Forgotten tales

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Archive for the tag “fischers”

Victoria Fisher (1821-1886)

Victoria Fischer in 1868, age 46

Victoria Fischer in 1868, age 46

Victoria Fisher was born Viktoria Scherer in Augsburg, Bavaria on December 23, 1821. Her father, Joseph Scherer was a master weaver, and her mother’s name was Maria. I know nothing of her early life, or her siblings, though I believe she was from a Catholic background. Indeed I know little of Bavaria in the 1820s and 30s. When she was around 25 she married Gottfried Fischer, of Harheim, Hessen-Nassau. How they met is a mystery. Their first child, Caroline, was born in Augsburg in 1847, which suggests that Gottfried was living in Augsburg at the time of their marriage and for some time afterward. However, the fact that their next three children, all boys, were born in Harheim, indicates that sometime between 1847 and 1849, they moved back to Gottfried’s hometown from Augsburg, and lived there until they departed for Australia in 1854.

Five months after their arrival in Sydney, on 21 August 1855, Viktoria had another baby, Joseph. The date of his birth indicates that he was likely conceived just prior to the departure from Hamburg, and not on board. Indeed, intimacy on board the Caesar was almost non-existent for passengers, given the crowded conditions and the likely segregation of male and female passengers. So as the Caesar sailed the stormy waters of the English Channel Viktoria was in the first weeks of pregnancy, which would hardly have made the seasickness easier. She was clearly a strong woman; within weeks of their departure she also had to endure the death of her second son, Heronimys, from cholera. And she had a one year old, William, to care for too during that long and tedious voyage. Five year old Charles and 8 year old Caroline probably had to care a lot for themselves.

They arrived in Sydney, then, a young German speaking couple with three children aged from 1 to 8, and Viktoria about 4 months pregnant. The early years in Sydney cannot have been easy for a young mother, as she struggled to learn language and build a home for her young family, at the same time as going through pregnancy, labour and delivery in a nation quite foreign to her and far from everything that was familiar or reassuring. Her husband meanwhile was trying to make a living to support all the hungry mouths.

I imagine that it was in those first years in their new home that Johann Holtorf was introduced to the Fischer family. He was a farmer from Holstein a German-Danish duchy in the north, and arrived on a ship from Hamburg almost exactly two years after the Fischers. The German community in Sydney was likely quite close, and took care of new arrivals. Caroline turned 10 in 1857 and Johann was 28, a farmer from Holstein, north of Hamburg. Viktoria and (probably neither of them) could hardly have imagined that 11 years later her daughter would marry this young man, when Caroline was 21 and Johann, who by then was known as John, was 39.

In 1860, five years after their arrival in New South Wales, Viktoria had a second Australian son, Michael Frederick. By that time she was doubtless fluent in English, though her accent would bear the marks of her German origins all her days. With Michael just a toddler the family uprooted and moved again, to Forbes, though exactly why is a mystery. Gottfried was a carpenter and there must have been work for him in the city, but there was a gold rush drawing people away into the inland wilderness, the “bush,” as it was called, and perhaps Gottfried succumbed like so many others to the lure of gold. In 1863, living in Forbes and with Viktoria expecting yet another child, Joseph, her German conceived but Australian born, son, now 7 years old, died of typhoid fever. His death certificate records his name as John, and the family address as Rankine Street, Forbes. Victoria’s last child, Martin, was born 4 months later in July 1863, in Forbes.

By 1868 the family had returned to the city, and in that year Caroline, now 21, married John Holdorf in St Mary’s Cathedral, becoming the first of Viktoria and Gottfried’s children to marry. Soon after, Caroline and John moved to Goulburn, where they lived for the remainder of her mother Viktoria’s life. Viktoria and Gottfried remained in Sydney, living at different locations including Palmer Street, Sydney, and Bourke Street, Surrey Hills. Gottfried worked as a cabinet maker and carpenter. I imagine that one by one the four boys got married and had families (though I have at present little information about the Fisher children other than Caroline), and the ageing German-Australian couple enjoyed each new grandchild born into the family. Viktoria died in 1886 at the age of 64. By then she had lived 31 years in Australia, her adopted home. Her childhood and early life in Bavaria and later Hessen-Nassau by then had receded into the realms of memory, a different world, another life.


