Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “bramstedt”

What became of the Holtorfs of Bramstedt?

Claus Holtorf had 10 children, 6 with his first wife, Margarethe and 4 with his second, Elsabe. Two of Elsabe’s boys did not survive past childhood. What I know of the others comes from two death notices, the first when Claus died in 1874, and the second after Johann’s death in 1898. But there are questions which remain unanswered.

Claus’s death notice (1874) indicates that the two girls, Anna and Minna, both married, were living in Hamburg. They were no longer young women: Anna was 57 and Minna 49 by that year. Johann’s death notice in 1898 shows that by then both of them were living in England, by which time they were respectively 81 and 73. What prompted the two of them to move to England later in life I can only guess at. I am not even sure that they lived in England at that time, but they appear to have been there in any case when their younger brother died in 1898. I suppose it is possible they were just visiting. Whether their respective husbands were still alive then or not I don’t know either, nor if they had any children. But it seems most likely that Anna and Minna, natives of Holstein, Denmark (Germany) died in Victorian England.

Hans, Margarethe’s second son was married with four children in 1874. They lived near Weddelbrook, just to the west of Bramstedt. Johann was in Australia and Andreas had migrated to America. Of Elsabe’ two surviving sons one, Jakob, was in Australia, though he lived in Sydney whereas Johann lived with his family in Goulburn. All but two of the children are therefore accounted for on the 1874 death notice, but neither Claus, Margarethe’s first born, nor Jürgen, Elsabe’s last born, are mentioned. What happened to them is a mystery. It might be assumed that both had died, but I have nothing to confirm that. By 1874 they had both disappeared. What could have happened to them?

German migrant ship 1852

German migrant ship 1852

While trolling the Hamburg passenger records I found an entry for two Holtorfs who were accommodated in the same cabin on a ship, the Rhein, sailing out of Hamburg for New York, in 1852. The two were a Claus and a Jürgen. Could they be the same Claus and Jürgen as those from our Holtorf family in Bramstedt? Annoyingly the ages of the two are not listed in the passenger manifest, so they cannot be matched up by age. Nor is their relationship recorded, which could have also given some clues. Furthermore, their place of birth is recorded as Hohn, Holstein, which doesn’t fit. Hohn is a town some 50 km north of Bramstedt, but is not in Holstein, but Schleswig. This got me wondering. Was the lack of details, along with one slightly misleading fact, an indication that something was amiss? I suppose there could be another two brothers called Claus and Jürgen Holtorf travelling to New York in 1852. But it is certainly an odd coincidence. But how could I put the few facts that I had before me together?

One possible explanation for the few facts that I have available is that Claus, the first born son of the Holtorf family, married, and moved to Hohn during his adult life, where he lived with his wife. If his stepmother Elsabe had died at or soon after Jürgen’s birth, it is quite possible that Claus and his wife “adopted” little Jürgen. Claus was 24 when Jürgen was born, so was old enough to be his father. Supposing Claus’s wife had died sometime after that, Claus would have been left with a young “son” and a heavy heart. The thought of starting a new life may have been very attractive, especially in view of the sadness associated with his native land, not to mention the political instability and economic uncertainty which affected so many. Claus and Jürgen may have travelled together, as father and son, to the New World.

It is hard to know what to make of the fact that in 1874, when Claus was 54 and Jürgen was 30, neither appear on their father’s death notice. Clearly their whereabouts was unknown for those who penned the notice, indicating that they had lost touch. Both may have been dead. Did the sailing ship Rhein even make it to America? I have been unable to find a record of their arrival in New York, and ship wrecks were not unknown in those uncertain days. If they did arrive for some reason they may have chosen not to maintain contact, unlike the rest of the family. Perhaps there was a rift in the family that had contributed to Claus leaving with Jürgen, or maybe Claus simply stopped writing after the two arrived in America. Some people are just not good at keeping in touch.

Whatever the truth, it would seem that only one of the 10 Holtorf children, namely Hans, remained in Germany to carry on the family name. Two of the ten probably died in England, two others in Australia, one definitely in America, though there may have been three there if Claus and Jürgen did indeed make that journey. The other two died in childhood. Hans, the one who remained around Bramstedt, in 1851 married a girl called Catharrina Behnk and together they had four children. Any contemporary Holtorfs related to us must surely be the descendants of Hans and Catharrina.


