Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “Australia”

Alice Hickson 1872-1962?

Who was Alice Hickson?
Alice Hickson was Dad’s grandmother. She was born in 1872 in Waterloo, in the inner suburbs of Sydney. She married William Ross in 1895 and they had five daughters, one of whom was my grandmother, Winifred Ross, Dad’s mother. Although Dad was hardly aware of it when he was a child, his mother told him later her parents’ marriage had not been an easy one. William was a good deal older than Alice, having been born in 1861 in England. His parents had come out to Australia as unassisted migrants in 1866. Gran told Dad that her mother had given her father a hard time. I’m not sure what that means.

William Ross died in 1939 when Dad was 6 years old. Five years after her husband died, Alice, by then over seventy, remarried. She was married to her second husband barely two years when he died, in 1946. Alice outlived her second husband by some 15 years, dying I believe when she was around 90 (though I have not been able to find a document with the date of her death). She never married again. I have wondered what is the story behind these two marriages, the first for forty four years, the second for two. Was Alice equally as hard on her second husband as her first? Or had she matured enough by her seventies to treat her second husband better? Who was this man she married when they were both in their seventies? What brought them together?

Who was this Alice Hickson, my great grandmother? What was her story? What kind of person was she? I am starting to piece together a picture of her, but there are still many blanks.

Alice’s parents and siblings
Martha Hickson, Alice’s mother, was Australian born to an English father, William Watts, and an Irish mother, Mary Magenity. Both of Martha’s parents were convicts. They had married in Australia in 1839, while Mary was still serving time, and had 11 children. Martha was their sixth child, born in 1848. Around 1870, when Martha was 22, a young Irishman, recently arrived in Sydney, came to lodge with the Watts family. His name was John Hickson and less than two years later he and Martha were married, in Balmain. Alice, their first born, arrived at the end of that same year, 1872.

John became a successful timber merchant and real estate developer in Sydney. According to Anthony Hickson (who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hicksons, much of which can be found on his website), John “worked with George Hudson when he first came to Sydney, but soon (perhaps through contact with the Breckenridges, who had timber interests at Forster and that north coast area) had his own timber mill at Nabiac NSW, and on Darling Harbour, Sydney, and later a timber yard at Burwood.” By the time he was forty-five he had amassed enough of a fortune to effectively retire and live on his investments. These “independent means” appear to have supported him for the next fifty years. He and Martha had eleven children, though one of them died in childhood. They lived in Enfield, in Sydney’s inner west, just south of Strathfield, in a house called The Grove, after John’s ancestral seat in County Kerry, Ireland.

The 11 Hickson children were as follows: Alice (1872-1962?), Edith (1874-1957), George (1876-1948), Mabel (1877-1953), Maud (1879-1883), Herbert (1881-1930), Enfield (1883-1964), Percy (1885-1967), Eunice (1888-1973), Hilda (1890-1970), and Richard (1893-1965). These were my grandmother’s aunts and uncles on her mother’s side. There were many more on her father’s side, but that is another story. There are, understandably, many Hickson descendants though I have not met any of them.

1893
1893 was a significant year in the Hickson family. John Hickson turned forty five, and the last of the eleven Hickson children was born. It would seem that in a sense both John and his wife Martha retired that year – John from his work as a timber merchant, and Martha from childbearing. Alice, their firstborn, turned 21 that year. She also fell in love with an Irish migrant, Richard (Dick) Byrne, who had recently arrived from the very same area as her father had come some twenty three years earlier. Dick’s older brother, George Byrne, who had come out to Australia 10 years earlier, was married to Alice’s cousin, Suzie (Hickson) Byrne, so it is not hard to imagine how they met.

