A LIGHT-HEARTED ‘JOURNEY’ AROUND SYDNEY SUBURBS
We should never forget that almost all the names given to Sydney and its environs by Europeans were preceded by those used by Australia’s first people. Here is a list of Aboriginal place names complied by the Australian Museum. Cadi was the Aboriginal name for Sydney cove, and Djubuguli was the area where the Opera House now stands on Bennelong Point.
Currently Sydney is comprised of 658 suburbs. That’s because the city became so spread out when most of us lived on quarter acre blocks. Let’s face it, you could fit the residents of leafy Killara into one inner city high-rise.
The following is only a tiny proportion of Sydney’s ‘villages’.
Quirky map of Sydney by Anna Simmons
Annandale – In 1799, Major George Johnston was granted 100 acres in the area now known as Annandale. Johnston called his estate after his hometown of Annan in Scotland and built a sprawling Georgian home, surrounded by beautiful gardens and approached by grand avenue of Norfolk pines. In 1823 he died and the property passed to his wife Esther. Several years later Esther’s son Robert tried to gain control of the property and when he met with spirited resistance he attempted to have his mother declared insane. Evidence against Esther included claims that she was quick tempered, took the odd drink, and drove her horses hell for leather through the streets of Sydney. In the circumstances, none of this behaviour seems unreasonable and even the prosecution was forced to concede that; ‘A woman doing such acts as these might, nevertheless, be very capable of managing her house and farming concerns’ But sadly, Esther lost the case and Robert lived on at Annandale House while his heartbroken mother was banished.
The house was demolished in 1905 but there are a couple of poignant reminders of Esther’s lost paradise. In a lane at the rear of 98 Curunna street, Stanmore stands the estate’s tumbledown gatehouse. The property’s impressive entrance gates were found at a storage depot fifty years ago. They were restored, and erected beside the Annandale Public School in Johnston Street. I was amused to note that the family crest which appears on the ironwork features a winged stirrup.
Ashfield – Last stand for Darcy Dugan, one of Australia’s most notorious criminals. Dugan was arrested during an attempted hold-up at an Ashfield service station in 1981. It was also in the early eighties that Ashfield Council employed footballer Warwick Capper. Some would argue that Capper’s credentials for a council work gang were impeccable – he was the first Australian Rules player to be fined for wasting time! A national gardening show later featured the ex-Swans star offering advice on his sickly palm trees. Famous for performing in skin tight shorts, it appeared Capper expected the trees to perform under similar conditions by planting them in their black plastic wrappings. By the way, Ashfield is not noted for its street trees, but this may be pure coincidence.
Balmain – In 1800, colonial surgeon William Balmain received a substantial land grant, comprising an area of harbour headland. The very next year, Balmain quietly sold the land to Calcutta merchant John Gilchrist, for the peppercorn sum of five shillings. Even Balmain’s family were unaware of this transaction until many years after the surgeon’s death in 1803. A reading of the original grant document deepens the mystery. Signed by Governor Hunter on April 26th 1800, it read in part; ‘…..the said 550 acres of land to be known by the name of Gilchrist’s place and to be held and belong to the said William Balmain.’
Was it simply a bizarre coincidence that the land was to be named for it’s subsequent owner? It seems not. Historians now believe that when Balmain received the grant he was under an obligation to John Gilchrist for his help in organizing an illicit import of rum.
The ‘sale’ of land was a surreptitious means of settling the debt. The wording of the grant implies that Governor Hunter was aware of the illegal rum deal and perhaps tolerated it because his valued surgeon was badly paid. It’s worth noting that when the sale to Gilchrist took place, Hunter’s term as Governor was over and he was safely on his way home to England. There is wonderful irony in that the document’s directive was reversed almost immediately; the land became known as Balmain’s place held by John Gilchrist.
Beecroft – Named by politician Sir Henry Copeland in honour of his two wives. How could this bee, you may ask. Well he married two sisters, Hannah and Mary Beecroft. Not at the same time, I hasten to add. Do you know what? There have never been any pubs in this leafy area of Sydney. The ladies of the 19C temperance movement ruled with an iron fist. Almost Un -Australian. I wonder whether Hannah and Mary were members? There were even ‘anti-shouting-of- rounds’ meetings, for drinkers in other places. Oh my hat!
