Close to the Harz

Close to the Harz

Corinna Meiß uses an example from her own family to show how people in the UK and Ireland can begin to trace a family branch in Germany

Corinna Meiß, self-employed PR manager and family historian

Corinna Meiß

self-employed PR manager and family historian

Lewis and Louis Wiesener. In 1907 young Lewis, son of Otto, was sent from Belfast to Goslar to live with his grandfather Wiesener family, Belfast

Although Goslar is only a small medieval town in the Harz mountains, its archive is worth a look. It is one of the most famous and comprehensive in Germany, with documents going back to 10th century. It’s also an example of what you might find when researching your ancestors’ German roots, if you are lucky.

My research into the life of Otto Wiesener (1868-1903), who emigrated to England, started in the winter of 2009. I was snowbound for some days in my flat, high in the Harz mountains. Luckily I had a good book with me, Treasures from the Attic: the Extraordinary Story of Anne Frank’s Family .

This book inspired me to have a closer look at the 19th century family correspondence of my great-grandmother Auguste Meiß, née Wiesener. I had already been doing ancestry research for nearly 20 years and have traced my family tree back, in some cases, to the 13th century. The letters gave a good insight into the family and the social life of a well-to-do bourgeouis family of the late 19th century. Through examining the wealth of information from various sources, the pieces of the jigsaw slowly came together. I scanned and printed everything, enlarged it and shared the information with family members.

The postcard collections of Marie and Anna Wiesener brought to light information that had been forgotten for several decades by some family members and told the present generation about a past of which they knew nothing – especially the emigration of nearly all male Wieseners of one generation to England.

Belfast branch
In the course of this research, I also became aware of a Northern Irish branch of the Wieseners. Henry Louis Otto Wiesener (known as Otto), a cousin of my great-grandmother, lived in the United Kingdom at least since 1891, first in London and then he moved with his family to what is now Northern Ireland. He is listed in the 1901 census as a commercial enquiry agent, living with his wife Elizabeth and their three children. Otto died in 1903 at 35, leaving his pregnant wife and four small children in the UK. Many of their descendants are still in the Belfast area today.

Another cousin had lived in Glasgow, but had to leave Britain as almost all German men were forced to do. He only returned to Britain in the early 1920s.

Anti-German feeling due to two world wars meant that stories were invented to protect the children from local hostility as far as possible. Fiction must now be replaced by fact.

Using Otto and his origins in Goslar as an example, I will explain how people in the UK could proceed to find out about a German branch of the family.

First of all, you would need to check all available documents in the UK. Often ‘insignificant’ documents or belongings might give a clue. In Otto’s case, a gold pocket watch was available, probably his journeyman’s piece, engraved with ‘Otto Wiesener, Goslar 1888’. Otto’s marriage certificate in the UK also had much information to follow up and revealed that his residence was 5 Park Avenue, London NW2. Later I learned that in 1897 Otto and at least two of his brothers lived there. Otto’s father, Louis Wiesener, a managing director, was still alive.

postcard Otto Wiesener’s watch
Part of the Wiesener family postcard collection, which opened up many new avenues of research. This one was written by Otto’s youngest brother Emil in London to their sister Anna in Goslar, 1897. Right: Otto Wiesener’s watch, which has useful details engraved on the back

The best man at the wedding was Gustave George Wiesener who later supported the widow and the children.

As Otto was born before 1874 in Goslar there is not a civic register (at the registry office) – only his birth/baptism register. As he was a member of the Presbyterian Church in Whitehead (a small town on the coast of County Antrim), he presumably must have been Protestant.

Goslar’s original Protestant church records are kept at the Evangelical-Lutheran Church Association in Goslar. The department is called the ‘church registry’. Microfilmed copies of these records can be found at the church book archives in Wolfenbüttel, part of the Central Protestant Church Archives of the Lutheran Church, Brunswick (Braunschweig).

In the church records one will find not only birth, marriage and death entries but also confirmation lists. These can be helpful if names are known of an ancestor’s acquaintances. Besides, the date of the confirmation could also mark the beginning of the ancestor’s apprenticeship if he did not attend the German Gymnasium (similar to grammar/prep schools).

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Goslar archives.
Documents and photographs relating to Otto Wiesener and his family, collected for an exhibition in the Goslar archives. They include Otto’s marriage to Elizabaeth Mary Watson in London and their 1901 census record. Otto is pictured at the top left corner. In the right-hand top corner is a Belfast newspaper obituary marking Otto’s death. It describes him as a “genuine favourite” of the community and says he “took a keen interest in the political and domestic problems of his adopted country”

Goslar archives
To learn further details about Otto’s social environment, the next step was to get in touch with the municipal archives in Goslar. In lean times, most archives are understaffed, which means they cannot help with your search and there might be staff members who only speak basic English. I would recommend that, before you arrive in Germany, you seek the help of a professional genealogist or a volunteer employee of the archives/ historical societies etc as most of the handwritten documents are written in Kurrentschrift (old German script with its origins in medieval times) and therefore illegible to an English researcher even if they can speak German.

First of all, you should ask the person in archives to do a search in the name – in this case ‘Wiesener’ – as there may be records or other documents about the person already archived. If nothing can be found, then try the registration books. During the imperial era they registered people coming to and from Goslar. Later there were registration cards for every individual living in Goslar, listing personal data, when they moved to Goslar and their residence as well as when they moved away and where they moved to.

Address books are not only helpful to find out in which street and house the ancestor lived in. Often there are extra pages about the municipal administration, the guilds, and various societies and clubs in the city. With a bit of luck your ancestor might be named in one of these. This might lead to a further search, such as the minute books of guilds or societies. However, only 10% of such documents are archived.

Maybe you will find additional information about schooling, military registers, acquisition of citizenship, building works and architectural information. Records of buildings and architectural works are particularly interesting. Through these we learn not only about an ancestor’s housing, but also floor plans are often attached to the document, and you could learn about the value of the place from fire insurance documents and so on.

Last but not least: read the local newspapers. Ancestors’ obituaries are a good source for finding the names of descendants and other information.

Doing ancestry research (in any country) has a lot to do with patience and coincidence. Sometimes it is useful to think laterally or ‘the other way round’ too.

death notice of Louis WiesenerOtto’s baptism register at St Stephanikirche in Goslar
Left: death notice of Louis Wiesener, Otto’s father, in the Goslarsche Zeitung Right: Otto’s baptism register at St Stephanikirche in Goslar

For more details on the Wieseners, see

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