Summer 2008

The Holtermann Gold

Mining a vein of family lore

Carl Fredrik Holtermann

Holtermann and his colleagues pose with their discovery. Holtermann sits to the left of the nugget. The photograph’s caption refers to the “Holtermann-Byers [sic] Nugget.” Courtesy

It is 1976. I am ten years old, and I have just experienced for the first time the emotions that come from being bullied. Someone has pointed out that my gums are generously visible when I laugh, illustrating this by raising his own upper lip.

In these brutal moments of my early years, I often escaped into the world of books. At the Rudboda School in Lidingö, Sweden, there was a little library—just a room actually, with bookshelves along the walls, rows of reading tables in the middle, and loud 1970s floral pattern curtains across the windows. There, on a shelf, usually with its cover facing out (perhaps because it was a difficult volume to categorize, or perhaps because of its popularity among the pupils), sat The Guinness Book of Records. This tome, scarred by heavy reading and greasy sensation-seeking fingers, was my savior. When I fled the reality of the schoolyard and rushed into the library for instant tranquility, I would head directly to that book on the shelf and thumb through quickly to page ninety-eight where I would read: “The largest specimen of reef gold: The Holtermann Nugget—630 lbs.” I had, of course, seen this page many times before. In fact, I was the book’s most dedicated reader. My father, the genealogist in our family, had one day told me about our remote ancestor Bernhardt Otto Holtermann and his nugget. I still remember how the story of the giant gold nugget infused me with a sense of power as I listened spellbound.

Human beings have always looked for treasures—for gold, oil, precious stones, and pearls at the bottom of the ocean. The search for these buried riches has used every conceivable tool, from pickaxes, spades, drills, and pumps to metal detectors, X-rays, echolocation, satellites, and Google. The dream of finding something that will yield infinite happiness and riches is as old as civilization: the gold rush will seemingly never end. But genealogical research is also a form of treasure hunt, or it can be. My father’s search among the most crooked and distant branches of our family tree has yielded many rewards too, and left a deep mark on me, even if I have never met most of these people.

The Holtermanns trace their roots back to fifteenth-century Hamburg. My paternal grandmother was born into a Chicago family with French origins. My maternal grandfather was born in Tula outside St. Petersburg, and my maternal grandmother’s family were farmers in the Swedish region of Östergötland. On some crooked branch, through a distant relationship with the sixteenth-century Swedish king Gustav Vasa, you’ll find Charlemagne and the Norwegian Viking king Harald Hårfager. Somewhere on the American branch is the founder of the Jessup & Moore Paper Company and a Blackfoot Indian. Closer at hand is the Swedish Admiral Claes Fleming, one of those responsible for the notorious fiasco of the Vasa, a massive warship built in 1628 during Sweden’s war with Poland; despite early indications of the vessel’s structural failings, Fleming permitted the Vasa to set sail, and then watched it promptly keel over and sink before an assembled audience of spectators and foreign diplomats. On a darker branch sits my paternal grandfather’s uncle’s brother-in-law, Herman Göring (note: no blood relation!). Digging in archives and documents has yielded a rich vein of family lore.

• • •

Born in Hamburg in 1838, Bernhardt Holtermann immigrated to Australia in 1858 to avoid conscription into the Prussian military service. Holtermann arrived in Melbourne on the Salem in August 1858, after a voyage of 101 days. He then continued on another vessel to Sydney, where a fellow countryman offered him shelter. Holtermann soon understood that he had to be willing to accept any available occupation if he were to make any money, and so he ended up working as a steward, as a photographer’s assistant, and then as a waiter at the Hamburg Hotel, an establishment favored by gold-miners. There, young Bernhardt took every opportunity to talk to miners and began to learn everything that he could about prospecting.

