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Where they came from


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Ratsherr Jacob Selm
The authentic story of the Sillem family begins in the XVIth century. The brothers Jacob Selm  (1517-1584) (see picture) and Heyn Sylm (?-1565), coming from the Kehdingen area (50 miles downstream), crossed the river Elbe and moved  to the Free City of the Empire and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. There they established themselves as successful merchants. It is assumed that their ancestors had come from the Netherlands to settle in the Kehdingen area in the XIVth or XVth century. At that time, it was quite common for Dutch and Frisian farmers to dyke swampy marshlands south of the Elbe to claim fertile farming ground. In village parish registers would appear names such as Silm, Zelm and Selm. It is possible that the family originally came from somewhere near Zelhem, a little market town in the east of the Netherlands first mentioned in the IXth century. Over time, its name changed from Selhelm, Zeelen, Zelm, Zillem to today's Zelhem.

Deeply involved in the City of Hamburg

Jacob and Heyn got married to ladies from established families of Ratsherren (Council members, the Council being the government of the republican free city state). And Jacob himself was appointed Councillor in 1560. His brother Heyn however did not even live to become 50. He presumably died of the Plague. As both had sons, up to these days they are considered the founders of two branches of the Sillem family. Both branches produced important personalities, among them 2 mayors, 9 councillors, 15 judges, 7 Kämmereibürger (in charge of the finances), 11 Bancobürger (in charge of the bank) and 14 Waisenhausbürger (in charge of the orphanages). A visitor to the City Hall can admire portraits of councillors and mayors, and among the stone coats of arms that adorn the magnificent facade, the Sillem coat of arms can be seen. The sons and grandsons of Heyn Sylm were drapers and thereby members of the city's upper class. The majority of Jacob's descendants became long distance traders. There goods were shipped down to the Iberian Peninsula and they were doing import and export business with their partners in Flanders, the Netherlands, and England. One of Jacob's grandsons had studied law in Basel (Basle) in Switzerland. He was the first lawyer/barrister in the family, to be succeeded by about twenty percent of all the descendants. Up to the 19th century members of both branches of the family lived in Hamburg. Related by marriages and generally close-knit, both branches carried the same family coat of arms.

About Hamburg
Views of

Nicolaus Sillem
Troublemakers in the City

At the end of the XVII century, two influential merchants usurped the government in the city republic. One of them was Hieronymus Snitger (1648-1686) who was married to Cäcilia Sillem (?-1681). After the governing mayor had fled the city many members of the Bürgerschaft (the city parliament) joined the two rebels. They dismissed some of the council members, appointed new ones and intended to govern happily ever after. However, the deposed mayor managed to persuade the Duke of Lüneburg and Celle to launch a counter attack. Troups were deployed towards Hamburg. The aim was to reinstate the former mayor and jail the two rebels. They in turn asked the King of Denmark whose territory bordered on Hamburg to prevent the Lüneburg troups from invading. This was most welcome to him as it had been his intention for quite some time to annex the city to his kingdom. When the citizens of Hamburg heard about the deal they opened the gates to the Lüneburg people and threw the two merchants into jail. The revenge of the reinstated mayor was to follow immediately: the two were tortured and subsequently beheaded. Fortunately, Cäcilia had departed this life already five years earlier. The followers of the two had to face severe punishment. Among them was the lawyer Nicolaus Sillem (1649-1721). He had to pay 10,000 thalers and had to leave the city with his wife and five children. But it is likely that he led a comfortable life as a judge in the kingdom of Denmark thereafter.

Ratsherr (Councillor)
Hieronymus Sillem

Expelled from the office

The unrest in the city continued. In its wake the merchant and ship owner Hieronymus Sillem (1648-1710) not only lost his lifetime membership in the Council but had to confront accusations by a court officer that his wife had tried to poison one of her servants. However, the lady was acquitted by the Lower Court and the informer was expelled from the city with the bell of shame ringing. The reason why Hieronymus was dismissed from his office was the following. In 1691, the Imperial Embassy (of the Hapsburg Emperor residing in Vienna) had demanded the imprisonment of a citizen named Rees. This was the duty of the Councillor Hieronymus Sillem, as he was the oldest of the court officials. Friends of the citizen under arrest were furious and demanded from the Council and the Oberalten (the council of parish Elders) his immediate release. They maintained that it was against the constituton to arrest a citizen who was willing to pay bail. The council reacted on the spot and sent the citizen Rees home. Rees however was not satisfied. He submitted a plea to the Bürgerschaft (the city parliament) to dismiss Councillor Sillem. The Bürgerschaft agreed and demanded from the Council to comply. The Council rejected the motion on the ground that Sillem had acted on their behalf. That he had answered the accusations and shown the orders he had received from the Council. The citizens then set up meetings in the parishes and had motions passed that deposed the Councillor. The city government however did not accept the votes, arguing that only they themselves were entitled to decide on such a matter.

