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Bernhardt Otto Holtermann (1838–1885)

by Keast Burke

This article was published:

Bernhardt Otto Holtermann (1838-1885), by unknown photographer

Bernhardt Otto Holtermann (1838-1885), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 40515

Bernhardt Otto Holtermann (1838-1885), gold miner, merchant, sponsor of photography for the encouragement of immigration and member of parliament, was born on 29 April 1838 in Hamburg, son of John Henry Holtermann and his wife Anna, née Nachtigall. Not wishing to spend three years in military service, he left Germany in 1858, sailed from Liverpool in the Salem, reached Melbourne on 7 August and went on to Sydney in the City of Sydney, arriving on 12 August. There he hoped to meet his brother Herman but found that he had gone to the goldfields. Unsuccessful in gaining any job on land through his lack of English, Holtermann sailed on 13 September as a steward in the schooner Rebecca for the Pacific Islands and returned to Sydney on 20 January 1859. He became a waiter at the Hamburg Hotel where a successful miner almost induced him to go to Adelong. After a few months he met the Polish miner, Ludwig Hugo Louis Beyers, and went with him to the Tambaroora (Hill End) area. In 1861 they began prospecting on Hawkins Hill but for five years had little success; in order to hold the claim, Holtermann was forced to undertake a variety of occupations. Once he nearly lost his life through a premature explosion of blasting powder. By 1868 he was licensee of the All Nations Hotel and on 22 February at Bathurst he married Harriett Emmett; Beyers married her sister Mary on the same day.

In 1871 some rich veins were found but they petered out, but next year one of the eight owners sold his share to Mark Hammond who without authority sealed off the shaft and began a new drive to the west. Rich new veins were immediately encountered, but Hammond had sold out at a substantial profit before 19-20 October when the night shift uncovered the world's largest specimen of reef gold, 630 lb. (286 kg). Later it was brought to the surface almost intact. Holtermann had warned against rash investment in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1871. When copies of the paper reached Hill End, he was burnt in effigy but later returned to public favour and became a founding member of the first Hill End Borough Council. In 1874 on the heights of St Leonards he completed a palatial house with a tower embodying a stained-glass window depicting him standing beside the 'nugget'.

At Hill End Holtermann had met the travelling photographer, Henry Beaufoy Merlin, and his young assistant, Charles Bayliss, and watched them at work. He welcomed Merlin's idea that a great series of 10 ins (21 cm) by 12 ins (25 cm) photographs should be made of the settled areas of New South Wales and Victoria and sent abroad to advertise the colonies and encourage migrants. The major part of New South Wales was completed when Merlin died in September 1873, but Bayliss continued with even more grandiose plans. After great difficulties he succeeded in taking the view of Sydney from the tower of Holtermann's house on two single negatives, each over 5 ft by 3 ft (150 cm by 90 cm); these were the largest photographs ever taken by the wet-plate or collodion process at a time when the techniques of enlarging had not been developed. Some of these photographs were made available to the government for international exhibitions at Philadelphia in 1876 and Paris in 1878 where they won medal awards. Another set was mounted on a roll of cloth and taken by Holtermann to America and the Continent where they were exhibited in pleasure gardens and at special gatherings. He returned from abroad with a number of agencies which he vigorously promoted. He had always been interested in medicine and his 'Life Preserving Drops', compounded from the formula of a German doctor, were very popular.

After two earlier defeats, Holtermann was in 1882 elected as a member for St Leonards, proclaiming himself 'a man of indomitable energy and perseverance', 'the staunch friend of the working man' and 'an earnest supporter of every public movement having for its object the advancement of your electorate'. He attended parliament regularly until 1885, being specially interested in immigration and in the progress of North Sydney, including the building of a 'North Shore Bridge' to which he was willing to contribute £5000. He died on his forty-seventh birthday and was buried in St Thomas's cemetery, survived by his wife and by three sons and two daughters. He left an estate of £54,000 mostly in local land investments. He is chiefly remembered today by the vast collection of photographic plates that he sponsored and his family preserved, and those taken by Merlin and Bayliss at Hill End and Gulgong, which made possible the reconstruction of these settlements in their hey-days.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • K. Burke, Gold and Silver (Melb, 1971)
  • Town and Country Journal, 2 Nov 1872, 22 Apr 1876
  • Bulletin, 13 Mar, 22 May 1880
  • K. Burke, 'Gold and Silver', Australasian Photo-Review, vol 60, no 5, May 1953, pp 271-99
  • Holtermann photographic collection (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Keast Burke, 'Holtermann, Bernhardt Otto (1838–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Bernhardt Otto Holtermann (1838-1885), by unknown photographer

Bernhardt Otto Holtermann (1838-1885), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 40515

Life Summary [details]


28 April, 1838
Hamburg, Germany


28 April, 1885 (aged 47)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.