Bexley – Struggling for words to describe the tedium of post-war Bexley, Baby Boomers raised in the area fall back on the joke that its name originated from the phrase; ‘A cup of tea, a Bex, and a good lie down’
Bondi – Sounds like sacrilege, I know, but Bondi Beach may not be the genuine article. At one point the sand was being souvenired by middle aged New Zealand tourists at such a rate that it had to be replenished with sand from exclusive Palm Beach. Perhaps this accounts for the recent hike in the value of Bondi real estate. Some would say the Kiwis got their just desserts, because their migrating children can no longer afford to live there. Mind you, rumour has it that a miniature Bondi Beach was established near Auckland.
Chatswood – Early North Shore property developer Richard Harnett named Chatswood after his wife Charlotte. Her nickname was Chattie, but only a misogynist would suggest Harnett made the gesture to shut her up. Chatswood is in danger of losing its status as a Sydney suburb owing to claims that it is simply a very large shopping centre. During the devastating 1994 bush fires, a leading radio station reported that the entire suburb was being evacuated. Thankfully it was all a mistake – probably due to a camera crew filming the exodus as Chatswood Chase closed for the day
Cheltenham – Best known for its girls’ high school. Students warmly embrace their affectionate nickname ‘pink elephants’.
Double Bay – A prestigious suburb, not the least because its pavements are the cleanest in the city. Apart from an unfortunate period in the late eighties when residents were infatuated with Afghans and old English sheep dogs, Double Bay has been free of dog poo for decades. Credit must go to those wealthy Eastern Suburbs matrons who carry their pampered miniature poodles from boutique to beauty parlour in what one can only hope are dry-cleanable Hermes handbags.
Cremorne – For many years this north shore suburb had a request only ferry stop at a tiny wharf called Old Cremorne. The ferry hand would walk through calling out what sounded like, ‘Anyone for old Cream…horn?’ The suburb was once the site of pleasure gardens inspired by Cremorne Gardens in London, so ‘Cream Horn’ was probably quite appropriate.
Eastwood – Fewer people than might be expected are aware that the suburb of Eastwood was the birthplace of the world famous Granny Smith apple – and some residents want to keep it that way. Attempts by council to promote the suburb’s association with the Granny Smith are sabotaged by locals who make a living by betting on the apple’s origin. Several groups work the pubs around Sydney while others target the US and the UK. The Yanks are willing to wager big dollars that Granny Smith produced her famous seedling in Kentucky, while the Poms are convinced she owned an apple orchard in Kent.
Frenchs Forest – When Governor Phillip first walked through what is now known as Frenchs Forest, he commented on the impressive size and health of the area’s trees. This was not surprising as according to the Bureau of Meteorology the suburb has Sydney’s highest rainfall. It was named after a pioneer tree feller called James Ffrench – at least that is how his name is recorded in the history books. Some say there was really only one ‘F’ in Jim’s surname, but that living in wet clothes gave him a feverish stammer. French Forest was the location for one of the country’s first drive-in cinemas – a somewhat unlikely choice considering its adverse climatic conditions.
Glebe – This suburb was home to Australia’s first rugby league team (1906). They were called The Glebe Dirty Reds, from the colour of their jumpers rather than any shin kicking or punching of heads. Their cricket team went by the same name and was supported by Yabba, the famous heckler from The Hill at the Sydney Cricket Ground. On one occasion Yabba was very disappointed with his team; ‘I’ve seen some woeful displays of batting in my time, but I never seen nothing more painful to look at than the famous Dirty Reds….The game was so dead it looked as though it would have to be buried. Some of the old-time sports shouted to me to liven ’em up. I did me best, but even I couldn’t liven ’em up.’
Killara – The recent trend towards inner-city living has lured many away from this Upper North Shore suburb and the grass is already knee high on deserted quarter acre blocks. Superb Federation mansions are going for a song, although the situation may not last. Ex-Killara residents are waking in their flimsy-walled city apartments only to blush with embarrassment when they discover that familiar neighbourhood noises of leaf blowing and energetic lawn mowing have been replaced by those of nose blowing and enthusiastic love-making.
