Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Three Brunswicks

In the inner city of Melbourne, there are three Brunswicks.

The suburb of Brunswick; north of the city and currently undergoing a rapid makeover from solid working class to rampant hipster kingdom. Brunswick Street; the main thoroughfare through Fitzroy, a suburb that made this same transition some time ago. And Brunswick Road; running perpendicular to, and between, both.

The origin of the name 'Brunswick,' as used in these Melbourne places, is no longer clear. It seems fitting that, as there are three places bearing the name, there are also three possible explanations as to how it became attached. It is even possible that there are different explanations for each.

But the suburb of Brunswick was the first of the three to appear in Melbourne, making it likely that the roads were named after it.

Surveyor General Robert Hoddle assessed the area that would become the suburb in 1839 and determined that it was fit for settlement. A broad, rough rectangle of land would be offered for sale, the boundaries of which would be; the newly created Moreland Road to the north, Park Street to the south and Moonee Ponds Creek and Merri Creek to either side. Connecting Moreland Road and Park Street, a narrow road would be built approximately in the middle of the newly designated area, originally called Pentridge Road, and later renamed Sydney Road once it became the chief route out of Melbourne to the north.

The survey plan for the new suburb from 1839. The two creeks are visible at
either end of the division, with numbered lots of land in between.

The land on either side of Pentridge Road was divided into eleven equal sections, each piece running from the road back to the relevant creek (depending on the side). Such was the simple, efficient way that most of early Melbourne was laid out.

Much of the early land sold in this, still unnamed, area went to land speculators, investors with an eye on the future. Melbourne was still small in 1840 when the new land was offered for sale, and the freshly subdivided area 5 miles from the township was not much in demand. But  a few hardy types bought and settled on the properties straight away. One of these was Thomas Wilkinson.

Wilkinson was born in Sunderland County, in England, in 1799 and emigrated to Van Dieman's land in 1833. He worked in Launceston initially, in service of the convicts there and providing religious and moral instruction. This was followed by a short stint on Flinders Island, providing similar services to the local Indigenous population.

Drawing of Thomas Wilkinson, date unknown.

Looking to establish himself, he moved to Melbourne in 1840 in search of fresh opportunities. Wilkinson took a job as a law clerk and within a year had saved a sufficient sum to allow him to buy (in partnership with his friend Edward Parker) one of the new parcels of land north of the city. Wilkinson built himself a small house on the corner of Albert Street and Sydney Road and so became one of the first residents of the new district.

Wilkinson called his new property 'Brunswick.' There are two theories as to why he did this.

The most widely accepted of these is that the name was chosen in honour of Queen Caroline, late wife of King George IV of England.

Portrait of Caroline by James Lonsdale, 1820

Caroline was born Princess Caroline of Brunswick, a region in Northern Germany near Hannover. The German root of the word Brunswick is a combination of two other words; 'Bruno', the eleventh century conqueror of the region, and 'wik,' a German word meaning meeting place. So the area was named after the town Bruno established, which immediately became the central meeting and trading point for the region.

Caroline married George, Prince of Wales, in 1795. It was a loveless arranged marriage, designed for political reasons, and the pair started to live separately after Caroline gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte, in 1796. Both Prince and Princess likely took lovers and had little to do with each other. Caroline left England in 1814 and lived in Italy for a time, returning only in 1820 when George ascended to the throne.

But George was not happy to see his consort return, and immediately began agitating for divorce. As well as the entrenched dislike between the two, George was an unpopular, authoritarian King and Caroline had been installedby the public as the figurehead for a burgeoning reform movement. Caroline was publicly accused of adultery and Parliament set to investigating her fidelity.

The Trial of Queen Caroline, by Sir George Hayter.

Even while accused of, what was at the time, a serious criminal offence, Caroline remained popular with the masses. 800 petitions with more than a million signatures in support of her were lodged during her trial. The House of Lords, charged with the preliminary investigation, found her guilty of an affair with an Italian servant, but their findings were never passed on to the House of Commons for ratification. It was assumed that Caroline's popularity would have ensured their defeat in that house.

