Forgotten tales

stories of my family

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.


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4 thoughts on “Arriving in Sydney 1855

  1. Bill Tomlin on said:

    Hi. I found your blog by chance. I have thoroughly enjoyed it. My ancestors, Johann Georg Beileiter, two sons (Johannes and Johann Georg) and their wives also emigrated from Germany (Baden) on board the Caesar in 1854-55. Like your ancestors, they never again saw Germany. The Beileiters returned to Twofold Bay, then Bombala, soon after arrival in Sydney. The sons were assisted passengers (with their wives) and came as “vinedressers”; however, were stonemasons by trade. A little lie and the risk was better than the ongoing wars, high taxes and low wages in Baden at the time.
    Bill Tomlin (

    • Hi Bill. Thanks for the comment and your contribution to the story. It has been great fun for me to read the account of Ernst Middendorf, the doctor on the Caesar, and I am very grateful to Jenny Paterson (who I have never met) who went to all the trouble of translating it from the original German. I must say I don’t know a whole lot about the Fischer family, my ancestors. I suspect that Gottfried Fischer was no vinedresser either, as I mentioned in one of my blog entries. I believe that he ended up as a carpenter and furniture maker in the city before he moved to Goulburn after his wife died. I suspect that quite a lot of the passengers on the Caesar had no real experience of vine dressing, but it was a good chance to get to Australia to start a new life. It would be interesting to gather more stories from descendants of the Caesar passengers. Perhaps others will “find the blog by chance” and record their stories here too.

  2. Hi, I have also just chanced on your story. It is fantastic !! My great, great grandfather Christian Seitz, his wife Louisa Clara (nee Frei) and a daughter Eliza, came to Aust onboard the Ceasar too. He was from Gehofen which is a rural community, she was from Bad Wimpfen. I don’t know if he was a Vinedresser, although he certainly came here under that Scheme, but he was met upon arrival by Joseph Sharp who took him to the Clarence River. Perhaps his lack of skills in agriculture became evident immediately, or as we know Grafton has never become famous for wines !! Whatever, during 1855 he became the Grafton Police Constable. On Monday 29 April 1861 he dived into a flooded Clarence River to save a boy, Daniel Forde who had been thrown into the flood by his startled horse. Christian died. He left a wife and four daughters. His 3rd daughter was Marie Susanna, known as Mary Seitz who was my Dad’s grandmother and cared for his, when his mother died. Christian was only 35 years of age, and Grafton spoke glowingly of this fine gentleman. I must seek out Dr Middendorf’s letter, which would have been dismissed at the time as a whinge, but we now prize as a great first hand account of the journey. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    Mark W.

    • Thanks for the fascinating and inspiring story of Christian Seitz. Dr Middendorf’s letter is certainly worth reading as a primary source, and I am thankful especially to Jenny Paterson who translated it to English. It was published in a genealogy journal in Australia called Ances-tree but an original can be seen at the British Library. It was fun to read it and try to bring some bits to life in my blog, which is a hobby that I have really enjoyed, even if I am just a novice in genealogy. Sounds like you have done some research into your forbears too.

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