Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer arrived in Australia in March 1855. Both were 33 years old. They had three children, Caroline (8), Charles (5) and William (1). Their fourth child, Heironimys, aged 4, had died of cholera on the voyage out. Five months after they arrived Joseph was born, in August 1855. In 1860, five years after their arrival, Michael Frederick was born. So from this it seems clear that the Fischer family lived at least for the first five years in Sydney, and the birth certificates of the two boys indicate that the family lived in Kent Street, on the Darling Harbour side of the city centre. They had come out on the Vinedressers Bounty Scheme, but there is no indication that Gottfried worked as a vinedresser or indeed in any agricultural employment. Documents from later in his life suggest he was a carpenter and cabinet maker, and since German craftsman were highly sought after at that time he was likely to have found employment readily in the city.
In 1863 the family appears to have been living in Forbes. Two events happened in that year that indicate their presence there. The first was the death of Joseph, the first of their Australian born sons, who died on 12 March 1863, aged 7, of typhoid fever. The second was the birth, four months later, of Martin, the last of Victoria’s children. It was as if history had repeated itself. Victoria was pregnant with Joseph when Heironimys died in 1854. She was pregnant with Martin when Joseph died in 1863. Martin, however, survived to adulthood.
Why the family was in Forbes and how long they remained there is uncertain. The next recorded major event in the life of this German immigrant family was the marriage of the only girl, Caroline, in 1868, to John Holdorf. They married at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney (which was temporarily housed in a wooden structure after the first cathedral burnt down in 1865), which would suggest that they had moved back to the city. It also indicates that the Fisher family was Catholic, which is in keeping with their origins in Bavaria (Viktoria) and Hesse (Gottfried). John Holdorf was from northern “Germany”, from the duchy of Holstein, and was Lutheran.
The anglicisation of the family can be seen in the changing of the spelling of their respective names. Viktoria became Victoria. Fischer became Fisher. Johann Holtorf became John Holdorf. Michael and Martin, the Australian born boys, certainly sound more English than German, though even the older children had quite English names (Caroline, Charles and William). Heironimys was perhaps the most German sounding of the children’s names, but he had perished at sea. Had he made it to Australia I can imagine that he too would have adopted an English name.
Gottfried and Victoria lived out the remainder of their days together in Sydney, in the inner eastern suburbs, what is now known as Darlinghurst, but which has previously been regarded as part of Woolloomooloo. They raised their daughter and their four boys in town. Gottfried was a carpenter and a cabinet maker and it would appear that Charles Benedict learnt the same trade. Charles married a girl called Emily and they had a family. Caroline and John moved to Goulburn shortly after their marriage and built a life there, raising a large family. What became of William and Michael I am unsure of at this time. Martin, however, the youngest of the Fishers (born 1863), married Louisa Stallwood and they lived in Paddington. The exploits of two of their sons, Fred and Les, in WW1, have been well documented by Pauline Cass on her blog. The Fishers and their descendants were a Sydney family.
In 1877 Charles was renting a house at 202 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, the owners of which were registered as Fisher and Usher, presumably his father Gottfried and a business partner. Gottfried had been in Australia for 22 years by this stage and had clearly built a business and a name for himself. The building was demolished and rebuilt by Gottfried and his son Charles Benedict, and appears to have been owned by Charles until his death in 1926 when he left it to the Presbyterian church. The same building passed into the hands of the Department of Main Roads in 1969 and thereafter was used as emergency housing by the department of housing.
As for Gottfried and Victoria, they lived in Darlinghurst, at 259 Bourke Street, (behind the present day school, SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, which did not exist in Gottfried and Victoria’s day) until Victoria died in 1886 at the age of 64. Gottfried lost his life partner whom he had met so many years before in Augsburg, Bavaria and with whom he had crossed the world to start a new life in the New World. It was surely a hard time for him. He seems to have retired, packed up his life and moved to Goulburn where he lived for the remainder of his life with Caroline and John and their huge family. He died 10 years later in 1896, 74 years of age.
