Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “August, 2014”


DSC_3924Bramstedt in 1850 was a rural centre of some 3000 people. The town had been prominent in the region for centuries for two reasons: it was an important stopover on an old cattle route for traders driving their herds from the Jutland peninsula south to continental Europe, and it was also an important resting place on an ancient monks route used by Christian pilgrims making their way from Glückstadt on the Elbe in the west to Puttgarden on the Baltic Sea in the east. Although the spring with healing properties (Gesundbrunnen) had been known since the 1600s Bramstedt did not gain fame as a health spa until the late 1800s and into the 1900s, long after Johan Holtorf had left. The name Bad Bramstedt (bad is a German word that in this context means spa) only came into use in the first decade of the twentieth century, and was given to the town to distinguish it from the nearby town of Barmstedt, because mail so often ended up in the wrong place!

There are two landmarks of present day Bramstedt representing these aspects of the town, the economic and the spiritual. They are the so called Roland statue, and the Church of Mary Magdalene. The Roland statue is one of many similar statues in Germany, and it is a symbol of fairness in trading. There have been a succession of statues standing DSC_3942on the same spot in the middle of Bramstedt for many centuries, but the one that is there now is, I believe, the same one that Johann would have seen every time he walked down the main street of his home town. It was erected in 1827, the year before Johann was born, replacing an older structure that had fallen down in 1814. The other landmark, the Church of Mary Magdalene (Maria Magdalenen Kirche) dates back to the 1200s. Johann’s father, Claus Holtorf, married twice in the church, the first time to Margarethe Köhnke, Johann’s mother, in 1817, and the second time to Elsabe Lentfer in 1837, two years after his first wife died. Johann was probably baptised in the church too, though I have not seen any document testifying to this.

Johann’s father, Claus, was a shoemaker as well as being a timber warden on one of the estates around Bramstedt. Market days were presumably an important part of the week for Claus Holtorf for this reason. However, the family probably didn’t move to Bramstedt until around the time Johann’s mother Margarethe died, when he DSC_3943was just 7 years old. By then his oldest sister Anna was 18 and she would likely have taken on a great deal of the mothering duties in the family. Johann had two older sisters, Anna and Minna, and two older brothers, Claus and Hans. He also had a brother who was two years younger, Andreas. Johann and Andreas were both born in the little village of Bimöhlen, a few kilometres to the west of Bramstead. Anna, the first born, had also been born there but after her birth the family moved to another small village, a little further away, called Großenaspe. Johann and Andreas were born after they moved back to Bimöhlen sometime around 1827, and so their earliest years were lived there in the countryside. Bramstead probably seemed like a very big city to the little boys when they moved there around 1835.

A river flows through the centre of Bramstedt and it would have been very familiar to the Holtorf children. It also became the scene of a family tragedy when Johann was a teenager. The river arises in the gentle hills of central Holstein and flows west through first Bimöhlen and then Bramstedt and onward toward the North Sea. However, the River Bram, or Bramau as it is called in German, never reaches that sea, but joins a larger waterway, the Stör River, which eventually empties into the Elbe, just north of Glückstadt. The Elbe is a huge waterway flowing north-west from Hamburg. Years later Johann would sail down this huge river and out into the North Sea on the first leg of his voyage to Australia.

When Johann was 9 his father remarried, this time to Elsabe Lentfer, who became Johann’s stepmother. Over the ensuing 7 years Elsabe had four sons, Johann’s half-brothers, though the second died shortly after birth. Elsabe’s first son Hinrich also died in childhood. In 1845 when Johann was 17 his little step-brother Hinrich drowned, quite possibly in the Bram River. He was only seven years old. Claus and Elsabe must have been heartbroken, not to mention the rest of the family, to lose the little boy so tragically.

Johann was 28 years old when he left Bramstedt in 1856 and sailed to Australia. What he did in his early adult life I don’t know. His father was a shoemaker, and a timber warden. It would be normal for a son to follow his father’s trade, but Johann had two older brothers and it is not certain that they would all have become shoemakers. More likely is that he worked in the forest and as an agricultural labourer. Probably on market days he helped with the sale of the family products. After he had moved to Australia Johann was a travelling salesman – a “hawker” as the family records put it (interestingly, the word hawker has its origins in Low German, the language that Johann spoke). Perhaps he learned that trade shouting out his father’s wares on the streets of nineteenth century Bramstedt.



Five names, five nationalities

For many years I have been aware of the multinational nature of my family tree. I have had four grandparents, with names that betray their origins. The first, Holford, is a bit misleading, being an English name, since this branch of the family tree is really German. Holford is an anglicisation of Holdorf, which was my great grandfather’s name. He changed it at the end of WWI, for obvious reasons. What’s more, his father, a German immigrant to Australia in the 1850s, was originally named Johann Holtorf, but became John Holdorf when he was naturalised as a British subject of New South Wales in 1861.

The second name, Ross, was my grandmother’s name before she married. Her father, William Ross, was born in England in 1861 but he came of Scottish stock, as his name indicates. The Ross family first migrated from Scotland to England, specifically Birkenhead near Liverpool. William migrated to Australia.

The third name, Simmonds, was my maternal grandfather’s name. It is an English name and he was born in Surrey, in England. He was born George Butler since his mother was unmarried when he was born, but he was baptised George Simmonds when he was 3 years old. Even that name is misleading, since his father’s name was George Lilley, but at some stage for some reason he changed his name, as I have discussed in previous posts. Simmonds, Butler, Lilley – all very English names.

