Place Names Can Break Our Hearts

by Bruce Baskerville.

PHA member Dr Lisa Murray, City Historian, recently posted on our PHA Facebook page an invitation to a public meeting hosted by Sydney City Council on Wednesday 16 October in Millers Point to discuss a proposal to shrink Millers Point and Dawes Point by formally separating parts of each locality and combining them to invent a new suburb named Walsh Bay. (For details of the meeting see

The post includes links to a number of technical papers, of which Dr Murray’s paper will be of most interest to historians.  I urge all members as well as other historians and toponomysts to read these papers, and give some thought, in our practice as public historians, to the issues raised.  You might also like to go along to the meeting.

We, as historians, would be appalled by and resist proposals to destroy archival records.  Those of us working in public history are well aware that the archive is much bigger than the documentary records alone.  Buildings, landscapes, artefacts, archaeological sites and place names are some of the other records critical to our work.  I think we need to pay a lot more attention to place names generally, and especially to proposals to change place names, just as we would if someone was proposed to change any other archival record.

The central claim for proposed name change is that a new community has arisen in Walsh Bay that is distinct and separate from the old communities of Millers and Dawes points.  The ‘test of time’ needs to be considered: how much time has to pass before something can be understood as historical and not a passing fad.  Finding a correct answer is not the purpose of the question.  Rather, exploring the test of time is meant to help us distinguish between the ephemeral and the enduring, to help decide what we want to conserve within a changing environment, what we can allow to pass, and how that passing might be done without losing the genius loci.

A place name attracts and evidences loyalty and identity.  That is part of its function and also its meanings.  Just like institutional names and personal names, place names are not mere assemblages of words that label something to distinguish it from what is around it.  To change a name will invoke deep and often unplumbed emotions and resonances.  It is an identity issue.  It is not something to be done lightly or cavalierly, or, as the Heritage Council’s guideline on place names states “for reasons of fashion or expediency” (have a look at

There is little respect shown towards old place names and their histories and associated communities in NSW or indeed Australia.  Place names are a significant historical record, and public historians are probably better placed than many others (especially in the professions) to argue for the heritage values of place names.  There is an argument that they have value as intangible records in the open air archive.

I think time is needed before it can be said that the place name Walsh Bay has shifted onshore and up the escarpment, just as time is needed to heal a broken heart when something of value is lost forever.

This is an abridged version of a much longer post on this topic on my personal blog.  Have a read at:

8 thoughts on “Place Names Can Break Our Hearts”

  1. Bruce raises some important issues that ought to be of concern to historians. Millers Point and Dawes Point are very old place names and there is a strong sense of community in both suburbs. Considerable caution is needed in altering their boundaries. Some other recent name changes are also questionable. The 2010 decision to detach Kurraba Point, an area I know well, from Neutral Bay was historically unsound and appears to have been mainly driven by the real estate industry. Following a ‘public consultation’ in which a small minority of residents participated, in 2008 the name of Harbord was altered to Freshwater, a decision that continues to cause much confusion. The name Harbord was in continuous official use from 1923.

  2. It is not only the inner city where changing place names is contentious. The continual naming of new suburbs on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe raises a host of questions about history and heritage. Real estate developers often invent dubious locality names that have no connection to place.

  3. And further afield, in Pretoria, the changing of street names has been the subject of legal action by an Afrikaner organisation, Afriforum.

  4. In Western Sydney, the new suburb the Ponds near Rouse Hill now causes historical confusion with the earlier settlement of 1790s called the Ponds which was between Parramatta and Ryde. The new Ponds is presumably a shortened form for the nearby Second Ponds (a key land mark in the debates about the location of the battle of Vinegar Hill in 1804, thus adding further confusion for local debates on that issue).

    Perhaps the Geographical Names Board needs stronger guidelines about historical place names. GNB was only created in the mid 1960s, but presumably its brief includes an accurate understanding of the origins of NSW place names.

  5. This is a comment from a former northern rivers resident who still mourns the change made in 1974 whereby the north arm of the Richmond River became the Wilson River. Who was consulted about this? I think Bruce has hit the mark here but I take issue with Davids comment re Freshwater. This change was in fact restoring the original name of the suburb which had been changed in 1923 by the real estate lobby on (in Ian#s words) a dubious locality name for their own purposes. Freshwater SLSC kept the Freshie name alive by refusing to change the name of the club despite significant pressure from the local council.

  6. Thanks Carol, I think you’ve just saved me from an error in a thesis chapter. I was looking for The Ponds where Edward Varndell was granted some land in 1792. After seeing your post, a quick look in a street directory shows Varndell Place in Dundas Valley – midway between Ryde and Parramatta! Not the most accurate cross check, and I’ll use some other sources. But it just shows (as I’ve learnt before) that the current location of toponyms cannot be relied upon for historical research. The mobility of some place names is interesting in its own right, but I think the (new) Ponds is probably more egregious than that.

  7. I agree with Pauline regarding the early use of Freshwater but the change back to that name has resulted in only some local businesses and organisations also removing Harbord from their names. Whatever its origins, Harbord was in use for almost a century.

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