In another meeting the Council was urged to name a successor to Sillem as the parishes had dismissed him. The Council refused again. As a consequence, the parishes elected a new councillor. However he declared that he would accept the position only if the Council appointed him, too. The Council refused again. Thereupon the Bürgerschaft declared that they would freeze the allowance granted the Council until they agreed. After some argument the citizens left at 3 am without the matter having been settled. Now the Emperor in Vienna through his ambassador got himself involved in the conflict. However the Council remained unmoved. Five weeks later it called a session of the Bürgerschaft and offered the following: If the citizens did not insist on Sillem's removal  the Council would appoint the citizen's candidate as Council member, too. The citizens rejected the proposal. Their response: Either Sillem would be removed from office or the following sanctions would be applied:
  1. The Council's allowance would be withheld for a year's time.
  2. Revenues would not be managed by the Council but by the Oberalten, the parish Elders.
The Council still kept to his position of rejection. Thereupon the citizens decided that the government was not allowed to leave the City Hall before fulfilling the citizen's demands. The employees were sent home and some of the citizens were appointed as guards in front of the meeting hall. At 8 am next morning they went home without having achieved their aims. The Council called another session of the Bürgerschaft und suggested that Sillem should stay on as Council member but loose his office as a judge. The citizens rejected this proposal as well and locked the doors again. Three hours later, Sillem was demoted and the person elected by the citizens took his office.

12 years later a High Commission appointed by the Emperor prompted the Council to reinstall Sillem in his honorary position. He was to take over his seat in the Council again und also be reimbursed with the salary of 6,000 Imperial thalers that had been withheld from him. He was requested to appear in the City Hall on the 11th of March, 1709. Two younger citizens, his son Garlieb and one Mr Rumpff, had the state carriage directed to his house and picked him up rehabilitated.   

Garlieb Sillem

Commemorative coin    
  for the Mayor

Hamburg 1750

Garlieb Sillem travelling to the Emperor in Vienna

Hieronymus Sillem had a son. He was the barrister and later mayor Garlieb Sillem (1676-1732). During his time in office, a spectacular event happened:

Already in the XVIth century the Council, the government of the city state, had adopted the Protestant denomination. Catholic masses were only allowed to be held on the territory of Catholic embassies, such as the territory of the embassy of the Viennese court. Because of the considerable attendance the ambassador ordered to extend the chapel. This went against the opinions of the Protestant ministers who stirred up their audience against the building proposals from their pulpits. The consequences: the mob beat everything to bits, the chapel and also the interieur of the embassy. The governing Council and the police refrained from intervening. When the incident was reported to the Emperor some time later he demanded that a high profile delegation of the Council were to bend their knees in front of his throne. If this did not occur in due time Imperial troups would occupy Hamburg and take the culprits to court. Garlieb Sillem travelled to see Emperor Karl VIin Vienna, accompanied by a councillor and two parish elders. Also dispatched from Hamburg: a barrel of herrings and champagne for the Majesties. The Emperor and the Empress are said to have remarked later graciously that it had been the first herrings they had had that year.

Afterwards the Emperor is said to to have ordered to invite the Mayor to dine with him. The lackay who was supposed to deliver the invitation pointed subserviently to the fact that His Majesty did not accept an untitled person at his table. Whereupon the Emperor said:
     "Make him a peer then!"
However Garlieb regretted and brought to the Emperor's attention that as a citizen of Hamburg he was not in the position to accept a peerage as that would not be compatible with a centuries-old unwritten law. Replied the Emperor:
      "Make him a peer just for the evening then!"
The Mayor is said to have subserviently accepted the invitation then. The kneeling down, the herrings, and the amount of the fine appeased the monarch. The negotiations had taken a full three months. Only then the delegation could return home. 