The fourth name is Byrne, the name of my mother’s mother, Gertrude Byrne. It is an Irish name and though she was not born in Ireland her father was from a big Irish family which came out to Australia in the nineteenth century.

But there is a fifth name that is important in our family, and that is Berggren, Maria’s previous surname, a Swedish name. We live in Sweden at the time of writing this blog, and apart from Maria’s forebears, we are geographically closest now to my German-Danish origins (as well as Maria’s Swedish origins). Johann Holtorf was born in Bramstead, Holstein, in the years when it was both ruled by the Danish monarch, Frederick IV, and part of the German Confederation, as is also discussed in a previous blog.

Our family is a picture of modern Australia, since we are all Australians, regardless of where we were born. We are a European mixture, blended together in a world geographically remote from Europe yet close in culture and language.

Johann Holtorf – German or Danish?

Flags in Bad Bramstedt - Left to right: Holstein, Bramstedt, Germany

Flags in Bad Bramstedt – Left to right: Holstein, Bramstedt, Germany

Johann Holtorf was born in Bimöhlen, a tiny village in the Duchy of Holstein, on April 6, 1828. He left Holstein in 1856 when he was 28 years old. He was unmarried and travelled alone to Australia where he subsequently built a life for himself. He died in 1898 at the age of 70, father of 10 children, one of whom was my great grandfather. But what of the land he left behind him, and the life he lived there?

The Duchy of Holstein was established in 1474 when King Christian I of Denmark had his County of Holstein-Rendsburg elevated to a duchy by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. It remained a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806. However, throughout this time it was actually ruled by the Danish monarch, who was therefore also the Duke of Holstein, though the actual administration of the duchy was delegated to a statholder, who was a prince of Denmark. Holstein was ruled jointly with the Duchy of Schleswig (to the north) by members of the Danish house of Oldenburg for its entire existence.

Although officially ruled by Denmark, the majority of the population of Holstein spoke a dialect of German called Plattdeutsch, in contrast to the neighbouring Duchy of Schleswig where many more spoke Danish. In 1815, after the Napoleonic wars, and as a result of the Congress of Vienna, the Duchy of Holstein became a part of the German Confederation. It remained a duchy under the Danish monarch, but this loose association with 38 other German speaking states was a harbinger of what was to come. Nationalism was a driving force in the Europe of the nineteenth century, not least in the German speaking areas, and there was a growing desire for unification, with the big and powerful lands of Prussia and Austria keen to pull the smaller states into their control. There were many Germans in Schleswig and Holstein who would welcome unification with Prussia but it is possible that the Holtorf family, despite their language, were not part of this group, more committed to maintaining the status quo with Denmark.

In 1848 a war broke out between Denmark and Prussia over Schleswig-Holstein, and after three years of fighting the Danish gained the upper hand, retaining control of the region. However, in 1864 a second Schleswig war would break out and this time the Germans triumphed over the Danes. Initially Holstein was given to Austria but the Prussians and Austrians ended up quarrelling leading to the Austro-Prussian War, with a Prussian victory. Prussia triumphed and subsequently annexed Schleswig and Holstein in 1866, bringing to an end over 400 years of duchy status under Denmark. Schleswig-Holstein became a state of Prussia. It remains a state of present day Germany.

By 1866, of course, Johann had left Holstein never to return. He sailed from Hamburg in 1856 and would only have read of the situation in his homeland in newspaper reports and letters from his family. Its hard to know what Johann thought of the situation back home. What I do know is that two of his Australian born sons, Charles Holdorf (my great grandfather) and Lewis Holdorf, would later return to Europe to fight against the Germans in WWI, and this is the source of my suspicion that Johann was no German nationalist. There is an interesting reference to Charles and Lewis in a book by Australian author, John Williams, German Anzacs and the First World War, which casts light on this question. According to Williams’ understanding, Johann and his wife, Caroline,

like many from that borderland region at the northern extremity of the Reich… had no great love of Bismarckian Germany, and their sons appear to have become ardent empire loyalists. Both Lewis and Charles subsequently decided to anglicise their names by the displacement of two letters, with Holdorf being transformed into the very English Holford. (p97)

So though Johann Holtorf spoke German, if he had any nationalistic loyalty it would appear to have been to Danish Holstein, rather than to Prussia, which became the leading state after German unification. During Johann’s early life three successive kings of Denmark held the position of Duke of Holstein: Frederick IV, Christian VIII, and then Frederick VII. Of course Johann was not a part of the nobility, and political questions may have been of little significance to him, but questions of nationalism were growing in everyone’s mind, and the First Schleswig War brought such issues very close to home. Whether he was involved in the military, or had any friends or relatives involved, I don’t know, but he must have known that the outcome of the war would have a bearing on his future and the future of any children he might have. Though Denmark triumphed initially Johann may have seen the writing on the wall, and the prospect of a future dominated by Prussia may have influenced his thoughts about leaving.

There were no doubt other reasons to depart, but in the end he decided not to be German or Danish, and relinquished the ancient national identity of his family when he emigrated to New South Wales, where in 1861 he became naturalised as a British subject. Though in our day this might sound as if he was going over to the enemy, in the 1800s England, Germany and Denmark were friends, almost family in a sense, despite their occasional quarrels. The bitterness between Britain and Germany that would result from two world wars was far in the future and could hardly be imagined in the 1850s. Nevertheless Johann chose the English branch of the European dynasties for his future, and his descendants would be that particular offshoot of Britain that became the Australia of today.

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