Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “November, 2014”

Victoria Fisher (1821-1886)

Victoria Fischer in 1868, age 46

Victoria Fischer in 1868, age 46

Victoria Fisher was born Viktoria Scherer in Augsburg, Bavaria on December 23, 1821. Her father, Joseph Scherer was a master weaver, and her mother’s name was Maria. I know nothing of her early life, or her siblings, though I believe she was from a Catholic background. Indeed I know little of Bavaria in the 1820s and 30s. When she was around 25 she married Gottfried Fischer, of Harheim, Hessen-Nassau. How they met is a mystery. Their first child, Caroline, was born in Augsburg in 1847, which suggests that Gottfried was living in Augsburg at the time of their marriage and for some time afterward. However, the fact that their next three children, all boys, were born in Harheim, indicates that sometime between 1847 and 1849, they moved back to Gottfried’s hometown from Augsburg, and lived there until they departed for Australia in 1854.

Five months after their arrival in Sydney, on 21 August 1855, Viktoria had another baby, Joseph. The date of his birth indicates that he was likely conceived just prior to the departure from Hamburg, and not on board. Indeed, intimacy on board the Caesar was almost non-existent for passengers, given the crowded conditions and the likely segregation of male and female passengers. So as the Caesar sailed the stormy waters of the English Channel Viktoria was in the first weeks of pregnancy, which would hardly have made the seasickness easier. She was clearly a strong woman; within weeks of their departure she also had to endure the death of her second son, Heronimys, from cholera. And she had a one year old, William, to care for too during that long and tedious voyage. Five year old Charles and 8 year old Caroline probably had to care a lot for themselves.

They arrived in Sydney, then, a young German speaking couple with three children aged from 1 to 8, and Viktoria about 4 months pregnant. The early years in Sydney cannot have been easy for a young mother, as she struggled to learn language and build a home for her young family, at the same time as going through pregnancy, labour and delivery in a nation quite foreign to her and far from everything that was familiar or reassuring. Her husband meanwhile was trying to make a living to support all the hungry mouths.

I imagine that it was in those first years in their new home that Johann Holtorf was introduced to the Fischer family. He was a farmer from Holstein a German-Danish duchy in the north, and arrived on a ship from Hamburg almost exactly two years after the Fischers. The German community in Sydney was likely quite close, and took care of new arrivals. Caroline turned 10 in 1857 and Johann was 28, a farmer from Holstein, north of Hamburg. Viktoria and (probably neither of them) could hardly have imagined that 11 years later her daughter would marry this young man, when Caroline was 21 and Johann, who by then was known as John, was 39.

In 1860, five years after their arrival in New South Wales, Viktoria had a second Australian son, Michael Frederick. By that time she was doubtless fluent in English, though her accent would bear the marks of her German origins all her days. With Michael just a toddler the family uprooted and moved again, to Forbes, though exactly why is a mystery. Gottfried was a carpenter and there must have been work for him in the city, but there was a gold rush drawing people away into the inland wilderness, the “bush,” as it was called, and perhaps Gottfried succumbed like so many others to the lure of gold. In 1863, living in Forbes and with Viktoria expecting yet another child, Joseph, her German conceived but Australian born, son, now 7 years old, died of typhoid fever. His death certificate records his name as John, and the family address as Rankine Street, Forbes. Victoria’s last child, Martin, was born 4 months later in July 1863, in Forbes.

By 1868 the family had returned to the city, and in that year Caroline, now 21, married John Holdorf in St Mary’s Cathedral, becoming the first of Viktoria and Gottfried’s children to marry. Soon after, Caroline and John moved to Goulburn, where they lived for the remainder of her mother Viktoria’s life. Viktoria and Gottfried remained in Sydney, living at different locations including Palmer Street, Sydney, and Bourke Street, Surrey Hills. Gottfried worked as a cabinet maker and carpenter. I imagine that one by one the four boys got married and had families (though I have at present little information about the Fisher children other than Caroline), and the ageing German-Australian couple enjoyed each new grandchild born into the family. Viktoria died in 1886 at the age of 64. By then she had lived 31 years in Australia, her adopted home. Her childhood and early life in Bavaria and later Hessen-Nassau by then had receded into the realms of memory, a different world, another life.


