Friday, 19 April 2013

understanding a CHANGE OF NAME

I have just begun to paddle in the lake of ancestry - the 'in' hobby for the retired.  No, I'm not making fun of it, just teasing a little until I get used to this stage of life. It was almost a year ago, at my favourite aunt's 95th birthday party - well done Aunty Joan - when Heather, a relative of Aunty Joan's late husband, mentioned her ancestry work and asked me a question about my grandfather. Then she whipped out her pink laptop and clicked on to show me what she thought was an error. 

I've always had an interest in family history. As a child my favourite bedtime stories were those Mum told of her childhood and I picked up some of the names and relationships.  These stories formed a base for the rest of my life and looking back I can see how important they were.  Maybe if more families went into details about who they are and where they come from our young adults would be more secure and able to see the big picture, instead of just their selfies.

I've talked to other relatives at times so my family story collection is constantly being added to, and edited as I discover the 'true' facts about events and lives. Funny how people are happy to talk openly about some things but add to or change details of events they feel a sensitive about. There was great fear about how you appeared to other people 100 years ago. 

Sadly, it's mostly my mother's family story as Dad's was out of reach geographically and also personally as they/we did not keep in touch. I have not yet joined - because I haven't had the time to devote to this that would justify the expense.  But Heather introduced me to Trove - a collection of scans of newspapers and magazines from something like the 1750's up to the 1950's, and this has certainly kept me busy. I've found amazing things including my grandmother's wedding notice, lists of people who attended the charity balls she organised after WWl, my parents wedding notice and my birth etc.  I've even discovered a few bits and pieces about my father's family which is exciting. Back in the days before emails and facebook every event or announcement went into the newspaper. Heather also put me in touch with the daughter of my grandfather's brother and that led to some very interesting insights.

So, the error in Ancestory was to do with Mother's father.  Mum's sister is Aunty Joan but she, understandably, gets a little confused these days and I became the back up memory.  I knew that my grandfather had changed his name at one time - I thought it was before he married Eva, my grandmother.

I found this in some notes Aunty Joan wrote for me about 10 years ago, and these are her words:
'I was born on 2nd May 1917 in our family home, which had been designed by my father, at Ryde, NSW.  The house had gardens and an orchard. Other houses were few and far between. Opposite us was a Chinese (market) garden where men worked all day, often carrying two buckets of water on sticks across their shoulders. They had a primitive hut in the garden.
Father had been born Otto Wilhelm Schwertmann, but the war of 1914 – 1918 forced some businessmen to adopt more English names. Father chose the names of English towns and became Otford Wilton Weston. Hundreds of people with German names were interned in camps though they had been nothing but good citizens. German names were frowned on for many years. Even when I went to school at ten or twelve years of age, we called out rude things to children with German names. I’m glad Margaret and I were saved from this, although we were completely unaware of our good luck at the time'.

This is a good family story, but from talking to other people and checking in Trove I've found that it wasn't my grandfather who changed his name, it was my great-grandmother who insisted on it.  And, it was done after Ot, as they called him, married my grandmother, Eva. They married on 20th June 1914. A newspaper notice dates the name change as 24th June 1915. My grandmother, who I knew very well as she lived with us for years, never let on that she had originally been Mrs Schwertmann. I have no memory of my grandfather who died when I was a baby.

There was a bad reaction from a number of family members to Eva marrying a German. Many years later, when my mother divorced my father and then married an actual German that negative reaction surfaced again. BUT ... and this is delicious, my cousin discovered that my grandfather had not really come from Germany. The town where my great-grandfather was born is/was technically in Denmark! The borders moved back and forth a bit over the years. I think it's really wonderful and would like to blow a few raspberries to that long gone generation who protected themselves with hate and also, because my father's grandfather was Danish and that gives me Danish blood on both sides. Sadly Mum and Dad never knew that.

But back to the name change.  Mum always said her father had been born in Germany. His father, Christian, had come to Australia for the Sydney International Exhibition, held in 1879. He was so impressed with Australia that he returned home to Germany and came back with his whole family, including my grandfather who was almost 10 years old. This cemented the idea of German ancestry.  The true story as I have now discovered, is; Christian Swertman did come to Australia for the Exhibition, as a single man from Denmark, with a contact address of c/- the Bank of Hamburg, London. He married an Aussie girl named Grace Noble, a teacher from Victoria with Scottish ancestry. They had three children; Otto, Hubert and Olga. Christian was killed in a street accident in 1896 when Otto was about 10 years old.  At that young age my grandfather found he had a family to support. He went to work selling newspapers and eventually put his brother through school and himself through university while assisting his mother, grandma Weston, and sister Olga. Later Hubert disappeared and his two daughters went to live with grandma Weston. Otto became a well known Sydney Architect and a humanitarian.