At the Hamburg Hotel, he became close friends with a Polish miner named Louis Beyers, who convinced Holtermann to set off with him to become a prospector. And so in 1861, Beyers and Holtermann, whose association was destined to last for many years, headed west to look for gold at Tambaroora, near Hill End. At Tambaroora they confronted the realities of gold mining. Days, months, and years passed with little or no reward. Small quantities of gold—just enough to keep their faith alive—would be found from time to time. In the beginning of the Victoria Gold Rush, there had been tales of gold nuggets lying visible in the sand. By 1867, those tales had been forgotten. Holtermann prospected and mined, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of his good friend Beyers.

A mine in the vicinity of Hawkins Hills, 1870s. Photo Beaufoy Merlin. Courtesy

In September 1868, their mine finally yielded a rich vein; 1,400 ounces of gold were extracted from the first twenty-eight tons of stone. Overnight the two partners and their fellow shareholders became wealthy men. Holtermann continued in the partnership, while some others took their shares and left. Now one of Hill End’s wealthiest citizens, Holtermann purchased land, built two blocks of shops, secured a controlling interest in the Hill End Observer, and became a guarantor for the building of several churches. Soon, he was scanning Sydney for a piece of land suitable for a great house, one that would add luster to the name Holtermann. When a particularly rich vein was located early in October 1872, however, he was quickly back at the mine to give his personal attention to the mining and crushing.

Then—the day of his life. On 19 October 1872, Holtermann’s crew came across the largest specimen of reef gold ever known (though loosely referred to as a nugget, the gold was in fact embedded in quartz reef). It was slowly brought to the surface, as carefully as possible, under the supervision of Holtermann and his assistant mine manager. It was clear from the first that Holtermann regarded the nugget as his, and he commissioned the photographer Beaufoy Merlin, whom he had met earlier that year, to document the great occasion. The now well-known photograph recorded the great specimen alongside the man associated with its discovery.

Holtermann then made a generous offer to the Beyers and Holtermann Star of Hope Goldmining Company. He suggested that he personally purchase the nugget for £1,000 above the estimated market value in order to preserve it from the jaws of the crusher. But, for reasons unknown, the board of the company rejected his proposal, and the enormous nugget was shipped with the other reef material to Pullen & Rawsthorne’s Battery. The picture of Holtermann posing with his nugget (in fact an early photo montage) remains one of the few visual records of its existence.

Beaufoy Merlin’s photograph of Holtermann and nugget, 1872.

A few months later, Holtermann was back at the mine, but his heart was no longer in it. In February 1873, he resigned from his position and turned his attention to his new home in Lavender Bay, North Sydney. In an enormous tower positioned on top of his house, Holtermann constructed a room to house a large camera capable of making the world’s largest negatives. He then commissioned Beaufoy Merlin, and later his assistant Charles Bayliss, to help prepare a series of large-scale spectacular photographs documenting both Sydney and the mining fields. Holtermann’s hope was that these images would help encourage immigration to his adopted country by showing the world the successes of the colony. The most spectacular of the photographic projects was a nine-exposure 360° panorama of Sydney taken from Holtermann’s tower. The thirty-three-foot panorama was several times larger than any previous photographic panorama.

The discoverer of the world’s heaviest gold reef and the producer of the largest photographic panorama died on 29 April 1885, at the age of forty-seven.

• • •

It is 1999. I stand in a bookstore at Heathrow Airport and look for something to read on the flight home to Stockholm. There among the bins of newly published books I see it—the 1999 edition of the Guinness Book of Records. Having not seen one for many years, my hands instinctively reach out for it as they did during my school days. I page through it, at first with feigned disinterest, and then more eagerly. More pictures, less text, fewer records. Nervously, I look for the category of “Minerals and Elements.” Nothing on gold. And nothing about the Holtermann nugget.

On the plane, I leaf through the latest issue of Interview. I hardly see the pictures, and I read the same sentence again and again. Something deep within me has been disturbed. The Kingdom of Gold has disappeared. Where will I be without it?

Carl Fredrik Holtermann is a writer and illustrator based in Stockholm. He is the author of Gå ut (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1997). He is currently working on a cultural history of cafés and bars in Europe. For more information, see [link defunct—Eds.].

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