Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “charles holdorf”

Florence Stacey (Florence Holdorf) 1878-1908

My father never met his grandmother, Florence Stacey, who died in 1908, many years before Dad was born (1933). Writing about his family background in July 2013 Dad noted:

My father was Charles John Stacey Holford, born July 7,1899 in Goulburn… He lived in Goulburn until his mother, Florence Caroline Holdorf (Stacey) died April 8, 1908 of typhoid fever, three weeks after her youngest son (Eric) was born… I know little about my grandmother except that she came from another shopkeeping family (the Staceys) in Auburn St., Goulburn. She was very beautiful, but was apparently treated badly by my grandfather who had a bad temper. She is buried in a prominent position in Goulburn cemetery where my grandfather is also buried beside her.

In an email from Dad, dated 6 December 2014, he again says:

I was told my grandfather had a bad temper and gave his wife a hard time. My grandmother was a sweet, gentle, sensitive woman so it must have been hard for her.

I have often wondered about Florence Stacey, the first born of George and Mary Stacey of Goulburn. Who was this sweet, gentle, sensitive and beautiful woman who married my great grandfather when she was just 20? What was her childhood like, how did she meet Charles Holdorf and why did she marry him? Was their life together really as hard for her as my father seems to suggest? What does it mean that Charles had a bad temper? What was life really like at the dawn of the twentieth century in the small rural community of Goulburn, NSW?

Florence was the first of nine children. Her father George Stacey had arrived in Australia from England in 1869, having left his home town of Bedford when he was only 16. Why he left is uncertain, but his early life had not been easy. The 1861 England census records him living with his father and his younger brother as lodgers with another family in central Bedford, in a road along which I have driven a number of times over recent years without the slightest idea that an ancestor of mine had lived there 160 years ago. So George Stacey at age 8 was motherless, a common experience for children in Victorian England, in a time when medical care was neither very effective nor universally available, and when women died often from the complications of childbirth. When he was 16 he left England forever. His father remarried and moved to London. What kind of contact they had after that is uncertain.

George somehow came to Goulburn where in his mid twenties he married Mary Atkinson, a girl a few years older than him from Berrima, NSW. According to his funeral notice, “[George] opened business as a grocer in the old Emu Stores adjoining the historic Emu Inn… Twenty years later he moved into his own store a few doors further along the street and for 22 years he carried on business there.” The following is a photo dated around 1905 of the new Stacey store in Auburn Street, which was sent me by Vicki Holford Reevey, another descendent of the Holdorf line. The wording on the facade clearly states that the business was established in 1882. At the time of taking this photo, the building was just three years old.
Stacey's circa 1905
The three men in the photo are from left to right Florence’s oldest brother Percy, born 1880, her father George Stacey, who was by the time of this photo 52 years of age, and one of the Holdorfs, though I am unsure which one. Vicki thought it was John Holdorf, but he died in 1898 so that cannot be the case. It seems most likely that it is Charles Holdorf, the first born of the ten Holdorf children, the one who Florence married. Charles was born in 1869 so would have been 36 at the time of this photo, seven years after he and Florence had married. According to my father, Charles was a travelling salesman for McMurtrey’s Shoes, but before he married he lived with his parents above their store, which was also in Auburn Street and was a drapers and general grocers store.

It is possible that the two families were close. Charles was nine years older than Florence but they grew up in the same little community, in the young town of Goulburn, and both were the children of shopkeepers in Auburn Street. Charles parents were German immigrants, while Florence’s father was English, married to a native Australian. John Holdorf (born 1828) was 25 years older than George Stacey (born 1853) but their respective wives were much closer in age (Caroline Holdorf was born in 1847, Mary Stacey in 1850) and may well have been good friends. Caroline was also probably a good deal more “Australian” than her German husband John: she was 9 when she arrived in Australia, but John was 28. But despite the difference in their ages John and George did have one thing in common: they were both masons, members presumably of the same Goulburn order of Oddfellows.

Charles was the first son of a prominent shopkeeper in Goulburn, Florence the first daughter of another. They tied the knot in 1898, when Florence was 20 and Charles 29, the same year that Charles’ father, John Holdorf died, aged 70, leaving his mother Caroline (who was only 52) a widow. Interestingly, John’s funeral notice records that a wreath was sent by Miss FC Stacey, though none from other Stacey family members is mentioned. Florence, just 19, was presumably already engaged to Charles.

Florence and Charles lived in Goulburn and had five children, the first of which was my grandfather, born in 1899. Charles was a travelling salesman and a part time soldier. Florence was at home raising the family. She died on 8 April 1908, after they had been married 10 years, 3 weeks after the birth of Eric, her fifth child. Grandpa was 9 years old. The five children and their father, Charles Holdorf, moved to Sydney after Florence’s death, where they lived with their grandmother, Caroline. Caroline was 62 years old in 1908 and had already raised 11 children and now she had to raise Florence and Charles’ five as well.

