As an historian, I’m always interested in how we shape our cities and how we get the names we get. Earlier this week I was looking at the city’s street names and noticing how few, comparatively, were named after women. Looking further afield at Sydney’s suburbs, there were even fewer that had been named in some way that commemorated women and their history and I though I’d look at some of them today.
Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, is commemorated in the names of several of Sydney’s suburbs.
Airds, the south-western suburb in the Macarthur region was named by Macquarie in honour of Elizabeth’s family estate at home in Scotland. Appin, not far away, he named for her birthplace, while Campbelltown commemorates her maiden name.
Elizabeth Bay, the harbourside suburb in Sydney’s east, was also named for her.
It’s often assumed that the wealthy harbourside suburb Darling Point was named after New South Wales Governor Ralph Darling, but in the 1830s it was known as Mrs Darling’s Point. Eliza Darling‘s is also thought to be the name behind Darlinghurst, which had previously been known as Wooloomooloo Hill or Eastern Hill. Her husband envisaged the ridge line as a place for the construction of a series of fine villas, meant for members of the colonial elite, and named the site in honour of his wife.
Agnes Banks, a north-western rural district, where the Nepean and Grose Rivers meet to form the Hawkesbury River, was named by convict settler Andrew Thompson after his mother, Agnes Bank. The traditional land of the Dharug people, property at Agnes Banks was granted by the government to European settlers from the 1800s, who farmed the rich river flats, but were frequently flooded out. Agnes Banks was also where Europeans first saw a platypus.
Oone of the most recent suburbs named after a woman is of course Barangaroo. The waterfront urban renewal precinct on the site of some of Sydney’s earliest wharves between Darling Harbour and Millers Point is named after Barangaroo, a feisty member of the Cammeray people. Bennelong’s second wife, she maintained her strong connection with her people and intimidated Phillip and his officers. In Grace Karsken’s words “They found her very striking but also a little frightening. She had presence and authority. They estimated her age at about 40, and this is significant. She was older, more mature, and possessed wisdom, status and influence far beyond the much younger women the officers knew”.
The final suburb in my list today is possibly a bit of a stretch, but seemed worth it. Wollstonecraft, the north shore residential suburb, was named for Edward Wollstonecraft, a local landowner in the 1800s, but he was in fact the nephew of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and cousin to Mary Wollstronecraft Shelley, whose book Frankenstein was published in 1818, 200 years ago.
It’s interesting how naming can inscribe a way of being into a landscape and how this kind of gendered division shows how our society has functioned. As we make deliberate choices to balance this out, it will be interesting to have a look in another 200 years to see what names have been chosen to commemorate in the places we live.
If you’d like to look through the list of suburbs mentioned on the Dictionary and see if you can spot more, you can sort Places by Type to get an alphabetical list here. The City of Sydney also has a list of street names in the city and their history, where known, which is downloadable as a spreadsheet here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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