029: The London family of William Hoffman(n) 1867-1941

Hoffman in the 1930s - two Congo medals
Hoffman in the 1930s – two Congo medals
Hoffman (rear) and the Congo pygmies probably 1906
Hoffman (rear) and the Congo pygmies probably 1906

William Hoffman has fascinated me ever since I realised he had walked across Africa 1887-1890 with Henry Stanley yet was not mentioned in Stanley’s best selling two-volume In Darkest Africa (1890). Biographer John Bierman Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley (Knopf 1990; Hodder & Stoughton, 1991) commented “Even when every allowance is made for Victorian class attitudes, the plebeian Hoffmann’s invisibility is striking. What did he do to condemn himself to such unpersonhood?” I wrote his entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and that was used by Tim Jeal in his biography of Stanley (2007) with a photograph of Hoffman from the Stanley Archive in Belgium. I had found and inteviewed Hoffman’s wife’s niece, looked at the Stanley-Hoffman documents in Belgium, the RGS London and the Wellcome Library, for a study of the six pygmies from the Congo who were in Britain 1905-1907: for Hoffman was their interpreter for 15 months. He worked for the Force Publique of the Congo Independent State in the 1890s, and was left £300 in Stanley’s will (1904). I obtained a copy of Hoffman(n)’s With Stanley in Africa (1938) in which the above photographs appear.

   In the Stanley Archive file 6017 is a letter from Hoffman to Stanley’s widow Dorothy, dated January 1917 from 37 Grafton Street, Tottenham Court Road in which he says “I have three brothers serving their king and country, one joined a Canadian Regiment while out in Canada when the war broke out”. As Hoffman was born in Germany it could be expected that the surname was Hoffmann, and that his forename was probably Wilhelm. A search among a variable set of names revealed the following.
   The 1881 census and that of Carburton Street, 1891 list his father as William Hoffmann (born Germany, a surgical and deformity instrument maker) and his wife Kate perhaps Kati (also born in Germany). Their age gap was 9 years. In 1881 young William was aged 13 and his mother was 27: so he was born when she 14. That maths also results from the 1891 data. The 1881 census gives no place of birth for young William but in 1891 it has “Germany (British subject)” for him, his parents, and sister Bertha.
   Bertha was 8 in 1881 (and 17 in 1891); the London-born baby in 1881 was Minnie aged 7 months (and 8 in 1891). The 1891 census has young William as “African Traveller & Interpreter” aged 22, and two London-born brothers and a sister: Ludwig [sic] aged 8, Herman aged 5, and Louise aged 2 months. Ten years later the Hoffmann household is headed by Kate Hoffmann, widow aged 47 born in Germany “(German subj)”. Louis [sic] is now 18 and a commercial clerk, Herman is 15 and also a commercial clerk, and there is George, aged 5.
   Their father had been killed in a fight in and near the Tiger public house near their central London home at 21 Wells Mews in late October 1895. Drunk, he was rude to Emma Howard. He was thrown out of the pub, she three times knocked him to the ground, and he was taken to hospital where he died some days later on 30 October. A witness said he did not understand what Hoffmann said as “he is a bit of a German” and that the pair were having “a bit of a jangle” (dispute). Hoffman told one of the policemen who took him to hospital that he had fallen down. But Mrs Howard went on trial at the Old Bailey (I found the details on line and then in The Times) where, despite the coroner’s view that she was guilty of manslaughter, she was found not guilty. The “African Traveller” was in the Congo: his mother Kate had baby George to deal with (perhaps she was still pregnant?).
    The brothers: Louis or Ludwig born around 1883 seems to have gone to Canada, Herman born around 1886 seems to have died in 1925, and George is not traced. The sisters: Bertha (born in Germany, 1874) seems to have married in early 1892 and Minnie may have married Percy Thomas Beard in late 1899. Louise (born around 1890-1891) is also absent from her mother’s home on census night 1901. Perhaps she had died?

In 1902 he was living at 47 Grafton Street, then 46 Howland Street, he got married in Acton and then lived with his wife’s family at 42 Essex Street from 1904 with spells in 1906-7 at 47 George Street then 24 Tolmers Square 1910-12. He kept pressing Dorothy Stanley for money.


This website page was created in December 2009. It asked:

   If any family historians tracing late 19th century Hoffman(n) males and females think they have links to the African Traveller and his family please make contact.

In May 2016 contact was made from New Zealand by a great-grand daughter of William Hoffman’s parents. Her ancestor was Louise (or Louisa) Matilda Hoffman. From this it seems that Kate was named Katharina or Katherina. The 1911 census says she was born in Germany around 1853, and she was living in Sandringham Road, Dalston (London) — with her four sons aged 15 to 28, and Louise aged 20. The mother – who of course was William Hoffman’s mother – died in Preston, Lancashire on 23 January 1923, leaving an estate worth £205 12s 8d to Alice Hoffman, a spinster. A further grant was issued on 14 May 1943: Alice M. Hoffman died aged 50 and her death was registered in late 1943. An Alice Hoffman’s birth in London was registered in the autumn of 1894. The email exchanges led to identifying the Canadian as Albert Hammond (he changed his name) who lived in Moncton, New Brunswick and visited his sister in England in the 1970s.


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