Florence is buried in Goulburn Cemetery. She never saw her children grow up. Her husband Charles lived out his remaining days in Sydney initially with his mother who cared for the children when he sailed off to Europe during WW1, where he served in Egypt and France. He returned to Australia and changed his name to Holford. His five children grew up and married, one by one. His mother died in 1924. Charles himself died in 1954, after being a widower for 46 years. It is hard to know why he treated his beautiful young wife badly, but one thing seems certain, she was the only woman ever to capture his heart. When Charles died his body was returned to Goulburn, where he is buried beside his wife.


Egypt 1915

I have been thinking about Charles Holdorf’s journey from Sydney to Egypt in 1915. His departure is well documented on November 9th, but the exact route taken by the troopship Beltana is uncertain. Did the ship sail north via Brisbane and up over the top of Australia, or did it sail south to Melbourne and across the Great Australian Bight to Perth, and then north to Sri Lanka, which was then called Ceylon? I assume that it stopped in Colombo and then sailed around the southern tip of India toward the Suez. Then from Port Suez at the southern end of the canal the ship would have made its way north through Egypt toward the Mediterranean.

Cairo is west of Port Suez, but where did the 30th Battalion of the 8th Brigade disembark? Did they go to Cairo? Where were they based? What did they do in Egypt? Dad writes simply, Here they provided part of the protection force for Egypt and continued with training. The battle at Fromelles in northern France was not until July 1916, so the battalion was in Egypt some 6 months. They would have celebrated Christmas 1916 there and then were involved in training. The Gallipoli campaign was largely over by the time Charles and his battalion arrived in Egypt, after the allied decision to withdraw. The Australians that had evacuated on the 19th and 20th of December 1915 would have been arriving in Egypt at the same time as the 30th Battalion of the 8th Brigade. After Gallipoli Australian forces spent the remainder of the war fighting in the Middle East and the Western Front in France.

Thomas Keneally’s recent novel The Daughters of Mars places two fictional sisters, Australian nurses from the coastal town of Macleay, NSW, in the same area in the months before Charles arrived. Though there are no dates in the book, they seem to have arrived sometime around the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, but they left on a hospital ship which had been commandeered as a troop transport sometime in the latter half of 1915. Their ship was torpedoed and they ended up on an island in the Mediterranean for some time before travelling further to France. For them, as for Charles and thousands of Australian soldiers and other military personnel, Egypt, the Mediterranean and then France became the centre of their lives in the fateful years of 1915 and 1916. Many young Australian lives ended there, far from their homes in the bustling cities and remote country towns of rural Australia.

There is an evocative description of Cairo seen through the eyes of young Sally Durance, one of the nurses of Keneally’s tale. I will quote some of it here. It gave me a feeling for what it must have been like for Charles, arriving on his ship from Australia, though under different circumstances, and no doubt with different responses. It gives an idea of the wide eyed amazement at arriving in a fabled city which until now had only been known from books of the exotic east.

A city that was everything, too many people moving with too many ambitions, too many hopes and destinations. Its all-at-onceness couldn’t be conveyed item by item. It was at the same time a glimpse of moored riverboats on – could it be – the Nile. (These were officers’ clubs where Nubian waiters in red tarbooshes and long white robes glided along with drinks trays held high.) It was people carrying all possible items on their heads – a child’s coffin new-bought, a lounge chair, a haunch of camel meat, a bed. It was camels and donkeys on pavements and the smell of their urine, and men seated by them on mats working with sewing machines or turning furniture legs on little lathes. It was car horns of the army and of the rich blaring at one time with the clang of trams and the trumpet blasts of tram conductors. It was street sellers leaning into your gharry trying to sell flyswatters and whisks, scarabs and lottery tickets, and passing British soldiers telling them darkly to clear out – imshi! – and leave the ladies alone. It was raucous native bands in unexplained processions booming and howling – brass and trumpet – and shoe shiners crying, “Allo George” to the soldiers, and the soldiers with cockney accents calling “Ello, sweetie” at the nurses gharries. Whistles from Australian soldiers – wandering the streets like men used to the place – frosted the hubbub with levity… Effendis – Egyptian gentlemen in well cut suits and tarbooshes – sat at café tables talking at an impossible pace yet like centres of calm in all the fury. In the broad streets animal trainers made apes and goats. There were acrobats, fire eaters, snake charmers – all yelling out at passing British and Australian soldiers for baksheesh. Watchmen sat on low benches in front of buildings, occasionally being served little brass cups of Turkish coffee. Shocking beggars – young girls with infants, crippled crones, their hands stained pink and yellow, and every kind of blindness and crookedness of body and amputation – as if these people themselves were the ones who had taken part in a recent and very savage war. And if you looked at the sky you saw kites curling above the putrid streets, waiting to descend to their abominable yet cleansing meals of flesh… All this just the surface anyhow, the visible part of the crammed ocean of life here that you were not equipped to deal with in any way other than by looking at it – if at all – at a tangent.
       (The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally, p35-37 in the paperback version, published 2012)

