Johann Holtorf was my grandfather’s grandfather. He was born in 1828 in the village of Bimöhlen, in the Duchy of Holstein, then under the Danish monarch. Bimöhlen is still there, a quiet little village nestled among the trees and woods of northern Germany, in the present day state of Schleswig-Holstein. This last summer I travelled there with my father (Ian Holford) and step-mother (Eunice) to see the place where my German ancestors lived, to try to understand something of how they experienced life, and to wonder at what prompted them to leave. Johann left in 1856, bound for the British colony of New South Wales. As far as I know, we were the first of his descendants to return to this little village that Johann left almost 160 years ago. The landscape of that area of central Holstein has of course not changed. The fields are still green, the woods are still dark. The villages are still small and quiet, but one and a half centuries of progress has had a huge impact in other ways. But for all the changes of the modern age, I knew that there would be landmarks that would have been familiar to Johann before he left on his voyage of no return to the far side of the world. I wanted to see those places. A major north-south route known as the E45, which is a busy four lane highway, courses down the middle of present day Schleswig-Holstein. The route actually starts in northern Scandinavia and continues southward all the way to central Europe almost to the Mediterranean. But the part of the route in Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein roughly follows an old stock route from Jutland to Germany and the Netherlands which was used for centuries to move cattle from Denmark down to the bigger population centres and beyond, a route that passed directly through the market town of Bramstedt, which was Johann Holtorf’s home town, and our destination on our journey of discovery.
We joined the E45 when we drove onto the ferry in Gothenburg one sunny afternoon in early June. After a calm crossing and a night’s sleep we drove south down the Jutland Peninsula, crossing the border into Germany at Flensburg and continuing towards Hamburg. About 40km short of the city there are signs on the dual carriageway: toward Bimöhlen on the left, and Bad Bramstedt on the right. The E45 thus separates Bimöhlen, where Johann was born and lived to age 7, from the bigger town of Bramstedt, which was his home thereafter until he departed for Australia when he was 28. We drove off to the right toward Bad Bramstedt where we had booked into the Hotel Freese, a weary establishment on one of the town’s main streets. The hotel, with its musty hallways, dark paintings and mounted antlers looked like it was last renovated in the seventies, but the breakfasts were spectacular. We spent the next three days there, before Dad and Eunice headed off for southern Germany and I turned north back to our home in Sweden.
Although a sealed road, the Bimöhler Straße, is the main thoroughfare between Bad Bramstedt and Bimöhlen these days, there is a much more pleasant gravel road that runs parallel through the fields nearby, which I suspect resembles more closely the road that would have connected the two places in the early 1800s. So this was the route I chose when I hired a bike one afternoon to explore the villages that my ancestors lived in. Bimöhlen, my first stop, lies 5 or 6 km east of Bramstedt, across the noisy E45. I didn’t pass a soul as I cycled along the track. I saw farmhouses and barns across lush fields of ripening wheat. Once, peering down a lonely road that disappeared off between the trees of a dark wood, I saw a fox, motionless in the quiet. Becoming suddenly aware of me it darted off, and I pedalled on between forest and fields imagining as I went the road as a rutted track, muddy in winter and dusty in summer, but nevertheless possibly the main thoroughfare from village to town 180 years ago when Johann was a youth.
Bimöhlen is an idyllic little village in the midst of lush fertile countryside, and apart from a scattering of houses there is not much there. Cows grazed on gently sloping paddocks as I entered the village. A tree lined square called the Dorfplatz has a war memorial with names from two world wars in the middle of a stretch of shaded grass. There is little in the way of shops and there is no church. Most of the buildings seem to be less than a century old, so there is little to indicate how it was in the first half of the 19th century, apart from the Bram River flowing quietly through as it has for centuries, and the verdant fields and patches of forest that surround the village and reach almost into its centre. Wandering around I came on a sun drenched football field behind some of the houses, but there were few people to be seen, and no children. I suppose school had not yet closed for the summer and most adults were at work. There were a few older houses, including some big old farmsteads on the edge of the village. An old brick shed was piled high with firewood. One house I passed had a thatched roof and red roses climbing over the walls.
