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.

A map of inner Canberra showing the Parliament...

Inner Canberra early suburb names. (Photo credit: Martyman, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

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?

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: What’s in a street name?

  1. Washington, DC, another artificial capital, uses a version of the common American plan. North-south streets are numbered; east-west streets run in an alphabetical order; and avenues are named for states (except that Wyoming has a street, and Washington has neither street nor avenue.) The east-west streets begin with letters (omitting J, X, Y, and Z), then two-syllable names (Alton through Webster), three syllable names (Allison through Whittier) and trees and plants (Aspen through Tamarack). The second and third alphabets are commonly named for statesmen of the 19th Century such as Upshur, Varnum, Webster, or here and there for writers–Longfellow, Whittier. And all streets have a quadrant assigned relative to the Capitol–NW is the largest, for the Capitol is about 18 blocks east of the center of the district.

    The close-in suburbs in Maryland either were named by their developers (Chevy Chase, Takoma Park) or retained names of the old towns or estates that were there first (Silver Spring, Camp Springs). In Virginia one has the undifferentiated Arlington (County), which is the right-bank portion of the original district, long ago handed back to Virginia, then the suburbs on more or less the same pattern of naming.

    • Thanks George for joining in … the American plan certainly has a lot to recommend it, particularly for tourists. So easy to find your way around. I’ve lived in the DC area (out near Dulles) and never knew that about the two syllable and then three syllable names. I remember the quadrant system too. Interesting how we like some sense of order …

  2. Minneapolis is a grid city, more or less, so we have numbered streets and avenues. We do have some avenues with names though and they progress more or less in alphabetical order. Some are named for early settlers to the area and some are named for places and some are named for random unrelated people (we have a Xerxes Ave). Neighborhoods are named for the lakes that they surround or for people or, have a literary connection. I live by Lake Nokomis in the Nokomis neighborhood which is divided from Longfellow by a street called Hiawatha. Oh and I also live just a few blocks away from Minnehaha Parkway. I don’t know if there is a suburb naming convention, they seem to be named after people, other places, and Native American. We have a suburb called Eagan after Patrick Eagan, Lakeville, and Shakopee after Chief Shakopee of the Objibway. Keeps things interesting!

    • Ah grids again Stefanie. So easy to get around. I like the idea of neighbourhoods being named for lakes. I wish my address were Minnehaha Parkway. That certainly has a euphonious sound doesn’t it?

      • The grid does make it easy to get around. St Paul across the river is not a grid and was heavily settled by the Irish so people make lots of jokes about why it’s so hard to find one’s way around there. Minnehaha is a lovely word. the parkway follows Minnehaha creek that runs from a big lake (Minnetonka) in the far suburbs to the Mississippi and has a small falls in a big park not so very far from where I live.

    • Yes, sorry about that …. our current address though does have a certain ring to it when you put the number with the street. It sort of rhymes. And, the previous street was alliterative with the suburb name. You can always find patterns if you look hard enough I reckon.

  3. And boo to whoever thought it would be a good idea to replace the name of one of Ours with one of Theirs. What an absurd thing to do in the 21st century, kowtowing to the royals in this pathetic way!

    • Do you use the Notifications system to reply? Twice my response to you has flown out the door by using Notifications rather than responding from the post itself. Drives me batty to have functionality like that that doesn’t work!

      I take your point … and thought myself, initially, but what about Parkes? I realised though that the whole suburb is called Parkes so he does get some precedence, and they are also going to name the road around Old Parliament House for him too. BTW I wonder if Prince Charles wondered where his road is going to be!!

      • Yes, I’ve had that problem with notifcations too, it works best if it’s just a short comment so that you’re not trying to scroll down.
        I’m really offended by this renaming. There are thousands of Australians who’ve done more that’s worthwhile with their lives than the whole bunch of royals put together, and we should be naming our streets and suburbs after them.

        • You’re probably right and I forget and start rambling on …

          I understand your point Lisa but overall I think we are in Canberra .. The number of royals commemorated is probably fewer here than in Sydney and Melbourne. Admittedly this is a new one and it had pomp attached to it but in the Canberra scheme of things it’s the Aussies that have the upper hand by a long shot and look like doing so into the future.

  4. That’s a very interesting post – fascinating in fact, on a subject which I have often wondered about. One town I know allowed a speculative builder to name his streets after his the first names of his relatives – Angela Close, Robin Terrace, Sidney Street etc – that really doesn’t work. the City of Brighton has a “poet’s corner” with Tennyson, Wordsworth, Keats etc. No doubt we’ll get Olympic gold medallists before too long. It would be interesting to see other historic policy documents on this topic

    • Thanks Tom … it would be wouldn’t it? A PhD anyone?

      It’s a complicated business. In some suburbs, the suburb name and theme are complementary, but not all. After all, if you have several suburbs named for, say, prime ministers, they can’t all have their street names as prime ministers. My previous suburb was named for a prime minister, and the streets were names for places in his state.

      I love the fact that we have a policy on it. But some argue that it’s all too planned. I guess the librarian in me rather likes the thought behind it all.

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