Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “January, 2015”

Four Victorian families

Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 at the age of 18 and remained the English regent until 1901 when she died, the longest reigning English monarch to date. The 1800s in England have come to be known as the Victorian Era, a time of tremendous change in which the British Empire was the greatest power in the world. It was an exciting century in which fortunes were made and empires both individual and national were built. It was a time of great optimism and great achievement, but it was also a time of poverty and suffering for many people. England may have been a paradise for the wealthy but for the poor life was a continuous struggle for survival. Even the rich were not immune to pain and suffering in a world where medical possibilities for the relief of disease and the prevention of early death were extremely limited.

For the majority of the poor there was little hope of rising above their circumstances and migration was an attractive option if they could afford it. Thousands left England every year for the new worlds of America, Canada and Australia, among other countries. The statistics indicate that between 1840 and 1860 somewhere between 4 and 5 million people left Britain, and the great majority of those who left were poor. In America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand there was the lure of gold and the dream of riches tempted many.

The Holford name is English, but as I have written before, it was not originally so; it was changed from Holdorf at the end of the First World War. John Holdorf, who arrived in Australia in 1856, was born Johann Holtorf, in the Duchy of Holstein, in present day northern Germany. John Holdorf (1828-1898), the first Australian of the Holford line, married another German migrant, Caroline Fischer. However, in the line that leads to me in any case all the subsequent Holdorfs and Holfords married British women. Charles Holdorf (1869-1954) married Florence Stacey, who though Australian born was the daughter of an English migrant. Charles Holford (1899-1977), who was the next in line and my grandfather, married Winifred Ross, whose father had come as a child to Australia from England. Ian Holford (b.1933), my dad, married Gwen Simmonds, my mum, whose father was also an English migrant, though Mum was born in Australia. As for me (b.1961), I am married to a Swede, and one of my brothers is married to an English girl. We Holfords may have a strong streak of German, but grafted in are English and Scottish, and a little further away the Irish, but they are another story.

In the mid nineteenth century when our German ancestors left Europe, there were four families in England whose descendants would be grafted into our tree. The first was the Stacey family. William Stacey was born in Bedford, north of London, in 1831. He married Caroline Hedge and they had two sons, George and William. Caroline died at a relatively young age and the boys were left motherless. When he was 16 George left England forever and settled in Australia, while his younger brother William remained with his father in England. George later married Mary Atkinson, an Australian born girl from Berrima, New South Wales and they settled in Goulburn. Their first child, Florence, married Charles Holdorf. George’s father, William, still in England, remarried and moved to London. He was a shoemaker, so he presumably did not live in poverty, but his life was unlikely to have been easy. He never saw his first son, George, again. What prompted George to leave at such an early age is uncertain. Another story waiting to be uncovered.

The second of the Victorian families was named Ross. James Ross was born in 1827 in Scotland. He married Mary Marston and they moved to Birkenhead, near Liverpool where they started a family. One son was named William and he was a child when the family migrated to Australia. As a young man he married Alice Hickson and together they had five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, Winifred. She married Charles Holford, my grandfather.

The third family was that of George Lilley and his wife who I believe was called Mary. George was born in 1839 in Surrey, south of London. He was a farm worker. They had a son, George Frederick David, born around 1876. The younger George changed his name from Lilley to Simmonds, and married Mabel Butler. They had five children, the first of which was my grandfather, my mother’s family. He would migrate to Australia after the First World War, in 1923. His daughter Gwen would marry my father.

The fourth family, and the one I have the most information on, was the Butlers of Bristol. Mabel, as I mentioned, married George Simmonds. Her father, Ephraim, was born near Nottingham in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. He was one of a large family and his oldest brother, William, became rich and famous through his tar distillery in Bristol. That story has been partly told, but since I have more information on this family there will be more stories to follow. Ephraim followed his brother to Bristol and became a shopkeeper, selling umbrellas I believe. He married a Bristol girl called Jane Coombs and they had three daughters, the youngest of which was Mabel. However, only the first two were born in England because Ephraim and Jane decided to migrate to South Africa in the late 1860s. Jane died tragically in childbirth with Mabel, who never knew her mother. Her father, a few years later decided to return to England with his three daughters, but also died tragically on the voyage home. The three girls were orphans and were taken in by the family. Mabel’s story has also been partly told elsewhere in this blog, but there are still lots of gaps to fill in, more stories to tell.

Four Victorian families are therefore a part of our family history: the Staceys, the Rosses, the Lilleys and the Butlers. The first three were poor, the last was rich. Probably the reason I have most information on the Butlers is precisely this: their wealth. Wealthy people have always tended to leave more traces of themselves than the poor. However, the branch of the Butler family from which I am descended fell on hard times and ended up poor, with the seemingly inevitable result: emigration to Australia. The fortunes of these families were very different and each illustrates a different aspect of what it meant to be English in the nineteenth century, in the Victorian era. I hope to be able to tell more of their stories in the entries to follow.