  1. The picture above of Viktoria was taken in July 1868, a few months after the marriage of Caroline and John, when Viktoria was 46. I was sent this picture by a fellow family history blogger, Pauline Cass, after she had stumbled upon my blog and realised that she had a picture that was relevant to our family. Her own blog is a veritable goldmine of genealogical information, and even has some entries about other descendants of Gottfried and Viktoria (specifically Les and Fred Fisher and their WW1 war service). The picture of Vitkoria is interesting to me in that it appears that there is a slight downward turn of Viktoria’s mouth on the right side, perhaps even a very slight drooping of the right side of her face. I have wondered what this means? Was it just that she naturally had a slightly asymmetrical face, or was she suffering from a stroke, or a Bells Palsy? Again something that I will probably never know.
  2. The information above comes largely from a typed document that I have in my possession authored by Bev Smith and Elizabeth Brain. It contains notes put together by them for a Fisher family reunion which took place in 1988. My father gave me a copy of this document but I have never had any contact with either of the authors. I am thankful for all their genealogical research which has provided lots of interesting stories about my forbears (and theirs).

Who was Gottfried Fischer (1821-1898)?

Caroline Fischer, who married my grandfather’s grandfather, John Holdorf, at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney in 1868, was the daughter of a German immigrant by the name of Gottfried and his wife Viktoria. Caroline was born in Germany, or more correctly, as far as I know, in the Kingdom of Bavaria (Königsreich Bayern), but left with her parents and three younger brothers in 1854, joining the swelling numbers of German immigrants to the new worlds of Australia, America and Canada. They sailed on board the sailing ship Caesar, as I have written about in a number of blogs over recent weeks, arriving in Sydney in March 1855. But what of Gottfried? Who was he and what caused him to leave his native land and risk the perils of a sea voyage around the world in search of a new home for himself and his descendants?

Frankfurt.HarheimI have very little information about Gottfried or his wife, Viktoria. However, the little that I know indicates that he was born in the town of Harheim, which is just north of Frankfurt. Harheim appears to have been in a state called Hesse-Nassau and Frankfurt was sandwiched between Hesse and Bavaria. The states of the so called German Federation which existed from 1815 to 1866 were many and to my mind confusing. Some were kingdoms, some were duchies, some were grand duchies. Bavaria is well recognised by most nowadays because of the scenic beauty of its alps, but Hesse and Nassau are not as readily identified by us foreigners. Frankfurt is well known even to non-Germans like me because it is such a large city and a hub for flights within Europe, like other easily recognised cities in Germany such as Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.

I really know nothing of Harheim, having never been there myself. There are of course websites for the area but I have not found anything in English and I lack the patience to use google translate for every page with the name Harheim in it to see if there is something interesting there. More interesting for me are the pictures, and below is one that I found on a German blog which gives a nice impression. It seems like a pleasant but rather unremarkable town, at least looking at the pictures. It barely rates a mention on Wikipedia, unlike Bramstedt, the home of the other side of our German ancestry.

A view of modern Harheim (from

A view of modern Harheim (from

Remarkable or not, Harheim was the birthplace of Gottfried Fischer, who departed from there in 1854 with his young family for Australia. He and his wife were both aged 33 when they left. Viktoria, who was named Scherer before she married, was from Augsburg, Bavaria, which is a good way south of Harheim. The records I have indicate that their first child, Caroline, was also born in Augsburg. So the first question that comes to my mind when thinking of Gottfried is how he came to marry someone from so far away. For some reason Gottfried was living for a period in Augsburg, where he married and where his first child was born. But sometime between 1847 and 1849 he took the family back to Harheim, where his next three children, all boys, were born. Then in 1854 he decided that migration to Australia offered the best future for the family.