A village childhood: young Johann Holtorf

Johann Holtorf was my grandfather’s grandfather. He was born in 1828 in the village of Bimöhlen, in the Duchy of Holstein, then under the Danish monarch. Bimöhlen is still there, a quiet little village nestled among the trees and woods of northern Germany, in the present day state of Schleswig-Holstein. This last summer I travelled there with my father (Ian Holford) and step-mother (Eunice) to see the place where my German ancestors lived, to try to understand something of how they experienced life, and to wonder at what prompted them to leave. Johann left in 1856, bound for the British colony of New South Wales. As far as I know, we were the first of his descendants to return to this little village that Johann left almost 160 years ago. The landscape of that area of central Holstein has of course not changed. The fields are still green, the woods are still dark. The villages are still small and quiet, but one and a half centuries of progress has had a huge impact in other ways. But for all the changes of the modern age, I knew that there would be landmarks that would have been familiar to Johann before he left on his voyage of no return to the far side of the world. I wanted to see those places. A major north-south route known as the E45, which is a busy four lane highway, courses down the middle of present day Schleswig-Holstein. The route actually starts in northern Scandinavia and continues southward all the way to central Europe almost to the Mediterranean. But the part of the route in Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein roughly follows an old stock route from Jutland to Germany and the Netherlands which was used for centuries to move cattle from Denmark down to the bigger population centres and beyond, a route that passed directly through the market town of Bramstedt, which was Johann Holtorf’s home town, and our destination on our journey of discovery.

The E45 between Bad Bramstedt and Bimöhlen

The E45 between Bad Bramstedt and Bimöhlen

We joined the E45 when we drove onto the ferry in Gothenburg one sunny afternoon in early June. After a calm crossing and a night’s sleep we drove south down the Jutland Peninsula, crossing the border into Germany at Flensburg and continuing towards Hamburg. About 40km short of the city there are signs on the dual carriageway: toward Bimöhlen on the left, and Bad Bramstedt on the right. The E45 thus separates Bimöhlen, where Johann was born and lived to age 7, from the bigger town of Bramstedt, which was his home thereafter until he departed for Australia when he was 28. We drove off to the right toward Bad Bramstedt where we had booked into the Hotel Freese, a weary establishment on one of the town’s main streets. The hotel, with its musty hallways, dark paintings and mounted antlers looked like it was last renovated in the seventies, but the breakfasts were spectacular. We spent the next three days there, before Dad and Eunice headed off for southern Germany and I turned north back to our home in Sweden.

Although a sealed road, the Bimöhler Straße, is the main thoroughfare between Bad Bramstedt and Bimöhlen these days, there is a much more pleasant gravel road that runs parallel through the fields nearby, which I suspect resembles more closely the road that would have connected the two places in the early 1800s. So this was the route I chose when I hired a bike one afternoon to explore the villages that my ancestors lived in. Bimöhlen, my first stop, lies 5 or 6 km east of Bramstedt, across the noisy E45. I didn’t pass a soul as I cycled along the track. I saw farmhouses and barns across lush fields of ripening wheat. Once, peering down a lonely road that disappeared off between the trees of a dark wood, I saw a fox, motionless in the quiet. Becoming suddenly aware of me it darted off, and I pedalled on between forest and fields imagining as I went the road as a rutted track, muddy in winter and dusty in summer, but nevertheless possibly the main thoroughfare from village to town 180 years ago when Johann was a youth.

Road to Bimöhlen through farmland

Road to Bimöhlen through farmland

Bimöhlen is an idyllic little village in the midst of lush fertile countryside, and apart from a scattering of houses there is not much there. Cows grazed on gently sloping paddocks as I entered the village. A tree lined square called the Dorfplatz has a war memorial with names from two world wars in the middle of a stretch of shaded grass. There is little in the way of shops and there is no church. Most of the buildings seem to be less than a century old, so there is little to indicate how it was in the first half of the 19th century, apart from the Bram River flowing quietly through as it has for centuries, and the verdant fields and patches of forest that surround the village and reach almost into its centre. Wandering around I came on a sun drenched football field behind some of the houses, but there were few people to be seen, and no children. I suppose school had not yet closed for the summer and most adults were at work. There were a few older houses, including some big old farmsteads on the edge of the village. An old brick shed was piled high with firewood. One house I passed had a thatched roof and red roses climbing over the walls.

