The Names of Sydney

There are many names around Sydney that leave visitors scratching their heads and asking "why?" Like why does Sydney call the only circular building in its central business district Australia Square? And why is Circular Quay rectangular? Why the now withdrawn red trains on Sydney's railway system were nicknamed Red Rattlers is obvious to anyone who has ridden them, but their correct name - Sputniks - isn't (they were thus named because they were brought into service in 1957, the same year the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite).

Sydney has some very interesting suburb names too. There is one suburb with a name that literally means "Death Valley" - Mortdale; Greystanes isn't anywhere near as dirty as its name suggests, and what about Fiddletown? - no, the people who live there aren't all tax cheats - or violin players for that matter!

Contrary to what its name implies, the people of Galston don't all have gall stones; be assured the people who live in Grose Wold and Hassall Grove are glad their localities' names aren't descriptive; the name Lowlands would have been a nightmare to the real estate agent who first tried to sell land there; the people who named Hillsdale and Valley Heights appear to have been quite indecisive; there aren't too many ladies from the popular beachside suburb who'll admit to being Manly residents; not a single person lives at Tumbledown Dick, even though it has been allocated a postcode. And why would they, with a name like that! If those suburb names are a bit too negative for you, there are a lot of other names that go to the opposite extreme. Life in Merrylands sounds like it would be fun, and Beauty Point, Green Valley, Riverview and Summer Hill all sound like names concocted by real estate developers eager for sales. As for Crows Nest, Curl Curl and Dee Why ...

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What's In A Name?



The names of rivers, coastal features, districts and their streets tell a lot about the history of a place. The grid pattern layout of the main roads of suburban Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth indicate that not only did some thought and planning go into both their design and growth, they are built on relatively flat ground. By contrast, Brisbane and Sydney are the opposite; their street layouts resemble a bowl of spaghetti dropped onto the floor from a great height. In the case of Sydney, not only does this reflect the difficult terrain the early road builders had to work around, it also shows that the city has been the subject of constant alterations, modifications, stops and starts in its growth from a humble penal colony on the other side of the world to a living, thriving metropolis.

Many of Sydney's streets and roads began life as tracks used by Aboriginal tribes for centuries to get from one hunting ground or water hole to another which explains why they often weave across the ridges from one peak to the next. From these tracks the early colonials hacked their way through the bush, following the least line of resistance from one point to another, which may have involved anything from deviating around a particularly difficult tree stump or outcrop of sandstone to moving further upstream to find the easiest place to ford a stream.

Conspicuous by their absence in the Inner City are names of Aboriginal origin. Only two survive - Bennelong and Woolloomooloo - the former being the name of one of only a handful of Aboriginal people of Sydney's first decade who aligned themselves in any way with the white settlement. The latter was recorded as the native name for the area, which was retained by the first white settler there and used as the name of his property. Speaking of Aboriginal names, in much the same way that the English use suffixes like "town" or "ville" in their names, eg. Campbelltown and Hurstville, the natives of the Sydney region used the suffix "matta" in reference to a locality eg. Cabramatta.

In the case of Cabramatta, a cabra was an edible root, therefore the name means "place where there are edible roots". When the white settlers asked the native the name of a particular place, what the whites wrote down wasn't necessarily the name of the place, in fact there is little evidence to suggest that the Aborigines regularly named places in the same way most other cultures did. In the case of Cabramatta, it is more a description of the place than its name.
Governor Macquarie's Sydney



Governor Lachlan Macquarie was the first person in authority to try bring some order to the adhoc way the place was growing. Soon after his arrival in 1810, he expressed his amazement at the way the colonists took shortcuts through the bush rather than follow the few thoroughfares that existed at the time. To stop the rot, he re-defined the streets that existed at that time, straightening, reforming and widening them, demolishing encroaching buildings and ensuring each road had a graded surface, rugged though it may have been by today's standards. He then re-named the streets, replacing a string of names in general use. In some instances, the new names replaced up to four old names, each used by different sections of the community. Many were 'rows', a contemporary term for a right of way or lane. Macquarie encouraged residents to take care of their streets, keeping them (and their houses) clean and in a good state of repair.