Kings Cross – Sydney’s notorious ‘red light’ district was once described by the Reverend Dr George Docherty as, ‘The nearest thing to a herd of buffalo on wheels’ . It’s usually referred as simply, The Cross, which confused Nino Culotta, the Italian migrant hero of John O’Grady’s comic book They’re a Weird Mob. After seeking clarification from an irritable Sydney taxi driver, Nino laboured under the misapprehension that the area was called King’s Bloody Cross. I tend to use this name myself, having read O’Grady’s book at a very impressionable age. The area was originally called Queens Cross in honour of Victoria and in the hey-dey of Les Girls nightclub, many would have considered the name highly appropriate.
Leichhardt – Named for Australia’s lost explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, this inner western suburb was home to the talented Melocco brothers; 19th century Italian craftsmen who left Sydney a legacy of superb mosaic floors, including the foyer of the Mitchell Library and the crypt of St Mary’s cathedral. Post-war migration saw another generation of Italians settle in Leichhardt. It seems the newcomers were inspired by the Melocco’s, because they tiled every inch of their front gardens. The beautiful Melocco floors will be with us forever but older Italians now look on in horror as their children buy up Leichhardt’s terraces and jack-hammer the mosaics, replacing them with camellias and clipped English box.
Lugarno – An affluent though somewhat anonymous suburb set in bushland on the Georges River. Sydney born crime writer Marele Day’s heroine Claudia Valentine called it a place that people who eat, ‘stuffed quail with ragout of fava beans’ have never heard of, let alone been to. She was referring to Sydney’s ‘old money’ harbor-side dwellers who think Lugarno is a Swiss holiday resort. The residents of Lugarno were probably quite comfortable with their anonymity, but in an ironic twist, it has been stripped away by Sydney’s most well known crime writer, Peter Corris. Believing there must be all sorts of nefarious activities going on behind the vertical blinds and bottle brush, he used Lugarno not only as the setting for one of his Cliff Hardy tales, but also as its title.
Manly – In the nineteen fifties, working class families flocked to Manly Beach, which proudly promoted itself with the slogan; ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’. Sadly, things turned sour when bored young Baby Boomers began to kick their beach-buckets and mutter; ‘Luna Park’s better, I’d rather be over there’. A serious identity crisis developed, from which Manly has never fully recovered. Today, local opinion is divided over whether to aim for the slightly raffish trendiness of Bondi or the select superiority of Palm Beach.
Maroubra – This popular surf beach hosted the world’s first bathing beauty contest. Held on February 18th 1920 it was won by a fourteen year old girl called Edith, who cleverly caught the judge’s eye by wearing an exotic slave bracelet on her upper arm. There is no suggestion that Edith was anything but a paragon of virtue, but her surname had an unfortunate connotation – she was Miss Edith Pickup.
Mosman – When the North Shore suburb of Mosman was named as one of the world’s most desirable places to live. A piqued real estate agent from the Eastern Suburbs ridiculed the notion. He described Mosman as being full of; ‘Camellia clipping old fogies’. Younger residents felt they had not been so maligned since April 1933, when a local chemist cast a different and perhaps inadvertent aspersion upon them with the following advertisement;
‘Last week a policeman made a successful chase after a thief through the sand [presumably at Balmoral Beach]. Next day he came and thanked us for curing his cold in a day and a half, telling us that he could not have run 50 yards the previous day. Tomorrow you may have to run from a policeman,, so cure your cold immediately with this famous mixture from Williams Pharmacy, Spit Junction.‘
NB….I spent 20 years in Mosman before moving to the Blue Mountains. Was I a camellia clipping old fogey? Well, yes.
Neutral Bay – Neutral Bay commuters rarely sit down on the bus journey into the city. One theory is that Cremorne and Mosman residents have already filled the seats, but the truth is somewhat different, and really rather moving. After the idea of a harbour crossing was first mooted it took fifty years for the bridge to be completed. Far from taking a neutral stance, as the name of the suburb might suggest, Neutral Bay residents agitated strongly for the crossing. It has since become a tradition for commuters to stand as the bus crosses the Coathanger, in a mark of grateful respect.
