Thursday, January 17, 2008

My Great Grandfather

Frans, my great grandfather, was the fifth of nine siblings. His father, who had established himself as a shopkeeper after having had a number of other jobs, insisted Frans become a blacksmith. But just look at his wedding photograph from ca 1878; it is quite obvious that he really wasn’t built for heavy, manual work. He looks like he would struggle to lift an ordinary hammer, let alone a sledgehammer. Talk about parental pressure on their children! But his father’s wish was law, so Frans started training as a blacksmith.

He later found employment with Kockums, the big shipyard in Malmö. One day he had an accident; filings or some little piece of metal damaged one of his eyes, resulting in loss of eyesight. In those days, over a hundred years ago, there was no such thing as insurance or social welfare, so he was left to find other employment himself.

Frans set up his own business, selling water and soft drinks from a hand-cart in the street. He was often outside office buildings where, just like today, many people were hurrying back and forth. One can only assume that he got to know some of his regular customers, and one day one of them said – “You’re wasting your time here, you shouldn’t be selling drinks in the street; you should come and work for us.”

Frans started working for this emigration agency. They must have spotted how good he was with customers, I guess. So, in modern speak, Frans, a young man with excellent entrepreneurial and customer relations skills, had just been headhunted!

His new job involved travelling by horse and cart to villages in the countryside, trying to persuade people to up their sticks and move to America. It must have been a lucrative business, because after some years Frans set up his own agency.

As far as I know, there were two main routes from Sweden to America. You either went by train to Gothenburg and boat from there to Hull, or by train to Malmö, boat to Copenhagen, train across Denmark, and boat from Esbjerg to Hull in England. From Hull the emigrants travelled by train across to Liverpool, where they had to wait for a suitable crossing to Ellis Island in New York. What an adventure it must have been just getting there! Of course, some did not make it. The journey was long and dangerous.

The good days for emigration agencies came slowly to an end, I believe, at the beginning of the 20th century. I know that, when times were hard, Frans helped his wife, Anna, to make ends meet making socks at home with a “sock-knitting-machine”. They had five surviving children; two died as infants in 1883. (Imagine my grandfather being born in January, adding to the two other children, then the three-year-old dies in April and the two-year-old dies in June, leaving Frans and Anna with only the one baby.) When my grandfather was about ten he had to be farmed out to his aunt, who had more space and food on the table. She spoiled him rotten until he got married at the age of 35. My grandmother must have had a tough time, trying to convert this bachelor into a husband, in particular since she was only 18 and had been his pupil!

After the emigration business Frans had yet again to come up with something, and he did. He got a contract with a metal tools factory, selling files to Russia, of all places. Somewhat ironic (!) considering it was filings that forced him out of the smithy in the first place.

So to conclude, forced to become a blacksmith, Frans started by building ships, then, after a short drinks break, he filled ships with emigrants and finally shipped metal files to Russia. And all the time, throughout his whole life, he spent as much time as possible building doll’s houses, which was his hobby and passion, because he had always wanted to become a carpenter.

Here he is, my great grandfather Frans, at an old age with his damaged eye that changed his life completely. If he’d become a carpenter, he might have got a wooden splinter in his eye instead, who knows? Health and Safety wasn’t top of the agenda a century ago.


8 comments:

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

This is fascinating. No wonder you've had such a good time with Geni.

Lynda said...

That is an amazing story made all the more interesting because I just read christina's tale of misery on her return flight from the US... It seems that we find travel tough these days, but the boat and train story from Sweden to Ellis Island makes it sound very cushy. It is so interesting to discover how the earlier generations went through the same career changes that we do today...great read.

swenglishexpat said...

Jen - yes, I have to restrain myself almost. They almost come alive through the scanned photos combined with the printed information.

Lynda - Most people had quite a hard life then, but it's all relative to the time. They could not in their wildest dreams imagine it would be possible to fly to America in less than a working day. Mind you, US Customs and Immigration seems to make some people's entry a despairingly long wait even today!

Eric Valentine said...

A very interesting story Swen, it kind of reminded me of a movie we saw a while ago called "Angela's Ashes". That was about a family's struggle to make it to America, a very good movie. Your story here makes it even more believable. Great pictures too as always. :)

swenglishexpat said...

Thank you , Eric. I believe I read the book a few years ago, great book too.

traveller one said...

Just found your blog via Lynda's! I'll have to read your archives later in the day but thought I'd say "Hello". I'm jealous that you have so much onfo about your ancestors- genealogy is fascinating stuff! I'm going to check out geni.com now.

Gardner said...

What a great story. Thanks for sharing. The past is fascinating, and so much like today as you pointed out (head hunting).

swenglishexpat said...

Traveller One and Gardner - Yes, it is fascinating and also somewhat hard work, because I have to translate old, often formal Swedish into modern English.