Transcript of Victoria’s funeral notice:
The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 3 April 1886
THE FRIENDS of Mr. GOTTFRIED FISCHER are respectfully invited to attend the Funeral of his deceased beloved WIFE. Victoria ; to move from her late residence, No.259, Bourke Street, Woolloomooloo, this Saturday afternoon, at quarter before 2 o’clock, for the Necropolis. PKIRBY, Undertaker.
Transcript of Martin’s marriage notice
SMH Thursday 28 April 1887
FISCHER-STALLWOOD.-April 20, 1887, at St. James Church,by the Rev H I Jackson, Martin, youngest son of Gottfried Fischer of Bourke Street, to Gertrude Louisa Stallwood, second eldest daughter of Reuben Stallwood, of Glebe Point, Sydney.
St Mary’s Cathedral:
Some years ago I did a course in refugee health which had a strong focus on health care in the context of complex humanitarian disasters. One of the situations we discussed was how to handle a cholera epidemic. One thing I remember from that course is that cholera is an illness in which only about 5% of infected persons develop severe diarrhoea. According to the MSF textbook, Refugee Health, An approach to emergency situations (1997), “among infected persons 75% of them will have no symptoms, 20% will have mild or moderate diarrhoea and only 5% a severe clinical infection (or clinical cholera). Cholera is a bacterial infection that I have seldom, if ever, seen in my career as a doctor. This perhaps reflects the locations I have practiced, which have been mainly in developed countries. However, even during the year I spent in southern Africa, the two years working on a ship off the west coast of Africa, and shorter sojourns in the Himalayas and the South Pacific, I don’t remember seeing a single confirmed case of cholera. My main contact with the disease has been in providing vaccinations to people travelling to areas in which they might be exposed, but not one traveller that I have vaccinated has come back with stories to relate of cholera exposure.
Cholera infection is usually acquired by eating food infected with the bacteria. However, in overcrowded conditions where there is poor hygiene, direct transmission from person to person may also occur. Although cholera is quite treatable, an outbreak on a ship is a medical emergency. On a ship in the 1850s it was a catastrophe. This was what happened on the Caesar as it sailed south from Tenerife toward the equator carrying the Fischer family and hundreds of others, from Germany to Australia in December 1854. The feeling associated with the onset of the disaster is easy to discern in Dr Middendorf’s description of the first few cases:
I was called by a man to his child, who was said to have sickened suddenly. I came on deck; the air was humid and damp, the sails hung limp, flapping about the mast, the moon shimmered wanly through the ragged clouds. With a feeling of foreboding, I climbed down the stairway from the quarterdeck and felt a leaden weight in my feet. A wave of hot air came at me from the large hatch and took my breath away, and at the bottom, near the stair, where the air was freshest, sat a woman with a child, whose pallid face was lit by the wan light of the lantern. The child was dying, as I could see at a glance. The woman was crying, but the man was still calm. I couldn’t give them any hope, but I stayed with them, and two hours later the child was dead. While the mother was still bewailing the loss of this infant, she was suddenly alarmed by crying from her second child, who had been sleeping quietly until then. We went at once to the bed. The face of this child – quite healthy until now – was deformed, with sunken eyes and deathly white; there was terrible diarrhoea and continual vomiting. As the day broke, this child was dead too. The father, who was hitherto composed, now wailed, while the mother had no more tears but sat calmly.
Depressed, and in uneasy anticipation of what was to come, I was going towards the cabin when I was fetched by a sailor, who called me to one of his comrades. He was the leading sailor and had still been standing at the helm at 6 o’clock. He lay wrapped in his blanket and looked at me lifelessly with his eyes deep sunken in his head. His face had a deathly colour and was covered with cold sweat, his limbs icy cold and drawn together in a spasm. Every method of bringing him back to himself was fruitless. He died at 1 am.
I was no longer in any doubt as to our tragic fate. I went straight to the captain and informed him that we had cholera on board and that we would lose many people.
