Sydney Tentacles

It’s been a long time since I visited Sydney, Australia, as evidenced by the lousy quality photograph I took of the city skyline from the Taronga Zoo. That happened during the pre-digital era, or at least my pre-ownership-of-anything-digital era. Digital cameras probably existed although my cheapness would have prevented me from purchasing something until much later.

Sydney from Taronga

Nonetheless — and I’m still trying to figure out how my mind wandered there — I considered that Sydney seemed to be an odd name for a city. I thought of Sydney (or Sidney) more as a given name. A quick sampling of baby-naming websites confirmed that I wasn’t imagining things. Afterwards I felt like I had to wash my keyboard and run a virus check. Talk about spammy! Those vile nooks and corners gave music lyrics websites a run for their money for lousy information, audacious pop-ups and link-bait switcheroos fueled by questionable SEO tactics. I returned quickly to the safer side of the Intertubes and never felt happier to consult sources that didn’t feel like I needed to wear rubber gloves as I typed.

Sydney, while often a given name for boys (traditionally, and generally spelled with an "i") or girls (more recently) and particularly in North America, likely came from a surname. The surname, "probably derived from an Anglo-Saxon locational name, …'[at the] wide island/watermeadow’… There is also a folk etymological derivation from the French place name Saint-Denis." The source went on to explain, "much of its use in the United States after the American Revolution being due to admiration for Algernon Sidney as a martyr to royal tyranny."

Never fear, these threads all connected.

Tangentially I just noticed the title of this 12MC article, "Sydney Tentacles" sounded an awful like "Squidward Tentacles." Can you tell I live in a home with two adolescent boys who like to watch SpongeBob a lot? Alright, I’ll pull it together now and get back on track.

Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) provided the nexus. Briefly, he served in the Long Parliament and as a commissioner during the trial of King Charles I, although he opposed the King’s execution. After the Restoration of the English monarchy, he continued to favor a republic form of government over royal rule, and was later implicated in the Rye House Plot that intended to assassinate Charles II and James, Duke of York (the future James II). He was found guilty of treason — which he denied strenuously — and was subsequently beheaded. Many saw him as a martyr including later generations of influential Colonial Americans who had their own issues with the monarchy.

Sydney, Australia was not named for Algernon Sidney directly. Rather the city was named for Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney. Townshend selected Sydney as the name of his peerage when he became Baron Sydney (1783) and retained it when elevated to Viscount Sydney (1789). He did this in memory of his distant relative, Algernon Sidney.

Townshend served as Home Secretary for much of the 1780’s and devised the initial plan to send convicts to Botany Bay, leading to European settlement of Australia. Arthur Phillip, who captained the First Fleet of convicts and governed the initial colony, named Sydney Cove and established Sydney Town in 1788 for the person who appointed him: Thomas Townshend.

Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada

Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada

Sydney, Australia wasn’t the first settlement named for Townshend. Sydney, Nova Scotia predated the Australia version by three years, having been founded in 1785. This location also tied-back to Townshend’s service as Home Secretary. He’d appointed Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres as governor of a colony to be established on Cape Breton Island. In return, DesBarres named the settlement Sydney. See how it worked?

Canada’s Sydney was dissolved in 1995 although the placename didn’t go away entirely. It became part of the amalgamated Cape Breton Regional Municipality. The Canadian Geographical Names Data Base listed Sydney as an "unincorporated area," and specifically a "populated place within a Regional Municipality."

Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia, USA

Hampden-Sydney College, Farmville, Virginia, USA

I found surprisingly few places named Sydney and one of them occurred in the United States, at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. It was established as a private liberal arts college for men in 1775. Hampden-Sydney continues to remain a men’s only institution, one of of only four such colleges in the US to that retains that distinction. The Sydney portion of the name did not derive from Townshend. Rather it harkened back to the earlier namesake, Algernon Sidney. This was a visible manifestation of the philosophy and martyrdom of Sidney and the influence it had upon Colonial Americans of privilege.

And a Final Mystery: There is a Sydney in Florida (map). I had no idea if it related to Thomas Townshend, to Algernon Sidney or to anything else for that matter.

Townshend, Vermont, USA

Townshend, Vermont
Townshend, Vermont by Doug Kerr, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

I speculated that if founders named their settlements for Townshend’s peerage then maybe they named other places for his surname. I decided to look for Townshend. I discovered various geographic features bearing that name although most were too minor to trace. They might have been named for Thomas Townshend or they might not.

The Town of Townshend in Vermont offered a tantalizing possibility (map). However, the town history noted,

The Town of Townshend was chartered in 1753 as one of the New Hampshire Land Grants. It was named for Charles Townshend of England who was most notable for his fondness for taxing the colonies.

That was a miss. However, how many Eighteenth Century English politicians named Townshend could there be? Actually quite a lot, and they all seemed to be interrelated. Such was the case with Thomas and Charles. They were first cousins. Thomas was the son of Thomas; son of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend. Charles was the son of Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend; son of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend.

One cousin, Thomas, set in motion the modern history of Australia. The other cousin, Charles, served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and was responsible for the Townshend Acts. These acts included a hated tax on tea that sparked the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolutionary War.


5 Replies to “Sydney Tentacles”

  1. Nova Scotia eliminated all incorporated cities by 1996 in favour of regional/county-level government across the board. Essentially, it’s the same situation as Hawaii. Sydney is to Cape Breton RM/County what Honolulu proper is to Honolulu County, or Hilo is to Hawaii County. Just like the US Census Bureau uses the term ‘census designated place’ to separate would-be cities and towns from the county at large, Nova Scotia uses ‘general service area.’

  2. The reference to the other Sydney- the one in Nova Scotia that is- reminded me of an old story from the early days of online flight bookings.
    The story goes that someone wanting to fly from Sydney in Australia enters Sydney into the booking site and finds remarkably cheap fares. Of course the person bought a fare from Sydney NS to wherever they wanted and only discovered the mistake when they turned up at the Sydney airport near me and found that their flight actually started half a world away.
    Once I heard this story it made me very careful about booking flights (or anything) on line – read very carefully is my rule now.
    The Sydney skyline is much changed from your photo but the scene from the Zoo is still beautiful.

        1. Going to visit a friend in Costa Rica after an American Planning Association conference in New Orleans, upon confirming the flight over the phone with customer service (I was traveling on standby) they switched me from flying to San José, Costa Rica to San Jose, California. My friend then emailed me back and pointed out the stupid mistake the customer service person made and got it changed back.

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