What's in a Place Name?

Please send any useful tips for tracking down old place names for inclusion on this page to kerry.raymond@gmail.com

Where names come from?
Why names change?
Big events in place naming
Some notes about my renamed places www page
How to track down an old name

Where names come from?

Some names were official names from the outset. Other names were unofficial names, used by local people to describe the place they lived and worked in. Some of those names became official later; others did not. Obviously we don't know why particular names were chosen in many cases, but some reasons behind old names are:
Suburban development tends to create new names, both official and unofficial. Some of the these came about because
In 1935-1936, the Courier-Mail published a series of 324 articles on the "Nomenclature of Queensland", providing the origins of over 1400 Queensland placenames in alphabetic order. I have compiled it as an online list.

Why names change?

Unofficial names often die out simply because they are replaced by official names; marketing names in particular tend to disappear quite quickly. Sometimes an unofficial name is so popular, it becomes the official name.

Duplicated names (or names that are very similar) are changed to avoid confusion. Unofficial names are often duplicated; there are a lot of schools and a lot of people called Smith which tends to create a lot of "School Roads" and "Smith Streets". As larger towns grow, they often absorb smaller communities, which may result in duplicate names which was not a problem when they were separate communities.

Often there is a concerted effort to eradicate related names. It just gets confusing to have Burbs, Burbs East, Western Burbs, Upper Burbs, Burb Heights to describe areas fairly close together. Typically there will be a push to have everyone go back to plain old Burbs.

The population of a district can determine how many names are required. For example, a single district name can cover a large area of farming land (as there are only a small number of people living there) but it would not be possible to describe the same area of suburban land with a single name. So, as the suburbs spread out into farming land, new suburb names will be introduced and the original district name might either disappear or end up as the name of a suburb covering a much smaller area than before.

Transport alters things. So, older suburbs which were settled in the days when most people walked had to be small in area with their own small schools, shops, churches, etc. As cars became more commonplace, people could travel greater distances to get to things so new suburbs tended to be larger in area with fewer but larger schools, shops, churches etc. Eventually it became inefficient to have so many smaller older suburbs and gradually they were amgamated into larger suburbs (generally using one of the original names) and reducing the status of the absorbed suburbs to locality names. Some locality names survive (e.g. Stones Corner in Brisbane is well-known for its factory outlet shopping) but many disappear over time. However, children can't drive cars, so this tends to puts some pressure on retaining a number of smaller schools in the newly enlarged suburb. So locality names are often preserved in school names, even when the official name of the suburb is changed. Similarly some "sub post offices" tend to retain local names, as only the "main" post office for a suburb can take the official name. Similarly, churches (not being part of the government) have no compelling reason to use the official suburb name in their church name, so again locality names may be preserved in church names.

Changes in boundaries alter our sense of "place". In early days, creeks and rivers were not easy to cross, nor was it convenient to build roads over hills and mountains, so these natural features tended to define the boundaries of place names. The towns of North Brisbane and South Brisbane were separate until 1925. However, civil engineering can change our sense of boundaries. Bridges, culverts, and cuttings can reduce the signficance of watercourses and hills as boundaries. However, freeways and major facilities like airports can became the new boundaries that divide communities.When a small piece of a suburb gets cut off by a freeway etc, it is not uncommon to find it amalgamated into an adjacent suburb to which it is now more closely connected.

Sometimes local residents request name changes. In some cases their placename is embarrassing to them e.g. "Smelly Street" or it has received a lot of publicity because of some unpleasant event that happened there and they are sick of people saying "wow, you live in Smith Street, isn't that where that terrible bus accident happened killing all those people?".

Sometimes there is a desire to rename the street to honour a local person or to commemorate a significant event. Coronation Drive in Brisbane celebrates the coronation of King George VI. Many streets are named after World War 1 battlefields.

Big events in place naming

South Brisbane's not very successful renaming of 1909

In 1909, the Town of South Brisbane (covering what is today South Bribane, West End, Highgate Hill and Woolloongabba) decided to rename a number of their streets supposedly to reduce duplication of street names. [source] However, as you will see in my list of street names, very few of these new street names seem to be in current use. In most cases, the old street name is still in use. In a few cases, neither can be found on current maps. Note that this part of the Brisbane has seen considerable re-development in recent decades (freeways, hospitals, bus tunnels, convention centres, etc) so it is very likely some streets completely disappeared during such re-developments. It is not clear to me whether the name changes every took place or whether the public just refused to use the new names or what happened.

World War 1

In World War 1 (1914-1918), many German-sounding placenames were renamed. After World War 1, some local communities, such as Marburg (renamed Townshend) successfully campaigned for the restoration of their old name. Early in World War 2 it was decided very early that no name changing of German place names would occur.

Amalgamation of Greater Brisbane

The amalgamation of Greater Brisbane in 1925 resulted in the new city having many duplicated street names (although some of the original towns and shires had their fair share of duplicated street names individually). They undertook a massive renaming campaign to reduce duplicated street names in 1938. Some of frequently duplicated streets that were renamed were those named by:
I have found a number of newspaper articles from that period listing some of the name changes. However, not all of the new street names appear in current maps. It may be that the new name assigned with not popular and the residents negotiated a new name.

I'm looking for a house

As family historians, we like to go and look at the homes of our ancestors. However, we have some problems.

