Personal history time.

I was raised in the town of Shoal Bay, in the Port Stephens region of New South Wales. Shoal Bay was named by British sailors who, in 1791, were sailing up the east coast of Australia in the ship The Salamander, searching for…. um… new stuff to eat and kill. Not necessarily in that order, hopefully, although you know what sailors are like.

The ship and its crew were forced to take shelter in a secluded bay during a violent storm. Despite their fear of capsizing and of getting wet galoshes, every man aboard was thoroughly impressed by the terra nullius-ness of the bay’s coast and its raw natural beauty. The frightened young first mate on board The Salamander asked his captain whether they would survive the storm, to which the captain replied: ‘She’ll be right, mate’. The first mate, struggling to hear over the loud winds and booming thunder, thought his captain had said ‘Shoal Bay’s alright, mate’, and the name of this bay was accidently, but permanently, established.

What, you doubt my history lesson? Were you on board The Endeavour that fateful day? No you were not. Let’s just agree that my version of events is at least possible, shall we?

Later in my childhood, our family moved to the town of Maitland in the Hunter Valley region. According to my mother, we relocated in order to instil a good, hardworking country work ethic into my wayward brother and to fulfil my father’s lifelong dream of living in a town where it was socially acceptable to wear an Akubra hat all day. Unfortunately, he often chose to wear not much else, which created some early problems with our new neighbours, but he has asked me not to go into too much detail on this period of his life and to save it for his next major birthday celebration.

Throughout its history, the residents of Maitland have really struggled to learn each other’s name. No-one is quite sure of the scientific or phycological reasons for this unique aspect of the town, but what it has meant is that from the time it was first settled / conquered by Europeans in the early 1800s, all those that have lived in Maitland have resorted to calling each other ‘mate’.

The early residents, who if nothing else had a great sense of humour (for the time), decided to call their new home ‘Mateland’. Over time, and in an attempt to make the town sound slightly classier, the name was changed to ‘Maitland’ and the town’s history re-written to remove all references to the mate-curse of Mateland. If you read about Maitland now, the history books will tell you that it was named after Sir George Maitland, MP for the Borough of Whitchurch, in Hampshire, England. This is a lie, mate.

Finally, our family moved to Newcastle, named as such because there were no old castles in the region. As far as I know there were no new castles anywhere in the district when it was settled by early Europeans, so why it was not called ‘Nocastle’ is beyond me.

All this reminiscing about my past got me thinking about how exactly towns, cities, and suburbs across Australia are officially named. If I rely on my experience and research alone, it seems that every place name comes about from either an unfortunate historical mistake, magic, or an outright lie. Fortunately, in these modern times, there is a more formal and legal process for determining how a particular location or local area of interest gets its named. Each State and Territory has a government department whose sole role it is to choose a name, approve it, and officially tell the world what to call that particular location.

In New South Wales, this department is called the Geographical Names Board of New South Wales. And hey look, they are hiring! If anyone is after a change in career, and can do a better job at naming places than the original residents of Newcastle, then I encourage you to apply.

The GNB, as they like to be called, is one of the least known but most powerful of the State Government departments. It is authorised to do everything from assigning names to places, changing the existing names of places, and tell us all how to officially pronounce the name of certain towns (such as the legal requirement to pronounce the town of ‘Toronto’ as ‘Toronno’). The GNB is currently considering whether to name a locality near Cessnock in the Hunter Valley ‘Yengo’, and if it should introduce a new suburb of ‘Harvest Park’ near my old stomping ground of Mateland. I mean Maitland.

I am very tempted to go into detail on the principles that the GNP applies when deciding on a new place name but I have already rambled on long enough. Suffice to say that in deciding what to call a location, the GNP is meant to ensure that the name is easy to say and spell and does not contain any punctuation (no, not even my pal the comma). While the GNP can name a location after a particular person, they can only do so if that person ‘…contributed significantly to the area around the geographical feature or locality’. I hope this means a positive contribution and not, say, the contribution one relative of mine made by wearing an Akubra and the body God gave him when mowing the lawn of our home in Maitland.

Finally, if you are feeling particularly creative you can submit a suggested location name to the GNP for its consideration. If there is a bit of green space near where you live (unlikely in this modern world, but you never know) and you want to give that space a name, write to the GNP telling them its location and the name you would like them to approve. Remember that the GNP will apply its naming principles so try your best to keep it clean and situationally appropriate. The GNP’s naming board will then consider your suggestion, put it to a committee for approval, listen to any objections, and hopefully finally approve it. Don’t worry if you can’t think of a particularly cool name either. You cannot do worse than Blacktown.