Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “March, 2014”

The Holtorf family of Bramstedt

The following is an undated version of an article posted here previously, but which was inaccurate on a number of counts. The information now contains my understanding of the Holtorf family as of today’s date, 20 September 2014. Such are the joys of family history research. The story changes as new information comes to light and old information is re-interpreted. I should add that the information following is based on various papers in my father’s possession, but none of them is an original source, in the sense of being an official document or historical record. Rather they are notes written by previous researchers from my family, but since none of the documents is signed or dated I am unable to go back to the person(s) who wrote them to ask what their sources were. The only reference to original sources that these notes contain is that they were taken from Lutheran Church records. Such records are not the easiest to access for an English speaking person like me, since they are not online, and they are in old German. This means that to view the original sources requires a visit to the area, a person skilled in reading and translating old German, and, above all, plenty of time. None of these are straightforward. If anyone happens to stumble over this blog and has more information I would love to hear from you.

My grandfather’s grandfather was named Johann Holtorf when he was born in 1828 in what is now the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. When he was 28, in 1856, Johann migrated to the British colony of New South Wales in Australia, where he changed his name to John Holdorf and became naturalised as a British citizen. He married Caroline Fischer, another German migrant (but from southern Germany), and together they settled in Goulburn and had 10 children. At least one of their children (Charles Holdorf, their first born) changed his surname to Holford, and from him came my father’s family.

Johann himself was also one of ten children, five of them his full siblings, and four of them half-siblings. His parents were named Claus Holtorf (1791-1874) and Margarethe Köhnke (1789-1835). His mother died when Johann was 7 and two years later in 1837 his father remarried Elsabe Lentfer, who had four sons.

Bramstedt in the 1800s
Bramstedt, where Claus was born, was a market town in the Danish Duchy of Holstein. At the time of his birth Holstein, though ruled by Denmark, was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It became part of the German Confederation after the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, and then as a result of the Schleswig wars of 1848 and 1864 it became, together with Schleswig, the neighbouring duchy to the north, it passed out of Danish hands completely, and became part of the newly formed nation of Germany. Claus, as far as I know, spoke German, as did the majority of people in Holstein. However, the ruling powers spoke Danish. Whether this was an issue for Claus or not I don’t know. The concept of nationalism was growing through the nineteenth century and no doubt everyone had an opinion about their own identity and where they belonged. But there was no nation of Germany then, so it wasn’t simply a question of “Am I German or am I Danish?” The Holtorfs (who were previously Holtorps) had always lived with this identity – German speaking in the Duchy of Holstein, ruled by Denmark. That this was now being questioned by some people may have had little relevance to them. Their lives were lived at a village level, and the machinations of dukes and princes were perhaps interesting but not their first concern.

Claus Holtorf
Claus, Johann’s father, was a shoe maker and timber warden. He was an only child, and his father was also a shoemaker on a farm. He could trace his ancestry back at least 100 years, and all the ancestors came from the Bramstedt area. The records I have go back to 1688 when Claus’s great grandfather was born in Kampen, Duchy of Holstein, a small village which now barely exists, some 8 or 10 kilometres south of Bramstedt.

As far as I know Claus was born and grew up in Bramstedt, a market town about 40km north of Hamburg. However, his father was apparently born in Bimöhlen, a village a few kilometres to the east of Bramstedt. Johann married in 1817 when he was 26 years old. His first child, according to my records, was born a few months before he was married.

Margarethe Köhnke
Margarethe was Claus’s first wife. She was born in 1789 in Wiemersdorf, where her father was a “small farmer”. Her first child, Anna, named after Claus’s mother, was born in March 1817, when Margarethe was 28 or 29. Margarethe married Claus in late May of the same year.

The next three of Margarethe’s children, Claus, Hans and Wilhelmina (Minna) were born, according to my records, in “Gross Aspe.” I have wondered where this might be. More of this in my next blog article. However, her 5th and 6th children, Johann (my ancestor) and possibly Andreas, were born in Bimöhlen, the same village that their grandfather was born in. The family appears to have moved at least twice, first to “Gross Aspe,” and then to Bimöhlen. Margarethe died in 1835 when her youngest child was just 3 years old. She is said to have died in Aukathe, which I have not been able to locate. There is an area of Bramstedt called Aukamp and I wonder if this is the place.

