Almanac History: Yahl – South Australia


Yahl, South Australia


Who has heard of a South Australian locality called Yahl? If you have, give yourself a gold star, elephant stamp, or shout yourself a beer or beverage of your choice. I never knew it existed until after I started researching my family history about a decade ago.


Yahl is near the coast of the state, in its south-eastern corner, close to another locality called OB Flat. Still not ringing any bells? Most likely not. “OB what?” you may ask. “Yes, OB Flat.” I answer. (According to Wikipedia, this very unusual place name ‘is believed to derive from a herd of cattle bearing the brand ‘OB’ [owned by O. Beswick] which once roamed in the area’.) To indicate Yahl’s location another way, it’s about ten kilometres south-east of Mt Gambier, nestled near the state border with Victoria.



Cyclist and tractor entering Yahl, March 2021. (Photo by Philip Golding.)


Why am I bringing this matter up – do I have some kind of vivid personal memory associated with this obscure place?


No. As far as I can recall, even allowing for childhood holidays which incorporated Mt Gambier, I’ve never been to Yahl in my life.


Well, why Yahl then?


Family is the reason.


A great-grandmother on my maternal side, Sophia Bertha Golding (nee Herbst), was born in Yahl in 1887, to John Peter and Julia Herbst (nee Bahr [or Baehr]), born in Germany in 1838 and c. 1845 respectively. John Peter was born in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, sometimes part of Denmark centuries ago, while Julia was born in the picturesque Harz Mountains, also in the northern part of the country, renowned as an area where many German fairy tales originated. The surname Herbst means autumn in German, and it has been suggested by the House of Names website ‘that [it] may have originally been used by people whose main work occurred during the fall harvest’ – this is particularly fitting, as will be seen below, in relation to the farm work done by John Peter Herbst in Australia.



Julia and John Peter Herbst, seated, with seven of their nine children, c.mid-1920s. My great-grandmother, Sophia, is immediately behind her father. (Sourced from a family collection.)



Following, then, is a basic outline of my German great-great-grandparents’ lives, as detailed by South Australian newspaper obituaries of the era:


Border Watch (Mt Gambier, SA) Sat 22 October 1927




The death occurred on October 12th of Mr. John Peter Herbst, an old and respected pioneer resident of the Yahl district. Mr. Herbst was born in Schleswig-Holstein in 1838, but he left there as a lad of 13 years of age, and went to sea in a British ship. Later he joined the British Navy, and although he did not see any active service he was in American waters during the American Civil War, and he was connected with a transport taking troops to India during the Indian mutiny. He was a good raconteur, and blessed with a splendid memory, and his friends would listen for hours to his descriptions of those stirring times. After the fighting in connection with the Indian mutiny was settled he joined a merchant vessel, and eventually found his way to Australia, about 67 years ago. On landing in Adelaide he went North, and got work as a well sinker. Later he worked for the late Mr. McBride at Pine Hill. About 1864 he came to the South-East, and for a number of years he was employed by the late Mr. Plate, and for many years he worked for other farmers in the Yahl district. In 1866 he married Miss Julia Bahr, the ceremony being performed by the late Rev. R. A. Caldwell. There was a family of nine, all of whom are living. … There are about 40 grandchildren, and eight or ten great-grandchildren. The funeral was held on Friday, October 14th, and the arrangements were in the hands of Mr. W. Pearce. The Rev. E. Sprengel conducted the funeral service.



A view of Schleswig, Schleswig-Holstein, c.1600. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA)  Sat 15 August, 1936




In a recent issue we recorded the death of an old and respected resident of Yahl. We refer to Mrs. Julia Herbst, who died at her residence on Tuesday, July 27, after an illness lasting about four years. Mrs. Herbst was a daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. William Baehr, and she was born in the Hartz Mountains, Germany, on March 7th, 1845. She was thus 91 years of age. She was only three years of age when her parents left their home land in 1850 to settle in Australia. Her mother died on the voyage and was buried at sea. Her father, with his young family, landed at Port Adelaide and shortly afterwards he settled at Blumberg. They resided in Blumberg for nine years, and then came overland to Mount Gambier in a bullock dray. She lived with her father for 12 years and then went as a servant to the late Mrs. Plate, O. B. Flat. She lived with that family until she was married to the late Mr. John Peter Herbst, the ceremony taking place in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the Rev. R. A. Caldwell performing the ceremony. She had a family of nine, four sons and five daughters. … There are 29 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She was a member of St. Martin’s Lutheran Church, and the funeral service at the graveside was conducted by the Rev. E. Sprengel, and Mr. W. Pearce carried out the funeral arrangements.



