Commemorating Vice Admiral Sir William Rooke Creswell at Brighton General Cemetery

19 March 2024
A row of Navy personnel in their white dress uniforms flank the grave of Vice Admiral Sir William Rooke Creswell at Brighton General Cemetery.

We’re fortunate at Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust to have numerous figures of historical significance interred at our cemeteries and memorial parks. At Brighton General Cemetery we have the honour of being the final resting place of a man dubbed “the father of the Royal Australian Navy” and who is commemorated each year in a memorial ceremony by Navy personnel.

Vice Admiral Sir William Rooke Creswell (20 July 1852 – 20 April 1933) was born in Gibraltar. He began his career at sea at a mere thirteen years old, joining Britain’s Royal Navy as a cadet on the training ship Britannia. He served in the Channel Fleet before being transferred to the China Fleet and was injured from a shot to the hip in an encounter with pirates off the coast of Malaya. He was sent back to Britain to recover, wherein he spent time studying at the Royal Naval College.

Creswell retired from the Royal Navy in 1878 and emigrated to Australia the following year, where he had ideas of becoming a pastoralist. A stint in the Northern Territory however quickly convinced that life on the land wasn’t for him, and through a Royal Navy acquaintance he was appointed to First Lieutenant on the HMS Protector, which was at the time South Australia’s only naval vessel.

The grave of Vice Admiral Sir William Rooke Creswell at Brighton General Cemetery arrayed with floral bouquet tribute.

Working within colonial navies quickly brought Creswell around to the notion that Australia required its own navy. As Australia moved towards Federation, Creswell became the leading voice on advocating for an Australian navy.

The powers that be finally caught up to Creswell’s way of thinking in the wake of Germany’s pursuit of their own sizeable naval force in the first decade of the twentieth century. Anxious that focus on the European theatre would draw British eyes and ships away from the Pacific, by 1909 Australia’s admiralty was formally committed to increasing the nation’s naval strength. Creswell was promoted to Rear Admiral in service to the newly formed Royal Australian Navy in order to help steward the new organisation, and in 1910 was knighted by the King.

It is largely credited to Creswell that, as the First World War broke out, Australia had a navy that was equipped and able to function on a war footing. During the war, Creswell was engaged in the administration of ship construction, the arranging of convoys, and ensuring appropriate shore support for ships. After the war his focus was on developing a defense plan for Australia, which centred a strong Royal Australian Navy.

Bowing out with the rank of Vice Admiral, Creswell spent his retirement from the Navy running a farm in Silvan and keeping active in public affairs. He passed away in Armadale in 1933 and was survived by his wife and three of his six children – two of his sons had been killed while in service during the First World War.

On Monday 26 February 2024 at 9:00 am, Brighton General Cemetery welcomed a small group of naval personnel as they carried out the annual tradition of commemorating Vice Admiral Creswell. Laying floral tributes on the grave of Creswell, followed by a solemn tribute by a bugler, all present were able to reflect on the legacy of a man whose determined advocacy brought about the formation of the Royal Australian Navy.

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