Our Holford family has European roots. At the time of writing (2016) we live in Australia, a country which for the last 230 years has received wave after wave of European settlers, to the curiosity, then bewilderment, then alarm of the local inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. The first settlers were unwilling – the criminal class of Georgian Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s forcibly removed from their native lands of England and Ireland and transported under guard in wooden ships to the far side of the world.

By the beginning of the 1800s free settlers were beginning to join them, citizens of the British Empire who felt a new start in a distant land offered more opportunities than their homes could ever offer. The nineteenth century was a time of unprecendented change in Europe with industrial revolution, population growth, technological change, the building of massive empires, political revolution and armed conflict and religious revival and persecution. All of these factors played a part in the frenzy of emigration from the old countries.

The English and Irish may have formed the core of the first European inhabitants of Australia, but they were quickly followed by the Scots and the Germans, with smaller contingents of other northern European nations. The gold rushes saw the arrival of many Chinese. Southern Europeans came in smaller numbers: the biggest influx of southern and eastern Europeans came in the twentieth century as a result of the two global conflicts that turned the world upside down. Of course the disenchanted of Great Britain and Ireland have continued to come throughout these two hundred years, and do so still. The last fifty years have seen new immigrant groups swarming into Australia, from the Balkans, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Our Holford family grew out of the migrations of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and represent a blending of four different nations: England, Germany, Scotland and Ireland. When Maria and I married in 1993 a fifth European nation was introduced into the mix – Sweden. Only time will tell whether more nations will join the European stock in future generations, and whether they will be European.

Holstein, Hesse and Bavaria

The Holford name was introduced to Australia in the 1850s when a German speaking farmer from the Duchy of Holstein sailed out of Hamburg, arriving in Sydney in 1857. His name was Johann Holtorf, but he made himself known as John Holdorf when he arrived in his new country. Although he was German speaking, there was no Germany as we know it in the 1850s, rather a collection of German speaking states: duchies and kingdoms. Johann Holtorf’s homeland was under the authority of the Danish monarch, but pressure from the giant Prussia in the south was already starting to be felt. Prussian ascendency in the unification of the German speaking states over the subsequent generation seems not to have been something that Johann was particularly enthusiastic about, and may well have been a strong motivating factor for his departure for the New World.

Johann married another German migrant, Caroline Fischer, born in Bavaria, but raised in Hesse. She had come out as a child with her parents and brothers, arriving a few years before John. After their marriage in Sydney in 1869, John and Caroline settled in Goulburn, where he became a general merchant. Their first son, Charles Holdorf, grew up in country New South Wales and developed a strong liking for the army, volunteering  for the local militia, in which he rose to the rank of Captain, while building a career as a travelling salesman.

Born in 1869, Charles was really too old for service when the First World War broke out in 1914. However, at the age of 46 he sailed for Europe in 1915, and saw service as an officer on the Western Front, notably at Fromelles. It was a life changing experience for him as for so many others. He saw himself as fighting the Prussians, from whom his father had escaped so many years before when he left Holstein. On his return to Australia Charles attempted to remove the German from his heritage by changing his name to a good English one, and not too different from the one he was born with – Holford.


The English name Holford became our family’s name in 1917 and reflects the struggle for identity faced by so many Australians in the early years of the twentieth century, itself a reflection perhaps of the nation’s struggle for identity. Was Charles really trying to become English, or was he just embracing the predominantly English identity of Australian culture at that time? The latter seems more likely.

But the English heritage of our family does not start with the Holford name, nor in 1857 when John Holdorf came to Australia.

Charles Holdorf had married a girl who like him was born and raised in Goulburn. Her name was Florence Stacey, the pretty daughter of an English migrant from Bedford, north of London. George Stacey was, like John Holdorf, a shopkeeper in Goulburn, though he was a good deal younger than Holdorf. George had come out to Australia at the age of 15, arriving in 1869. He married Louisa Atkinson, a second generation Australian, whose grandfather, John Atkinson, had, I believe, been transported to Australia as a convict. After he had served his time, Atkinson had settled in the Berrima area of NSW south west of Sydney.

