Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “schleswig-holstein”

Johann Holtorf – German or Danish?

Flags in Bad Bramstedt - Left to right: Holstein, Bramstedt, Germany

Flags in Bad Bramstedt – Left to right: Holstein, Bramstedt, Germany

Johann Holtorf was born in Bimöhlen, a tiny village in the Duchy of Holstein, on April 6, 1828. He left Holstein in 1856 when he was 28 years old. He was unmarried and travelled alone to Australia where he subsequently built a life for himself. He died in 1898 at the age of 70, father of 10 children, one of whom was my great grandfather. But what of the land he left behind him, and the life he lived there?

The Duchy of Holstein was established in 1474 when King Christian I of Denmark had his County of Holstein-Rendsburg elevated to a duchy by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. It remained a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806. However, throughout this time it was actually ruled by the Danish monarch, who was therefore also the Duke of Holstein, though the actual administration of the duchy was delegated to a statholder, who was a prince of Denmark. Holstein was ruled jointly with the Duchy of Schleswig (to the north) by members of the Danish house of Oldenburg for its entire existence.

Although officially ruled by Denmark, the majority of the population of Holstein spoke a dialect of German called Plattdeutsch, in contrast to the neighbouring Duchy of Schleswig where many more spoke Danish. In 1815, after the Napoleonic wars, and as a result of the Congress of Vienna, the Duchy of Holstein became a part of the German Confederation. It remained a duchy under the Danish monarch, but this loose association with 38 other German speaking states was a harbinger of what was to come. Nationalism was a driving force in the Europe of the nineteenth century, not least in the German speaking areas, and there was a growing desire for unification, with the big and powerful lands of Prussia and Austria keen to pull the smaller states into their control. There were many Germans in Schleswig and Holstein who would welcome unification with Prussia but it is possible that the Holtorf family, despite their language, were not part of this group, more committed to maintaining the status quo with Denmark.

In 1848 a war broke out between Denmark and Prussia over Schleswig-Holstein, and after three years of fighting the Danish gained the upper hand, retaining control of the region. However, in 1864 a second Schleswig war would break out and this time the Germans triumphed over the Danes. Initially Holstein was given to Austria but the Prussians and Austrians ended up quarrelling leading to the Austro-Prussian War, with a Prussian victory. Prussia triumphed and subsequently annexed Schleswig and Holstein in 1866, bringing to an end over 400 years of duchy status under Denmark. Schleswig-Holstein became a state of Prussia. It remains a state of present day Germany.

By 1866, of course, Johann had left Holstein never to return. He sailed from Hamburg in 1856 and would only have read of the situation in his homeland in newspaper reports and letters from his family. Its hard to know what Johann thought of the situation back home. What I do know is that two of his Australian born sons, Charles Holdorf (my great grandfather) and Lewis Holdorf, would later return to Europe to fight against the Germans in WWI, and this is the source of my suspicion that Johann was no German nationalist. There is an interesting reference to Charles and Lewis in a book by Australian author, John Williams, German Anzacs and the First World War, which casts light on this question. According to Williams’ understanding, Johann and his wife, Caroline,

like many from that borderland region at the northern extremity of the Reich… had no great love of Bismarckian Germany, and their sons appear to have become ardent empire loyalists. Both Lewis and Charles subsequently decided to anglicise their names by the displacement of two letters, with Holdorf being transformed into the very English Holford. (p97)

So though Johann Holtorf spoke German, if he had any nationalistic loyalty it would appear to have been to Danish Holstein, rather than to Prussia, which became the leading state after German unification. During Johann’s early life three successive kings of Denmark held the position of Duke of Holstein: Frederick IV, Christian VIII, and then Frederick VII. Of course Johann was not a part of the nobility, and political questions may have been of little significance to him, but questions of nationalism were growing in everyone’s mind, and the First Schleswig War brought such issues very close to home. Whether he was involved in the military, or had any friends or relatives involved, I don’t know, but he must have known that the outcome of the war would have a bearing on his future and the future of any children he might have. Though Denmark triumphed initially Johann may have seen the writing on the wall, and the prospect of a future dominated by Prussia may have influenced his thoughts about leaving.

There were no doubt other reasons to depart, but in the end he decided not to be German or Danish, and relinquished the ancient national identity of his family when he emigrated to New South Wales, where in 1861 he became naturalised as a British subject. Though in our day this might sound as if he was going over to the enemy, in the 1800s England, Germany and Denmark were friends, almost family in a sense, despite their occasional quarrels. The bitterness between Britain and Germany that would result from two world wars was far in the future and could hardly be imagined in the 1850s. Nevertheless Johann chose the English branch of the European dynasties for his future, and his descendants would be that particular offshoot of Britain that became the Australia of today.


Nineteenth century Germany

In an attempt to understand where my German ancestors came from, I have tracked down this useful map from Wikipedia. There was no Germany as we know it in the nineteenth century, rather a confederation of German speaking kingdoms and duchies (the German Confederation or Der Deutsche Bund). On the map below it is Holstein in the far north and Bavaria (Bayern), in the south, which are of interest. Prussia was between them, and the superpower of Austria to the south. Johann Holtorf (later John Holdorf) left Bad Bramstedt, Holstein in 1856, when he was 28 years old. Caroline Fischer, who John would later marry, left Harheim, Bavaria, in 1854, when she was 7 years old. She travelled with her parents, Gottried and Viktoria Fischer, and her three younger brothers, Charles, Heronimys and William. Both Johann and the Fischer family sailed from Hamburg.