The passengers of the Caesar had been at sea for 11 days, and should by then have been getting used to the continuing rolling of the ship through the heavy swells. Dr Middendorf however comments that many were still weak from seasickness, making them more susceptible to illness. The weeks that followed were a depressing time of sickness and death, with sea burials a nightly event. The effect on the passengers was predictable:
The mood of the passengers passed through all the stages that occur in such circumstances: first alarm, then courage or desperation, and finally apathy. No-one knew whether he would be still alive the next day. On land one can protect oneself or flee, but on a ship several hundred miles from the nearest coast, one must have patience and resign oneself. The happiest were the children. They clambered about on the boat under which the dead were laid, and they had no inkling that in many cases they would be stowed under it themselves in a few days time…
Four of the children on the ship were my ancestors. The oldest of the Fischer children was my grandfather’s grandmother, Caroline. She was seven years old when they departed and she had three younger brothers, Charles 5, Heironimys 3 and William who was just one year old. Only Heironimys succumbed to cholera, but it is not unlikely that the rest of the family was ill too. Despite the comment by Dr Middendorf, I find it hard to believe that the children were happy and unaffected by the death and suffering around them. Perhaps the smallest ones, but certainly Caroline, at seven, must have been aware of how desperate the situation was. For their parents Gottfried and Viktoria, both in their early thirties, it must have been a nightmare, and they must have wondered more than once what they had brought their family to, and indeed whether any of them would ever see Australia.
In any such situation people react in different ways, as the doctor observed:
In general, there seemed little sense in their helping one another; no-one bothered about another, even though each could be soon in dire need of the other; that was somehow disputed, so everyone was on their own. In contrast, it was also gratifying that a few real Good Samaritan hearts were to be found, who, with the greatest self-sacrifice, helped where they could.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking to imagine that my ancestors were among the “Good Samaritans,” but what I have read of Caroline’s later life makes me think that though she was only seven she was likely to have been one of the helpers. Later in life, even after raising 11 children of her own, she ended up taking on five more children, one of which was my grandfather, when her first son’s wife died at an early age. She was clearly a strong woman, used to challenges, not shirking the responsibilities that were placed before her. Her earliest experiences as a girl at sea with sick and suffering all around her had been a baptism by fire in the art of caring for people.
The epidemic on board the Caesar eventually subsided, but not until some 66 lives had been lost and many more sick. The doctor’s relief is almost palpable:
On the morning of the 17th of December after sunrise we at last got the southeast trade wind, for which we had so ardently hoped. We were in latitude 5° North. From then on the epidemic was in a process of rapid decrease. At Christmas one more person died – the last; that was our Christmas present. There were now only convalescents. We were very happy that the pestilence had withdrawn from the ship… I breathed freely again, both physically and mentally, since I cannot deny that this beginning of my medical practice had somewhat depressed me.
I understand the feeling!
Quotes are taken from AAZ no.75 24 Sep 1855, p.298-9, translated from the German by Jenny Paterson. For those interested in medical aspects of cholera in the mid 1800s, especially at sea, there is an excellent article in the Journal of Public Health, which can be accessed online here.
We were nearing Cuxhaven, a signal flag was hoisted and a boat neared the ship to take off the Captain’s relatives… The boat vanished quickly, as did the flat coastline and eventually also the lighthouses of Wangeroog and Neuwerk, and we were on the open sea…
The pilot left us at 2 o’clock… around evening the wind became stronger and the ship started to roll. I remained lying on the deck, partly to preserve me from seasickness and partly because I did not feel tired. We saw the beacon of Helgoland. I finally went to bed, but could not get any rest. I was not then used to this hard, uncomfortable bunk, on which later I often slept better than I have ever slept on a spring mattress.
