Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “Johann holtorf”

Seasick… the English Channel

The Fischer family and Johann Holtorf were landlubbers; they had never been to sea. After leaving the sheltered waters of the Elbe on their respective migrant ships they traversed a corner of the North Sea and then entered the English Channel. The Fischers sailed on the Caesar, which was hit by a storm shortly after entering the Channel, no doubt the first of many over the following four months. Here is Dr Ernst Middendorf’s description of the first wild night. Anyone who has lived on a ship at sea will recognise the experience with a smile…

Form the Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

From the Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

On the following morning I found seasickness in full bloom in the steerage. The misery was naturally greatest among the women; the men generally held out well. The children, of whom we had a great number on board… naturally had to suffer a good deal during their mothers’ sickness. Meanwhile the wind became even stronger during the day and stormy around evening. Dutch fishing vessels came close to us. They were tossed about like nutshells, one minute disappearing and the next minute appearing again on the crest of the waves. Our ship made heavy weather of it too. Night fell and it got very dark. All around was black; one saw only the white foamy crests of the high waves ever rolling on towards us, while heavy rain gusts fell from time to time…

Rest was of course out of the question; one was thrown about in the bunk and it was an effort not to fall out. Outside, the storm howled, the ropes creaked, the rain splashed, the sailors ran about the deck at their work with their yodelling singing, between times the commanding voice of the Captain, the sea raged and the crashing waves hit the planks so that the whole ship shuddered. All at once there was a heavy crack and the table fell over, and all the furniture and trunks that had been fastened down flew about the cabin. From the steerage below boomed a dull noise of luggage tumbling about, then there was a small pause. The next thing we heard from below was the melancholy strains of a hymn; the people believed their last hour was nigh. That night every compartment of the ship had its improvised pastor.

Allgemeine Auswanderungszeitung (AAZ) no.73 17 Sep 1855, p.291

My most vivid memories of such rough seas are not from the English Channel, but from the roaring forties between Cape Town and Perth, which our family traversed in 1973 on board the passenger ship Ellinis. The waves towered high, buffeting us constantly from one side. Barely anyone came to meals in the dining room, everyone was sick. My parents warned me against going on deck, fearful that I might be swept overboard, a warning that I naturally ignored. It was wild and dangerous and exciting, although there were times when I too thought that the end had come, that our ship, as huge and solid as it was, seemed on the verge of capsizing and taking us all to the bottom with it. I can’t imagine how those old square riggers weathered these mighty storms at sea. They must have been tossed like driftwood.

Both the Fischer family on the Caesar and Johann Holtorf on the Steinwärder would, like us 120 years later, have to cross the wild southern ocean between Africa and Australia, but when Dr Middendorf wrote the above description they had barely left Germany, still in northern waters. There were many storms to be survived before they would sail out of Cape Town.

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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.

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.

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.

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

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