On the Hamburg passenger lists Gottfried is listed as a wine grower (weinbauer). However, in his later life in Sydney he apparently worked as a carpenter. It is possible that he was not a winegrower at all, but listed himself as one because that was what Australia was looking for at the time, and this occupation made an assisted passage possible. Neither Harheim nor Augsburg appear to be in wine-growing districts of Germany. I suppose it is possible that he did work in the wine making business and then decided after he came to Australia that he would become a carpenter. But I somehow have my doubts.

At the same time, I have trouble understanding why either a winegrower or a carpenter would travel from Harheim to Augsburg, a distance of at least 300km. Could there have been another reason that Gottfried was in Augsburg in the 1840s when he met Viktoria? When Caroline was born in 1847 Gottfried was 26 years old. His wife, Caroline, was the daughter of a master weaver. How did they meet? How could they have married? Given the times in which they lived I have wondered if Gottfried was perhaps a soldier, one of the few occupations that would lead a poorer man to move over such a large distance. Would a carpenter or a winegrower move that far? If so why?

What seems certain to me is that Gottfried was not a timid man. He and Viktoria decided to leave their native land and move to the other side of the world. Such a decision is never easy. It requires a willingness for sacrifice. It requires a preparedness to take risks. It implies a certain degree of adventurousness. These are characteristics that are often seen in soldiers. What is more a good number of Gottfried’s Australian descendants ended up fighting in the Great War of 1914-18 (though not on the German side!).

But the truth is I simply don’t know much about this Gottfried Fischer who left Germany in 1854 and took his family to the far side of the world.

Arriving in Sydney 1855

The Fischer family, migrants from Germany, arrived in Sydney on board the sailing ship Caesar in March 1855. It was a different sort of arrival to ours in Sydney Harbour in 1973, having sailed on the Ellinis from Southampton. We had been at sea for four and a half weeks, but they had left Hamburg some four months previously. We had been buffeted by high winds and huge waves across the Roaring Forties, but the passengers of the Caesar, including the Fischer family, had been decimated by disease off the west African coast with over 60 dead from cholera. We sailed up a harbour lined with luxury residences, past the spectacular Opera House and under the iconic Harbour Bridge, landmarks that have become symbols of Australia over the last 50 years, but in 1855 none of this was there to wow the Fischer family. We were returning home, but for the German speaking Fischers a strange new land lay before them with a new language to contend with.

Despite all this it was a relief to arrive finally at this longed for destination. The stop at Twofold Bay on the south coast was the first taste of Australia, their first sight of Australian beaches and the bush clad hinterland. Sydney, a raw young British colony barely 67 years old, and infamous for its convict roots, was the place that they would call home. It is hard to imagine what thoughts went through the minds of Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer and their three children, as they leaned on the railing of the sailing ship and stared out at what was to be their new home. However, Dr Middendorf’s recollections give some idea of what they saw:

On the morning of Monday the 26th (March) we saw the lighthouses and pyramids of Port Jackson. Towards midday we were in the entry between the cliffs – “the heads” – which form the entrance. Shortly after, the pilot came without coming on board, only giving the direction to cast anchor. We couldn’t see the town from there. We remained there a couple of hours and saw several ships going in and out. Many boats came alongside, making offers to the Captain in regard to provisioning, and the indefatigable newspaper reporters also put in an appearance.

Then came the inspecting doctor. He was more reasonable than his colleague in Twofold Bay. His main question was whether everything had been washed. After this was answered in the affirmative, he let us go. A steamer that had taken a ship out to sea towed us in. In the dusk we moved through the harbour, which has very many inlets. It is like an inland sea, the water is so calm; the rush of waves is restrained by the projecting rocks. The banks are occupied by villas, as by a river. At half past seven in the evening the anchor dropped and the lights of the town gleamed across to us.

