Germanton to Holbrook

The Riverina town of Holbrook is one of over 90 Australian places to change its name during the First World War because of its German associations.

The Riverina town of Holbrook is one of over 90 Australian places to change its name during the First World War because of its German associations. Holbrook's previous name was Germanton. German settlers had arrived in the Riverina in the second half of the 19th century, and Germanton had gained its name because of the large number of German visitors to the home of German-born resident John Pabst.

During the First World War, many German-Australian communities found themselves the object of suspicion and animosity. This was the case for Germanton, despite the fact that four grandsons of John Pabst served with the Australian forces in the war, and other German-Australians from the area also fought and died.

The Germanton Shire Council considered a number of names in 1915 before it chose ‘Holbrook’ in honour of Lieutenant Norman Douglas Holbrook, who was the first submarine commander in the First World War to receive the Victoria Cross. 

By the end of the war, authorities had closed many German shops; German food items were re-labelled; German music was banned; and German schools and churches were closed. All German associations had been erased from the Australian landscape.

Over the past 100 years, sentiment has altered. In 2017, the new bridge across Ten Mile Creek at Holbrook was named Germanton Bridge, once again connecting Holbrook to its early German roots and recognising the German ancestry of many in the area.

(Excerpt from a letter written to Commander Norman Holbrook from Brompton Barracks, Chatham)

13 December 1914: Norman Douglas Holbrook, commander of the British submarine BII, sinks the Turkish battleship Messudieh in the Dardanelles Strait. Holbrook then successfully navigates the BII, an outmoded submarine built in 1905, back to the Mediterranean through five rows of mines, scraping along the bottom with a shattered compass while dodging torpedo boats and gunfire. The submarine had been submerged for nine hours, setting a new record.

Even by today’s standards, the BII’s voyage was remarkable. Commander Holbrook, aged 25, was awarded the Victoria Cross and the French Legion of Honour for his efforts. Each of the 13 crew members received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Meanwhile, in the regional inland NSW town of Germanton, strong anti-German sentiment is building as a result of the war, leading to pressure to change the town’s name. The search was on for a new, suitably patriotic name for the town. The shire councillors had read of the commander’s brave mission, and on 24 August 1915 the name ‘Holbrook’ was decided upon ‘…in memory of the valiant deeds done by you in the Dardanelles’.

Norman Holbrook would visit the town on three occasions. The name change sparked a chain reaction of events, leading to the formation of a unique submariner community that still exists in Holbrook today.