Originally there was no system of street numbering (and for that matter, no street signs and no map-based street directories, e.g. UBD) because there was no need for them. When people primarily travelled on foot, they naturally tended to live, work, shop and attend school, church, and sport in their local area. Consequently people knew their local area and local people quite well.  The streets had people were walking up and down them doing their work or their errands and most houses would have had a housewife at home. So a stranger arriving in the area would have no trouble finding someone who could direct them to their destination. However, with the growing use of cars, people could live further away from their workplace and shops and could travel longer distances to attend schools, churches etc of their choice rather than be constrained to use the local one. Also, the nature of households changed from multi-generational families to nuclear families and shared houses, while women increasingly worked outside the home. So with those changes came the need for map-based street directories, street signs, house numbers, etc.

As a result, your ancestor's house probably didn't have a street number. Indeed, if they lived in a small enough town, they may have given just the town name as their address. The changes I describe above happen faster in larger communities and slower in smaller communites, so cities tend to get house numbering long before small towns.

Sometimes, we know the name of our ancestor's house. So we plod up and down the street looking at all the old houses hoping to see a name plate. In my experience, you come home very disappointed. House names don't tend to survive. If someone buys an old house with a house name today, they tend to lovingly preserve that name as they see it as an integral part of the house itself. Our ancestors however didn't see it that way.  House names could be used to distinguish one house from another, but street numbering did that as well, so a lot of people stopped naming their house when street numbers were introduced. Also, house names were often quite personal in nature. People might name their house after their home town back in the UK (e.g. I have ancestors who called their homes Clifton and Ramsgate Cottage) because that's where they came from in England. I also have an ancestor who called his home Mombassa (and I have no idea why -- he came from the Orkneys in Scotland not Africa). Some people used names that reflected their family names or initials. House names can provide useful lines of enquiry into the history of your ancestors, but they tend not to be much use in locating the house itself. Because house names were often personal, people happily changed the name of a house when they bought it or rented it. My ancestor's house Clifton later became Tallarook (for example) and was moved from Kangaroo Point to Pullenvale!

Some notes about my renamed places www page

Obviously my lists are not complete. Nor can I guarantee they are correct; they represent my best effort to track down old placenames. Email me if you have any corrections or additions.

In particular, my research has focussed on the change of names of places, rather than slight drifts in the location of placenames. In particular, our governments love to shift boundaries of suburbs a few streets one way or the other all the time. So if you are looking for Smith Street in Smalltown and there is a Smith Street in the adjacent suburb of Biggerville, it's probably the one you were looking for and it isn't a name change but a movement of boundaries.

Nor have I recorded small differences in spelling or whether something is a street/road/etc unless I think it is particularly significant.

Finding current place names

Obviously when you start looking for a place, start by checking if it is still a current name! Most names don't change.

My favourite way of doing this while sitting at my computer is to use Google Maps. It knows about current town names and suburb names. It knows street names (right down to street numbers), and often knows about current places like schools and churches. It doesn't tend to know locality names though and it doesn't know historic names. It is a very useful tool in many ways. You can even see the view of your ancestor's house using street-level photography using its "Streetview" feature or get driving directions to the church your great-grandparents were married in. It's well-worth investing some time in learning how to get the most out of it.

For towns, suburbs, and districts, check out Geoscience Australia's  place name search, which includes some historical names. It does not cover streets or railway stations, schools, and churches.

However, you can use Google Maps and Geoscience together in a useful way.

For example, Google Maps does not know where Stones Corner is (it's a locality in Brisbane). However, Google Maps does know about the Stones Corner Hotel, the Stones Corner Library and a few other businesses with Stones Corner in the name. If you took a quick look at where those places were, you'd have a pretty good general idea of where Stones Corner is. But sometimes there are businesses etc in other areas with the name you are seeking so you might be a bit uncertain after doing that if you were at the right area or not.

In contrast Geosciences Australia does know where Stones Corner is and tells you its latitude and longitude but it gives you a pretty useless map. So take the decimal degrees for latitude and longitude from the Geosciences Australia WWW page (I have highlighted them above in yellow) and enter them into Google Maps as the search

-27.500, 153.050

and you are now seeing the approximate area of Stones Corner. It is not exact because the Geosciences Australia WWW site says "Locations are accurate to 1 minute of latitude/longitude (approximately 1.8 km)".

It's not on a current map!

If you are looking for an old name, then here are some of the online places that I go searching:
Of course, old paper maps, post office directories, street directories etc are very useful too, but obviously what access you have to these depends on your own resources and what's available at your local council & family history libraries so I cannot offer any advice on those. Some of these old books have been digitised and are sold on CD-ROM by Archive Books/Goulds; however unless you have some clues about when/where you are looking for, it may be hard to decide which CD is right for your needs. Some of these CDs are available in council libraries and family history libraries so check there too.

Another useful resource is the set of CDs of the Queensland Electoral Rolls published by the Queensland Family History Society. These are published 7-10 years apart so you can use it to get a sense of when the use of the old name seems to peter out. Then look for people who lived at the old address and then see where they are living in the future. If a number of the residents are all living in the same street (but a different name), then this is probably the new name.

I am also compiling a list of old maps of Queensland places which are available online (mostly found in digitised newspapers).

Whether or not you track down your mysterious placename, please send the details to me at kerry.raymond@gmail.com and I will put whatever information we have on the WWW page. Even if you have no clues, maybe someone out there will spot it and email us the answer.