Florence Stacey (Florence Holdorf) 1878-1908

My father never met his grandmother, Florence Stacey, who died in 1908, many years before Dad was born (1933). Writing about his family background in July 2013 Dad noted:

My father was Charles John Stacey Holford, born July 7,1899 in Goulburn… He lived in Goulburn until his mother, Florence Caroline Holdorf (Stacey) died April 8, 1908 of typhoid fever, three weeks after her youngest son (Eric) was born… I know little about my grandmother except that she came from another shopkeeping family (the Staceys) in Auburn St., Goulburn. She was very beautiful, but was apparently treated badly by my grandfather who had a bad temper. She is buried in a prominent position in Goulburn cemetery where my grandfather is also buried beside her.

In an email from Dad, dated 6 December 2014, he again says:

I was told my grandfather had a bad temper and gave his wife a hard time. My grandmother was a sweet, gentle, sensitive woman so it must have been hard for her.

I have often wondered about Florence Stacey, the first born of George and Mary Stacey of Goulburn. Who was this sweet, gentle, sensitive and beautiful woman who married my great grandfather when she was just 20? What was her childhood like, how did she meet Charles Holdorf and why did she marry him? Was their life together really as hard for her as my father seems to suggest? What does it mean that Charles had a bad temper? What was life really like at the dawn of the twentieth century in the small rural community of Goulburn, NSW?

Florence was the first of nine children. Her father George Stacey had arrived in Australia from England in 1869, having left his home town of Bedford when he was only 16. Why he left is uncertain, but his early life had not been easy. The 1861 England census records him living with his father and his younger brother as lodgers with another family in central Bedford, in a road along which I have driven a number of times over recent years without the slightest idea that an ancestor of mine had lived there 160 years ago. So George Stacey at age 8 was motherless, a common experience for children in Victorian England, in a time when medical care was neither very effective nor universally available, and when women died often from the complications of childbirth. When he was 16 he left England forever. His father remarried and moved to London. What kind of contact they had after that is uncertain.

George somehow came to Goulburn where in his mid twenties he married Mary Atkinson, a girl a few years older than him from Berrima, NSW. According to his funeral notice, “[George] opened business as a grocer in the old Emu Stores adjoining the historic Emu Inn… Twenty years later he moved into his own store a few doors further along the street and for 22 years he carried on business there.” The following is a photo dated around 1905 of the new Stacey store in Auburn Street, which was sent me by Vicki Holford Reevey, another descendent of the Holdorf line. The wording on the facade clearly states that the business was established in 1882. At the time of taking this photo, the building was just three years old.
Stacey's circa 1905
The three men in the photo are from left to right Florence’s oldest brother Percy, born 1880, her father George Stacey, who was by the time of this photo 52 years of age, and one of the Holdorfs, though I am unsure which one. Vicki thought it was John Holdorf, but he died in 1898 so that cannot be the case. It seems most likely that it is Charles Holdorf, the first born of the ten Holdorf children, the one who Florence married. Charles was born in 1869 so would have been 36 at the time of this photo, seven years after he and Florence had married. According to my father, Charles was a travelling salesman for McMurtrey’s Shoes, but before he married he lived with his parents above their store, which was also in Auburn Street and was a drapers and general grocers store.

It is possible that the two families were close. Charles was nine years older than Florence but they grew up in the same little community, in the young town of Goulburn, and both were the children of shopkeepers in Auburn Street. Charles parents were German immigrants, while Florence’s father was English, married to a native Australian. John Holdorf (born 1828) was 25 years older than George Stacey (born 1853) but their respective wives were much closer in age (Caroline Holdorf was born in 1847, Mary Stacey in 1850) and may well have been good friends. Caroline was also probably a good deal more “Australian” than her German husband John: she was 9 when she arrived in Australia, but John was 28. But despite the difference in their ages John and George did have one thing in common: they were both masons, members presumably of the same Goulburn order of Oddfellows.

Charles was the first son of a prominent shopkeeper in Goulburn, Florence the first daughter of another. They tied the knot in 1898, when Florence was 20 and Charles 29, the same year that Charles’ father, John Holdorf died, aged 70, leaving his mother Caroline (who was only 52) a widow. Interestingly, John’s funeral notice records that a wreath was sent by Miss FC Stacey, though none from other Stacey family members is mentioned. Florence, just 19, was presumably already engaged to Charles.

Florence and Charles lived in Goulburn and had five children, the first of which was my grandfather, born in 1899. Charles was a travelling salesman and a part time soldier. Florence was at home raising the family. She died on 8 April 1908, after they had been married 10 years, 3 weeks after the birth of Eric, her fifth child. Grandpa was 9 years old. The five children and their father, Charles Holdorf, moved to Sydney after Florence’s death, where they lived with their grandmother, Caroline. Caroline was 62 years old in 1908 and had already raised 11 children and now she had to raise Florence and Charles’ five as well.

Florence is buried in Goulburn Cemetery. She never saw her children grow up. Her husband Charles lived out his remaining days in Sydney initially with his mother who cared for the children when he sailed off to Europe during WW1, where he served in Egypt and France. He returned to Australia and changed his name to Holford. His five children grew up and married, one by one. His mother died in 1924. Charles himself died in 1954, after being a widower for 46 years. It is hard to know why he treated his beautiful young wife badly, but one thing seems certain, she was the only woman ever to capture his heart. When Charles died his body was returned to Goulburn, where he is buried beside his wife.

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