Thatched cottage in Bimöhlen

Thatched cottage in Bimöhlen

I stood on a footbridge and stared down at the crystal clear waters of the shallow Bram flowing quietly between grassy banks. I imagined Johann as a young boy, scrambling around these river banks. It seemed an idyllic place to be a little boy, though I suppose village life in the first half of the nineteenth century bore little resemblance to the way Bimöhlen’s current residents live out their days. Johann’s father was a cobbler, a shoemaker. When he wasn’t in his workshop he was in the forest, working at his other job – timber warden. There were 6 children in the family during Johann’s early years up until 1835 when they moved to town. Johann had four older siblings: Anna, Claus, Hans and Minna and a younger brother, Andreas. The children knew the fields and forests well. The village surely had more life then than it does today, though the population may have been smaller. Unlike the modern villagers who travel to town to work, in Johann’s day the village would have been the centre of their daily life. The Dorfplatz no doubt had stalls and workshops, children went to school or ran loose in the streets, adults went about their daily chores, and transport was by horse and cart. The Dorfplats now is just a green oasis in the midst of what seems to be a wealthy dormitory village, a satellite of Bramstedt. Expensive cars line the shaded streets. But there were few people to be seen on that sunny afternoon that I explored the tiny village.

Dorfplatz, Bimöhlen

Dorfplatz, Bimöhlen

The Holtorf children were surely devastated when their mother, Margarethe, died.  Andreas, the youngest, was only 3 and Johann just 7. Anna was an adult, 18 years of age; Claus was 15, Hans 12, Minna 10. It was a turning point for the family; it would seem that around that time Claus decided to move with his family to back to Bramstedt, where Anna, his first child was born and where he and Margarethe had married. In 1837 he married again and all of his second wife’s four children were born in the bigger town. Claus died in Bramstedt in 1874, when he was 83 years old.

Bram River, Bimöhlen

Bram River, Bimöhlen

Johann’s mother, Margarethe, was from another small village in the vicinity of Bramstedt, Weimersdorf, which lies a short distance north-west of Bimöhlen. I cycled through Wiemersdorf on my return to Bad Bramstedt but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Margarethe’s family name was Köhnke, even now a common name in the Bramstedt district: I saw shops with the Köhnke name on them in Bramstedt. There have also been Holtorfs in the area for centuries. The Holtorf and Köhnke families almost certainly knew each other. Margarethe, who was a few years older than Claus, had probably known him since childhood. The records say that their first child, Anna, was born a few months before they were married. I wonder how this went down with the respective families.

Bramstedt district 1804

Bramstedt district 1804

A similar distance from Bimöhlen but in a north easterly direction, is another little village, Großenaspe. I cycled there across the fields from Bimöhlen. Großenaspe has a fine old church where I saw both a Köhnke and a Holtorf on the honour rolls from the two world wars. Claus and Margarethe seemed to have lived in Großenaspe between their marriage in 1817 and Johann’s birth in 1827. Three of his older siblings, Claus, Hans and Minna were all born there. Why the family moved to Großenaspe shortly after Anna was born is uncertain. I imagine it was for work. But the young couple must have also been keen to establish their own identity, separate from both of their home towns. These days there is a railway that runs through Großenaspe, but it is not visible on a map I found from that era. However, the ancient pilgrims route from Glückstadt to Puttgarden that runs through Bramstedt continues through Großenaspe, so it would have presumably had more passing commerce than either Wiemersdorf or Bimöhlen, a boon for a budding shoemaker.

The door of the church, Großenaspe

The door of the church, Großenaspe

When Claus and Margarethe and their four children moved from Großenaspe to Bimöhlen sometime before 1827 when Johann was born, Claus was returning to the birthplace of his father, a village where the Holtorf family had lived for generations. Johann’s first seven years there were very likely happy ones, with the farms and forests and quiet waters of the Bram his childhood playground. But when his mother died the family moved to Bramstedt, away from the tiny rural village, to the bustling streets of the prosperous market town. It was here he left childhood behind and began to form his own impressions of the world around him, the rapidly changing world of the 1830s and 40s. It was this town that he chose to leave for ever in the middle of the 1850s, when he was a young man in his twenties. What was it that made him leave, I wonder, and what had he heard about the distant British colony of New South Wales, that drew him there?

Fields around Bimöhlen

Fields around Bimöhlen


DSC_3924Bramstedt in 1850 was a rural centre of some 3000 people. The town had been prominent in the region for centuries for two reasons: it was an important stopover on an old cattle route for traders driving their herds from the Jutland peninsula south to continental Europe, and it was also an important resting place on an ancient monks route used by Christian pilgrims making their way from Glückstadt on the Elbe in the west to Puttgarden on the Baltic Sea in the east. Although the spring with healing properties (Gesundbrunnen) had been known since the 1600s Bramstedt did not gain fame as a health spa until the late 1800s and into the 1900s, long after Johan Holtorf had left. The name Bad Bramstedt (bad is a German word that in this context means spa) only came into use in the first decade of the twentieth century, and was given to the town to distinguish it from the nearby town of Barmstedt, because mail so often ended up in the wrong place!