Elsabe Lentfer
Claus remarried in November 1837, 2 years after Margarethe died. His second wife was Elsabe Lentfer. They married in Bramstedt and the four sons they had together were all born in Bramstedt. So it would seem that the bigger town became the home of the Holtorf family after 1837. I have no other information about Elsabe, but I do know that one of her sons died at or shortly after birth, and another was drowned at the age of seven. A third appears to have died childless at a relatively early age, perhaps in his twenties. Only her third child, Jakob appears to have survived.

What became of the Holtorfs of Bramstedt?
Johann, my ancestor, migrated to Australia when he was 26 years old, in the 1850s, as I have already mentioned. Although I have no details, it would appear that four of the other children also left Germany at different times. Both the girls, Anna and Minna married German men, but may well have moved to England at some stage, though whether they died there I am not certain. Andreas, Johann’s little brother apparently migrated to America. The only one of Elsabe’s sons to survive past his twenties, namely Jakob Holtorf, migrated, like his older half-brother, Johann, to Australia. What became of him I am unsure.

Of the two remaining brothers, Claus (the firstborn son) and Hans, only Hans appears to have had any children. What became of Claus I don’t know, but Hans is said to have remained in the Bramstedt area, where he married and had four children. On his father Claus’s death certificate (1874) Hans and his wife Catharrina Behnk were living in Weddelbrooks Damm, which is just to the west of Bramstedt.

The closest German relatives I have would therefore be descendants of Hans, if there are any.

Bad Bramstedt location

Bad Bramstedt location map


My grandmothers and their names

My grandmothers were Winifred Erquhart Ross (1901-1999) and Gertrude Marion Byrne (1899-1975). Winifred became a Holford when she married Charles. Gertrude became a Simmonds. Of course I knew them as Nanna Holford and Nanna Simmonds, though in her later life Winifred informed us that she had always hated being called Nanna and wished that we would call her Gran, which we obediently did. Don’t know why she didn’t say so years earlier. Of course to their families they were known as Win and Gert. So where did their names come from?

Winifred’s names are the direct result of her Scottish ancestry, which was all on her father’s side. Her mother, Alice Hickson (1872-1945), was Australian but came from Irish stock. Her father, William Ross (1861-1939) was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, but his father was a Scot, James Urquhart Ross, and his mother, Mary Anne Marston, was English, originally from Shropshire. William’s older sister, Alice (1855), was born in Wales, but his two older brothers Andrew and James were both born in Birkenhead. It would seem James Urquhart Ross had left Scotland before he married and started a family. Win’s middle name and maiden name were directly from her Scottish grandfather.

Gertrude Marion Byrne was born in Sydney in 1899. Why she had Marion as a middle name I don’t know. Her parents were both Irish: her fatherGeorge Byrne (1860-1929) and her mother, Susan Hickson (1861-1945) came from Killarney in County Kerry, Ireland. They married, however, in Summer Hill, Sydney in 1885 and had five daughters and a son. Gertrude was fifth in line, the second youngest. Three of her older sisters never married, but her sister Constance (Emily Constance Byrne) married Thomas Walmsley. Gertrude’s only brother, who was 4 years older than her, fought in WW1 and later married, but had no children.

Both of my grandmothers were therefore daughters to Hicksons, Win to Alice Hickson, and Gert to Susan Hickson. Alice and Susan were cousins. Alice married a Scot, William Ross. Susan married an Irish countryman, George Byrne. Little did they know that two of their respective grandchildren (my parents) would eventually meet and marry, completely unaware of the connection between them.

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My grandfathers and their names

My two grandfathers were Charles John Stacey Holford, born in Goulburn, Australia in 1899, and George Frederick David Simmonds, born in Redhill, England in 1905.


Charles John Stacey Holford 1899-1977

Charles had a different surname when he was born: he was Charles Holdorf, which was the same as his father’s. But on his return from the Great War in 1917 my great grandfather changed his name from a German to an English one – understandable for that time and place. Grandpa was 18 at the time, but his name changed along with all his younger siblings, of which there were four: George, Eric, Marie and Sylvia.

