Place Names Can Break Our Hearts

Sydney City Council recently posted to an invitation to a public meeting hosted by the Council on Wednesday 16th October in the Abraham Mott Hall in Millers Point, Sydney 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 all the papers, see Corporate, Finance, Properties and Tenders Committee, scroll down to ‘Item 4’.  The notice and invitation to the public meeting can be viewed here.

Links are included to a number of technical papers, of which City Historian Dr Lisa 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.

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo.  Image mrbbaskerville

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo. Image mrbbaskerville

I have a view that a place name, or toponym, is a historical record that can be researched, read and interrogated like any other historical document. Yes, I have been much influenced by Paul Carter’s writings in this regard, especially Road to Botany Bay (1987), but place names have long been an important historical record for historians in many other countries. In contrast, place names in Australia have largely remained the province of linguists and taxonomists.

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 or detroy any other archival record.

Of course things change. I believe change is the only constant in the universe. But change is not necessarily a juggernaut. The idea of managing change so that what is significant is not lost to the future is at the heart of heritage conservation. Another word for it is sustainability. Millers Point has already had its western boundaries manipulated and shaved to invent the new gambler’s playground named Barangaroo. If its northern shores are lost to the newly surburban Walsh Bay, the once maritime Millers Point will have become landlocked. How much longer before even that name, with all its inherent history, is lost and the Millers Point community consigned to the shadows?

fedration homes, millers point, sydney

fedration homes, millers point, sydney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The community arguments for and against the proposed new suburb name are summarised in the documents on the Council website linked above. Support for conserving the existing toponomyscape comes from the people who have lived in the area for generations, and long-ago acquired their own demonym of ‘pointers’. Advocates of the new suburb claim a new identity by virtue of their recent resettlement in the rehabilitated wharf buildings. They may think of themselves as baysiders rather than pointers, at any rate they do not seem to regard themselves as new pointers.

I am struck, in reading the submission summaries, by claims that people who work in the old wharves are counted as ‘residents’ (which would surely mystify, although as a tactic perhaps not surprise, experienced resident action activists). Perhaps it reflects the merging of work and home into one continuum with no escape from work, something that the waterside workers of Millers Point would have resisted. I am also struck by the seeming failure of the much-vaunted arts and cultural activities in the old wharves to have meaningfully engaged with the residents living south and east of Hickson Road. Instead, culture is offered as a reason for separation. Have the Hickson Road-Pottinger Street revetments become a sort of harbourside Berlin Wall, separating the old town above from its waterfront below, quite contrarily to the intention of their design? The bridges and public steps are the links and unifiers between the levels in the landscape, not exits or entrances. Has a border been created where once there was none? And in only ten years? I think it is too early to know.

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, whic...

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, which are part of the Sydney Theatre Company, are located in Dawes Point (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The central claim for the suburban 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 Place Names of Heritage Value Policy).

The question becomes one of whether the new residents (however they are defined) of the old Walsh Bay wharves have truly become a historical community, so distinct that it needs a named and bounded space separate from that out of which it has grown? I am not arguing that a place name should never be changed or that its boundaries should be set in concrete. But there must be a rationale for a change that is persuasive and meaningful. The poor mapping and comprehension skills of some government agencies who apparently have some difficulties telling the location of a Walsh Bay apartments street address is just not such a reason.

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To remove or shrink a place name is to remove or reduce an archival record, to loose or restrict the histories contained within the name. Would Sydney still be Sydney if its name was changed to something else, with no historical connections to its foundings or contexts? Place name changing can sometimes be a form of historical denialism, of pretending that the history of place didn’t happen in the ways that it did, of fulfilling a wish that it happened in some other way, or inventing an ephemeral future without roots. There will be instances of a community strongly desiring such a change so that their future can be freed from an oppressive past (for example, Stalingrad). That is not necessarily wrong, but it still raises a question of whether it socially and culturally desirable to purposely forget parts of the past because, at a certain time, some people find it uncomfortable or confronting? Should future generations be denied the opportunity to visit that past on their own terms, pretty or not? Will they thank us for whitewashing their history?

The issues involved in diminishing the highly significant histories of Millers Point and Dawes Point, and inventing the rehabilitated wharfscapes of Walsh Bay as a new suburb, are emblematic of larger issues. They go to the heart of how we value, understand and manage our cultural environments. There are plenty of examples of old place names being discarded or new place names invented across Sydney and NSW. Some of the results are truly awful, some so artfully the contrivance of property developer interests, some little more than empty syllables strung together in a supposedly mellifluous arrangement (vale Pristine Waters Council Area, 2000-2004).

The proposed name change does not reduce the place name Walsh Bay to that level. It is the proper name of a geographical feature over which wharves were built as part of the wholesale transformation of Millers Point by the Sydney Harbour Trust. That twentieth century history should be understood and valued in a holistic sense and on its own terms. I am not convinced that Walsh Bay is really a separate place from Millers Point and Dawes Point. At least, not yet. But nothing is inevitable. It’s that old ‘test of time’ issue.

The Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct listing on the State Heritage Register (2002, see here) includes the statement “The natural rocky terrain, despite much alteration, remains the dominant physical element in this significant urban cultural landscape in which land and water, nature and culture are intimately connected historically, socially, visually and functionally.” That for the Walsh Bay Wharves Precinct (2000, see here) includes the statement “The Walsh Bay area is … [a] unique combination of steep rocky terrain, early, mid, late-Victorian and Edwardian housing, surviving relatively intact Victorian bond stores, and the results of an early twentieth century urban redevelopment scheme of unique scale”. The boundary of the proposed new suburb is the boundary between these two heritage items. Just a decade ago the distinction between the bay and point was only perceptible as a convenient planning arrangement. The evidence from the submissions for change suggests that still remains the only real distinction.

Walsh Bay, 1949

Walsh Bay, 1949 (Photo credit: State Records NSW)

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 we as public historians are probably better placed than many others (especially in the professions) to argue for the public heritage values of place names. There is an argument that they have value as intangible records in the open air archive. Suburbanising Walsh Bay neither respects nor values the histories that have shaped and continue to shape this still-evolving and beautiful pointer locale. I think time is needed before it can be said that the 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.

Declaration: I was an Crown employee assigned to the NSW Heritage Office between 1998 and 2008, and during that time processed the Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct nomination for State Heritage Register listing in 2002, and was the executive officer to the Heritage Council’s History Advisory Panel when it developed the Place Names of Heritage Value policy document for the Heritage Council in 2004. I have not been employed in the NSW Heritage Office since August 2008.

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