  1. The picture above of Viktoria was taken in July 1868, a few months after the marriage of Caroline and John, when Viktoria was 46. I was sent this picture by a fellow family history blogger, Pauline Cass, after she had stumbled upon my blog and realised that she had a picture that was relevant to our family. Her own blog is a veritable goldmine of genealogical information, and even has some entries about other descendants of Gottfried and Viktoria (specifically Les and Fred Fisher and their WW1 war service). The picture of Vitkoria is interesting to me in that it appears that there is a slight downward turn of Viktoria’s mouth on the right side, perhaps even a very slight drooping of the right side of her face. I have wondered what this means? Was it just that she naturally had a slightly asymmetrical face, or was she suffering from a stroke, or a Bells Palsy? Again something that I will probably never know.
  2. The information above comes largely from a typed document that I have in my possession authored by Bev Smith and Elizabeth Brain. It contains notes put together by them for a Fisher family reunion which took place in 1988. My father gave me a copy of this document but I have never had any contact with either of the authors. I am thankful for all their genealogical research which has provided lots of interesting stories about my forbears (and theirs).

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 (

Sydney Heads around 1850 (

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!

Australian landfall, March 1855

The Caesar sailed south to Cape Town and then east across the Roaring Forties (latitude 40 degrees south), which seemed not to be roaring much that particular year, according to Middendorf’s description. Unlike the 10 day storm that we experienced crossing the Southern Ocean in the 1970s, the passengers of the Caesar apparently had a very pleasant crossing. Also unlike us so many years later on the Ellinis, the little German sailing ship appears not to have stopped in Western Australia: Perth was just a tiny colonial outpost in the 1850s. The Caesar sailed on across the Great Australian Bight and headed for Bass Strait, the stretch of sea between Tasmania and the Australian mainland. Ernst Middendorf’s description of the first sightings of Australia convey the excitement of landfall after months at sea:

Finally we reached the longitude of the mainland and steered for Bass Strait. As we neared the entrance, however, the wind was blowing from the strait and the Captain decided to go around Van Diemen’s Land. That was a further long journey; we had either east winds or calm the whole time. The air coming from the land carried a whiff of vegetation to us, and I often stood for hours at a time on the deck, just to catch this wonderful peat-like smell that suggested the nearness of land, because I was getting dreadfully weary of this story at the end. On Friday the 2nd of March, after it had been misty for several days, heavy rain fell. Towards evening it ceased and I stood on the deck. The curtain of cloud seemed to slowly lift, and far off on the horizon the steep high mountains of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land climbed in a blue line out of the sea. The air was very clear and everyone could see land. Nonetheless, it took a long time before the people believed it. It seemed to many just not possible that they now really had before their eyes what they had for so many days longed for. In the meantime the news went from mouth to mouth and the deck was soon full of people who wanted to establish for themselves the comforting conviction that “the whole world has not actually been turned into water”. The sick came crawling out, or had themselves carried, and on all the convalescents it worked better, of course, than all the half-mouldy pills in my poor pharmacy.

The land that we had seen was the south coast of the island. Towards evening it was out of sight again and we traversed back and forth with unfavourable winds for several more days without making any substantial headway, as the ship was in very bad shape. Finally, on the morning of the 9th, with good winds, we approached the mainland of Australia. The air was very dense and when we saw the high coast, we were already very near it. A long, high mountain range, which stretched out in the south into flat running foothills, lay in view of the eager immigrant. Everyone was on deck. They put on their Sunday clothes and mutually congratulated each other. Gradually the contours of the heights stood out more clearly, one could distinguish the trees that decked the peaks, and in the background one could see a high mountain whose sharp apex was shrouded in haze. We sailed by some low green foothills only a small distance away.

To Australia by sail in the 1850s

In 1973, when I was 12, we sailed from England to Australia on a migrant ship, the Ellinis, of Chandris Lines. We were not migrants, rather returning Australians, but there were many migrants travelling with us. We departed Southampton and sailed south to Cape Town, across the roaring forties to Perth, and then around the bottom of Australia to Melbourne and Sydney. The voyage took a little over four weeks and we travelled mostly in relative comfort, despite an extremely rough 10 day crossing of the Indian Ocean. We had a six birth cabin divided into two rooms. Our luggage was stored in the hold. We ate meals in the dining room. There was ample space to wander on the promenade and aft decks, and there was plenty to entertain us. We had cause to complain, of course, as travellers always do, when the weather got rough and the desalination plant broke down and our drinking water became brackish. But I remember the voyage with nostalgia. It was an exciting journey for a 12 year old boy.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

A number of our ancestors made the voyage to Australia in the 1800s when sailing ships were still the main form of transport. The Fischer family left Hamburg in 1854 and Johann Holtorf in 1856. Others left from various ports in England in the 1870s, but by then steam was taking over. By the time my grandfather, George Simmonds, left England in 1923 ships were beginning to resemble the passenger liners that we travelled on in my childhood, between Fiji and Australia, and later between Australia and England.