There are two landmarks of present day Bramstedt representing these aspects of the town, the economic and the spiritual. They are the so called Roland statue, and the Church of Mary Magdalene. The Roland statue is one of many similar statues in Germany, and it is a symbol of fairness in trading. There have been a succession of statues standing DSC_3942on the same spot in the middle of Bramstedt for many centuries, but the one that is there now is, I believe, the same one that Johann would have seen every time he walked down the main street of his home town. It was erected in 1827, the year before Johann was born, replacing an older structure that had fallen down in 1814. The other landmark, the Church of Mary Magdalene (Maria Magdalenen Kirche) dates back to the 1200s. Johann’s father, Claus Holtorf, married twice in the church, the first time to Margarethe Köhnke, Johann’s mother, in 1817, and the second time to Elsabe Lentfer in 1837, two years after his first wife died. Johann was probably baptised in the church too, though I have not seen any document testifying to this.

Johann’s father, Claus, was a shoemaker as well as being a timber warden on one of the estates around Bramstedt. Market days were presumably an important part of the week for Claus Holtorf for this reason. However, the family probably didn’t move to Bramstedt until around the time Johann’s mother Margarethe died, when he DSC_3943was just 7 years old. By then his oldest sister Anna was 18 and she would likely have taken on a great deal of the mothering duties in the family. Johann had two older sisters, Anna and Minna, and two older brothers, Claus and Hans. He also had a brother who was two years younger, Andreas. Johann and Andreas were both born in the little village of Bimöhlen, a few kilometres to the west of Bramstead. Anna, the first born, had also been born there but after her birth the family moved to another small village, a little further away, called Großenaspe. Johann and Andreas were born after they moved back to Bimöhlen sometime around 1827, and so their earliest years were lived there in the countryside. Bramstead probably seemed like a very big city to the little boys when they moved there around 1835.

A river flows through the centre of Bramstedt and it would have been very familiar to the Holtorf children. It also became the scene of a family tragedy when Johann was a teenager. The river arises in the gentle hills of central Holstein and flows west through first Bimöhlen and then Bramstedt and onward toward the North Sea. However, the River Bram, or Bramau as it is called in German, never reaches that sea, but joins a larger waterway, the Stör River, which eventually empties into the Elbe, just north of Glückstadt. The Elbe is a huge waterway flowing north-west from Hamburg. Years later Johann would sail down this huge river and out into the North Sea on the first leg of his voyage to Australia.

When Johann was 9 his father remarried, this time to Elsabe Lentfer, who became Johann’s stepmother. Over the ensuing 7 years Elsabe had four sons, Johann’s half-brothers, though the second died shortly after birth. Elsabe’s first son Hinrich also died in childhood. In 1845 when Johann was 17 his little step-brother Hinrich drowned, quite possibly in the Bram River. He was only seven years old. Claus and Elsabe must have been heartbroken, not to mention the rest of the family, to lose the little boy so tragically.

Johann was 28 years old when he left Bramstedt in 1856 and sailed to Australia. What he did in his early adult life I don’t know. His father was a shoemaker, and a timber warden. It would be normal for a son to follow his father’s trade, but Johann had two older brothers and it is not certain that they would all have become shoemakers. More likely is that he worked in the forest and as an agricultural labourer. Probably on market days he helped with the sale of the family products. After he had moved to Australia Johann was a travelling salesman – a “hawker” as the family records put it (interestingly, the word hawker has its origins in Low German, the language that Johann spoke). Perhaps he learned that trade shouting out his father’s wares on the streets of nineteenth century Bramstedt.


The Holtorf family of Bramstedt

The following is an undated version of an article posted here previously, but which was inaccurate on a number of counts. The information now contains my understanding of the Holtorf family as of today’s date, 20 September 2014. Such are the joys of family history research. The story changes as new information comes to light and old information is re-interpreted. I should add that the information following is based on various papers in my father’s possession, but none of them is an original source, in the sense of being an official document or historical record. Rather they are notes written by previous researchers from my family, but since none of the documents is signed or dated I am unable to go back to the person(s) who wrote them to ask what their sources were. The only reference to original sources that these notes contain is that they were taken from Lutheran Church records. Such records are not the easiest to access for an English speaking person like me, since they are not online, and they are in old German. This means that to view the original sources requires a visit to the area, a person skilled in reading and translating old German, and, above all, plenty of time. None of these are straightforward. If anyone happens to stumble over this blog and has more information I would love to hear from you.

My grandfather’s grandfather was named Johann Holtorf when he was born in 1828 in what is now the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. When he was 28, in 1856, Johann migrated to the British colony of New South Wales in Australia, where he changed his name to John Holdorf and became naturalised as a British citizen. He married Caroline Fischer, another German migrant (but from southern Germany), and together they settled in Goulburn and had 10 children. At least one of their children (Charles Holdorf, their first born) changed his surname to Holford, and from him came my father’s family.

