Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “germany”

Who was Gottfried Fischer (1821-1898)?

Caroline Fischer, who married my grandfather’s grandfather, John Holdorf, at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney in 1868, was the daughter of a German immigrant by the name of Gottfried and his wife Viktoria. Caroline was born in Germany, or more correctly, as far as I know, in the Kingdom of Bavaria (Königsreich Bayern), but left with her parents and three younger brothers in 1854, joining the swelling numbers of German immigrants to the new worlds of Australia, America and Canada. They sailed on board the sailing ship Caesar, as I have written about in a number of blogs over recent weeks, arriving in Sydney in March 1855. But what of Gottfried? Who was he and what caused him to leave his native land and risk the perils of a sea voyage around the world in search of a new home for himself and his descendants?

Frankfurt.HarheimI have very little information about Gottfried or his wife, Viktoria. However, the little that I know indicates that he was born in the town of Harheim, which is just north of Frankfurt. Harheim appears to have been in a state called Hesse-Nassau and Frankfurt was sandwiched between Hesse and Bavaria. The states of the so called German Federation which existed from 1815 to 1866 were many and to my mind confusing. Some were kingdoms, some were duchies, some were grand duchies. Bavaria is well recognised by most nowadays because of the scenic beauty of its alps, but Hesse and Nassau are not as readily identified by us foreigners. Frankfurt is well known even to non-Germans like me because it is such a large city and a hub for flights within Europe, like other easily recognised cities in Germany such as Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.

I really know nothing of Harheim, having never been there myself. There are of course websites for the area but I have not found anything in English and I lack the patience to use google translate for every page with the name Harheim in it to see if there is something interesting there. More interesting for me are the pictures, and below is one that I found on a German blog which gives a nice impression. It seems like a pleasant but rather unremarkable town, at least looking at the pictures. It barely rates a mention on Wikipedia, unlike Bramstedt, the home of the other side of our German ancestry.

A view of modern Harheim (from http://www.tc-ffm.de/?tag=fruehling)

A view of modern Harheim (from http://www.tc-ffm.de/?tag=fruehling)

Remarkable or not, Harheim was the birthplace of Gottfried Fischer, who departed from there in 1854 with his young family for Australia. He and his wife were both aged 33 when they left. Viktoria, who was named Scherer before she married, was from Augsburg, Bavaria, which is a good way south of Harheim. The records I have indicate that their first child, Caroline, was also born in Augsburg. So the first question that comes to my mind when thinking of Gottfried is how he came to marry someone from so far away. For some reason Gottfried was living for a period in Augsburg, where he married and where his first child was born. But sometime between 1847 and 1849 he took the family back to Harheim, where his next three children, all boys, were born. Then in 1854 he decided that migration to Australia offered the best future for the family.

On the Hamburg passenger lists Gottfried is listed as a wine grower (weinbauer). However, in his later life in Sydney he apparently worked as a carpenter. It is possible that he was not a winegrower at all, but listed himself as one because that was what Australia was looking for at the time, and this occupation made an assisted passage possible. Neither Harheim nor Augsburg appear to be in wine-growing districts of Germany. I suppose it is possible that he did work in the wine making business and then decided after he came to Australia that he would become a carpenter. But I somehow have my doubts.

At the same time, I have trouble understanding why either a winegrower or a carpenter would travel from Harheim to Augsburg, a distance of at least 300km. Could there have been another reason that Gottfried was in Augsburg in the 1840s when he met Viktoria? When Caroline was born in 1847 Gottfried was 26 years old. His wife, Caroline, was the daughter of a master weaver. How did they meet? How could they have married? Given the times in which they lived I have wondered if Gottfried was perhaps a soldier, one of the few occupations that would lead a poorer man to move over such a large distance. Would a carpenter or a winegrower move that far? If so why?

What seems certain to me is that Gottfried was not a timid man. He and Viktoria decided to leave their native land and move to the other side of the world. Such a decision is never easy. It requires a willingness for sacrifice. It requires a preparedness to take risks. It implies a certain degree of adventurousness. These are characteristics that are often seen in soldiers. What is more a good number of Gottfried’s Australian descendants ended up fighting in the Great War of 1914-18 (though not on the German side!).