Martin Garlieb Sillem

Commemorative coin
for the Mayor

Martin Garlieb Sillem visiting Napoleon

One of mayor Garlieb Sillem's grandsons proved to be a gifted merchant and skilled politician. His name: Martin Garlieb Sillem (1769-1835). He entered the renowned merchant firm of  Johannes Schuback (1732-1817) as an apprentice and as the years passed by eventually became a business partner of the senior owner. His cousin, Jerôme Sillem (1768-1833), already as a nineteen year old headed the equally important firm Matthiessen & Sillem, the reason being that his father who suffered from gout was no longer able to do this job. Jerôme and Martin Garlieb were friends. In 1810, Napoleon's armies occupied the cities of Hamburg, Lübeck, Bremen, and Lüneburg. The Emperor annexed the newly created Departement to the French motherland and made Hamburg the regional capital. He had already banned English vessels from entering continental ports by proclaiming the continental blockade. As a consequence, import and export businesses collapsed. Many merchants went broke. The Council governments were deposed. Instead, the new masters exploited the local population, robbed the businesses of their cash and confiscated the silver reserve of the Hamburg bank. In agreement with their partners, Martin Garlieb and Jerôme closed down their businesses in an attempt to rescue their possessions. Jerôme transferred his capital stock to St. Petersburg where he worked as a financial advisor to the Russian Tsar's court and acted as a representative for a British-Dutch merchant firm. The name was Hope & Co, Amsterdam. Martin Garlieb became head of the Chamber of Commerce that the French had established in Hamburg und led a delegation of experts on a tour to Dresden where he asked Napoleon to return the confiscated treasure, however in vain. He was arrested temporarily. In 1814 the allied armies defeated the French at Waterloo. The Emperor was exiled and the occupied countries and cities were liberated. So was the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Presently, Martin Garlieb travelled to Paris to demand repayment to his city. The result was far from satisfactory. The costs of Napoleon's wars had nearly bancrupted the French estate. Soon after Martin Garlieb was appointed councillor in the new city government. The business of Johannes Schiback began to flourish again. The senior owner had retired and instead brought his grandson Johannes Amsinck (1792-1879) into the company. Martin Garlieb headed the merchant enterprise until he became appointed as mayor. Then the Junior took over. Martin Garlieb had become married only at 56. He died without heirs. His nephew, Hans Wolder Sillem, Doctor of Laws and of Medicine, (1796-1835) did not produce descendants either and died at only 39 years of age. Thus Jacob's branch of the family became extinct.


Fascinating to this day

Regrettably, when talking about family history ladies appear as a rule only as "appendages" to their husbands who are the ones to take centrestage. The traditional trinity of Kids - Kitchen - Church (Kinder - Küche - Kirche in German) about sums it up here. But there have been exceptions. One of them was Marie Louise Sillem, née Matthiessen (1749-1826). Her father was the head of a leading merchant house in Hamburg, and her mother belonged to two Huguenot families that had migrated from France not long before. Marie Louise's husband was Garlieb Helwig Sillem, son of a Hamburg Councillor. His father-in-law made him a partner in his business. His bride was 21 years his junior. She was charming, sophisticated, focussed on everyday matters and in later life involved in charity. She developed into a charismatic personality, in high esteem with everybody and loved by many. Marie Louise gave birth to as many as 17 children. Only nine of them lived to grow up. But she coped surprisingly well with the near continuous life in childbed and the loss of so many children. Certainly, her unshattered faith in God's Allmight was of help.
Garlieb Helwig was able to provide his dear love with a life in affluence. There were helpful servants at hand, such as the chamber maid, the coachman and the gardeners, and of course the domestic staff. The city home had annexes for offices and storage facilities and was situated in the vicinity of the harbour. There was a large hall for the private concerts Marie Louise loved to arrange. Händel's oratorios were a favourite - the great composer lived in London at the time. The English texts used to be translated by Louise Reichardt, a well-known singer of lieder and close friend of the hostess.
Garlieb Helwig died at the age of 73, deeply mourned by Marie Louise and the children. Later she would write about him:
"... in my last letter I directed his (her son Jean's) attention to his father's ever-exhausting workload and the hardworking diligence of all the employees in the Contoir that borders on slavery ..."
As her father had died years before and her husband had suffered from debilitating gout pain for a long time, their son Jerôme had to take over as director of the internationally connected business at the age of 19. 
Every year his mother spent many months in her most beautiful country estate and received, together with sons and daughters, in-laws and grandchildren, friends from home and abroad. A friend of Goethe's wrote to the Lord of the Letters once the following:
"... having just arrived in Amsterdam I find myself at the table beside a Mr Sillem (Jerôme) and recognise him as the son of the most venerable and wealthy widow in Hamburg whose affection I was lucky to enjoy during my stay there because I felt immensely drawn to her ..."
Insights into her noble-mindedness and her generosity can be gained from her correspondence that has been preserved. Her letters have been published in the book Die Sillems in Hamburg.
*The family portrait (above left) was created by the still highly esteemed Daniel Chodowiecki. He portrayed the famous of his time, among others King Frederick II of Prussia (The Great) and the writers Goethe and Schiller. He placed himself, drawing, in the Sillem family painting. His "models" were Garlieb Helwig and Marie Louise with their children Jean (left), Franziska and Jerôme, holding a badminton racket.