Newtown – A trendy inner-city suburb. Its name derived from a grocery shop that opened in 1831 called The New Town Stores. How fitting that in 1939 Newtown became the home of Australia’s first sliced bread company. The loaves were distributed as far as Kiama and Windsor by rail. It’s probably easier to find
North Sydney – Some years ago North Sydney Council implemented a radical plan to decrease the litter created by overflowing rubbish bins. They simply removed the bins. It was a counter intuitive idea, but the theory was that people would carry their rubbish home. However, there was a limit to how far people would walk carrying half eaten take-away meals etc. Residents with wide letter boxes began to complain bitterly.
NB – During a debate on the issue in September 2001, Councillor Jilly Gibson said; ‘It’s time we reviewed our ‘no bins’ policy. In fact I think we have to admit it has died a natural death.’ Like rare birds, bins were being sighted again. As Cr. Gisbon noted ‘Bins have appeared in Kirribilli village and just last week an Otto bin appeared in Neutral Bay.’
Panania – During the search for a name for this suburb, those hankering after the old country suggested names such as Linden Park and Elmswood, in memory of the English countryside they had left behind. Fortunately there were some who not only appreciated their new surroundings, but realized that love of one’s land was never more beautifully expressed than in ‘Panania’, the Aboriginal word for the area. It translates lyrically as; ‘The place where the sun rises in the east and shines on the hills.‘
Redfern – Terminus for the Parramatta-Sydney rail line until construction of Central Station took passengers further into the city. Redfern then became the penultimate stop, giving rise to the slang expression ‘getting off at Redfern’, which was a euphemism for coitis interruptus.
Rockdale – Known as Frog Hollow until 1878, when the first postmistress suggested a change. Ooh….what a pity. In 1885 Rockdale introduced a steam powered tram that ran to Brighton-le-Sands each. It was electrified in 1900 , then replaced by a bus 50 years later. On the final run there were 300 passengers instead of the usual 80. People even crammed into the driver’s cabin until he could hardly move. When he called for fares everyone laughed and refused to pay. They souvenired the light bulbs and threw detonators on the track. A pretty good send-off all told.
Rooty Hill – It helps to have a sense of humour if you live at Rooty Hill. Stand-up comics have nudged and winked over its name for years and it is often portrayed as Sydney’s most unfashionable suburb. As a local businessman once explained sadly; ‘Sydney looks down on Blacktown, Blacktown looks down on Rooty Hill and we look down on…..well, I’m not sure where.’ He complained that such a negative image dissuaded tourists, despite the suburb’s proximity to attractions such as Parklea Markets, and the Eastern Creek Raceway (now Sydney Motor Sport Park). It was once home to the theme park Australia’s Wonderland, prompting a call to change the suburb’s name to Wonderland. Strangely enough, Rooty Hill RSL has an occupancy rate other venues would die for. Perhaps loyal residents spend their holidays there.
Rose Hill – This suburb has the distinction of being associated with two Aussie icons. It was here early settlers spotted a colourful native parrot they affectionately referred to as a Rose-hiller, a name which eventually evolved to Rosella. Many years later a big-hearted horse called Pharlap won his first race at Rose Hill racecourse.
Sans Souci – Local legend has it that San Souci was named in memory of Australia’s first French pattisserie. The story goes that in 1788 a chef called Pierre Bifstek jumped ship when the Comte de la Perouse sailed into Botany Bay. As soon as the French Fleet left, Bifstek emerged from hiding and set up shop. Sadly, within a few years he had quite literally been driven mad by English First Fleeters desecrating his gourmet pies with tomato sauce. One day the chef was found wandering along the beach naked, screaming that his pies were to be eaten ‘Sans Saucie ! (without sauce). It was such a cause celebre (so to speak) that people began to refer to the locality by his anguished cry, which evolved over the years to Sans Souci.