Such was the sight that must have greeted Charles on his arrival in Egypt at the end of 1915. Egypt became his home for the first months of 1916, as part of the Allied defence force protecting the Suez Canal which had been the goal of an unsuccessful attack by the Ottoman army earlier in 1915. But as Spring drew on into Summer eyes were turned increasingly toward France and the Western Front, where the 30th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force would fight their first major engagement at Fromelles.

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Major Charles John Holdorf (1869-1954)

The following was written by my father, Ian, about his grandfather, Charles John Holdorf, who I mentioned in the previous blog. It outlines Charles’s military career.

In 1890 he enlisted in the New South Wales Military Forces, and was commissioned in 1896. He had various commands as a Major during his part-time service, initially in Goulburn and then based in Sydney. He was awarded the Volunteer Decoration for his 25 years of part-time military service. He enlisted on the 5th August 1915 in the recently formed Australian Imperial Force, and was appointed Second in Command of the 30th Battalion of the 5th Division.

As second in command, Major Holdorf was responsible for outfitting, equipping, accommodating, feeding and administering the 1000 strong Battalion. Following their preparation, the Battalion embarked on the “Beltana” on 9th of November, 1915, and sailed across the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal. Here they provided part of the protection force for Egypt and continued with training.

Early in 1916, the Battalion, which was part of the 8th Brigade of the AIF 5th Division, travelled by sea to northern France and the Western Front. Their first major engagement was in the infamous Battle of Fromelles near the Belgian border. The main battle was from 19th to 22nd July, and they suffered the heaviest casualties ever recorded by the Australian forces. This was caused by the poor planning of the British generals who unrealistically ordered the Australian troops to charge over 350 metres of no-mans land in the face of deadly German machine gun fire. The British also failed to provide covering artillery fire. There were a total of 519 deaths from the 8th Brigade of which 338 bodies were never recovered. The opposing German force included Corporal Adolf Hitler.

During the battle, the Commanding Officer of the 54 th Battalion (14th Brigade) became a casualty, and Major Holdorf was appointed to command this Battalion on 1st September, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. However his command only lasted until 6th November, when he was evacuated out on medical grounds. H e was subsequently invalided home with suspected emphysema, arriving home on the “Ulysses” on 12th April, 1917. This diagnosis was obviously wrong as he lived another 37 years. His service in the Army terminated on 17th October 1917. The following year he changed the family name to Holford because of anti-German feeling. He later served as a Company commander in the Volunteer Defence Corp in the Mosman area during the second World War.

Troopship Beltana

Troopship Beltana

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.

Holford: evolution of a name

Our family name has evolved over the last 300 years from Holtorp to Holford. With the help of a family tree drawn up by Victoria Reevey, publicly available on, I have managed to trace the Holford family name back to the end of the 1600s. Of course there are dozens of others involved but if I take just the direct line back then it is as follows, starting with me and ending with Dirk Holtorp, born 1688 (quoting names at birth)

David Ian Holford (b. Lautoka, Fiji, 1961)
Ian Charles Ross Holford (b. Sydney, Australia, 1933)
Charles John Stacey Holdorf (b. Goulburn, Australia, 1899)
Charles John Holdorf (b.Sydney, Australia, 1869)
Johann Holtorf (b. Bimöhlen, Schleswig Holstein, Germany, 1828)
Claus Holtorf (b.Bramstedt, Germany, 1791)
Detlef Holtorf (b. Bimöhlen, Schleswig-Holstein, 1764)
Dirk Holtorp (b.1724)
Dirk Holtorp (b.1688)

It looks like an Old Testament list!

Bramstedt is in present day northern Germany, just north of Bremen, south of Cuxhaven. However, there is a place called Bad-Bramstedt in Schleswig-Holstein, very close to Bimöhlen, which is the birthplace listed for Johann Holtorf (see the previous post, England and Germany united). So I wonder if Claus Holtorf was really from Bad-Bramstedt, which would make sense, since both his father Detlef and his son Johann are listed as being born in Bimöhlen. I have no birthplace for either Dirk junior (1724) or Dirk senior (1688) but it seems a good guess that they too came from this disputed area of northern Germany.

Whatever is the case, it is clear that my name, as English as it sounds now, is the fourth variation of Holtorp, and came originally from a German speaking family, apparently from Schleswig-Holstein, or more specifically from Holstein, these areas having been to a certain extent Danish a long way back in history.

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