Ernst Middendorf’s Long Letter Home, Allgemeine Auswanderungszeitung (AAZ), Nos. 72 and 73, 14 and 17 September 1855 (translation Jenny Paterson)
At the end of September 2002 we twenty first century Holfords sailed into Cuxhaven on the Anastasis, the Mercy Ship that was our family’s home for two years from 2001 to 2003. We had come from The Gambia, via Tenerife, the Channel Islands and Bristol. A few weeks after we arrived in Cuxhaven we departed for Amsterdam before returning to Tenerife from where we sailed back to West Africa for our second outreach with Mercy Ships.
I had not started to research my family history back then and must admit that I I knew nothing about Cuxhaven when we arrived, though we soon discovered the picturesque little town which is home to the German merchant navy’s health service. I had the unlikely privilege of joining a rescue exercise one evening with the German maritime rescue service, learning the basics of helicopter to ship transfers. Unexpectedly in the middle of this drill there was a real emergency call from a ship somewhere out in the North Sea; an injured sailor needed assessment and possible evacuation. I joined this mission, being winched first up into our helicopter and later, after a short flight, down onto the deck of the ship where a quick assessment of the “patient” revealed a fractured femur. Thankfully the sea was very still that night. We applied an inflatable splint, injected some morphine, strapped him into a stretcher and were winched up again into the waiting chopper. After 15 minutes in the air we landed back in Cuxhaven where our patient was transferred quickly to hospital.
It did not occur to me that moonlit night that I was flying over the same sea that 150 years previously first the Fischer family and later Johann Holtorf, my grandfather’s grandfather, had sailed in square rigged sailing ships on their respective voyages to Australia. The Caesar, according to Dr Middendorf’s description, did not stop after it left Cuxhaven until it arrived in Tenerife. But it covered much the same route south across the Bay of Biscay and out into the Atlantic that we covered in the Anastasis on our sail to Tenerife.
I was the ship’s doctor on the Anastasis, so it has been interesting for me to read Dr Middendorf’s description of the sail south from Cuxhaven to Tenerife, and onward to Cape Town and Australia. He was a young doctor at the time, 22 or 23 years old, having only recently graduated from his medical studies at the Julia Maximiliana University in Würzburg, Bavaria. He would have been unable to imagine the kind of medical facilities that would be available a century and a half later for doctors dealing with sickness and injury at sea. He had very little at all in his dispensary and what he had was to prove of little use in the medical catastrophe that was to overtake the ship under his care. But more of that in a later blog.
Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer with their four children departed Hamburg on the Caesar in November 1854. Johann departed from the same dock on the Steinwärder in November two years later. It is cold in November in Northern Germany, and the morning that the Fischers departed was foggy.
A hundred and fifty years later, but now over a decade ago, “our ship,” the Anastasis, was docked at the nearby port of Cuxhaven, and I remember how bitterly cold the winds blowing in from the North Sea were, even in early autumn. I imagine that November breezes could be quite uncomfortable. Here is how the ship’s Dr Middendorf described the departure of the Caesar. My ancestors were amongst the confused and cowering passengers, wondering what lay ahead on this voyage to another world.
As I came on deck on the morning of our departure from Hamburg, the anchor had already been weighed, the singing of the sailors had finished and the tug steamer had already begun its work. The houses on the bank appeared through the thick fog as wavering outlines, and the tips of the masts disappeared in a grey haze. The sun, just risen, hung blood red between the long rows of ships; a weak strip of light quivered on the smooth surface of the water. We were now out of the harbour and the details of the town and neighbourhood slid slowly past us.
I was in a peculiar mood. – strange to say, it was almost indifferent. It seemed to me so natural and ordinary that I was now setting out into the wide world, as if I had thought of nothing else and done nothing else for years…
For almost the whole morning I walked up and down on the deck… One climbs from the stern deck down a steep stairway and then, over a railing, one can get a clear view down below. I often stand at this railing. Down below there was a confused turmoil. The passengers cowered in tight groups. No-one could find their way in the muddled throng – no purpose and no order, because nobody knew how to sort themselves out in what, for them, were wholly novel circumstances.
The following sketch from a wonderful website by Maggie Blanck captures the chaos and excitement of leaving.