Joseph Palmer, a leading Canterbury banker, was born probably on 6 April 1826 at either London or Bedfordshire, England. He may have been the son of Elizabeth Palmer and her husband, John, a nonconformist landowner from Goldington, Bedfordshire. Nothing is known of Joseph's early life and education. He joined the Union Bank of Australia in London as a clerk when aged 24. Arriving in Sydney in March 1851 he was promptly dispatched to the Adelaide branch, where he soon became accountant. On 10 November 1855 at Adelaide, Joseph Palmer married Emily Anne Fisher, the daughter of Sir James Hurtle Fisher, formerly mayor of Adelaide and president of the South Australian Legislative Council. They were to have seven sons (three of whom died in infancy) and five daughters. His five years in Adelaide gave him experience in the financing of pastoralism while his marriage into one of the established families brought colonial respectability and membership of the Anglican church.
In March 1856 Palmer sailed for Lyttelton as manager of the Union Bank. With careful management he restored the bank's reputation, which had suffered because of personnel problems: the first agent had arrived insane, a director had drowned, an assistant had died of fever, and the acting agent had resigned. Palmer arranged a £30,000 loan for the province in London, and built permanent premises in Lyttelton, the second stone building in Canterbury. He opened an agency in Christchurch in November 1856 and rode over the bridle path twice a week to service it. In November 1859 he moved to Christchurch as the manager of the branch.
Palmer immediately found himself in a position of considerable influence over the provincial government. In 1857 W. S. Moorhouse was elected superintendent. Palmer, financially careful and identified with a respectable Anglican group, found Moorhouse's extravagance questionable. When in late 1859 the government requested an extension of their overdraft of over £15,000, Palmer insisted that no new works be undertaken and scrutinised every cheque issued by the provincial treasurer. Returning prosperity in 1861 ended this period of financial overlordship, which had brought criticism from Moorhouse and editorials from the Lyttelton Times. The provincial government account was shifted to the Bank of New Zealand, which had opened in Christchurch that year. Palmer did, however, handle the government bonds issued in London over the next six years for the Christchurch–Lyttelton railway tunnel.
With its monopoly of banking in Canterbury broken, the Union Bank was forced to compete with other banks. Palmer was cautious, but sensible. He initiated new branches in Timaru, Ashburton, Oamaru and Rangiora, but secured little of the West Coast gold business. He resisted offering long-term mortgages and directed such business to the bank's associated firm, the New Zealand Trust and Loan Company; but he did provide advances up to the value of their wool clip to 'careful and cautious flockmasters'. He thus became the banker for most of the leading squatters of the time. Palmer had purchased by 1863 part of the Double Hill property on the upper Rakaia River; and by the time he sold it in 1874 he had acquired over 120,000 acres. The Palmer Range recalls his ownership of the land.
In December 1871 Palmer was appointed the first chief officer of the Union Bank of Australia in New Zealand. Although based in Christchurch, he expanded the bank's business in the North Island during the 1870s and 1880s and fought hard for improved conditions and pay for his staff; but the bank suffered because of its more cautious lending policies and Palmer found himself restricted by the centralised control of John McMullen, the inspector of the Union. The proportion of New Zealand business controlled by the Union fell to under 12 per cent in 1887. In 1885 Palmer took a year's leave to visit Britain. In preparation for his eventual retirement in 1890 he vacated the bank residence on Hereford Street, Christchurch, where he had lived since selling his Avonside home, Locksleys, in 1866, and moved to a mansion, Woodford, in Papanui. Joseph Palmer died at his home on 16 August 1910.
A tall, thin man with a neat beard and a distinctive voice, Palmer was a pillar of Canterbury society. He was a director of the Christchurch Gas, Coal and Coke Company Limited, and a founding director of the Union Assurance Company (later Alliance Insurance); he was a member of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, the Canterbury Jockey Club, and life member of the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association; he was elected to the Christchurch Club, and was an original shareholder of the Canterbury Club. He was also a justice of the peace and for many years a vestryman at St Michael's Anglican Church.