Sydney itself would become a memorial to its most loved and respected Colonial Governor. His influence is still visible in the bustling streets of what was upon his arrival little more than a bush camp, but which he singlehandedly had nurtured into a thriving community. Of all the early Governors of New South Wales, none left so indelible mark upon the place and he is totally forgiven for his enthusiasm in naming so many places after himself. During his 11 years in Sydney, he had overseen 256 items of construction, many of which remain today. They included 67 public buildings in Sydney town, 20 at Parramatta, 15 at Windsor and 12 at Windsor, not to mention those in Bathurst and Hobart.

He set in motion the creation of the Argyle Cut in The Rocks (though work did not commence until 1843). He oversaw the building of 14 public roads, the development of wharves on Cockle Bay, the development of shipbuilding yards on Sydney Cove, the installation of the first steam driven mill and the opening of Australia's first bank. Macquarie also played a major role in the development of Hobart. During his governorship, the population of Sydney grew from 11,590 to 38,798. Animal numbers grew also, the total sheep flock rising from 26,000 to around 290,000. Cattle increased from 12,442 head to 109,939 and pigs increased from 9,544 to 33,906. The area of land under agriculture rose from 3,030 ha to 13,720 ha.

Macquarie summarised his contribution towards the development of Sydney in his report to Earl Bathurst, London, dated 27 July 1822, thus: "I found the colony barely emerging from infantile imbecility, and suffering from various privations and disabilities; the country impenetrable from beyond 40 miles of Sydney ... the few road sand bridges, formerly constructions, rendered almost impassable ... I left it ... reaping incalculable advantages from my extensive and important discoveries in all directions. This change may indeed by ascribed in part to the natural operation of time and events on individual enterprise. How far it may be attributed to matters originating with myself, ... and my zeal and judgment in giving effect to my instructions, I humbly submit to His Majesty and His Ministers."

Pioneers ... Remembered By Their Name

Following the pattern set by Macquarie, subsequent Governors ensured that new roads were built to a pre-set standard, but there is little evidence that they were designed, rather that they evolved from the maze or early tracks beaten out by the Aborigines and the first white settlers, following the terrain. The only alignment of streets with each other, was in individual subdivisions, and even then, there was little or no alignment of one subdivision to another.

The names of Sydney weave a splash of colour into the tapestry of the city's growth and development and add fragments of detail that would otherwise have been lost. In re-naming existing streets, Governor Macquarie let residents and visitors to the tiny settlement know in no uncertain way that this was very much a part of the British Empire. He named the central streets after the reigning monarch and his queen - George III and Charlotte - supplementing these with the ducal titles of their sons and other royal family members - York, Cumberland, Sussex, Clarence, Cambridge, Kent and Gloucester; a string of British officials associated with the colony - Lords Bathurst, Liverpool, Castlereagh, Pitt, Harrington, Druitt; his predecessors - Governors Phillip, Hunter, King and Bligh. Ever desirous to ensure his name was not forgotten by future generations, Macquarie threw in a few personal associations for good measure - Macquarie, Elizabeth (his wife), Argyle (his Scottish homeland) to name but a few. Lesser colonial dignatories swelled the numbers - O'Connell, Bent, Gresham, Goulburn - with many later additions by subsequent governors honouring those endowed with the task of metering out justice - Judges Dowling, Forbes, Plunket, Stephen, Windeyer and Burton.

