Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “July, 2013”

The Butlers of Summerhill House, Bristol

In 1881 my great grandmother Mabel Butler was 5 years old and an orphan. Her father Ephraim Butler appears to have died in 1879 when Mabel was only 3, and what happened to her mother is uncertain. Mabel was born in South Africa, but I have no idea of the circumstances.

However, from the census of 1881 I do know that at the age of 5 she lived in Bristol with her “cousin” William Butler, who was an industrialist of 30 years of age. William was married to Esther, and they had three children, Mary (10), William (5) and Joseph (3). So Mabel was contemporary with her cousin’s children (cousins once removed) – William the third was the same age as her – and their address, according to the census, was Summerhill House, St George, Gloucestershire. William and his wife may well have “adopted” Mabel. Mabel’s cousin William was the son of her father’s brother, who was also named William Butler. Cousin William became a man of some standing in Bristol society. Here is some more information I found about him on a genealogy site on the internet:

In the late 19th century, William Henry BUTLER was J.P. for the county of Gloucester. He lived at Summer Hill House, St. George, Bristol. William Henry BUTLER was born in the parish of St. George and educated at Redland. He was the senior acting partner in the firm of William Butler and Co., chemical manufacturers of Bristol and Gloucester. For many years he was chairman of the St. George School Board and for 14 years he was Overseer of St. George. He represented St. George Ward on the Bristol City Council. and was President of St. George Cricket and Football Clubs. William Henry BUTLER was a Nonconformist who took a great interest in Sunday School work. For 27 years he was the Secretary of the Sunday School in connection with Zion Free Methodist Chapel, Kingswood. (Information gleaned from ‘Bristol in 1898: Contemporary Biographies’)

Summerhill House does not seem to exist today, at least I can find no mention of it when searching on google. However, there is a Summerhill Road in the suburb of St George, Bristol, and at the start of Summerhill Road there is a Victorian water fountain which was given to the parish by William Butler, presumably senior, in 1890.

The Butler (junior) family home seems to have been fairly well off, upper middle class I suppose. According to the 1881 census, the children had a 19 year old governess called Florence Withers, a 22 year old cook called Mary Jefferies and a 16 year old housemaid, called Angelina Gallaway. William’s brother, Joseph Butler, also lived in the house, and not surprisingly was also involved in the family company, which was called William Butler and Co, Tar, Rosin and Oil Distillers. Here is a little about the company, posted on the internet by Josephine Jeremiah and taken from her book, ‘The Bristol Avon: A Pictorial History’ (2005):

In times past, Crews Hole was well known for the riverside works operated by William Butler & Co., Tar, Rosin and Oil Distillers. The firm was founded by William Butler in 1843. Besides the large manufactory at Crews Hole, it had another works at Upper Parting, Gloucester. In the 1890s, the company employed a small fleet, comprising six lighters and a steam tug at Bristol and three lighters at Gloucester. Using this water transport, they could ship goods from their works at Crews Hole and deliver them either to the railway yards in Bristol or alongside coasting vessels or ships bound for foreign ports, which were in the docks. Return cargoes were raw materials for distillation and freights of turpentine and rosin, which were imported in great quantities by the firm. At this time, four trows were also owned by the company. These were used to carry the firm’s products to ports in South Wales. A coasting steamer, the Clifton Grove, delivered tar and creosote to other ports in the country and on the continent.

Another post to the same discussion thread notes:

William BUTLERS Tar Works was started at the request of Isambard Kingdom BRUNEL to produce Creasote to protect the hundreds of thousands of Sleapers he was useing to build his Great Western Railway. They also made Naptha to burn in the railways flares and lamps.

The uses of tar changed with the years, as another site notes:

During the First World War, Butler’s made an important contribution to the war effort, since they were able to produce Benzole and toluene for explosives; they set up the first plant in the country to produce it, and in the process distilled 22 million tons of tar during the war. In the Twenties and Thirties came two more significant derivatives of tar: pyridine, which became a chemical for the drug trade for the making of M and B tablets, and the development of the earliest form of plastic, Bakelite, from tar acids. When the Second World War came, Butler’s were again supplying the war effort, with pitch for surfacing aerodromes, creosote for high octane aeroplane fuel, toluene for TNT, and naphthalene for plastics.

Mabel, then, appears to have entered this family at some stage after her father died, and lived with them for some time, though how long I do not know. The 1881 census gives us a glimpse into one day of her childhood, but whether that is representative of many years or not is hard to know. By the time of the 1891 census 15 year old Mabel was living with her sister. Suffice to say that my great grandmother seems to have been born into better circumstances than those of her later life. She was a child of Victorian England, though she was born in South Africa. Her father was apparently wealthy and he was related to the Butlers of St George, Bristol, who owned a Tar Works which was productive for over a century. I wonder if Mabel had any contact with her wealthier relatives later in her life?