Seven Hills – There really are seven hills in this western Sydney suburb, and there is also a well patronized pizza parlour. However, despite the fact that a large tiling factory existed in the area for more than sixty years there has never been any indication that a city on the scale of Rome might arise in Sydney’ s west.
Sydenham – For embattled residents of Sydenham, the stress of living under the flight-path peaked on the night Juan Antonio Samaranch announced the host city for the 2000 Olympics. Just as the IOC chief mumbled; ‘The winnner is-…’, a jet flew overhead and along with one billion Chinese viewers, locals mistakenly thought Mr Samaranch had said ‘Beijing’. As his parents wept with disappointment one small boy jumped for joy – he thought Mr Samaranch had given the Games to Sydenham.
Sylvania Waters – When the television’s first reality TV show Sylvania Waters screened, this glitzy canal development in Sydney’s south suddenly contracted to a quarter acre block owned by a family called Donaher. Local taxi drivers reported that many passengers pretended to be merely visiting the suburb, when in reality they were returning home from the supermarket.
Ultimo – Funny name for one of Sydney’s suburbs don’t you think? In 1803 the area was granted to Dr John Harris. When Harris was involved in a famous legal case his offence was incorrectly recorded as the Latin ‘ultimo’, meaning it had occurred the previous month. The document should have read ‘instant’ (occurring in the same month) This fortuitous technical error saved him from being court-martialled. The cheeky fellow decided it would be fun to call his property Ultimo. It was the perfect way to thumb his nose at his accusors
Vaucluse – Named by the colourful Sir Henry Browne Hayes. He was transported to New South Wales for life after kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy Irish banker and fleeing to France. Sir Henry insisted his motive was love not money, but unfortunately his victim, Miss Mary Pike, did not love him. He arrived in New South Wales in 1802 and was granted land on which he built an impressive mansion. Vaucluse was the name of the French town he took refuge in while on the run. Harrassed by snakes in Sydney, Sir Henry decided to call upon St Patrick for assistance. He obtained permission to import a large quantity of ‘serpent proof’ soil from an Irish bog. It arrived in biscuit barrels and was placed in a moat, dug for the purpose around the property (now below the verandah) As far as I am aware no-one has ever been bitten by a snake at Vaucluse House so perhaps Sir Henry was on the right track.
Woolloomooloo The ‘Loo’ has always had a reputation as a rough and ready sort of place, but in his book Cobbers, published in 1934, Thomas Wood claimed that Woolloomooloo had just the right ‘stamp and go’ for the chorus of a sea-shanty. He obligingly provided a couple of lines and it is easy to imagine a crew of drunken sailors dancing around Harry’s Cafe-de-Wheels, pie in hand, bellowing; ‘
‘Woolloomooloo Ba-lah be-lay,
However, it should be noted that although the name of the suburb may roll easily from the tongue of an inebriated sailor, it would be unfair to ask him to spell it. In fact, doing so could provoke the delivery of a ‘Woolloomooloo uppercut’ (a quick kick to the groin).
Yagoona – The western Sydney suburb of Yagoona is located on the Bankstown rail line. It was named after an ancient Aboriginal word meaning ‘today’ or ‘now’. Strangely enough, when vandals are confronted over damage to train carriages by their elders they respond in an up-to-the-minute urban dialect which also contains the word Yagoona, as in the taunt; ‘Swot yagoona do Grindead?’ I’m afraid Grindead would be well advised to shut up and read his paper.
Yowie Bay – No, nothing to do with mythical Australian beasts. Yowie is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of echoes.’
Zetland – I have never actually met anyone who lives in Zetland and some claim it is a completely fictitious suburb, created while the city’s first street directory was being prepared. The story goes that when the publishers of the directory realized the list of Sydney suburbs ended at Yowie Bay they felt it would be a shame not to complete the alphabet. However, Zetland postal staff are roused from lethargy each December when hundreds of letters are addressed to the suburb by children who confuse it with Lapland and think it’s where Santa Claus lives.
Ah, Sydney; the Emerald City! Crowded, capricious, too expensive to live in, but so very beautiful and always interesting.
ALL COMMENTS OR CORRECTIONS GRACEFULLY RECEIVED