Migrant ship (the Artemisia) mid nineteenth century

The conditions on board sailing ships in the 1850s were harsh. Most passengers travelled in a part of the ship called “steerage” between the upper deck and the cargo hold. Since these ships were built for cargo and not passengers this ‘tween decks area was not designed for accommodation, but was converted for the purpose. However, unlike our experience on the Ellinis, passengers did not have their own cabin, but were all crowded into one large room that acted as dormitory, dining room and common room. Until 1852 men and women were all accommodated together, but later men were accommodated separately from the women and children.

When the sea was stormy and rough the hatches were battened down and passengers could not get up into the open. Toilets were usually on the upper deck, about one for every hundred passengers. In rough conditions they coul not easily be accesses and a bucket in steerage had to suffice. These could easily be overturned; the smell could be overpowering, from vomit and human waste. Rats were common. Sea water seeped in through hatches so it was damp below deck. It was also dark because there were no windows and dim lanterns hanging from the deck beams provided the only light. Ventilation was poor.

On the voyage to Australia these conditions needed to be endured not for four weeks but for four months. Bunks were stacked on top of one another, each person had an area measuring about 0.5 x 2 metres. There were no tables or chairs, and the aisles were crowded with migrants luggage. Though German ships provided meals for their steerage passengers (unlike British ships on the transatlantic route), preservation of food was difficult and meals were boring and monotonous. The menu consisted of salt meat and salt bacon, herrings, sauerkraut, potatoes, beans and peas, in various combinations. Passengers had to collect their food from the galley and take it back to steerage to eat.

Between decks at mealtime

With such horrendous conditions it is no surprise that sickness was rife. As Maggie Blanck says on her very informative website, “because of the close quarters in which they lived, passengers often suffered from illnesses like trench mouth, body ulcers, and lice. Conditions were frightful. Immigrant ships were recognized by the smell…” Of course illness and premature death were common on land too on those days, so the expectations of travelers was not high, but the hardness of those four months cannot be underestimated, even if people were tougher than they are now. So much for the romance of sail.

Our Fischer family’s voyage was documented by the ship’s doctor, Ernst Middendorf. Here is an excerpt by him describing the conditions. He, of course, shared a cabin with the captain and first mate, and did not share his accommodation with the passengers, of whom he clearly had a fairly low opinion. I try to imagine gottfried and Viktoria Fischer and their four children in the midst of all this:

In the steerage everything ran its regular course from one day to the other, i.e. morning, grumbling over the coffee; noon, over the under-cooked beans or too-small portions of meat; and evening, over the stinking tea water; besieging of the galley, cursing of the cooks, reciprocal bickering and envy if ever anybody got something from the cabin, and if these people just happened to have peace among themselves, then complaining about the ship’s command and myself. In addition, filth and vermin, the stink and clamour of children, and complete indolence in the face of every gentle admonishment about cleanliness -they only stirred themselves if forced to.
AAZ no.75 24 Sep 1855, p.298

Life on board was not all misery, of course, as Dr Middendorf reminds us in his description of a warm evening in the vicinity of Tenerife: “the wind was mild and cooling, like a German June evening. We had our first southern night. The moon broke through the light cloud and threw a silver spotlight on the gently moving water. Our people danced noisily to the music of a flute…” Another picture from Maggie Land Blanck’s website, captures life in steerage on board another emigrant ship, the Indus, sailing from London to Brisbane. The picture is from an emigrant magazine, and in the middle of the crowd there is “a tall thin sinewy Irishman… dancing a jig to the tune of a violin.” Even in harsh conditions people make their own entertainment. A description of this scene by the artist follows.

Passengers entertain themselves

Passengers entertain themselves

Forward between decks were the quarters of the bachelor emigrants. Here a tall thin sinewy Irishman was dancing a jig to the tune of a violin, the scraping of which combined, with the mewing of a litter of black kittens, and the laughter of the audience, to make a Babel of discordant sounds. The berths in this department were placed in a double row, with a zinc pail, and at times a looking-glass at the head of each. (The Graphic, June 29, 1872)

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