Sydney Heads around 1850 (

Sydney Heads around 1850 (

The family, with the other immigrants, disembarked and collected the few possessions they had taken with them and with which they would start their new life. Rural Germany seemed very distant, very foreign, in the glare of the southern sun. They had come out on the German Vinedressers Scheme and there was an agent to meet them and to assist them in finding a place to stay in those first confusing days. Although I have no record of the Fischers’ first impressions of Sydney, the doctor’s description gives some clues as to their experience. He begins his recollections by relating how glad he was to be rid of the passengers:

Since the passengers went, which happened at long last a few days ago, one feels like a new man. The ship is clean and the only reminder of our cargo consists of a host of fleas and bugs that have united themselves against us like the French and the English against the Russians. Add another small contingent of lice, and with that the Turks have to be content.

I must say that I feel more sympathy for the migrants who had to endure the fleas and lice and other bugs, than I do for the doctor who only had to put up with the passengers from the comfort of his own cabin. I suspect that the irritation that young Middendorf felt toward the passengers came mainly from the daily reminder of his medical impotence in the face of a cholera epidemic at sea. He was glad to be rid of them, to be free of the sad, or in some cases accusing stares of the many bereaved and grieving families. But they were the ones who had suffered: Dr Middendorf’s struggles seem trivial by comparison. He is unimpressed by Sydney, and I wonder how much of that was from memories of a tough voyage which he would rather leave behind. His only concession to Sydney is the climate, which he has to admit, is pleasant.

It is a town like other large towns, of considerable dimensions. The main part lies on a narrow hilly tongue of land that stretches out into the harbour; around this lie the ships… Convivial life does not exist here. Nobody wants to do anything but make money. People go to the public houses not to have a pleasant time, but only to drink, or rather get drunk. On Saturday evening half of Sydney is drunk, though that is supposed to be also the case in other English places. There are no beautiful surroundings here. Everything around the town is sand. I took a walk to Botany Bay; the land is worse than round Berlin. There is supposed to be more fertility up in Parramatta; I haven’t been there as yet…

There is something good here, it seems to me, and that is the climate. The whole time we have had weather like our lovely summer days, except for the period when rain fell; the air is always clean and warm. Since we’ve been here we’ve seen three English immigrant ships and one American arrive; two were here when we came. As a worker I would not emigrate to Australia, i.e. go there in order to stay there. The country may be good for earning money, but not for living in…

Ernst Middendorf, it seems, had entertained the possibility of remaining in Australia but these first impressions made him decide otherwise. He sailed away with the Caesar and never returned to Australia, though he did make a name for himself elsewhere in the world. The Fischer family, on the other hand, made Sydney their home. They had come out with the Vinedressers Scheme, but whether Gottfried had any experience or knowledge of wine growing is quite uncertain. It would seem that a significant proportion of the migrants who took advantage of this scheme were city dwellers and had no competence in viticulture (there is a discussion of the scheme in Jürgen Tampke’s book, The Germans in Australia, p.78, available online on Google Books).

According to other records the family settled, at least initially, in the city. They lived in Kent Street,  which today is in the city centre. Viktoria was pregnant when they arrived and 5 months later in August had another son, Joseph. Three more Australian sons would follow. Caroline, my grandfather’s grandmother, remained the only daughter in a family of boys. Some time after settling in Sydney the Fishers (they changed the spelling of their name) relocated to Forbes for reasons which are at present unknown to me. But they returned to Sydney eventually and Gottfried worked as a carpenter until Viktoria died in 1886 when he moved to Goulburn where he lived with his daughter Caroline and her husband John Holdorf (Johann Holtorf). Gottfried died in 1896 after 41 years in his new homeland. Neither he nor Viktoria ever saw Germany again.