Dick and Alice wanted to marry, but Alice’s father was strongly opposed to their union. Exactly why is hard to know. John could not have known Dick before he left Ireland since Dick was born the same year that John sailed away. However, it is fairly certain that John knew Dick’s parents back in Ireland, and it seems sure that he did not approve of them. I suspect it was simply a matter of class. Dick’s parents were ordinary people, and it would seem that John looked down on them. He wanted someone better for his daughter Alice. Even if his own wife was of convict stock, John looked back on a more distinguished Irish ancestry, and he wanted the best for Alice. Dick Byrne, as far he was concerned, was simply not good enough.

His solution was to separate the young lovers. He proposed a world trip, to the World Fair in Chicago, and then to the old country. He took Alice with him, but left the rest of the family at home, including his wife and their newly born son. I imagine Alice had mixed feelings about this. To travel around the world must have seemed an exciting adventure. But to leave her suitor behind, knowing that her father was determined to separate them, must have seemed cruel.

They were away for six months, from April to October, 1893. It would seem John’s strategy worked, because a year and a half after their return Alice did marry, not Dick Byrne but William Ross, my great grandfather.

Alice Ross
William was eleven years older than Alice, and a successful accountant. They had five daughters, one of which was my grandmother, Winifred Ross, born in 1901. They moved to Mosman in the early 1900s where they lived at 75 Raglan Street. They were married forty four years when William died in 1939. After William died Alice went to live with her daughter Ethel (Ep), in Northbridge, next door to my father, who was a little boy then. Alice Ross was around 67 at the time. Dad remembers her from his childhood.

Dick Byrne
So what happened to the young Irishman who Alice had been so in love with? In 1895, shortly after Alice’s marriage to William, Dick also married. He had met a young lady called Victoria Gray, the daughter of a couple both originally from Northern Ireland, but who had married in Wollongong and lived on the south coast of NSW. Victoria was born in Kiama, but when she and Dick married they settled in Drummoyne, not too far from William and Alice Ross, who lived in Burwood in Sydney’s inner west before they moved to Mosman. Dick and Victoria had a long and happy marriage and had seven children. Victoria died in 1941 leaving Dick a widow.

Alice Byrne
The flame between Alice and Dick had apparently never been extinguished. In 1944 Alice and Dick, both in their seventies, were finally united. Alice’s father, John Hickson, was still alive, by that time married for the third time, Alice’s mother having died in 1911. John was still opposed to his daughter’s union with Dick Byrne and it is said that he never forgave her. He died the following year, in 1945, just before the end of the war. Dick died in July 1946, leaving Alice a widow for the second time. They had been together barely two years.

Alone with her memories
Exactly when Alice died I have been unable to ascertain, but the electoral roll for 1958 shows her to have been living again in Mosman at the family residence, 75 Raglan Street. One public family tree on Ancestry.com indicates that she died in 1962, but my father is uncertain of this date, and I have not found any documentary source to verify it.

However, I have come across a passenger list of arrivals in Australia in July 1949 which clearly states that Alice Byrne, of 75 Raglan Street, Mosman arrived in Fremantle from London. It would seem, then, that Alice returned to the old country in her old age a few years after Dick died. Where she went and what she did is uncertain. Did she visit Ireland again, where she had been so many years before? Did she meet relatives of her late husband still living there? What did she think as she walked the streets of Killorglin, where her father was born, and Killarney, where her second husband grew up?

Or did she go to Scotland, which she had also visited as a 21 year old with her father? Her first father-in-law, James Ross, came from the Highlands, north of Inverness, and perhaps she was curious to explore that part of her heritage. She had not been to the Highlands with her father, their journey having been limited to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the country they saw from the train between the two cities.

Alice Hickson-Ross-Byrne was 77 when she returned to Australia in the winter of 1949. She lived out her days in Mosman within calling distance of four of her daughters who all lived in Sydney. One of her daughters had moved to Melbourne. My father remembers seeing his grandmother Alice from time to time.

My parents’ Hickson connection
When Dad married Mum in 1958, Alice was a grand old lady of Mosman. Although Dad seemed to have been unaware of it at the time, the girl he married, my mother Gwen Simmonds, was the granddaughter of Alice’s cousin, Susie Hickson (Byrne).