Dotted in between the aristocratic names on the map of Sydney are those of the middle and working class, people who worked hard to better their lot in life and in so doing, contributed towards the building of the city of Sydney. Some, like William Charles Wentworth, Robert Campbell, John Sands and Robert Towns have their names indelibly recorded in the annals of history. Others would have been lost to future generations were it not for the fact that they once owned land at a particular location and a subdivision or road through it was named after them, or that they operated a business from premises in a street which gained its name more by association than design. Many of the back streets and lanes of the inners suburbs like East Sydney and Surry Hills recall landowners who have long since been forgotten. Anyone could request a name, either to have it change or simply because a name was needed. When such requests were granted, the name of the person making the request was often selected. Norman, Little Burton, Burnell, Langley, Woods, Faucett, McCarthy, Bossley, Kells, Sherbrook, O'Brien, Thompson, Shorter, Burwick, Seale and Francis Streets in East Sydney were all named in this manner.

Some names were given or changed as a return favour for work done for the city. For such persons, it was a small price to pay to have one's name recorded forever in the town's nomenclature. Dangar Place, Chippendale, was known as Cecil Place until 1882. Thomas Dangar, a major Chippendale landholder, successfully lobbied Council to have the street's name changed in exchange for him providing street lighting. On two occasions, the Governments of the day tried to clean up the confusion over the multiple used of names by renaming a large number of streets. the first took place in 1875 when 60 streets were renamed. Gould, Merriman, Row, Kippax and Day Streets recall the names of Sydney's Aldermen of the day whose names will never be forgotten. A similar roll call of duplicated names was made in 1905 when a further 100 names were changed (see Council resolution). Some of these resulted for major redevelopment programmes such as the rebuilding of the Darling Harbour to Walsh Bay waterfront. Mass resumptions like those in The Rocks after the Bubonic plague of 1901 and Surry Hills a few years later led to the creation of new streets and the opportunity for government officials of the day - Loftus, Young, Martin, Taylor, Playfair, Eddie, Hickson etc. to have their names included in the nomenclature of the city.

Some street and locality names don't honour anyone, but give clues as to why those streets were first created. Names like Military Road and Soldiers Road identify their creators and/or early users. Others like Barrack Street, Fort Street, Quay Street and Quarry Street identify buildings and locations that have long since gone that once existed there.

So who named Sydney?


Thomas Townshend, Viscount Sydney

Like all cities and towns, Sydney as a city remains unfinished, in a constant state of change. There's nothing startling about that, except when you try to define just exactly what and where Sydney is, and then you come up with a lot of unanswered questions. Even the origin of its name is questionable. Sure, we know it honours Thomas Townshend (1733-1800) Viscount Sydney, a British parliamentarian and Secretary of State for the Home Affairs between 1783 and 1789, the man to whom the Governor of NSW was directly answerable during the colony's establishment and formative years. But the colony was originally named New South Wales. So who changed it to Sydney? Now that is a very good question.

Sydney: The Undefined City

It was the first Governor, Arthur Phillip, who bestowed the name 'Sydney Cove' in Januqry 1788 to the small inlet on Port Jackson on which the colony's first settlement in the Colony of New South Wales was established. Gov. Phillip did not propose the colony be named 'Sydney', but 'New Albion', however it appears his suggestion was ignored, as all official records refer to it as the Colony of New South Wales.

If you try and identify the moment from which the town became known as Sydney you'll be unsuccessful. And if you try and find out who made the decision to call it Sydney, you'll reach the same dead end. It appears that Sydney was probably never officially given that name, and that the name probably came into regular use by accident.

Some would argue that the name 'Sydney' was adopted on 20th July 1842 when the City of Sydney was established as a Local Government body, and in terms of the official adoption of the name, that would be correct. But Sydney was known by that name long before 1842. As early as 1789, following the establishment of a second settlement at Rose Hill (Parramatta) in that year, locals began referring to the settlement on Sydney Cove as Sydney, more to differentiate it from Rose Hill than anything, and the name stuck. By the turn of the 19th Century, it was used more and more in official documents and was finally officially adopted In 1842.

Sydney Harbour or Port Jackson?


Sir George Jackson

Talking of names, there is still confusion as to the difference, if any, between Sydney Harbour and Port Jackson. Most locals will tell you they are one and the same but such is not the case. The name Port Jackson was bestowed by Lt. James Cook on 7th May, 1770 as he passed by the Heads on his journey north after his visit to Botany Bay. It honours Sir George Jackson, Secretary for the Admiralty and Judge Advocate of the (British Navy) Fleet, Cook's departmental head. As a youth, Cook worked for Jackson's sister as a stable hand.