Eden: oysters and chickens

NSW Coast. Hard not to like...

NSW Coast. Hard not to like…

The Caesar made its first landfall in Australia at Twofold Bay, near Eden on the south coast of NSW. Ernst Middendorf’s relief is palpable, and understandable in light of the length of the voyage that preceded it. Like generations of Europeans since then, he is enchanted by the wonderful beach. Here is his description:

Straightaway on the following day we made use of the permission to visit the coast. Our boats came and went unceasingly. It is a singularly joyful feeling when, after so long a journey, one feels for the first time solid ground underfoot once more. To the voyager, even a barren worthless rock seems a welcome resting place after the unchanging sameness of sky and water. I observed with great interest all the small details while we sprang over the rocks onto the sand, the various small shells which were almost all washed to pieces by the tide, the marine growths on the bottom, and the rock, which exuded a characteristic smell because it was low tide when we first landed.

His euphoria is tempered by his first encounter with the Australian bush, and the gum trees that are beloved by so may of us who have grown up in Australia. Middendorf seems quite unimpressed:

Then we climbed up the steep incline which enclosed the whole bay and came to the woods. I roamed around in the woodland for a couple of hours. Everything was new to me, everything was interesting, but there was nothing that was agreeable or beautiful. In the case of Australia’s forest, you must not imagine the charming gloom and high vault of a mixed beech grove, or even less the interwoven chaos of a primeval American forest. There is no shadow and no cool. High whitish trunks of very hard wood stand at considerable distance from one another. Above, they divide into a few spare boughs and these in turn put forth meagre branches of the same nature, on which finally the foliage grows in thin clumps. The leaves are mostly lancet-shaped and hang vertically. They are thick, stiff and dry. I don’t remember even once seeing a beautiful grouping of foliage. The undergrowth in the forests is scanty. Mostly it is veritable bare sand between the trunks, as the sun’s rays falling between the strange thin leafage dries everything and doesn’t even allow grass to grow. The appearance becomes a little better if you get to a somewhat watered depression, but just when does that happen?

Leaving the disappointing hinterland behind he returns to the enchanting coastline, and its unexpected culinary delights (and medical wonders)…

When I had returned from the woods to the shore after my excursion, I discovered some oysters and brought a few to the Captain… the fishing was extraordinarily productive and delivered some exemplary kinds. Between the rocks on the beach there were lobsters and crabs, and in addition we later found great banks of oysters of a particular type that was finer by far than the English natives, with the result that I soon forgot my former antipathy to these poor animals and did full justice to them. On one expedition the Captain and I gobbled about 300 of them. The whole world ate oysters, down to the smallest child; I gave an appetite back the convalescents with oysters. In addition to this, some very good mutton and beef was delivered to us from the land, and so the Captain kept our passengers busy on shore felling trees, as he wanted to use them for ballast because of their great hardness and weight.

Dr Middendorf was moderately positive about the locals and their living conditions, and gives a good picture of life in rural Australia in the 1850s which sounds rather primitive now, but was probably not worse than the situations that most migrants had come from.

… we went ashore at once to inspect the town. It is mostly small cottages built from planks with the cracks plastered over, smaller than our Thuringian farm houses, but clean and tidy to the highest degree, I have to say, with much more comfort than in those cottages at home. I went into several and was received in a very friendly fashion. A main room serves for kitchen, living room and receiving visitors. In the background is the huge fireplace, neatly painted and decorated with shells; around it like a frame hang the cleanly polished utensils. From the chimney hang iron pots and hooks, and on one of these the steaming tea kettle sways over the glowing coals. The chickens have the freedom to wander through the room, but they are very well-mannered and respectable; I didn’t see anything that would have been an offence against cleanliness.

In the town of Eden there is also an inn, very fine and distinguished, where we drank good London porter. Apart from this, Eden is no paradise…

A lasting impression of Australia: well mannered and respectable chickens!

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