Monday musings on Australian literature: What’s in a street name?
Street names may be an unusual topic for a post on literature, but I think it could be argued that names of things are part of our wider literary culture. It can certainly be argued so for my city because street names here are serious business. None of your 5th Avenues and 61st Streets for us! I know, I know, New York’s a great place, and very easy to navigate compared to Canberra with its reputation for going round in circles, but we have our reasons …
I was inspired to write this post because this past weekend Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were in town as part of their Diamond Jubilee Tour downunder. One of their duties was to take part in the renaming of Parkes Place to Queen Elizabeth Terrace. This has special meaning for me because the address of my first library employer was Parkes Place, which was named for Henry Parkes, the “father” of our Federation. Queen Elizabeth now joins Queen Victoria, King Edward, and King George in being commemorated by a street in what we call our Parliamentary Triangle. I’m pleased to say that poor old Henry is not being completely brushed aside: the little roads that circle Old Parliament House will now be called Parkes Place.
Enough about my inspiration though, and back to the main point, which is that in 1928 the Canberra National Memorials Committee of the Australian Parliament presented a “Report in Regard to the Naming of Canberra’s Streets and Suburbs” which laid down principles for Canberra’s official nomenclature. Early in the document comes this:
… the commission divided the Canberra City District into 23 divisions. It devolved upon the National Memorials Committee to find names for these divisions, which will eventually become the suburbs of the capital. It was felt by the Committee that patriotic and national sentiment would be best met if the names of those men who have contributed most to Australia’s existence as a unified nation, be used in the most important places, that is, for the names of the divisions or suburbs of Canberra.
The patriotism of a nation is often expressed by memorials to its benefactors, so it is deserving and right that the names of those great statesmen who laboured in the cause of the federation of the Commonwealth should be perpetuated as place names to be used in the mother-tongue by all Australians for all time.
Now isn’t that a great piece of bureaucratic literature! I particularly love the reference to “mother-tongue” after the preceding references to “men” and “statesmen”. It then lists the names of these men, and explains that “a suffix has been added, similar to some of the Anglo-Saxon names of towns in Great Britain, where the name is thought not to be very euphonious”. So, while Braddon gave rise to the suburb of Braddon, and Barton Barton, Lyne became Lyneham and Fysh Fyshwick. Ingenius eh?
The Report then goes on to note that other suburbs would be based on names connected with Canberra’s early days and its pioneers, and that “the use of aboriginal names has not been overlooked.” They stated that much knowledge of indigenous naming in the Canberra region had been lost but those known would be retained, and so they are – with most rolling off the tongue beautifully (euphoniously, even), like Narrabundah, Yarralumla, Pialligo, Jerrabomberra, Mugga, and Canberra itself.
All this is probably pretty common in cities elsewhere but the committee went on to set down principles for the naming of streets:
The Committee has adopted the idea of grouping together various classes of names in separate areas. Sections of the City have therefore been set apart for Governors, Explorers, Navigators, Scientists and others, Foresters and others, Pioneers and others, Founders of the Constitution, and euphonious Aboriginal words.
I wonder whether the names of the scientists, foresters, “and others” had to be “euphonious”?
I won’t go on with more of the report, but I will say that this plan has continued to the present. One of our newest suburbs, still in the making, is Wright – named for the poet Judith Wright. Yes, we do now have a handful of suburbs named for women, including the writers Miles Franklin, Dame Mary Gilmore and Henry Handel Richardson. Moreover, some of our street names, says ACTPLA, our current planning authority, are named for “quiet achievers”. Things do change in the corridors of government – eventually. As for the theme for Wright’s streets, it’s a somewhat diverse one, “Environment, Poets and Butterflies”. Maybe there’s a connection there; Wright was a poet and a conservationist so perhaps the latter covers the “environment” and the “butterflies”!
I like that fact that such thought has been put into Canberra’s urban (or is it suburban) nomenclature, and I’m glad that while the spirit of the early planners has remained our nomenclature has broadened to encompass women, quiet achievers, the arts and increasing usage of indigenous names. The end result is, for we capital residents, a fascinating literature of suburb and street names. Do you have such literature where you live?