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 http://sydneyyoursay.com.au/article/community-workshop-on-a-proposal-to-have-walsh-bay-named-as-a-suburb)
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 http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/heritagebranch/heritage/infoplacenames.pdf).
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: http://mrbbaskerville.wordpress.com