But the truth is I simply don’t know much about this Gottfried Fischer who left Germany in 1854 and took his family to the far side of the world.

Advertisements

Old maps

attachment

I have to confess to a weakness for old maps. There is something vaguely adventurous and exciting about the yellowed paper, the colours, the text. I found this image recently on a free app for iPad. It brings to mind a Europe that to us today is barely remembered, a Europe without the nation of Germany, that was nevertheless the home of our German ancestors. Sweden and Great Britain are just on the fringes of this world, even if they in many ways have played a bigger part in our history than Central Europe. But as I have focussed on my German ancestry the last few months this old Germany has caught my attention.

The Duchy of Holstein, where Johann Holdorf lived as a young man, is way up north, coloured orange like Denmark. Caroline Fisher, who would marry him in Sydney in the 1860s, was born in Augsburg, in the Kingdom of Bavaria, right in the centre and coloured green. Before leaving Europe in 1854, while Caroline was still a little girl, the Fisher family lived in the little town of Harheim, on the border between the Grand Duchy of Hesse and the Duchy of Nassau, just north of Frankfurt.

The map is a collection of empires and kingdoms, of duchies and principalities, with wonderful names like Bohemia and Pomerania, Saxony and Silesia, Moravia and Mecklenburg. Even the Grand Principality of Transylvania gets into the picture, hanging off the eastern end of Hungary. These half forgotten lands bring thoughts of a world now slipping further and further into the mists of time, a world of kings and emperors, of dukes and princes. To us now they seems like the stuff of fairytales, but to our ancestors they were everyday life.

Cuxhaven and the North Sea

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.

The Anastasis in Cuxhaven

The Anastasis in Cuxhaven

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.

Moored in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, beside a square rigger.

Moored in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, beside a square rigger.

Ice on the Elbe

Hamburg is a city on a river, the Elbe. But it is also a large seaport and in the 1850s was becoming, with Bremen, one of Germany’s major emigration points. To reach the sea ships had to navigate the wide reaches of this mighty river on a north west route with the Danish Duchy of Holstein on the right and the Kingdom of Hannover on the left. Gluckstadt, on the Holstein side, lies halfway from Hamburg to the sea. The Caesar, with a collection of other sailing ships, anchored near Gluckstadt for two nights, waiting for the wind to change. Further on, as the river broadens out at its mouth, Cuxhaven lies to the left at the northern extremity of Hannover, the last opportunity to return to the German mainland before ships leave the river behind and sail out into the sea. The Caesar stopped briefly off Cuxhaven and then sailed on; those were the Fischer family’s last glimpses of Germany as the ship slipped away into the North Sea.

Dr Middendorf’s account of this departure from Germany in the chilly days of late autumn, 1854, gives us a feeling not just for the journey, but also for the captain of the vessel, Johann Stürje, a “soft-hearted, overly good man.”

There was already ice on the Elbe and the air was bitterly cold. Meanwhile, we glided calmly down the Elbe and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon anchored near Gluckstadt, to wait there for a favourable wind. This soon arrived the following evening, and we were only missing the Captain. The next morning many of the ships that had lain with us before Gluckstadt had weighed anchor and gone to sea… The Captain came late in the evening, and early next morning we continued down the Elbe with a fresh easterly…

The Captain sat in his cubicle with his son on his knee, and both were crying – I heard it while I wrote. The Captain is a soft-hearted, overly good man. He lost his wife only recently, whom he loved above all things, and you can imagine how difficult this goodbye was for him. The old father-in-law went up and down in the cabin with hands clasped behind his back to hide his emotion… 

We were nearing Cuxhaven, a signal flag was hoisted and a boat neared the ship to take off the Captain’s relatives. This was done as soon as he appeared on deck to give the necessary orders. The old seaman, despite his years, climbed down the ropes with the ease of a sailor and lifted the boy down. 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.

Hamburg to the North Sea

Hamburg to the North Sea

From the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

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

Post Navigation