Major Charles Holdorf at Fromelles

Major Charles Holdorf

Major Charles Holdorf

It is a cold, windy summer day in Dalarna, Sweden as I write, 19 July 2013. I have been reading a little about my great grandfather, Charles John Holdorf, born 1869 in Sydney. His parents were German migrants to Australia and he grew up in Goulburn, where he met his future wife, Florence Stacey, the daughter of English migrants.

Ninety seven years ago today the horrendous Battle of Fromelles began in northern France, one of Australia’s greatest military disasters. Charles was there, in the trenches, fighting in the Australian Imperial Forces for the Franco-British alliance against the German army. He could have been potentially fighting his cousins. Charles was in Europe for just over a year. When he returned to Australia he changed his name to Holford, a good English name. I wonder what he felt as he reflected on his army service in northern France, fighting the descendants of his forefathers.

Here is my father’s description of his grandfather’s involvement in the Great War:

Early in 1916, the Battalion, which was part of the 8th Brigade of the AIF 5th Division, travelled by sea to northern France and the Western Front. Their first major engagement was in the infamous Battle of Fromelles near the Belgian border. The main battle was from 19th to 22nd July, and they suffered the heaviest casualties ever recorded by the Australian forces. This was caused by the poor planning of the British generals who unrealistically ordered the Australian troops to charge over 350 metres of no-mans land in the face of deadly German machine gun fire. The British also failed to provide covering artillery fire. There were a total of 519 deaths from the 8th Brigade of which 338 bodies were never recovered. The opposing German force included Corporal Adolf Hitler.

During the battle, the Commanding Officer of the 54th Battalion (14th Brigade) became a casualty, and Major Holdorf was appointed to command this Battalion on 1st September, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. However his command only lasted until 6th November, when he was evacuated out on medical grounds.

In a few weeks we are going to France on holidays. The world has come a long way since WW1, when Europe was gripped by that cataclysmic conflict. It is hard to imagine the horror of those days in July 1916 as I look out on the cloudy skies over a peaceful landscape of forest, mountain and lake.

Orient Line to Australia

Orient Line brochure 1927

The Orient Line, which was later acquired by P&O, was perhaps the main carrier of migrants to Australia from England in the first half of the twentieth century. In October 1923 George Simmonds, my grandfather, boarded the Orient ship, Ormonde, in London, bound for Australia. He was 18 years old. He disembarked eventually in Brisbane 6 weeks later. In November 1926 John (Jack) his little brother, only 15 years of age, left London on the Orama. Here are some pictures of these two ships:




Orama in Sydney

Twenty years later Frederick, aged 38 left London on the Orion. It was June 1947. He and his mother had been planning to migrate to Australia to join the other boys as soon as possible after Fred was demobilized from the army. In a letter dated June 4th 1946 Mabel wrote to George:

I don’t know how soon Fred and I will be out, it will depend upon how soon he gets demobbed. I don’t think he will be until after Christmas. It was decided that we should go to Jack straight away. I should stay with them and Fred until he found work of course he would want outdoor work farming and gardening but that will be left for him to decide. Jack tried to get me out when the war started but I was too old to undertake the evacuees that were being sent to Australia and did not have the money to lay down. It will be a business now to pay our way but we live in hopes of everything turning out all right for I should be heartbroken if anything went wrong now. I have so set my heart on coming out but we must hope and pray for the best.

Sadly Mabel never made it. She died in December 1946. She had not seen either George or John since they had sailed from Tilbury Docks so many years before. A letter to my mum written by a friend of Fred’s in England expressed it like this:

Fred’s sister, I believe, went to Australia before his mother died. I never knew her but when Mrs Simmonds died it was a sad day for Fred. He thought the world of her. He was lonely, never knew of him having a girlfriend and wasn’t long before he said I’m going to Australia to find my brothers, eventually he went and we used to write to each other. How pleased I was when he wrote to say he had got married to Clarice. That was a Godsend… (John Weston to Mum, 28 November 1972)

I have not been able to find any records for when Mary and her family  (Mary Richards) went to Australia. In the letter quoted above from Mabel to George she says that Mary and Percy were thinking of going for a holiday, but she didn’t know how they could afford it. She may have gone in 1947 at around the same time as Fred, or maybe it was later. A subject for more research.

So the Simmonds family all ended up in Australia, but without their mother Mabel, who had died at the age of 70 in Middlesex. The boys all sailed on Orient Line ships, perhaps Mary did too. The journey from London to Australia must have been an exciting one for all of them… but that will be the subject of another post.



Journeys and other defining events

Years ago I remember reading a quote which struck a chord as I reflected on the journey of my own life. I don’t remember who wrote it originally, but his (or her) observation was that in a mobile world our lives are defined as much by our routes as by our roots. Family history is about roots, but as I have done my research I find myself as much fascinated by the journeys travelled by my ancestors as by the place they were born, or where they lived. So I have decided to add a category to my family history blog about journeys, since there are many as I look back over the last few hundred years. For non-Aboriginal Australians this is an almost universal theme, and we are no exception. Even for Aboriginal people it is true, though tracing their migrations to Australia is not something that can be done with written records, but only through their spoken and sung myths – the stories of the dreamtime. The paintings preserved on rocks and in caves also say something of their history, but exactly where they came from and when, and why, remains lost in the mists of time. Nowadays various scientific methods have become popular in the search for such knowledge, but the science is inexact and involves as much guesswork as hard facts.