Johann himself was also one of ten children, five of them his full siblings, and four of them half-siblings. His parents were named Claus Holtorf (1791-1874) and Margarethe Köhnke (1789-1835). His mother died when Johann was 7 and two years later in 1837 his father remarried Elsabe Lentfer, who had four sons.

Bramstedt in the 1800s
Bramstedt, where Claus was born, was a market town in the Danish Duchy of Holstein. At the time of his birth Holstein, though ruled by Denmark, was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It became part of the German Confederation after the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, and then as a result of the Schleswig wars of 1848 and 1864 it became, together with Schleswig, the neighbouring duchy to the north, it passed out of Danish hands completely, and became part of the newly formed nation of Germany. Claus, as far as I know, spoke German, as did the majority of people in Holstein. However, the ruling powers spoke Danish. Whether this was an issue for Claus or not I don’t know. The concept of nationalism was growing through the nineteenth century and no doubt everyone had an opinion about their own identity and where they belonged. But there was no nation of Germany then, so it wasn’t simply a question of “Am I German or am I Danish?” The Holtorfs (who were previously Holtorps) had always lived with this identity – German speaking in the Duchy of Holstein, ruled by Denmark. That this was now being questioned by some people may have had little relevance to them. Their lives were lived at a village level, and the machinations of dukes and princes were perhaps interesting but not their first concern.

Claus Holtorf
Claus, Johann’s father, was a shoe maker and timber warden. He was an only child, and his father was also a shoemaker on a farm. He could trace his ancestry back at least 100 years, and all the ancestors came from the Bramstedt area. The records I have go back to 1688 when Claus’s great grandfather was born in Kampen, Duchy of Holstein, a small village which now barely exists, some 8 or 10 kilometres south of Bramstedt.

As far as I know Claus was born and grew up in Bramstedt, a market town about 40km north of Hamburg. However, his father was apparently born in Bimöhlen, a village a few kilometres to the east of Bramstedt. Johann married in 1817 when he was 26 years old. His first child, according to my records, was born a few months before he was married.

Margarethe Köhnke
Margarethe was Claus’s first wife. She was born in 1789 in Wiemersdorf, where her father was a “small farmer”. Her first child, Anna, named after Claus’s mother, was born in March 1817, when Margarethe was 28 or 29. Margarethe married Claus in late May of the same year.

The next three of Margarethe’s children, Claus, Hans and Wilhelmina (Minna) were born, according to my records, in “Gross Aspe.” I have wondered where this might be. More of this in my next blog article. However, her 5th and 6th children, Johann (my ancestor) and possibly Andreas, were born in Bimöhlen, the same village that their grandfather was born in. The family appears to have moved at least twice, first to “Gross Aspe,” and then to Bimöhlen. Margarethe died in 1835 when her youngest child was just 3 years old. She is said to have died in Aukathe, which I have not been able to locate. There is an area of Bramstedt called Aukamp and I wonder if this is the place.

Elsabe Lentfer
Claus remarried in November 1837, 2 years after Margarethe died. His second wife was Elsabe Lentfer. They married in Bramstedt and the four sons they had together were all born in Bramstedt. So it would seem that the bigger town became the home of the Holtorf family after 1837. I have no other information about Elsabe, but I do know that one of her sons died at or shortly after birth, and another was drowned at the age of seven. A third appears to have died childless at a relatively early age, perhaps in his twenties. Only her third child, Jakob appears to have survived.

What became of the Holtorfs of Bramstedt?
Johann, my ancestor, migrated to Australia when he was 26 years old, in the 1850s, as I have already mentioned. Although I have no details, it would appear that four of the other children also left Germany at different times. Both the girls, Anna and Minna married German men, but may well have moved to England at some stage, though whether they died there I am not certain. Andreas, Johann’s little brother apparently migrated to America. The only one of Elsabe’s sons to survive past his twenties, namely Jakob Holtorf, migrated, like his older half-brother, Johann, to Australia. What became of him I am unsure.

Of the two remaining brothers, Claus (the firstborn son) and Hans, only Hans appears to have had any children. What became of Claus I don’t know, but Hans is said to have remained in the Bramstedt area, where he married and had four children. On his father Claus’s death certificate (1874) Hans and his wife Catharrina Behnk were living in Weddelbrooks Damm, which is just to the west of Bramstedt.

The closest German relatives I have would therefore be descendants of Hans, if there are any.

Bad Bramstedt location

Bad Bramstedt location map

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