Streets that tell a story

Streets that tell a story

Streets that tell a story

How Queensland’s local and national narrative is written into Townsville’s street and place names.

Flinders Street. Boundary Street. Jezzine Barracks. All places in Townsville that most residents find themselves in their day-to-day lives. But these aren’t just empty names that get people from A to B; they write a rich, and sometimes controversial, narrative of the history of Townsville.

James Cook University education lecturer Bryan Smith has been obsessed with maps since he was a little kid.

“I thought, how can I use that to talk about something that people will pay attention to?” he said.

A specialist in geography, history and colonisation, Bryan has published several works on how place-names are a way to engage with a town’s history. Along with colleague and historian Dr Claire Brennan, the two are passionate about exploring how the narratives of Australia are written into the maps of communities.

Dr Roger Osbourne, Dr Bryan Smith and Dr Claire Brennan at JCU's History Teachers' day, held in March.

Street and place names are an important medium for the state to normalise the narrative of Australia’s history. By having more conversations about why locations are named the way they are, we can begin to see how the otherwise meaningless names become a way to tell a historical story.

“We see ‘days’ as celebrations – ANZAC day celebration, or Queensland day celebration – but we forget that history is written into various parts of our community. We need to pay attention to that,” said Bryan.

Queensland officially separated from New South Wales in 1859, an occasion that is celebrated on Queensland Day, the 6th June. Queensland itself was named after Queen Victoria, and echoes Australia’s historical narrative in the Victorian era.

“Queen Victoria is reflected so strongly in the names of Australia,” said Claire. “She gets a state in the south (Victoria), and that was named first, so we had to settle for Queensland.”

Townsville’s streets and locations are named after people deemed to be historically significant, either in a local or national capacity.

“A variety of streets downtown are named after the people who ran successful businesses in the area,” said Bryan.

“Then there are over 100 streets named for soldiers or particular battles or aircraft we used, since Townsville was an important air base for the war in the Pacific,” said Claire. “These names represent the local context trying to assert its place in that national narrative.”

Just as place names tell a historical narrative, those that are not represented tell a story of their own.

Dr Claire Brennan delivering a public lecture at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in May.

“I was struck by how few women are remembered. Only about 25 streets are named after women,” said Claire. “At least four of them were named after Queen Victoria, and a number of others were named for her daughters.”

And despite so many street names reflecting Townsville’s military history, none in the central suburbs are named for army nurses. Bryan said it is not surprising that history in Townsville is remembered this way.

“It makes sense in the public’s imagination of the past to marginalise remembrance of women because we don’t often talk about women when we talk about the past generally.”

Claire agreed. “The narrative of these street names form a backdrop to our everyday lives, and it’s hard to break away from that and think about what other narratives and histories exist around that.”

Claire also said that some versions of history are more comforting than others in the Australian context – particularly when it comes to accepting the massacres that occurred on the Australia continent when it was first colonised.

“It’s difficult to accept. It’s confronting. It’s hard to know how to have those conversations.”

But conversation, no matter how difficult, is a key way to engage with the past. “We need to do a better job of having conversations about the past, and an important first step is talking about the histories we don’t talk about at all,” said Bryan.

Engaging with our past is an ongoing process.

“We continually need to reconnect with the past; we can’t imagine that history is done, and there’s no different version and there never will be,” said Claire.

“There’s no right way to do it. If you rename every street centre there are still going to be people who are excluded. We need to just get on and make history - find ways to interpret and understand the past, and get it to help us make sense of the present. Every generation needs its historians.

“Bryan’s project shows very clearly that Townsville and what happens in Townsville can contribute to national history narratives, but Townsville also has a really rich history of its own, as does tropical Australia. James Cook University is in the perfect place to write the history of Northern Australia, and we’ve got to get on and do it because it’s so rich, and so wonderful, and it’s right in front of us.”

If you’re interested in writing history for the next generation like Bryan and Claire, consider studying history or education at JCU.

Live in Townsville? Find out the origin of your street name.

Published 24 Jun 2019