Slipping into family history research
My fascination with history began when we moved as a family to England. I was 9 years old and until then my life revolved mainly around the country town in NSW where I had lived since age 3, when my parents returned to Australia from the islands. I do not remember ever thinking about history prior to that; perhaps as children there is so much to fascinate in the present that the past has not the opportunity to push itself into our consciousness. Tamworth is not an old town, at least not in terms of its European history, dating as it does only from the mid 1800s. Antiquity does not exactly leap out at you there. But in England history was all around me. I could not ignore it.
As a young boy growing up in rural Australia I was aware that I was a little different to my school-friends, since I was born in Fiji and had spent my first years in those idyllic islands, though my memories of those tears are sparse. My Australian parents had moved to Fiji in the 1950s, not long after they married. Dad had secured a job with CSR – Colonial Sugar Refineries – as a soil chemist. Fiji was still part of the British Empire in those days, and years later when I began thinking about such things I found myself wondering if I was really British. I didn’t really feel Fijian, but neither was I quite as Australian as my peers. Then, to add to the confusion, in the years when I was still coming unconsciously to some kind of understanding of who I was we moved to England, and though we only lived there three years I remember thinking when we left that it was more home to me than Australia.
I have no copy of my birth certificate, though I suppose that somewhere in the government records of Fiji my birth is recorded. Many years later, in my twenties, I began to think that it would be good to be able to go back to England to work, but being aware of the stringent requirements for work visas in the UK it occurred to me that if I procured a copy of my birth certificate showing that I was born in Fiji when it was still British, I could possibly claim British citizenship. I was in Fiji for a week or so in 1987 on route to Tonga, so I looked up the government offices in Suva where I thought such documents might be archived. But there were too many people, and it was confusing and foreign, and I was keen to do other things during my short stay in the islands, so I gave up that search almost before I began.
I arrived in England a little more than a year later on an Australian passport but without a Fijian birth certificate, and was greeted with suspicion at the customs checkpoint at Heathrow Airport when I announced my intention to work while in the UK. After much discussion I was given a working holiday visa, by an official who probably thought I was too disorganized to pose any real threat to the British job market, but I determined then that I would try another way of getting citizenship, namely by tracking down my English born grandfather’s birth certificate. I had thought of this possibility before, but Mum did not have a copy of the certificate and though she knew perfectly well that her father was English, she had no documentary evidence to prove it. I reasoned that if I could find the original at the registry of births in London then I could apply for British citizenship based on my ancestry.
So began my search for my maternal grandfather, George Simmonds, a man I had never known, because he died years before I was born. And so began my interest in family history, an interest that has waxed and waned over the intervening years. Family history is an exciting pursuit, not least because it takes me into bygone times that are not just subjects for boring history books, but the worlds that my ancestors lived in. Suddenly all those events become important and riveting, as I realize that they were the experience of my own family, and not just some faceless mass of humanity. History is made by people, and every person has a story, though most of those stories are lost to time even if they were exciting and unusual in themselves.
This blog is my attempt to tell some of those stories, stories largely untold and forgotten, and there will no doubt be a deal of conjecture and imagination. I have collected notes and documents and some photos over the years, as have various others in my immediate family. The internet gives me the opportunity to share some of them with the rest of the world, since my ancestry is not just mine but belongs to others too. Who knows but that others might find something here that helps them to better know their background, and it is my hope that I will gain new insights too from some who chance upon these pages and take the time to leave a comment.
The backbone of this blog is the Holford line. Our name originated as Holtorp in a part of northern Europe called Holstein, at the base of the Jutland Peninsula. For hundreds of years Holstein was part of the so called Holy Roman Empire, but early in the 1800s it became part of the German Federation, though it was still officially under the rule of the Danish monarchy. The name evolved to become Holtorf, then Holdorf, and finally, almost a hundred years ago, Holford.
However, if the Holford line is the trunk of the tree, then there are lots of branches which bear other family names. These come from the women who have married into this tree, since not once has a man of the family decided to take his wife’s maiden name as the family name (a practice that is almost unknown in Australia but is not unusual in Sweden). Through my mother have come the names of Simmonds, Byrne, Butler and Hickson. Through my grandmother there have come Ross and Hickson, Marston and Watts. My great grandmother brought also the names Stacey and Atkinson, Hedge and Harper. The generation before that grafted the Fischer family into the tree, and they came from Scherers and Walters. Another generation back there were the names Köhnke and Lentfer. My wife is a Berggren, and tracing back through her family we find Grefs and Hållvells.
The Holford line traces back to Germany, or more specifically to the Duchy of Holstein when it was still part of Denmark. The first Holford to leave Europe (Johann Holtorf in 1856) married another German migrant (Caroline Fischer) after they had both come to Australia. However, the Stacey and Simmonds lines were English and the Rosses came from Scotland. The Irish have also contributed much to our family: the Hicksons and the Byrnes were from Ireland. Finally, in my own generation there are Swedes, and if instead of following the Holford line back we follow my wife Maria’s ancestors we find even Vallons from Belgium.
Our roots are, in other words, thoroughly European, and northern European at that. I started this blog when we were living in Sweden, but I suspect that it will continue to develop long after we leave. So though our roots are European, the highest branches are mostly Australian. The Australian part of the tree is still growing.