Grandpa’s second name, John, was after his German grandfather, Johann Holtorf, who had changed his first name to be more English when he had migrated from Germany in 1857. However, though John sounds distinctly English, Holdorf still had a ring of German, so it seems likely that John Holdorf was not ashamed of his German heritage, but rather wanted a first name that was easier for English speakers to pronounce. His son Charles, however, after experiencing the horrors of the Western Front, seems to have wanted to leave his German heritage behind. I certainly did not grow up with any knowledge of my German roots. Interestingly, Charles’ youngest brother, Lewis Holdorf, who was also a veteran of the First World War, kept his German name after he returned from France in 1918.

Grandpa’s other “middle” name was Stacey, which was his mother’s maiden name: she was Florence Stacey, of Goulburn, the daughter of George Stacey, who had migrated to Australia from Bedford, England, though I am unsure when. Florence, my great grandmother, died of typhoid shortly after the birth of her fifth child, Eric, in 1908. She was just 30 years old, and it must have been a terrible tragedy for the family. Grandpa’s father never remarried – he was nine years older than Florence – but was still not yet 40 when she died. Sometime after her death he moved to Sydney and lived in Manly with his mother, Caroline Holdorf, who was a widow. Caroline had raised 9 children. She was eminently qualified to raise 5 more, her grandchildren. When Charles sailed off for the battlefields of Europe in 1915 he left his 5 children in her care. Unlike many other Australian soldiers he returned so that his five children were spared the sadness of losing their father as well as their mother.

It seems as if the connections with the Stacey side of the family diminished after Florence’s death and the move to Sydney. Despite his country roots, Grandpa grew into a city boy. He lived the rest of his life in Sydney. Oddly enough his son, Ian, my dad, would marry a country girl from Goulburn, my mum, Gwen Simmonds. So the Goulburn connection was not over.


George Frederick David Simmonds (1905-1955)

George Frederick David Simmonds was the grandfather I never knew; he died 6 years before I was born. The name on his birth certificate is simply George Butler, so how did he end up as George Frederick David Simmonds? Mabel Butler was his mother’s name; she was unmarried when she had George, her first child, in Redhill, just south of London in Surrey. She moved soon after his birth, with George’s father, to Heston, Middlesex, west of London, close to modern day Heathrow Airport. The first census after Grandpa’s birth, the 1911 census, lists the family names as George Simmonds, Mabel Simmonds and George Simmonds (junior), though by then a younger brother Frederick had also arrived (born in 1908) and Mabel was pregnant with John who would be born later that year.

Grandpa George was always known as George Simmonds. I don’t know if even he knew that his parents were unmarried when he was born; Mum certainly knew nothing of that. What she, and presumably he, did know was that his father’s name had originally been Lilley. It would seem that George Lilley and Mabel Butler had a son, then relocated to a different village where they were thenceforth known as George, Mabel and George Simmonds. Where the Simmonds name came from I don’t really know. I have always assumed that George Lilley changed his name before he met Mabel, but perhaps it was a name they chose together. For some reason great grandfather George did not want to be a Lilley any more, and for some reason, Simmonds was the name he chose to take on. Great grandfather Holford wanted to leave his German roots behind, and it is not hard to understand why. But what about the past was great grandfather Simmonds leaving behind? What crisis of identity was he really going through? Who had he been, and who did he want to be?

Even if George senior wanted to leave the Lilley name behind he seemed happy to pass on his own middle names to his son, names given to him by his own father, George Lilley. Grandpa’s father’s baptism record from 1874 records his name as George Frederick David Lilley, son of George and Mary Lilley. But what do the Frederick and David signify? Where did these names come from? These are questions I can’t answer just now, but it was from these names that I got mine, David. That was Mum’s idea, I suppose. She named me for her father as a memory of him, and he got his names from his father, George Frederick David Simmonds (Lilley), market gardener of Heston Middlesex, WW1 veteran, whose four children migrated to Australia between 1923 and 1946.

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