I stood on a footbridge and stared down at the crystal clear waters of the shallow Bram flowing quietly between grassy banks. I imagined Johann as a young boy, scrambling around these river banks. It seemed an idyllic place to be a little boy, though I suppose village life in the first half of the nineteenth century bore little resemblance to the way Bimöhlen’s current residents live out their days. Johann’s father was a cobbler, a shoemaker. When he wasn’t in his workshop he was in the forest, working at his other job – timber warden. There were 6 children in the family during Johann’s early years up until 1835 when they moved to town. Johann had four older siblings: Anna, Claus, Hans and Minna and a younger brother, Andreas. The children knew the fields and forests well. The village surely had more life then than it does today, though the population may have been smaller. Unlike the modern villagers who travel to town to work, in Johann’s day the village would have been the centre of their daily life. The Dorfplatz no doubt had stalls and workshops, children went to school or ran loose in the streets, adults went about their daily chores, and transport was by horse and cart. The Dorfplats now is just a green oasis in the midst of what seems to be a wealthy dormitory village, a satellite of Bramstedt. Expensive cars line the shaded streets. But there were few people to be seen on that sunny afternoon that I explored the tiny village.
The Holtorf children were surely devastated when their mother, Margarethe, died. Andreas, the youngest, was only 3 and Johann just 7. Anna was an adult, 18 years of age; Claus was 15, Hans 12, Minna 10. It was a turning point for the family; it would seem that around that time Claus decided to move with his family to back to Bramstedt, where Anna, his first child was born and where he and Margarethe had married. In 1837 he married again and all of his second wife’s four children were born in the bigger town. Claus died in Bramstedt in 1874, when he was 83 years old.
Johann’s mother, Margarethe, was from another small village in the vicinity of Bramstedt, Weimersdorf, which lies a short distance north-west of Bimöhlen. I cycled through Wiemersdorf on my return to Bad Bramstedt but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Margarethe’s family name was Köhnke, even now a common name in the Bramstedt district: I saw shops with the Köhnke name on them in Bramstedt. There have also been Holtorfs in the area for centuries. The Holtorf and Köhnke families almost certainly knew each other. Margarethe, who was a few years older than Claus, had probably known him since childhood. The records say that their first child, Anna, was born a few months before they were married. I wonder how this went down with the respective families.
A similar distance from Bimöhlen but in a north easterly direction, is another little village, Großenaspe. I cycled there across the fields from Bimöhlen. Großenaspe has a fine old church where I saw both a Köhnke and a Holtorf on the honour rolls from the two world wars. Claus and Margarethe seemed to have lived in Großenaspe between their marriage in 1817 and Johann’s birth in 1827. Three of his older siblings, Claus, Hans and Minna were all born there. Why the family moved to Großenaspe shortly after Anna was born is uncertain. I imagine it was for work. But the young couple must have also been keen to establish their own identity, separate from both of their home towns. These days there is a railway that runs through Großenaspe, but it is not visible on a map I found from that era. However, the ancient pilgrims route from Glückstadt to Puttgarden that runs through Bramstedt continues through Großenaspe, so it would have presumably had more passing commerce than either Wiemersdorf or Bimöhlen, a boon for a budding shoemaker.
When Claus and Margarethe and their four children moved from Großenaspe to Bimöhlen sometime before 1827 when Johann was born, Claus was returning to the birthplace of his father, a village where the Holtorf family had lived for generations. Johann’s first seven years there were very likely happy ones, with the farms and forests and quiet waters of the Bram his childhood playground. But when his mother died the family moved to Bramstedt, away from the tiny rural village, to the bustling streets of the prosperous market town. It was here he left childhood behind and began to form his own impressions of the world around him, the rapidly changing world of the 1830s and 40s. It was this town that he chose to leave for ever in the middle of the 1850s, when he was a young man in his twenties. What was it that made him leave, I wonder, and what had he heard about the distant British colony of New South Wales, that drew him there?