About her husband, my grandmother once wrote;  'Father, (her husband Otto) had a wonderful voice, and I enjoyed singing too. It was lovely having friends and family gather around the Pianola and we would sing far into the evening, forgetting about the time'.

In 2000, my second cousin Ian, who was a bit younger than Joan and my mother, and who, until his death in 2013 was the keeper of the family history, told me;
'Eva and Ot had lived a wealthy life until the depression. When Ot didn’t have work he was depressed and often refused to get out of bed. They became very poor, eventually they were without a business and they lost the house.  They had always been the ones to help other people and didn’t like to take help. This stressed the marriage and probably contributed to their separation.'

Pride was such a problem for that generation, or was it fear of judgement or class discrimination?  In all the years that the family stories were told by my mother, grandmother and aunts, it was never mentioned that Eva and Ot lost everything in the depression. I did know that they separated. Eva took Margaret, the youngest, and moved to a small flat over a shop and Eva went back to nursing.  Mum told me that her mother 'worked with a doctor, visiting sick people in their homes, to change dressings etc. She got to know many people and their life stories.'  It sounds a lot like the District Nurse work that my sister did in the 1970's.
Joan went to live with relatives and Ot moved in with his former secretary and her children, who soon became more his children than his own daughters. In Eva's family it was always hinted that the hard times were caused by (bad) Otford leaving Eva and the girls. Eva was still angry with him forty years later.  Isn't life interesting - it's like a soap opera?

I am so glad I listened to the stories my relatives told. While it's only a tiny part of the full story it is somewhere to begin and so much better than nothing. And it's very entertaining to smooth out the wrinkles and discover a fuller picture of people with real lives, and jobs and mistakes and problems. I think they all did the best they could for the time they lived in... and what more can any of us do?  I'd encourage everyone to ask about their family history and/or write their own life story to hand down to the next generation, it could be important to at least some of them one day.

Oh, and that error on (I'm not promoting them, it just keeps coming up), someone had changed my grandfather's Christian names to the new ones he'd chosen but left the original surname.  It's all fixed now.

Photos taken between 1928 and 1932
My grandfather, Otford - my grandmother, Eva - my aunt, Joan and my mother, Margaret

"It doesn't matter how many say it cannot be done
or how many people have tried it before;
it's important to realize that whatever you're doing,
it's your first attempt at it."


  1. Good to see the old photo

  2. Hi Janine. Your blogger profile is set to No Reply so I can't reply to your comment by email. Firstly thank you for your compliments about my lattice quilt. I was inspired by this fabulous quilt photo at flicker:
    It's such an effective pattern. I made my squares 8 inches then cut them diagnoally and sewed a 2 inch strip in between then trimmed them back to 8 inch squares. sew them together, it's a great project when you just feel like lots of machine sewing,
    It must be so interesting researching your family history.

  3. The no reply function has been reversed now Rachael, thanks for pointing that out.
    Janine C

  4. Wow how interesting, I't really is hard for the younger generations to remember that there was life before us, and quite a lot of it too. History to us is what we can remember from our own lives. I guess families don't sit around in the evenings sharing stories like they used to, it's all Facebook, iPods and TV these days.

    Thanks Mum, that was very interesting!

    1. You're right Jared, and I'm so glad you are starting to understand it .... your brain must have grown some more - he he. I heard family stories from my mother and grandmother in the days before technology. Now all we can do is write them down until someone is interested enough to read them. Thanks for reading.
      This was about your great-grandfather, there will be another family one for Anzac Day - about your grandfather.

  5. It's interesting to look back at the previous generations. I agree that when you are young it is not easy to understand. But as you get older and you can look back 30 or 40 years of your own life it starts to make sense. S

  6. We will need to connect up our families when you get to as I have put our info on but only up to Sonja I will need to get some other info from you to add and then link up to your relations.
    Great job and love to hear all the stories. When I look at Tyler, Austin and Zoe's love of music and singing it is nice to think that your family has been doing this for generations.


    1. Yes, will do and there are a lot of relations. Yes, both of my grandparents could sing but Mum couldn't and I'm flat too. Sonja was okay but Coppelia could sing well and was even asked to sing with a band when she left school. Meg seems okay. Interesting.


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