Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Germany and England: united in a family

When people ask where my ancestors came from I usually explain that they were English, Irish, Scottish and German. To date I have only started to research the English and German connections.

I only have to go back two generations to my maternal grandfather, George Simmonds, to arrive in England. George was born in 1905 in Redhill, Surrey and moved when he was very young with his parents to Heston, Middlesex, close to present day Heathrow Airport. By the time of the First World War the family had settled in a neighboring village called Lampton, and from there George left for Australia in 1923 at the age of 18. He never returned to England. Three of his siblings moved to Australia subsequently, one had died in England as a teenager. George’s father was English but his mother was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. However, her parents were both English; how they came to be in South Africa when she was born I have not been able to find out.

There are also English roots on my father’s side. His grandmother, Florence Stacey, was born in Australia but her father, George Stacey, came from Bedford in England, born in 1853. Her mother, on the other hand was Australian, born in Berrima. How and when George Stacey came to Australia I don’t know. So England is four generations back on my father’s side.


The Duchy of Holstein in 1866

To reach my German roots I must also go back four generations to my paternal great great-grandfather. Both he and his wife were German born. His name was Johann Holtorf and he was born in 1828 in Bimöhlen, Segeberg, Schleswig-Holstein, just east of Bad Bramstedt between Hamburg and Kiel. In 1828 the Duchy of Holstein was part of the German Federation, though still in personal union with Denmark (the King of Denmark being also Duke of Holstein). Johann’s wife, my great-great grandmother was Caroline Fischer, and she was born in Augsburg, Bayern, in the south of Germany. Both of them appear to have come to Australia as children, presumably with their parents. They married in Australia, in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. I have no record of Johann’s parents, but Caroline Fischer was the daughter of Gottfried Fischer and Victoria Scherer. She must have been Catholic to have been married in St Mary’s.

When Charles Holdorf, my great grandfather, son of Johann and Caroline, married Florence Stacey in 1898, Germany and England were somehow united in the bright new world of Australia. England and Germany were friends at that time; Queen Victoria, after all, had a German mother, and married a German herself, as did her daughter who married the king of Prussia. Victoria’s first son became the father of the British Royal Family and her first daughter the mother of the German Imperial Family.

But in spite of such close connections, when WW1 broke out, relations between Germany and England deteriorated. By that time Florence Holdorf (Stacey) had died, and Charles, now a widower, found himself in Europe as a member of the Australian Imperial Forces, fighting against the land and people of his parents. When he came back to Australia he changed his name to one that sounded more English (Holford). It would seem he wanted to rub out his German-ness, perhaps not surprisingly given the years of conflict that lay behind him. When I grew up I knew nothing of my German ancestry. But now, with the wars of the twentieth century thankfully many years behind, and Germany no longer estranged from the rest of Europe as it was for so many years after 1914, I am excited to begin to discover something of this land of my ancestors.

Searching for Grandpa George


George Simmonds as a baby

I’ve been trying to imagine the world in which my grandfather, George Simmonds, grew up. I never knew George, because he died when he was only 50, 6 years before I was born. He was born in England, in Redhill, Surrey, in 1905, but his parents moved with him to Heston, near Hounslow west of London, when he was an infant. Heston and Lampton remained his home until he migrated to Australia at the age of 18 in 1923.

His 18 years in England were lived at a time of massive change, a time in history which for me represents the transition from the old world to the new. When George was 9 the First World War broke out, and early in 1915 his father volunteered and spent the next 4 years in the Royal Army Service Corps. George, and his younger brothers Fred, Jack, and James, and his sister Mary, lived those early years of their lives in the shadow of that great conflagration. Their mother, Mabel, was one of the thousands of war wives that raised their families alone for those four years (often much longer for those whose husbands never returned). George’s father, who was also named George Simmonds, was never posted to France, where so many thousands perished. Indeed, he spent a large part of the war in Ireland, and his only continental service was in Greece, for 6 months in 1916, involved in the Macedonian Front, the so called Salonika Campaign. He was a driver, not an infantryman, and was spared the wholesale slaughter of the trenches.

What was it like, I have wondered, to grow up in pre-WW1 England, not as one of the wealthy and privileged, but as one of the ordinary people? The Downton Abbey TV series has given us a window through which we can enter into that era a little, but of course everyone in England was not either living or employed in a country house like Downton. According to his army records, my great grandfather was a “Carman” before the war, which the dictionary indicates is “a driver of a streetcar or horse drawn carriage.” The 1911 census lists George senior as a “Nurseryman,” who worked in a market garden. Market gardens were one of the main sources of employment in the Heston and Lampton area at the beginning of the twentieth century, providing vegetables for the city of London. They were transported by road or rail into the big London markets every day. That, I imagine, was what my great grandfather did.

Having said that, there was some connection with a great house in my grandfather’s family. Only once, many years ago, I met John Simmonds, my grandfather’s brother. He was 6 years younger than Grandpa but he followed his brother to Australia as soon as he was old enough, in 1926 when he was only 15. The two of them kicked around together in the Australian bush for the next 6 or 7 years until Grandpa finally married my grandmother, Gertrude Byrne, a Sydney girl. Uncle John, who was a cheerful man in his seventies when I met him one sunny afternoon in Brisbane, told stories of visiting a big house near Heston with his mother when he was a child. That house was Osterley, set in the midst of extensive gardens and woods, where John said he used to poach rabbits with his father and brothers.

The odd thing in all this is that John said he sometimes went to garden parties at Osterley with his mother, and met various famous people, one of which was Ernest Shackleton. I remain puzzled to this day as to how, or why, Mabel Simmonds and her little boy John should have been present at garden parties at Osterley House. The natural explanation is that Mabel was in service there, and that she took John along when she was working. But the 1911 census lists Mabel simply as “wife” aged 35, and I have no record of what she did later, during the war for example, when her husband was posted away with the army. John was born in 1911, his brother James in 1913, his sister Mary in 1916. If he was 5 or 6 when he went to Osterley with his mum it must have been during the war years, but perhaps it was after. I don’t know if I will ever get to the bottom of this mystery, but it certainly adds some color to my wondering about the early life of my grandfather and his brothers and sister.

Color is something that does not come to mind when I think of those days. All the pictures I find on the internet or elsewhere from those times are black and white and I think of that world very much in greyscale. But I suppose that is more a perception than a reality. I have one photo of my grandfather as a toddler, and one photo of his father when he was old and in hospital. I have begun to delve into that world through the wonders of the internet, and books which I come across which describe those times.


Passport photo

Grandpa George left no written record of his childhood that I know of. I was never able to ask him, and I never thought to ask Mum about it when she was alive. But they were tumultuous times, times of change and excitement, of tragedy and triumph. I suppose most of my research will end up in just imagining, but it is an addictive pursuit. Who was George, what did he think about? How did he experience his early years and what made him decide to migrate to Australia, five years after the Great War had finally come to an end? He never saw his mother or father again, though all his siblings eventually came out, except James, who died in England aged 14.

So I will read and think and imagine and write, and we will see what comes of all that. Hopefully some interesting blog posts are coming…

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