The convict John Atkinson, then, appears to have been the first in or family line to have arrived in Australia,but uncertainty exists in my mind as to the details. There were at least two convicts by this name who arrived in Sydney prior to 1820. The first was Irish and the second English. I believe it was the latter, the Englishman, who was our ancestor. He appears to have arrived on a ship called the Neptune in 1817. In 1824, when he had served his seven year sentence, he married a Sydney girl called Jane Reibey, but whether she was Australian born or otherwise, and whether she came of convict stock, I have not have been able to find out at this point.

John Atkinson is not the only English (assuming I have the right one) convict in our family tree. The other was William Watts, born in 1806 in Wiltshire, and transported to Australia in 1830. William married an Irish convict girl, Mary Magenity, from County Down in Ireland, born in 1818 and transported to Australia at the age of 18, arriving in 1836. They married in 1839. Which branch of the tree the Watts family sits on will be explained later (see below under Ireland).

The decision in England to use Australia as a prison, and the penal colony that this decision led to, has been the subject of many books. The experiences of the convicts and the relationship between convict and free settler has also been explored in detail. Our family’s part in this story is something that I have yet to discover, but will hopefully provide the material of some of the stories on this blog.

The earliest branches of our family tree to arrive in Australia were therefore convicts, English and Irish. After the 1830s, however, arrivals from England take a back seat in the development of our family. Germans immigrants, as mentioned above, played the major role in the 1850s. In the 1860s it was the Scottish, and in the 1870s, 80s and 90s the Irish. Then there was a lull in new arrivals until 1923 when my English grandfather, George Simmonds, arrived in 1923. He was born in 1905, to parents who were products of the Victorian age in England, his mother having come from the rising middle class, his father a farm labourer. His early life was dominated by the Great War, so his world was light years away from that inhabited by our earlier English ancestors. Before he died at the young age of fifty he had lived through another world war, though illness prevented him from fighting.


James Ross grew up in the Highlands of Easter Ross, north of Inverness. He was born (in 1827) into a land going through a painful transformation that has come to be known as the Highland Clearances. His youth was characterised by the repeated evictions of thousands of Highlanders from their ancestral homes. The valley of the Carron River in which he was born and raised was not spared, and many Rosses were banished to the ends of the earth. James’ family were spared the ignominy of being turned off their land by unsympathetic lairds, since his father was a blacksmith and they lived in a little village (Gledfield near Ardgay), not as subsistence farmers higher up in the mountains. However, sometime between 1843 and 1851 James decided to leave the Highlands and move south to England. He subsequently married an English girl, and they settled initially in Wales, later moving to Birkenhead, near Liverpool. James was a carpenter, though he came from a family of blacksmiths.

In 1866 James and his wife, with their four children, migrated to Australia. What prompted their departure is hard to know, but they were joining a massive relocation of Scots to Australia during the Victorian age. In fact, James was following the lead of two of his younger siblings who had gone out to Australia some years earlier. Both had married in Australia and settled in the country, around the Bellinger Valley on the north coast of New South Wales, near Coffs Harbour. James, however, remained in Sydney all his life. They had four more children after they had settled in Sydney. It was his fourth child, William Ross, born in Birkenhead, England, who was my great grandfather.


John Hickson was born in Killorglin, County Kerry, in 1848. He came from an Anglo-Irish family that had connections to the Kerry gentry. He liked to refer to a house called The Grove in Dingle as the “ancestral seat,” and could no doubt trace his heritage back to the original Hicksons who had come out to Kerry from England in the 1500s during the reign of Elizabeth I, as part of the so called “Irish plantations.”

John was the youngest in the Hickson family. He came to Australia in 1870 at the age of 22 and made a fortune as a timber merchant. By the middle of the 1890s he was able to retire and live on his investments, though he was by then only in his mid forties.

