Marie Ottilie JOHANNSEN

Also known as: née Hoffman, used the name Ottilie, Tillie/Tilly

Born: 15/7/1881 or 1882

Died: 26/12/1959

Special Achievements:

Pioneer of Central Australia.
1909-11 & 1922-26 - Hermannsburg Mission.
1911 - The Johannsens acquired the rights to draw water from Deep Well, a government water facility.
Planted the first jacarandas in Alice Springs.

Additional Information:

Tilly Johannsen was the fifth child and only daughter of Johann Carl Gottlob Hoffmann and Marie Dorothee (nee Gunster).

 She met Gerhardt Andreas Johannsen, a stonemason and builder by trade, in the Barossa Valley and in 1905 the couple were married.  Gerhardt was born in Denmark in 1876 and came to Australia in 1901, aged 24.  An example of his workmanship may be seen in the Stockwell St Thomas Lutheran Church built in 1904.  Gerhardt and Tillie bought a small cottage in the village of Stockwell and lived there for some years.  [They had seven children in all: Elsa, Curt, Gertrude (Trudy), Kurt, Mona, Randle and Myrtle.]

 In 1909 with daughter Elsa (then three years of age), they went by train to the railhead at Oodnadatta and then onwards to Hermannsburg. Gerhardt had been contracted to help the Hermannsburg men build stockyards and also encouraged gardening.  Here they lived and worked for two years, Tillie working with the Hermannsburg women, teaching them sewing and handcrafts.  She also fostered a twin baby Aboriginal girl until the child was big enough to return to her family.

 In 1911, the family took up Deep Well Station, 80km down the telegraph line, south of Alice Springs. This country had on it the deepest well on the stock route to Oodnadatta.  A second daughter Trudy was born at Deep Well in 1912 and then Kurt was born in January 1915.  Gerhardt first built a log hut and then a bigger stone house at Deep Well, sourcing local timber with corrugated iron for the roof being the only significant imported material in the whole house.  The family had goats and a vegetable garden, watered by water drawn from Deep Well which involved lifting heavy buckets by windlass from 65m below the surface.  It was the work of Tilly and her (unnamed) Aboriginal workers, and later the children, to draw the water.  The Johannsens had the right to sell water from the well to passing drovers and teamsters.  Tilly was also responsible for the children’s schooling.

 In a letter-card from 1911, Tilly shows herself as fluent in German.

 When Pastor Carl Strehlow left Hermannsburg a very sick man and died at Horseshoe Bend in 1922, Johannsen was appointed Mission manager until the new Superintendent, Pastor Friedrich Albrecht arrived in 1926.  Gerhardt started a tanning industry and encouraged gardening again.  Tilly and her daughter Elsa gave further sewing and craft lesson.  Another child, Mona, was born in 1923 in Hermannsburg.  The  Johannsens returned to Deep Well in 1924 to find that the station they had so laboriously built up was being ravaged by a severe drought.  Before the drought ended, the family had been forced off the station into Alice Springs.  However, there was consolation in the births of Randle in 1925 and Myrtle in 1926.

 At around this time, Gerhardt was stricken with polio during an epidemic and Tilly nursed him for three months strictly following German homoeopathic techniques.  When he could travel south to hospital by train, he was away for a year.  Tilly herself became ill and had to go south for medical treatment in 1928.  It was the final straw for the family’s hold on Deep Well.  In early 1929, the Johannsens moved to Alice Springs and there they started again, camping in a shed and in a tent while Gerhardt built a house in Todd Street, opposite Adelaide House.  Four years later, the home was complete and it was one of the most handsome and substantial residences ever built in the town.

 The army moved into Alice Springs in World War Two.  Military authorities commandeered the hospital and used the Johannsen home for nursing quarters.  The family moved to Strangway Ranges north of Alice Springs to mine mica which son Kurt had discovered.  This mica was urgently needed for aircraft spark plugs.  The Government took over the mine and employed miners and women, including Tilly’s daughters, to cut and pack the mica leaves.

 After the war, the family returned to their home.  Gerhardt died in 1951 and Tilly Johannsen died in 1959.  Their home was sold to Connair for offices.  Later the home was demolished overnight and, along with it, the jacaranda tree that towered over the town and the jasmine hedge which Miss Pink ensured was watered regularly by Connair staff.  The site became the National Australia Bank building. 


  • Image - Marie Ottilie Johannsen with her daughter Elsa en route to Hermannsburg, at Bloods Creek, 1909

    Photograph by her husband Gerhardt Andreas Johannsen

    NPWHF collection

  • Document - "Johannsen Street"

    Information courtesy of Jose Petrick, "The History of Alice Springs through Landmarks and Street Names", 2015, pages 102-103.

    View File

  • References

    Isaacs, Jennifer. (1990).  Pioneer Women of the Bush and Outback.  Sydney:  Lansdowne Publishing, p. 201-205, 243-244.

    “Marie Ottilie Johannsen was the fifth child and only daughter of Carl Johann Hoffman and Marie Dorothea Guntea, a young German couple who arrived in South Australia in 1878 and settled in the Barossa Valley.  When Ottilie (Tilly) was about nine, she helped the family by shepherding neighbours’ cows up and down the creek to earn a little extra money.  As a teenager she walked many kilometres into Angaston and worked at a cannery to earn money for dressmaking lessons.  This was to be very useful in her later pioneering life in Central Australia.
         In 1905, at the age of 23, Ottilie Hoffman married a young Dane, Gerhardt Andreas Johannsen, a professional stonemason and builder.  …
         …  At Hermannsburg, … Ottilie taught Aboriginal women how to “keep house”, adding the skills of sewing, embroidery and crochet.