Cook didn't explore the harbour so he never knew that it actually consists of three distinct harbours or "ports". He simply called everything beyond the Heads "Port Jackson". The authorities have since taken Cook's lead and adopted the name as a reference to all three harbours. Only that part of Port Jackson between the Parramatta River and Sydney Heads is called Sydney Harbour, and like the name 'Sydney' itself, was probably adopted officially after it had been in common use for many years. The section of Port Jackson to the north of the Heads is called North Harbour, the section to the north west of the heads into which Middle Harbour Creek flows is Middle Harbour. Incidentally, Parramatta River ceases to be Parramatta River and becomes Sydney Harbour at Long Nose Point, Balmain.

Where Is The City Boundary?


Bangalley Head, North Avalon - Sydney's most easterly point

Though the boundaries of the local government electoral district known as the City of Sydney are clearly defined (it spans approximately 11.7 square kilometres and includes the Central Business District), the actual boundaries of Greater Sydney or the Sydney Metropolitan Area as it is often called appear to have never been formalised.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics includes the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury and parts of the Central Coast in the Sydney Statistical Division, which represents Greater Sydney. The State Electoral Map of Metropolitan Sydney, on the other hand, don't include them. As these maps represent the NSW Government's interpretation of where Greater Sydney starts and finishes and Sydney is NSW's seat of Government, it is reasonable to treat them as gospel, unless you take into account that the Australian Bureau of Statistics is a Commonwealth Government body and New South Wales is part of the Commonwealth of Australia ... Yes, it's all very confusing. Using the State Electoral Map of Metropolitan Sydney, the northern boundary is the Hawkesbury River, making Prickly Point in Muogamarra Nature Reserve the northern extremity, or the northern tip of Milson Island if you include islands in your calculations. Strange as it may seem, this location has never appeared as part of Sydney in the Metropolitan Sydney Street Directory but it does appear in the Central Coast Street Directoryas part of the Central Coast!

The southern boundary of Sydney was very much open to conjecture until 2003. Sections of the electorates of Camden, Campbelltown and Heathcote appeared on the electoral map of Metropolitan Sydney and also on the electoral map of the Illawarra District to Sydney's south. If you included these electorates as part of Sydney, then Menangle and Wedderburn, Royal National Park and a narrow coastal strip to its south as far as Coledale were included as part of Metropolitan Sydney. If you included these electorates as part of the Illawarra, then Camden, Warragamba Dam, Badgerys Creek, Bringelly, Campbelltown, Eagle Vale, Leumea, Helensburgh, Bundeena, Waterfall, Engadine, Sutherland, Bonnet Bay and Como were not part of Metropolitan Sydney.


Crossing the border into Sydney

Since 2003, Camden and Campbelltown have been officially part of the Sydney metropolitan area, and Heathcote and Bundeena are in the Illawarra electorate, excluding them from Sydney's metropolitan area. But the establishment of the boundary between the two electorates has placed the residents of Bundeena and Maianbar in a rather precarious position. If they are at home, they are in the Illawarra; if they take a swim in the waters of Port Hacking outside their front doors, or go fishing off a jetty, they are in Sydney as the low water mark of Port Hacking is the great divide.

The eastern and western boundaries of Metropolitan Sydney are much clearer. To the east the boundary is the Pacific Ocean. The most easterly point is Bangalley Head, North Avalon.

To the west, the boundary is the Nepean River, apart from a section of the foothills of the Blue Mountains to the west of Penrith, where the Metropolitan Sydney extends inland as far as and including Blaxland. Blaxland High School on Coughlan Road sits on the most westerly extremity of Metropolitan Sydney, the railway line behind it being the boundary. This make the houses in Blaxland on the east side of the line in the Blue Mountains, whereas those on the west are in the Sydney metropolitan area.



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