What defines us really as human beings? There are surely multiple influences, and genetics is popular just now. But I have to admit to finding genetics rather boring. What I love is stories, because they trigger my imagination, the question,  “What was it like..?” For a traveller like me, who has had the joy of so many journeys, so much change, the travels of my ancestors awakes special interest. Such journeys have contributed much to defining how I see myself. They surely had the same effect on our forbears. The places we live also affect us, the things we do, and perhaps most importantly our relationships, first with our families, but also with friends and acquaintances. Last, but certainly not least, are our beliefs and values, for it is these that guide the choices we make in our lives.

A blog about family history is really just a collection of stories about the people who populate a family tree. It is not possible to sit down and interview people who are already dead and buried, and unless their letters and writings are preserved somewhere it is hard to really know them. In the last hundred years there are often photographs, and these give certain impressions. Official documents record some of the significant details of their lives: births, deaths, marriages. Census records indicate their locations, occupations, and relationships at various points in their lives. Records of government service, or imprisonment in the case of crime, give us more glimpses into their lives, as do electoral records. Migration records, passenger lists and arrival lists give us more hints as to the events of their lives. Such official documents are impersonal, but they take us back to places and times which together with the history books, the dramas and documentaries we watch on TV and our own imaginations, help us to relive some of what our ancestors experienced in their day to day lives.

The stories we enter into, even if they are part imagination, and largely influenced by our own experience and thoughts, are exciting and boring, sad and happy, extraordinary and ordinary, sometimes mysterious and hidden, but they always wonderful, as is the story of every human who has walked this earth since the beginning of time.

What’s in a name?

When the First World War broke out it became unpopular in England or Australia to have a German name. Germans were seen as the enemy. But it had not always been so. Up until then the English got on pretty well with the Germans, not least because the royal family had such close German connections. Queen Victoria had a German mother and married her first cousin, Albert, who was also German. Together they became known as “the Father and Mother of Europe” and throughout the 1800s Germany and England were close in many ways, despite the competition between their respective global empires.

Queen Victoria’s family therefore came from of the aristocratic German houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Hanover-Teck. Even her father, Edward Duke of Kent was of German extraction, of the House of Hanover, though his ancestors had lived in Britain for a hundred years. The royal families of Europe – Russian, German, Belgian, Greek, Romanian, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, as well as the British – in the second half of the nineteenth century were all entwined in a fascinating web of relationships. The Great War was therefore a huge blow to these aristocrats who suddenly found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict.

Queen Victoria’s favorite granddaughter, Victoria of Hesse, was married to a particular Count Louis Battenberg (1854-1921) who was cousin to the Duke of Edinburgh as well as Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Count Battenburg joined the Royal Navy as a cadet and worked his way up to becoming Admiral, Director of Naval Intelligence, and at the outbreak of war in 1914 was Britain’s First Sea Lord. Unfortunately, he was German, so he was forced to immediately retire. It would not do to have a German admiral commanding the British Navy. Louis Battenberg had two daughters, the first of whom became Queen of Sweden, and the second a Princess of Greece. His son, also Louis (1900-79), also joined the navy, following his father into the British Admiralty.

However, thankfully for Louis Battenberg junior, the family name was changed when he was 17 years old from Battenberg to Mountbatten. Louis junior, later known as “Dickie,” became Earl of Burma. Meanwhile, his relatives in the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Hanover-Teck were hurriedly renaming themselves “Windsor”. My great grandfather’s decision to change his name was understandable and had a royal precedent. If it was good enough for the Battenbergs (the Mountbattens) then it was good enough for the Holdorfs (the Holfords).

So Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth, is about as much English as I am Australian, but way back we are Germans. Funny thought really. Oddly enough, her husband, Philip, a Prince of Greece, is really of the German House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Gluecksburg. His forbears come from the same part of Germany as my forbears, Schleswig-Holstein, up north close to Denmark.

My other great grandfather’s decision to change his name from Lilley to Simmonds no doubt has equally good reasoning behind it, though I will perhaps never know exactly what that reasoning was (see the previous blog). He was certainly not German and the war played no part in it. Unfortunately his family history is not quite as well mapped out as the royal families of Europe, so the story behind it may never become clear.

Maria, my wife, had the surname Berggren before we married. Berg = mountain. Gren = branch. Change it around and it loses its Swedish sound and becomes Grenberg, which could also be German, or Greenberg, which sounds almost English. But her forbears, at least some of them, were from Belgium.

But that is another story.

(Reference: Europe A History, by Norman Davies, pp.808-810)

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