Friday, 2 February 2018

Our ancestral homes, part 2: Tørtberg

Tørtberg was a croft - more specifically, a little wooden house divided into two apartments - located on land belonging to Lille Frøn farm, in the area known as Marienlyst, just outside of the city centre of Oslo. The name Tørtberg means "Sowthistle Hill". The story of Tørtberg is a story of poverty and hardship, and I have infinite respect for our ancestors who lived there, because they truly fought for the survival of their families and themselves, and made it, though barely.

Our first ancestors to settle at Tørtberg were my 4th great-grandparents Johan Olsen (1827-1906) and Inger Marie Andersdatter (1826-1918). Johan was the son of crofters at Kjelsås, and Inger Marie was the daughter of an unmarried couple who seem to have been homeless wanderers in the wider Oslo area. Her birthplace is uncertain; it was either the village of Sørum, just outside of Oslo, or Sagene, which today is part of the city of Oslo.

Johan and Inger Marie got married in Aker church in 1850. In 1865 they were living with their four children in one half of the house at Tørtberg. The family owned no land, and their only asset was a single pig.

The youngest son of Johan and Inger Marie was named Henrik Emil Johansen and was born in 1866. After his confirmation in 1881, Emil went out looking for a job, and got employment at the Hotel Britannia in the heart of Oslo. He worked there for several years, and then, in 1885, a new maid became his colleague. Her name was Otilie Fredrikke Kristiansdatter (1862-1928), and she was the daughter of an aging and very poor farmer couple at Vestereng farm in Høland. Emil and Otilie got together, for a longer or shorter period of time, and in 1886 Otilie gave birth to a daughter whom she named Signe. Signe is my great-great-grandmother.

Two years after Signe's birth, Otilie got married to a Danish sausage-maker, and the newlyweds settled in Kampen in the east end of Oslo. They had two children together. Signe did not live with them; instead, she lived with her father Emil and her grandparents Johan and Inger Marie at Tørtberg. Emil, who had no opportunity to educate himself, had to take work where he could find it. It does not seem to have been a stable lifestyle. From 1891 to 1896 he was a farmhand at Frøn farm, and from 1896 to 1898 he was a bath servant at the Grefsen sanatorium. After that he worked for a wholesaler and then another, and finally he started doing masonry and cement-casting. In the census of 1900, the family at Tørtberg had neither crops nor livestock, so life was undoubtedly hard.

Signe gave birth to a daughter in 1905. Two years later she married the father of her child, then a farmhand at Tørtberg, and they went on to have many more children together. Things were tough in the young family's early years, and in 1900, Emil was jailed for theft for the first time in his life. In 1908, he was jailed for theft a second time, and again in 1911. The sentences got longer each time. Then, in 1912, Emil was arrested for stealing cauliflower from the vicarage gardens and sentenced to six months in Botsfengselet, a major Oslo prison. He seems to have stolen because of desperation, and he behaved so well in prison that he was released ahead of time and given tools so he could continue his work as a law-abiding mason and cement-caster. There is no evidence that Emil was ever in prison again.

Conditions at Tørtberg worsened. Inger Marie, Emil, Signe, her husband, and several children were sharing a space which was probably both cramped and unhealthy. In 1917, Signe and her husband decided to move. They left Tørtberg and started a new life in the inner city while Emil and his aging mother stayed behind at the croft.

At this time, Inger Marie was suffering from a malnutrition disease, and in 1918 she was taken to Aker Hospital where she died soon after at the age of 92. What happened to Emil afterwards? We don't know. We don't know where he ended up, or what he did, or even where or when he died.

Perhaps he stayed at Tørtberg. In that case he would not have been able to stay longer than 1936, because that year Tørtberg burned down to the ground. The total damage amounted to a sum equivalent to the value of an outhouse in the city centre. The croft was never rebuilt.

This is how the place looks today: A peaceful stretch of lawn lined by trees. Sowthistle probably still grows in the area. The big buildings in the left background are the headquarters of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), and the main campus of the University of Oslo is just a few hundred meters up the hill to the left. I've passed this place hundreds of times during my studies at the University.

Photo by me (2015)

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