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 (dictionaryofsydney.org)

Sydney Heads around 1850 (dictionaryofsydney.org)

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.

Eden: oysters and chickens

NSW Coast. Hard not to like...

NSW Coast. Hard not to like…

The Caesar made its first landfall in Australia at Twofold Bay, near Eden on the south coast of NSW. Ernst Middendorf’s relief is palpable, and understandable in light of the length of the voyage that preceded it. Like generations of Europeans since then, he is enchanted by the wonderful beach. Here is his description:

Straightaway on the following day we made use of the permission to visit the coast. Our boats came and went unceasingly. It is a singularly joyful feeling when, after so long a journey, one feels for the first time solid ground underfoot once more. To the voyager, even a barren worthless rock seems a welcome resting place after the unchanging sameness of sky and water. I observed with great interest all the small details while we sprang over the rocks onto the sand, the various small shells which were almost all washed to pieces by the tide, the marine growths on the bottom, and the rock, which exuded a characteristic smell because it was low tide when we first landed.

His euphoria is tempered by his first encounter with the Australian bush, and the gum trees that are beloved by so may of us who have grown up in Australia. Middendorf seems quite unimpressed:

Then we climbed up the steep incline which enclosed the whole bay and came to the woods. I roamed around in the woodland for a couple of hours. Everything was new to me, everything was interesting, but there was nothing that was agreeable or beautiful. In the case of Australia’s forest, you must not imagine the charming gloom and high vault of a mixed beech grove, or even less the interwoven chaos of a primeval American forest. There is no shadow and no cool. High whitish trunks of very hard wood stand at considerable distance from one another. Above, they divide into a few spare boughs and these in turn put forth meagre branches of the same nature, on which finally the foliage grows in thin clumps. The leaves are mostly lancet-shaped and hang vertically. They are thick, stiff and dry. I don’t remember even once seeing a beautiful grouping of foliage. The undergrowth in the forests is scanty. Mostly it is veritable bare sand between the trunks, as the sun’s rays falling between the strange thin leafage dries everything and doesn’t even allow grass to grow. The appearance becomes a little better if you get to a somewhat watered depression, but just when does that happen?

Leaving the disappointing hinterland behind he returns to the enchanting coastline, and its unexpected culinary delights (and medical wonders)…

When I had returned from the woods to the shore after my excursion, I discovered some oysters and brought a few to the Captain… the fishing was extraordinarily productive and delivered some exemplary kinds. Between the rocks on the beach there were lobsters and crabs, and in addition we later found great banks of oysters of a particular type that was finer by far than the English natives, with the result that I soon forgot my former antipathy to these poor animals and did full justice to them. On one expedition the Captain and I gobbled about 300 of them. The whole world ate oysters, down to the smallest child; I gave an appetite back the convalescents with oysters. In addition to this, some very good mutton and beef was delivered to us from the land, and so the Captain kept our passengers busy on shore felling trees, as he wanted to use them for ballast because of their great hardness and weight.

Dr Middendorf was moderately positive about the locals and their living conditions, and gives a good picture of life in rural Australia in the 1850s which sounds rather primitive now, but was probably not worse than the situations that most migrants had come from.

… we went ashore at once to inspect the town. It is mostly small cottages built from planks with the cracks plastered over, smaller than our Thuringian farm houses, but clean and tidy to the highest degree, I have to say, with much more comfort than in those cottages at home. I went into several and was received in a very friendly fashion. A main room serves for kitchen, living room and receiving visitors. In the background is the huge fireplace, neatly painted and decorated with shells; around it like a frame hang the cleanly polished utensils. From the chimney hang iron pots and hooks, and on one of these the steaming tea kettle sways over the glowing coals. The chickens have the freedom to wander through the room, but they are very well-mannered and respectable; I didn’t see anything that would have been an offence against cleanliness.

In the town of Eden there is also an inn, very fine and distinguished, where we drank good London porter. Apart from this, Eden is no paradise…

A lasting impression of Australia: well mannered and respectable chickens!