The sons
Adolph, Wilhelm,
Carl and Ernst

A great banker


                 Wilhelmine Sillem and Jerôme Sillem

Jerôme Sillem
was a member of Heyn's branch of the family. News about the collapse of Napoleon's empire reached him probably in St. Petersburg where he lived with his wife Wilhelmine and five daughters. His four sons he had left in the care of his brother-in-law and sister-in-law living in Hamburg. At the same time he received a most attractive offer: the major shareholder of the banking company Hope & Co offered him to take over one third of the company's capital and also to become its director.
Jerôme accepted and moved to Amsterdam with his family. Thanks to his dedication and his financial genius he established the company as a major player among the top European banks, well respected among his peers. In Hamburg he founded the company Sillem & Co for two of his sons, and invested both of them with a sum of 1,000 000 Bancomark each which stock exchange professionals considered to be an extraordinary sum at the time. His son Carl (1802-1876) who was to become the progenitor of all the Sillems living in Germany was not the best suited for the banking business - he would have preferred to become an agriculturist. His brother Wilhelm (1804-1885) who had been an apprentice at Hope & Co showed more skills in business but developed into a reckless speculator. His "showpiece" was to grant the Polish government a credit of dizzying height: pre-financing the year's harvest. The Polish used the money to finance a campaign against Russia. The Tsar's empire prevailed and Sillem & Co went bankrupt. Father Jerôme was devastated, and not only because of the financial loss. After all, he had been the Tsar's court banker! Jerôme did not live long after that. His son Ernst (1807-1861) became his successor at Hope & Co. He and his wife Henriette, a daughter of the mayor of Riga, became the founders of the Dutch branch of the Sillem family. There are more Sillems living in the Netherlands now than in Germany.

On Hamburgs Jungfernstieg
Hotel de Russie
Sillem's Bazar

A creative speculator

Wilhelm Sillem
did not learn from the disaster he had caused. To the contrary: he continued to hope for profits from speculations. First he moved to London with his large family where he found employment in the firm run by his uncle Hermann Sillem (1788-1849). Hermann was one of Jerôme's younger brothers. He and his wife who was from Kassel in Hessia are the founders of the English branch of the Sillem family. Wilhelm endured only two years in London. After that he tried his luck in Mexico. However, his business partners over there soon withdrew confidence after failed speculations. After four more years he returned to Hamburg as a failed entrepreneur. Backed by his well-to-do mother, he started with two new projects. In a side alley in the city he built 17 houses for wealthy people. Nine years later he had sold only 9 of them. His brother Adolph Sillem (1811-1884) took over the remaining ones and put them on the market. Then Wilhelm had Germany's first glass-covered shopping passage and a hotel built on Hamburg's splendid boulevard Jungfernstieg. The public response to "Sillem's Bazar" was enthusiastic at first. However due to inconsiderate errors of judgment on Wilhelm's side the wealthy clientèle began to stay away after some time. Already after 40 years the hotel and the passage were pulled down and replaced by new buildings. Both projects had failed. The family had lost lots of money. They stripped the speculator of his legal capacity. He was granted a fixed annual sum and urged to leave the city. With his wife and children Wilhelm moved to Geneva and spent the remainder of his life there. He got deeply involved in public welfare caring for the poor and shared what was left of his fortune with the needy in the city. They called him "Father of the Poor", and a street was named after him. His son Wilhelm Sillem (1842-1904) became an agriculturist. He migrated to Argentina with his family. He and his wife who was from Switzerland were the founders of the Argentinian branch of the Sillem family.

The End

These are excerpts from a Family Chronicle titled „Die Sillems in Hamburg“. It is written in German by Hans-Wolff Sillem who lives in Hamburg. It has 260 pages and a wealth of pictures.

The chronicle can be purchased from the author. Write to


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©  Copyright 2012  Martin Sillem  -  Last update: 20 November 2007