Q&A: Sydney? Adelaide? Canberra? The origins of our city names?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're talking place namesakes..

Q: Hi AWC, we’ve talked about place name origins recently.

A: We have.

Q: But we haven’t discussed local ones. Can we do that today?

A: Sure. What did you have in mind?

Q: I thought we could start with the main cities in Australia.

A: The capital cities of Australia’s eight states and territories? 

Q: Yes please. Where did they get their names?

A: Let’s start with Sydney. Like many on our list today, it was named after an 18th or 19th century British politician who never actually set foot on Australian soil. In this case, it was Thomas Townshend – responsible for sending the first convicts in 1788.

Q: So why aren’t we climbing the Townshend Harbour Bridge or marvelling at the Townshend Opera House?

A: Because in 1783, he became “Baron Sydney” (and later 1st Viscount Sydney). He originally tossed up between the name “Sidney” and “Sydenham” before settling on “Sydney”.

Q: And speaking of settling on Sydney…

A: Yes, he was the one who chose Governor Arthur Philip to lead the Australian expedition. Philip named Sydney Cove – later settled with Sydney Town – on 26 January 1788, after the Baron who sent him.

Q: It turned out to be quite an unusual name.

A: Yep. Fun fact though – the town of Sydney in Nova Scotia, Canada, was named after Baron Sydney first, in 1785. 

Q: Oh that’s a delicious baggage handling mishap just waiting to happen!

A: No need to wait – it has happened more than a few times!

Q: Haha, brilliant.

A: Next up, Melbourne.

Q: Sounds like another dead British dude, am I right?

A: Good guess. William Lamb, 2nd Viscount of Melbourne, was in fact the British Prime Minister when Melbourne was named in 1837. His family’s title came from their small hometown of Melbourne in Derbyshire. But more interesting is how close Melbourne came to being something else entirely.

Q: Oh, what?

A: Batmania – thanks to John Batman’s 1830s exploration of the area.

Q: Holy Etymology, Batman! It sounds like a comic convention.

A: Yes, quite.

Q: Okay next. Brisbane?

A: Well, Brisbane (and the river it sits on) was named in 1825 after the New South Wales governor at the time, Thomas Brisbane. He had sent a chap named Lt. John Oxley north to look for a new place to put convicts and he stumbled upon the river, naming it once more after the guy who sent him there.

Q: They certainly were very disciplined in not just naming these places after themselves.

A: Indeed. So, what city would you like to know about next?

Q: Perth please!

A: This one is fairly straightforward, with Captain James Stirling naming it in 1829 after the town of Perth in Scotland.

Q: But why? Was he from there?

A: Nope. He chose it for his mentor, Sir George Murray, who was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time, and came from Perth.

Q: Oooh, was the town of Perth in Tasmania also named after him?

A: Nope, that one’s a coincidence, named some years earlier for a farmer who also happened to have come from Perth in Scotland.

Q: This is fun. Let’s do Adelaide next!

A: Any thoughts?

Q: I think there was a Queen Adelaide? Or maybe I’m having flashbacks of a night drinking cheap wine…

A: Well, it’s both! You’re correct – there WAS a Queen Adelaide. Her title was Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and she was the wife of King William IV. The two of them were famous for living quite a boring life, considering the times.

Q: Living a boring life huh? It’s all making sense now.

A: Careful. 

Q: So how long were Willy 4 and Adders on the throne for?

A: Barely more than six years – but it just happened to be the same window of time in which the town of Adelaide was founded. Queen Victoria would ascend to the throne just a year later – not giving it up for another 64 years.

Q: So Adelaide actually came very close to probably being named Victoria or Prince Albert.

A: Sounds painful. But yes.

Q: Okay, Darwin next. Surely this wasn’t after the guy who founded the Darwin Awards?

A: You refer to Charles Darwin and his 19th century work on evolution and natural selection?

Q: That’s the guy. Is it because only the strongest can survive the Northern Territory?

A: Not quite. But it WAS named after that same naturalist, Charles Darwin. Oddly, his now-famous 1831-36 round the world voyage on the HMS Beagle only stopped at Hobart and Sydney. But the first officer on that voyage had been John Clements Wickham.

Q: Lemme guess, another dead British dude?

A: Ding ding, correct! Anyway, he became commander of the NEXT voyage and in September 1839, the HMS Beagle sailed into a harbour he would name “Port Darwin” – in honour of his former shipmate.

Q: I wonder if captains in those days had notebooks of people to name things after and just ticked them off as they arrived in new places.

A: Perhaps. Curiously, the original town was planned in the 1860s about 100km away at the mouth of the Adelaide River – also named after that same former Queen. But it didn’t take hold and a town in Port Darwin was established instead.

Q: The town was also named Darwin, yeah?

A: Well actually, no. It was originally named Palmerston after British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston.

Q: When did it become Darwin?

A: The town was eventually named Darwin in 1911, the same year that the Northern Territory stopped being administered by South Australia.

Q: Okay, Hobart has been waiting patiently.

A: Yes it has. Especially considering it was one of the earliest settled cities. It was founded back in 1804 when Australia was still very much Britain’s prison overflow strategy. The town on the Derwent River was named after Lord Hobart, Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time.

Q: Surprise, surprise. Another dead British guy who never visited Oz.

A: Indeed. He actually died just after the town was named. So if it had happened any later, it might have been named Camden instead – after Hobart’s successor.

Q: What a fun fact.

A: Here’s another – the town was originally named Hobarton.

Q: Wasn’t that where Bilbo and Frodo came from in The Lord of the Rings?

A: Not quite. Anyway, it was known as Hobart Town until 1881, when it dropped the “Town”.

Q: So, that’s it! We’re done.

A: Ahem. One more.

Q: Oh my, so there is. Our nation’s capital. Silly me.

A: Unlike the others, the city of Canberra was not settled by sailing into a harbour and flicking through a notebook. In fact, unlike the others, it’s a long way from the coast. Also unlike the other cities, it is NOT named after…

Q: A dead British guy?

A: That’s right! On 1 January 1901 – just three weeks before Queen Victoria would die – Australia became a nation of federated states. After much fighting between Sydney and Melbourne, a new capital was chosen on a site “no closer than 100 miles from Sydney”. It was named in 1913 and designed by American architect power couple Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin.

Q: That’s nice. But where did the name “Canberra” come from?

A: This is the ironic part. For the newest city of all, it has the muddiest origin story. The most popular claim is that it comes from the Ngunnawal indigenous language and the words “Kambera” or “Canberry” (marked on early survey maps in the 1800s) – meaning “meeting place”.

Q: Seems perfect!

A: Sure, but etymology doesn’t care about perfection. Others have claimed that it came from “Nganbra” meaning “woman’s breasts” – a visual reference to two local mountains, Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain. Early maps show this name in fact refers to the Sullivan’s Creek floodplan – the hollow between these two, er, mounds.

Q: Also a meeting place of sorts…

A: A third theory even links it to the cranberry that grew in the area. By all accounts, the name definitely came from a native word and not a dead British dude. It’s just that the exact origin is somewhat disputed.

Q: Wow, what a tour. Five politicians, a Queen, a naturalist and a meeting place shaped like a cranberry-flavoured bosom.

A: Holy Geography, Batman!


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