Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 20 July 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.
Have you ever heard of Karl Ludwig Wilhelm Kirchner? I hadn’t until just a few years ago, and yet he’s quite an important figure in New England history.
Wilhelm Kirchner as he is usually called was born in Frankfurt in 1814.
His father was a wealthy burger. Wilhelm received a good education and then, at age eighteen, went to Manchester to stay with friends. There he met two Sydney merchants.
Attracted by the idea of the new colony, he left for Sydney on the Mary arriving on 20 July 1839. Achieving commercial success, he became consul for Hamburg in 1846 and then persuaded the NSW Government to appoint him to bring German migrants to Sydney on a bounty basis, with the first 600 arriving in 1849. In the end, thousands of German migrants came to the colony over the next decade.
The Germany that they left was not the Germany that we know today. To understand this, we need to go back into history.
The Napoleonic Wars raged between 1803 and 1815. In many ways this was the first modern war in which the resources of the state were marshaled for the purposes of armed conflict. Had Napoleon won this war, it is quite possible that the French Empire would today be the dominant power in Europe, that the European colonial expansion would have been dominated by the French. Instead, the British Empire became the dominant global power.
Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, the territory that is now Germany formed part of what was called The Holy Roman Empire, or from 1512 The Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation.
The Empire was always a somewhat ramshackle affair, caught in constant tensions between the centre and the competing parts. By the start of the Napoleonic Wars it was a crazy patchwork quilt of states, principalities, religious territories and free cities.
The Empire was formally dissolved in 1806 following military defeat by Napoleon. When Napoleon in turn was defeated, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 established the German Confederation as a loose confederation of 39 states and free cities. That is why Wilhelm Kirchner could become consul for Hamburg, for Hamburg was effectively an independent state.
Riven with internal conflicts and especially rivalry between Austria and Prussia, the Confederation collapsed in 1866 following war between Prussia and Austria. In 1871, the Prussian controlled German Empire was formed.
All this may sound complicated, and indeed it was. However, it sets a context, for many of New England’s German settlers came to escape the turmoil and sometimes persecution within their homelands. In doing so, they added greatly to the depth and texture of New England life.
The settlers that Wilhelm Kirchner himself brought out settled in various parts of New England from the Hunter Valley north. The German influence was especially strong in the Clarence Valley where Kirchner established significant business interests.
Many of the German settlers were what we would call today skilled migrants, skilled in building, wine making and various crafts. Many became very successful farmers and business people.
One of the Kirchner settler families, for instance, was John (Johan) Sommerlad and his wife Louisa Wilhelmina who became part of Tenterfield’s growing German community. Their son Ernest founded one of New England’s press families, a family that exercised a profound influence on the country press over several generations.
Like the Sommerlads or Jacob Scheef who settled on the Rocky River diggings, many of the German settlers were devout protestants who were to play active roles in church activities including the Methodist Church. However, the new arrivals were not just protestant.
The Ursuline nuns who came to Armidale in 1882 were also escaping religious persecution. Highly cultured, the nuns brought a different influence and perspective to New England life, enriching individual and community life in a variety of ways.
In the 1920s, a young English boy called Maslyn Williams was sent by his family to work as a jackaroo on a big station outside Tenterfield. Falling in love with Australia, Williams became one of Australia’s best known writers and documentary film makers.
In 1988, Williams published a best selling memoir, My Mother’s Country, on his life on the station.
In that book, he talks about the influence of the Ursuline nuns. He also talks about the local newspaper editor. Although he does not name him (Williams wrote in the third person and concealed or altered names), it is pretty clearly Ernest Sommerlad.
In writing, Williams was not concerned with Germans or Germany. Yet his book provides glimpses of the continuing German heritage now absorbed into the patterns of every day New England life.
I found that very satisfying.