Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “hamburg”

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


Leaving Hamburg

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.


Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room companion, Not dated*, Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

Hamburg to Sydney in the 1850s

Johann Holtorf, a 28 year old farmer from Bramstedt, Holstein, sailed in November 1856 from Hamburg to Sydney on the sailing ship, Steinwärder, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. Two years earlier another German family, the Fischers of Harheim in Hessen, near Frankfurt, had departed Hamburg on the same route. They sailed on another square-rigger, the Caesar, of the Hinrich Wilhelm Köhn line. Gottfried and Viktoria Fischer travelled together with their four children, Caroline, Charles, Heironimys and William. Heironimys died on the voyage, presumably of cholera. Caroline, the eldest, was just 7 when they departed in November 1854, but she turned 8 before they arrived in Sydney at the end of the following March. She was 10 when Johann Holtorf arrived in Sydney two years later.

I imagine that the German community in Sydney in the 1850s was close knit. Though Johann was from the Danish Duchy of Holstein in the north and the Fischers were from the German state of Hesse, hundreds of kilometres south, they all spoke German, and it is likely Johann got to know Gottfried and Viktoria and their growing family during his first years in the colony. The Fischer family left Sydney and moved to Forbes for a time in the 1860s, while Johann remained in the metropolis. By the time the Fischer family moved back to Sydney, some years later, Caroline had grown into a young woman, and she obviously caught Johann’s eye; in 1868 they married, Caroline just 21 years old, Johann already 40. They moved to Goulburn and had 11 children, the first of which was my great grandfather, Charles Holdorf.

Caroline and Johann were both German migrants, but they also shared the unforgettable experience of a 4 month voyage by sailing ship between Germany and Australia, though Caroline was just a little girl and was travelling with her family and Johann was a young man and travelling alone. In the 1860s steam began to take over as the main form of transport for migrants, and even in the 1850s there were some steamers plying the seas. Although I have no record of Johann’s voyage, there is an interesting account of the Fischer family’s journey written by the ship’s doctor, a young man by the name of Ernst Middendorf. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the voyage and over the next few weeks I will highlight some parts of that account on this blog.

The description was published as “a long letter home” in a German emigrant magazine called Allgemeine Auswanderungszeitung, in Rudolstadt, Germany in 1855. The British Library has copies of all of the issues of the magazine over the period 1847-1871. The “long letter home” was published in serial form in seven instalments in September-October 1855. In 2008 an English translation of the letter by Jenny Paterson was published in an Australian genealogy publication called Ances-tree (volume 21, number 3). There is a scanned copy of this translation on the family history website of the Ubrihien family here.

Imagining stories for Claus and Jürgen

I wondered in my last entry if Claus (aged 32) and Jürgen Holtorf (age 8) may have sailed together from Hamburg to New York in April 1852. Further research shows that the ship they sailed on, the Rhein, arrived in New York on April 29, meaning it took a mere 28 days to complete the journey. So it was not wrecked, a possibility that I raised in the last blog. And despite what I have read in other places, which suggests that the journey usually took at least 40 days, this trip was a quick one.

However, the mystery deepens when scanning through the passenger list of arrivals on the Rhein in New York on that date. Claus has disappeared and only Jürgen remains. However, this time Jürgen’s age is listed, but as 32. I have already mentioned that if indeed these were our Holtorfs, then Jürgen would have been around 8 years of age, and Claus would be 32.

What happened to Claus? Did he die on the voyage? Or was it really young Jürgen who died and then Claus took his name? And what could possibly have prompted Claus to do such a thing?

The “Rhein” was a 450 gross ton, three masted barque, built in 1848. She was constructed of wood, and carried 20-1st class and 200-steerage passengers. She sailed between Hamburg and New York for the Hamburg America Line from 1849 to 1858 when she was sold. [Merchant Fleets by Duncan Haws, vol.4, Hamburg America Line]


The Rhein, 1848 Source: Arnold Kludas and Herbert Bischoff, Die Schiffe der Hamburg – Amerika Linie, Bd. 1: 1847-1906 (Herford: Koehler, 1979), p. 21.

Why did people die on voyages between Europe and the USA? The following description is of three common diseases and comes from the Mecklenburg Vorpommern GenWebsite:

Three diseases in particular were rampant on ships: cholera, typhus, and smallpox. Cholera, an infection of the stomach and intestines, was a particular problem. Once cholera struck a ship’s passengers, it spread quickly. Noone knew what to do for the problem. One recommended treatment was to administer a dose of Epsom salts and castor oil in combination, rub the patient’s face with vinegar, and then give the patient 35 drops of laudanum, a highly addictive opiate. If there was no ship’s doctor, and there usually wasn’t, the captain had the medicine chest. The medicine chest often contained remedies such as balsam, drops of various kinds, cream of tartar, peppermint, powdered rhubarb, or pills advertised on the waterfront as useful for curing a number of ailments. Any of those treatments might be tried.

Outbreaks of smallpox were less common but more feared. The disease was often accommpanied by pneumonia, encephalitis, blood poisoning or some other ailment, and the mortality rate was high. The worst killer of all on sailing ships was typhus, a liceborne disease that afflicts the victim’s skin and brain, causing dizziness, headaches, and pain throughout the body, together with bloodshot eyes, a dark red rash and a dull stare.

Typhus was common in the crowded conditions and was known by the nickname of “ship fever.” It is a wonder that as many passengers survived the voyage as did. Those that did not were buried at sea. 

Joh. Oldorf, Hamburg passenger lists, 1856

The passenger lists for ships sailing out of Hamburg in the 1800s are available online. Johann Holtorf sailed with a ship called the Steinwärder, which sailed on 3 November 1856. The following is an excerpt from Steinwärder’s passenger list. Johann’s name is listed as Joh. Oldorf, age 28, landmann (farmer) of Bramstedt, Holstein. It is not exactly easy to decipher, but with the eye of faith…

Passengers on the Steinwärder, Hamburg 1856

Passengers on the Steinwärder, Hamburg 1856

Although the details of the voyage are not visible on this selection, according to the Ancestry records the ship type was “segelschiff” (sailing ship), the accommodation was “ohne angabe” (not specified), the captain was Arens, H. E., the shipping line was Joh. Ces. Godeffroy & Sohn, and the destination was Sydney. The only picture I have been able to find on the internet of the Steinwärder is the following, from the State Library of South Australia, which shows that it was a three masted barque of 320 tons.

The sailing ship Steinwärder

The sailing ship Steinwärder

There is a fascinating description of conditions on such migrant ships at this website.

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