, stated that when Buchanan was charged, he admitted that he had corresponded with five thousand people who were interested in purchasing phony medical credentials. His prices varied from $65 to $110 each. He admitted that since operating as a diploma mill in 1867, he sold at least 3,000 medical diplomas as well as diplomas for other fields. Buchanan estimated that there were twenty-five diploma mills in America and Europe helping individuals who wanted to have a medical qualification without undertaking the inconvenience of attending medical school. He thought there were 30,000 fraudulent doctors in America and another 40,000 in Europe.

An article in Melbourne's newspaper The Argus of 7 April 1876 provided a report from an American doctor regarding 'the sufficiency or otherwise of American qualifications'. He stated that: '... diplomas are sold, abroad and here, as from the University of Philadelphia - an infamous affair - also from the Pennsylvania Medical College, defunct since 1861 ...' Also: 'In New Jersey there are no medical colleges; yet diplomas are sold as if from that State.' Dr Buchanan's fraudulent diploma scam and his arrest in 1880 was reported in The Age on 22 July 1880.


In the Cape Town Archives Repository of the National Archives of South Africa there are records which indicate that soon after Robert's arrival in the country in 1877 he requested a licence to practise as a surgeon. The Medical Board refused his request. It would be interesting to learn the basis for their refusal. However, according to an article by E.B. van Heyningen titled 'Agents of Empire: the Medical Profession in the Cape Colony', from 1830 the Colonial Medicine Committee regulated the medical profession for most of the 19th century. The licensing regulations ensured that colonial doctors would qualify in Britain. The author stated that 'American certificates, often spurious, were treated with suspicion'.


The All Archives Repositories and National Registers of non-public records shows that in 1880 he again applied to become a medical practitioner.

Documentary evidence of Robert Palk's formal studies, and a copy of his diploma or degree, would help to put these doubts to rest.

In the 1889 Jeppes Transvaal Pretoria Business Directory Robert Palk was listed as a medical practitioner at Berg Street.

Anne kept a journal of her experiences during the Boer War, which was published in 1980. ("Annie's War - A personal account of the Boer War from the journal of Anne Sophia Helmore".)

Robert died at Potchefstroom, South Africa on 11 October, 1890.


©   Barbara Armstrong     


  • Created:
    Tuesday, 22 March 2011
  • Last modified:
    Sunday, 10 April 2022