What's in a Place Name?
Please send any useful tips for tracking down old place names for
inclusion on this page to firstname.lastname@example.org
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
- named after the pioneers or early settlers who lived there (e.g.
Townsville named after Captain Robert Towns)
- named after a place that the first settlers came from originally
- named descriptively e.g. "Cabbage Tree Creek", "Short Street"
- named because of something located nearby, e.g. Station Street,
- for streets, named according to what's at the end of them, e.g.
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.
- marketing names used to those creating a new housing estate to
make it sound more attractive or avoid any stigma attached to the more
traditional area for the area (e.g. Meadowlands instead of Swampville)
- the gradual spread of suburbs tend to spawn related names like
"Mt Gravatt" and "Upper Mt Gravatt" or "Bulimba" and "Bulimba East
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
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
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
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
- "numbering", e.g. First Avenue, Second Avenue, Third Avenue
- "given names", e.g. George Street, Edward Street, Francis Street,
- "descriptive names", e.g. Station Street, Church Street, Short
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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.
- Trove which searches over
a large ditigised newspaper collection, old maps and old photos
- Queensland Places
which has a short article on any Queensland place that had a population
of 500 or more at any census
which has all manner of useful information (although it's a bit of a
- Google which searches over
the WWW more generally and indeed searches all the above but it tends
to produce a huge amount of useless results so try the more specialised
searches above first
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
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 email@example.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