The joy and the pain of nationality

Last night I watched the WW1 film, Passchendaele. It is a film about relationships, and the effect that war has on them. Not just that, but it is about family and identity, a film that asks questions about who we are and the decisions we make. It is a story about the Canadian involvement in the war, and made me think of Australians who similarly found themselves fighting a European war on the other side of the world. The brutal backdrop of the Passchendaele campaign provides stark relief for the issues the film raises.

My great grandfather, Charles Holdorf, was a Major in the 8th Infantry Brigade, 30th Infantry Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force in World War 1. He was 46 years old when he embarked for France on the troopship Beltana on the 9th November 1915. He was a widower, his wife Florence having died of typhoid in 1908 at the age of 30, after bearing five children. He left the children, one of whom was my grandfather, with their grandmother, Caroline Holdorf, a native of southern Germany. In 1915, when Charles departed for Europe, Grandpa would have been 16. Charles did not fight at Passchendaele but at Fromelles, a much less known campaign of the First World War, and one about which no films have been made, but where thousands of Australians lost their lives just the same.

Those are the facts, and I couldn’t help wondering as I watched the film last night, about how it was to grow up in Sydney during WW1 with a German grandmother, when Australia was at war with Germany. In fact, Grandpa’s father didn’t change the family name to Holford until he returned from Europe, so as a child my grandfather too had a German surname, which he took to school with him every day. His father, meanwhile, was in France fighting against the land of his parents’ birth. How must that have felt? The brutality of war, the deep emotional wounds that are inflicted with the loss of comrades all around, leads so often to hatred of the enemy.

But Charles Holdorf had grown up in a German home, his father from northern Germany, close to the Danish border, his mother from Bavaria, so he must have known many German customs, have eaten German food, perhaps even spoke German, just as my Australian born children know Swedish and Sweden, their mother’s language and homeland. Charles must surely have loved Germany as the land of his parents, but suddenly his country of birth was at war with his parents’ country of birth. He was a soldier. He found himself in France fighting his parents’ countrymen. What happened in his heart as he saw his friends die all around him? How did he reconcile his love for his parents with the hate for Germans which was growing all around him, perhaps even in his own heart? And how was it for Grandpa, going to school with boys whose fathers were falling in battle at the hands of the German enemy? Children can be cruel. Did his friends begin to see even Grandpa as the enemy? Not to mention his German grandmother, with whom he lived.

As a child I was unaware of such things. I never asked Grandpa how it was to grow up in Sydney 100 years ago. I never even realised that he was of German ancestry until I was much older. His name, like mine, was of course English, at least after his father returned in 1917 and had the family name changed. I understand that name change now. I’m sure there were many German names changed at the time. After all, the British royal family changed their name, setting an example for many others. What a relief that must have been for Grandpa, to be recategorised as English.

But what of Caroline, his grandmother, did she change her name too? How did she think of her native land? She was 67 when the war broke out and over 70 when it ended. Germany must have seemed a long time in the past for her. Perhaps it had become so remote that she no longer thought of it as her native land. Perhaps she was thoroughly Australian. She must have been bewildered by the actions of the land of her birth. Overwhelmed by the pain of the conflict that must have taken the sons of not just her Australian neighbours, but her German relatives who happened not to have migrated just when she did. Her husband, thankfully, did not live to see the world plunged into the flames of that terrible conflict, having died in 1898 when Caroline was only 51 years old.

The film Passchendaele touches on some of these questions, but ultimately is a love story, about love across artificial barriers of identity that can so easily jump up from nowhere. It paints a picture of the futility and stupidity of war, of fighting and killing people that are ultimately just like ourselves, but happened to have been born on the other side of the border. How is it that friends and family can suddenly become enemies, and how do we understand the reality that there is as much of the enemy in us as there is in them, and that it is as easy to love the enemy as it is to hate them, depending on the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

Post Navigation