John was not the first in his family to leave Ireland. Five of his older siblings had gone out before him, the first, his oldest sister, as early as 1853, not long after the ravages of the Potato Famine. Three other sisters and a brother had followed that first Hickson, and John arrived in 1870. He was by far the most financially successful of the Hickson family and there is a lot of information available about him. He lived until the age of 97 and died in the final months of the Second World War.

However, though he was the youngest, John was not the last of the Hicksons to come to Australia. His oldest brother, William, some 15 years his senior, had married in 1858 in Kerry when John was just a boy. William had married Mary Needham, of Templenoe, near Sneem. The Hicksons had lived in Sneem for a period, though exactly when and why is uncertain.

The Needham family was a big one and almost all of the ten children migrated, but unlike the Hicksons they went to North America. Mary and William were part of this move, leaving in 1865, seven years after their marriage. By that time they had three children, the second of which, Suzie, was my great grandmother.

When William and Mary left, William’s father went with them, leaving 17 year old John as the only one of that Hickson family remaining in Ireland. William and Mary lived in America for 12 years, during which time William’s father died, the same year as John Hickson left Ireland for Australia. John became convinced that his older brother William would be much better off there too and eventually persuaded William and Mary to come to Australia, where they arrived with their seven children in 1878. They had lived around Boston for 12 years.

William’s oldest daughter Suzie married another Irish migrant from Kerry, a certain George Byrne. He came from Killarney but had lived in Killorglin for some years before he came out to Australia, apprenticed to John Hickson’s best friend in the home country. George and Suzie Byrne had five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, Gertie. She in turn married my English grandfather, George Simmonds.

John Hickson had married Martha Watts, a daughter of the convicts William and Mary Watts (see above), shortly after his arrival in Sydney. Their oldest daughter, Alice, married William Ross (see above) and they also had five daughters, one of whom was my other grandmother, Win. She married Charles Holford, my other grandfather. So there are Hicksons on both my mother and my father’s sides of the family tree.

Why did they leave Ireland? It is hard to be sure, but the Famine that had devastated Ireland for many years no doubt had a strong psychological effect on the hundreds of thousands leaving the country in the 1840s and 50s, which was when the Hicksons began to depart. There was also the fact that they were Protestants in the predominantly Catholic county of Kerry. There is a strong suggestion that a revival in Kerry in the 1860s affected both the Needhams and the Hicksons, and very likely the Byrnes too, resulting in a strong streak of non-conformism of the Brethren variety in these families (though not apparently in John Hickson’s family), so there may well have been religious pressures on them too.

All of our Irish ancestors were so called Anglo-Irish, and though they appear to have been in Ireland for centuries, there was growing feeling amongst the majority against this part of the Irish population. All things considered, with reports of a freer existence with greater opportunities for advancement, America and Australia seemed to promise a better future for the Hicksons, the Needhams and the Byrnes as they pondered the future.


Since the 1890s no more Irish have found their way into the Holford family. We were well established as a German-English-Scottish-Irish dynasty by the beginning of the twentieth century. My grandfather, who came out from England in 1923 only strengthened this.

However, in 1993 I married a Swede, Maria Berggren. Not long after we married we moved to Australia and in the 23 years since then we have lived ten years in Sweden, eleven years in Australia, and two years on a charity ship called the Anastasis. I have barely scraped the surface of researching the Swedish side of our family, but there is doubtless a whole list of fascinating stories there too.

Who knows what will be the next nation to be added to the Holford mix.

Lands of origin with family names of research interest on this blog:

  • Holstein (German speaking Denmark): Holtorf, Holtorp, Holdorf, Holford
  • Bavaria and Hesse (Germany): Fischer
  • England: Atkinson, Stacey, Watts, Marston, Simmonds (Lilley), Butler
  • Scotland: Ross
  • Ireland: Magenity, Hickson, Carter, Needham, Byrne
  • Sweden: Berggren, Gref