Street Names and Naming Conventions

I’ve just got back from a research trip to Sydney. I don’t know greater Sydney terribly well, because when I visit, I spend most of my time in a library or the archives – or back in my hotel bedroom, filing notes or vegged out in front of old episodes of the Antiques Roadshow. This may not sound appealing to many people, but to me, a week in the Mitchell Library is sheer bliss.

This time I blew the budget and stayed on the edge of the CBD, so I could walk to and from the library every day. There’s great charm in walking through a city, getting a feel for the layout and the geography, a sense of what the place felt like before the Car. It is useful to pace out distances: how long did it take the New South Wales Corps to march from their barracks to Government House to overthrow Governor Bligh?

I stayed in a hotel at the Chinatown end of Kent St. This isn’t the Rocks, the original rookery attached to the working port around the Harbour, so eloquently described by Grace Karskens in her book The Rocks but the other end of the CBD, the more orderly development that gradually replaced the original shacks and houses of the early colony.

A symbol of that change is the Judge’s House in Kent St, the oldest house in the Sydney CBD, according to a plaque at the gate, and the second oldest building in Sydney, named after one of its first owners, Judge James Dowling. Though I’m not sure she ever lived there, the house reminded me of his wife Harriott, whose Memoir I read during the week.

Kent St is named after the Duke of Kent, and nearby are memories of the other reprobate Hanoverian brothers, Sussex, Clarence and York. My walk took me past the Judge’s House into Bathurst St, named for the long-standing Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Bathurst, then across George St. This was the original High St of Sydney, and it is still one of its main commercial hubs. Named – naturally – for the King. Then up the slope of Bathurst St, crossing (Prime Ministers) Pitt and Castlereagh into Elizabeth St.

With Elizabeth St, I finally reach a street named after someone who actually visited the country – Elizabeth Macquarie, the Governor’s wife. Then across Hyde Park and across to Macquarie St.

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Hyde Park Barracks

Macquarie St, to my mind, is one of the loveliest streets in Sydney, with its sober Georgians, the Hyde Park Barracks and St James Church facing each other across the street. Beyond the barracks is the old Rum Hospital, now Parliament House. A pause to rub the pig’s nose – which I’ve been doing religiously since I first worked at the State Library of New South Wales in the 1970s – and I’m at the entrance as the doors open at 9.

Il Porcellino, Sydney

Il Porcellino, Sydney, a copy of the Florentine original

People back home in Britain found it hilarious that New South Wales named so many of its streets, towns and geographical features after Tory politicians. Sydney Smith wrote, tongue in cheek, lamenting the lack of Whig equivalents:

We cannot help remarking here, the courtly appellations in which Geography delights – the River Hawkesbury; the Town of Windsor on its banks; Bathurst Plains; Nepean River. Shall we never hear of the Gulph of Tierney; Brougham Point; or the Straights of Mackintosh on the River Grey? (Edinburgh Review, 1819)

It was not to be, at least in Sydney. It all depends on the timing.

In Brisbane, where the streets were laid out in the 1840s, the political order was reversed. One of the few things most people know about Brisbane is that its CBD is laid out on a grid where ‘the boys’ – Edward, Albert, George, William – go in one direction while ‘the girls’ – Ann, Adelaide, Queen, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Mary, Alice – go in the other. They are all Royal names until you reach the edge of town, where a few geographical features – Creek, Wharf – get a look in.

On the south side of the river there is also a modified grid, though its features have been much broken up by later developments. There’s an imperial naming pattern at work here too, though not such an obvious one: the streets are named after Sir Robert Peel, Lord Melbourne, Lord John Russell and Lord Grey, all Prime Ministers, as well as Colonial Secretaries Barons Glenelg and Stanley, and Herman Merivale, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office. Further afield is Gladstone Rd.

Sydney Smith would be pleased. Most of these politicians and bureaucrats were Whigs, although party loyalties were shifting during the 1840s, and the old aristocratic term ‘Whig’ had been replaced by Liberal by the time that Mr. Gladstone became Prime Minister.

The former Premier Peter Beattie once lamented that the name ‘Grey St’ was so bland and boring. In fact Earl Grey was not particularly boring, so it’s a shame that he is best known today for the tea that bears his name. It would be nice if, one day, all these street names carried brief biographies of the people – okay, men – that gave them their names. Otherwise a layer of history disappears into anonymity.

Ref: Sydney Smith’s quotation appears in Anne-Maree Whitaker, Joseph Foveaux: Power and Patronage in Early New South Wales (2000)

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5 responses to “Street Names and Naming Conventions

  1. Lovely piece which we’ll link to Honest History. I recall being told when very young that the order of streets in Melbourne – Queen Elizabeth King William – was deliberate

  2. Judy Powell

    I remembering hearing someone say that one of the most common requests the heritage staff at Ipswich City Council get are requests about the origin of street names. We should push the BCC to provide more detail on street signs as you suggest. The street signs in the valley are translated into Chinese, so it surely isn’t too much to ask. Great post.

  3. Dr Neville Buch

    Was Gladstone’s politics not so respectable to the Queensland colonial establishment, and thus his street name was cast to further away from South Brisbane town?

  4. No, he was just later. He was very briefly Colonial secretary in – I think – 1846, but I think Gladstone Rd dates from after the other streets went in.

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