On the Edge of the Harz Mountains, oil on canvas, by Emil Bott, 1850. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)




I have one clear personal memory of my great-grandmother, Sophia. (She died in 1973, when I was eleven.) I must have been around eight at the time – she would’ve been in her early eighties. I can see a stocky Germanic woman with her hair done up in a tight bun, bustling around a kitchen in an old house in Millicent, South Australia. The kitchen had a wood oven, pots were on the simmer, and sunlight streamed through a window in an otherwise unlit room.


And when her parents made their family home in Yahl, they certainly chose a fine location. Many photographs I’ve seen of the place show the beauty of its countryside. My cousin Philip, who lives in Millicent, described Yahl as “attractive, fertile and flat between old volcanic elevations and old coastal sediments”; in short, I reckon it would have been a lovely part of the world in which to grow up.


But I’m certain that for my German ancestors living there was more about hard work than gazing at the picturesque scenery. That said, I’m equally sure the landscape would’ve given them pleasure, too.



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Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, was published in late 2020 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.


  1. John and Julia certainly packed a lot into their lives KD. How does a young German boy join the British Navy; witness several historic wars; and lob on a farm in the South East of South Australia before he’s 30. So many migrant stories are of having nothing – so nothing to lose – and making something of nothing. Migration and opportunity are the cornerstone of the Australian story.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for the comments, PB.

    Yes, I agree with your sentiments entirely.

    What vivid, eventful lives my German-Australian great-great grandparents had!

  3. Wow, the lives people have had! What a great story. Yep, never heard of Yahl. Fantastic stuff.

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Jim!

    I’m so pleased this piece is resonating as it is.

    Family history, in general, is so interesting, often throwing up unexpected things!

  5. Colin Ritchie says

    Interesting read KD. For years my family have been researching a relative along my father’s line born in Schleswig-Holstein who arrived in Australia in the 1850s. He came here via London, Anglicised his name along the way and jumped ship arriving in Geelong. All we know is he was born in Holstein as recorded on his death certificate but we have not been able to trace him any further back. I think I may have to make a trip there!

  6. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for the comments, Col. I find your Schleswig-Holstein connection particularly interesting, even down to the British part of the person’s voyage to Australia. In this broad context, I do wonder how my German great-great-grandfather managed to go to sea in a British ship and join the British Navy early in his life.

  7. David Mounce says

    My Great Grandparents were married in Yahl in 1874. Great grandfather ended up in the South East after jumping off the ship he was working on in 1866. Great Grandmother spent her early life in Hay Valley (near Woodside and Nairne) but headed to the South East after her father was killed by a tree whilst building the Hay Valley Church. John Sorell Bott’s grave can still be found behind the church at Hay Valley which is now a home. Have only been to Yahl once. It has a beautiful white picket fenced cricket ground. Assume it used to have a cheese factory in past.

  8. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your response, David – so interesting!

    Our Yahl-connected ancestors would very likely have known each other, I believe.

    A friend of mine on Facebook mentioned, in connection with my Yahl article, that there was cheese making occurring in the locality – he put forward one Anthony Ryan in this context, and indicated only a pre WW2 era.

  9. The home of Yahlsberg cheese?

  10. Kevin Densley says

    Mmm, PB … Jarlsberg cheese … originating from Jarlsberg, Norway? Surely you jest?!

  11. Home of the Royal Yahl Cricket Club who have seen many a fine player including Ian Mclachlan Eric Freeman and Peter Sleep

  12. And Michael Harms.

  13. Kevin Densley says

    GH – brilliant!

    JTH – equally brilliant!

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