Furious that his will was not carried out, George excluded Caroline from his coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. When she tried to attend, her way was blocked several times by soldiers loyal to George. Shortly afterward, Caroline became seriously ill and deteriorated steadily over the next few weeks. She died on 7 August 1821, aged 53, and was buried in her native Brunswick. Her exact cause of death is unknown and speculation ranges from cancer to poisoning at the hands of George's agents. Caroline's sudden death caused some disturbances in England and further entrenched George's unpopularity with sections of his people.

A young Thomas Wilkinson lived through this period of English history and undoubtedly Caroline's tragic story would have had an impact on him, as it did many others at the time. So it is believed that he named his new property on the other side of the world as a small tribute to the late Queen Consort.

But other theories have been floated as well.

The second of these also relates to royal goings on in England. After the death of George IV, Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. In 1840 she married Prince Albert and there is some thought that Brunswick was named after the Prince's German royal house. This appears on several websites I have seen, as well as in  the official written history of Brunswick, commissioned by the Moreland Shire Council (Brunswick: One History, Many Voices, edited by Helen Penrose).

Victoria and Albert in 1840.

But in regards to this idea we can be certain; Brunswick is not named after Prince Albert, as he was from the German house of Saxe-Coburg. Although it is worth adding that the first two streets in the new area, Albert Street and Victoria Street, running at ninety degrees from Pentridge Road, were named after the newly married royal couple. News of their nuptials would have reached Australia just as the suburb was being sketched out and divided (the south Melbourne suburb of Albert Park is also named after the Prince).

The third possibility for Brunswick's naming comes from the VICNAMES website, an official Government body that maintains a database of Victoria's place and street name origins. The entry for Brunswick reads:

Named after Captain George Brunswick Smyth, 50th regiment. He was in charge of mounted (military) police in Port Philip, 1839.

This explanation also appears on the Yarra Council website, in their own list of name origins, for Brunswick Street and so is not easily dismissed. But how or why this police captain would have got his name attached to a new suburb is unclear. Another landholder in the region, a neighbour of Wilkinson's, named WFA Rucker was known to have been a friend of Smyth's, and there is speculation that Rucker may have adopted the name of his friend for the new area.

But hard evidence of this has remained elusive. Acknowledging this theory in Brunswick: One History, Many Voices, Gillian Sansom writes that the oldest records the council has show the name Brunswick attached only to Wilkinson's property, not Rucker's. The council seem certain as to their preferred theory of the name origin, as their historical marker on Albert Street indicates:

In any case, Wilkinson attached the name Brunswick only to his farm, which was one among many in the new area. How did it come to be adopted by the suburb as a whole?

Tom Wilkinson was an industrious man; hard working and talented in a variety of areas. The small house that he built for himself doubled as the area's first church and post office, and he oversaw and helped finance permanent, purpose built, replacements for both. He also leased the first land used by shopkeepers along Pentridge Road and Albert Street, which dramatically increased the economic viability of the area. And he started, and for a time edited, the new suburbs first newspaper. He dominated the region to such an extent that it was only a short progression for people to start referring to the whole district by the name attached to Wilkinson's farm.

So it seems reasonably certain that Brunswick, the suburb, was named after Princess Caroline and that the two nearby streets with the same name were named after the suburb. Brunswick Road as it ran close to the southern boundary of the area, and Brunswick Street as it would have been a major route North from the city towards Brunswick at the time it was built.

A sketch of Brunswick St by Sarah Bunbury, 1841.

One final trivial footnote on the Origin of the name Brunswick. In 1914, after the declaration of war by England against Germany, the North Brunswick Progress Association lobbied the local council to change the name of the area, complaining about that they did not want to reside in a suburb with a German name. The council's respsonse is not recorded.

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