Forgotten tales

stories of my family

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.

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