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The Holtorf family of Bramstedt

The following is an undated version of an article posted here previously, but which was inaccurate on a number of counts. The information now contains my understanding of the Holtorf family as of today’s date, 20 September 2014. Such are the joys of family history research. The story changes as new information comes to light and old information is re-interpreted. I should add that the information following is based on various papers in my father’s possession, but none of them is an original source, in the sense of being an official document or historical record. Rather they are notes written by previous researchers from my family, but since none of the documents is signed or dated I am unable to go back to the person(s) who wrote them to ask what their sources were. The only reference to original sources that these notes contain is that they were taken from Lutheran Church records. Such records are not the easiest to access for an English speaking person like me, since they are not online, and they are in old German. This means that to view the original sources requires a visit to the area, a person skilled in reading and translating old German, and, above all, plenty of time. None of these are straightforward. If anyone happens to stumble over this blog and has more information I would love to hear from you.

My grandfather’s grandfather was named Johann Holtorf when he was born in 1828 in what is now the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. When he was 28, in 1856, Johann migrated to the British colony of New South Wales in Australia, where he changed his name to John Holdorf and became naturalised as a British citizen. He married Caroline Fischer, another German migrant (but from southern Germany), and together they settled in Goulburn and had 10 children. At least one of their children (Charles Holdorf, their first born) changed his surname to Holford, and from him came my father’s family.

Johann himself was also one of ten children, five of them his full siblings, and four of them half-siblings. His parents were named Claus Holtorf (1791-1874) and Margarethe Köhnke (1789-1835). His mother died when Johann was 7 and two years later in 1837 his father remarried Elsabe Lentfer, who had four sons.

Bramstedt in the 1800s
Bramstedt, where Claus was born, was a market town in the Danish Duchy of Holstein. At the time of his birth Holstein, though ruled by Denmark, was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It became part of the German Confederation after the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, and then as a result of the Schleswig wars of 1848 and 1864 it became, together with Schleswig, the neighbouring duchy to the north, it passed out of Danish hands completely, and became part of the newly formed nation of Germany. Claus, as far as I know, spoke German, as did the majority of people in Holstein. However, the ruling powers spoke Danish. Whether this was an issue for Claus or not I don’t know. The concept of nationalism was growing through the nineteenth century and no doubt everyone had an opinion about their own identity and where they belonged. But there was no nation of Germany then, so it wasn’t simply a question of “Am I German or am I Danish?” The Holtorfs (who were previously Holtorps) had always lived with this identity – German speaking in the Duchy of Holstein, ruled by Denmark. That this was now being questioned by some people may have had little relevance to them. Their lives were lived at a village level, and the machinations of dukes and princes were perhaps interesting but not their first concern.

Claus Holtorf
Claus, Johann’s father, was a shoe maker and timber warden. He was an only child, and his father was also a shoemaker on a farm. He could trace his ancestry back at least 100 years, and all the ancestors came from the Bramstedt area. The records I have go back to 1688 when Claus’s great grandfather was born in Kampen, Duchy of Holstein, a small village which now barely exists, some 8 or 10 kilometres south of Bramstedt.

As far as I know Claus was born and grew up in Bramstedt, a market town about 40km north of Hamburg. However, his father was apparently born in Bimöhlen, a village a few kilometres to the east of Bramstedt. Johann married in 1817 when he was 26 years old. His first child, according to my records, was born a few months before he was married.

Margarethe Köhnke
Margarethe was Claus’s first wife. She was born in 1789 in Wiemersdorf, where her father was a “small farmer”. Her first child, Anna, named after Claus’s mother, was born in March 1817, when Margarethe was 28 or 29. Margarethe married Claus in late May of the same year.

The next three of Margarethe’s children, Claus, Hans and Wilhelmina (Minna) were born, according to my records, in “Gross Aspe.” I have wondered where this might be. More of this in my next blog article. However, her 5th and 6th children, Johann (my ancestor) and possibly Andreas, were born in Bimöhlen, the same village that their grandfather was born in. The family appears to have moved at least twice, first to “Gross Aspe,” and then to Bimöhlen. Margarethe died in 1835 when her youngest child was just 3 years old. She is said to have died in Aukathe, which I have not been able to locate. There is an area of Bramstedt called Aukamp and I wonder if this is the place.

Elsabe Lentfer
Claus remarried in November 1837, 2 years after Margarethe died. His second wife was Elsabe Lentfer. They married in Bramstedt and the four sons they had together were all born in Bramstedt. So it would seem that the bigger town became the home of the Holtorf family after 1837. I have no other information about Elsabe, but I do know that one of her sons died at or shortly after birth, and another was drowned at the age of seven. A third appears to have died childless at a relatively early age, perhaps in his twenties. Only her third child, Jakob appears to have survived.

What became of the Holtorfs of Bramstedt?
Johann, my ancestor, migrated to Australia when he was 26 years old, in the 1850s, as I have already mentioned. Although I have no details, it would appear that four of the other children also left Germany at different times. Both the girls, Anna and Minna married German men, but may well have moved to England at some stage, though whether they died there I am not certain. Andreas, Johann’s little brother apparently migrated to America. The only one of Elsabe’s sons to survive past his twenties, namely Jakob Holtorf, migrated, like his older half-brother, Johann, to Australia. What became of him I am unsure.

Of the two remaining brothers, Claus (the firstborn son) and Hans, only Hans appears to have had any children. What became of Claus I don’t know, but Hans is said to have remained in the Bramstedt area, where he married and had four children. On his father Claus’s death certificate (1874) Hans and his wife Catharrina Behnk were living in Weddelbrooks Damm, which is just to the west of Bramstedt.

The closest German relatives I have would therefore be descendants of Hans, if there are any.

Bad Bramstedt location

Bad Bramstedt location map

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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