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On Australia Day, January 26, we celebrate the start of European settlement in Australia, when the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. Not much was actually done on this day – the ships landed, they ran up a flag, and drank a toast to the king. Few people went onshore, and convicts did not begin disembarking until the following day.
It was on February 7 1788, 228 years ago today, that the colony was proclaimed by Governor Arthur Phillip. Everyone gathered for a ceremony where possession was formally taken of the east coast of Australia by Britain – although the description of offshore territories was left sufficiently vague that it’s possible they also took New Zealand at the same time.
They did not acknowledge the Indigenous population as owners of the land, but Governor Phillip did intend to treat them humanely and kindly. Unfortunately these good intentions didn’t work out that well in the long term, mostly due to cultural ignorance and the fact they were about to unknowingly decimate the local population with a bunch of diseases.
People love to make myths about the founding of nations and cities, and in the case of Sydney, it has a strange and salacious foundation myth. It states that when the convict women were finally allowed off the boat on February 6, there was such a burst of pent-up sexual excitement that the day ended with a drunken orgy. How an orgy works when there are many more men than women is left to our imaginations.
Male historians and writers seemed to be especially fond of this urban legend, apparently loving the idea that Sydney was founded on a hotbed of drunken gang rape. They helped spread it even when they knew it wasn’t true, because there is barely a shred of evidence to support it. The soldiers’ wives were allowed off the ships not long after their husbands, and a few hand-picked convict women on February 5.
The next day, the rest of the convict women disembarked in small groups, surprising one commentator who found them cleaner and better-dressed than expected. There were no drunken convicts, because they weren’t given any alcohol. The big event was the weather, alarming to the British but entirely normal for a Sydney summer – a hot, muggy day ended with a spectacular thunderstorm, including a massive lightning strike which killed a handful of sheep. Thankfully the sheep have been left out of the orgy legend.
There was certainly plenty of sex in early Sydney, but probably most of it was between people who were already in partnerships, or at least knew each other previously. Instead of a mass orgy, there was a burst of weddings which took place in the new colony, as people settled down together and raised families – these came quickly, as everyone appeared to get pregnant easily in Sydney, even those considered barren, so that the land seemed healthy and fertile.
That was the start of Sydney as we know it – not the boozy party town you might have thought, but still a place of love and hope, new life and fresh beginnings, myths and legends, sunshine and storms, and minor miracles. Not to mention the occasional lightning-struck sheep: surely the progenitor of the traditional lamb chop on the barbie.
Captain Arthur Phillip’s first idea for the city’s name was New Albion, a poetic way to refer to England. However, he soon changed his mind, and named it Sydney after Thomas Townshend, Baron Sydney, who was the Home Secretary. This wasn’t a first – Sydney in Nova Scotia had been named after Townshend three years earlier.
The choice of Sydney made a lot of sense, because Thomas Townshend was recognised as the originator of the plan to colonise New South Wales (at that time, the whole eastern seaboard of Australia).
He also gave the colony its first constitution and judicial system – a sign that he did not want New South Wales to be a mere penal settlement, but a colony of free citizens under English law. Although his ideals may not have always worked out in the reality of colonisation, his determination that slavery be illegal here was at least a promising start.
Townshend had originally wanted his title to be Baron Sidney, after his ancestor Sir Algernon Sidney, the famous republican, patriot and martyr, whose revolutionary ideas would help bring about the founding of the United States.
However, Townshend worried that other family members might stake a claim to it (even barons have to worry about name stealing!), so he thought about making his title Sydenham, the name of a village near his home in Kent which is now a suburb of London.
Sydnenham may mean “Cippa’s village”, which is sometimes translated as “drunkard’s village” (there are many places in England derived from Cippa, so that adds up to a lot of drunk Anglo-Saxons!). Others prefer the less controversial “market village”.
Eventually, Thomas Townshend managed to find a compromise with Sydney. To make it clear he wasn’t trying to steal Algernon Sidney off any relatives, he said it was in honour of his ancestor Sir Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester, the brother of the poet Sir Philip Sidney, who brought us the name Stella. Sir Robert was a poet as well, a diplomat and patron of the arts in Elizabethan and Jacobean times.
In the days when people were more relaxed about spelling, the Sidney family often spelled their name Sydney. The aristocratic surname Sidney is from a place name meaning “wide island” – in this case, island refers to a dry patch in a wetland. It can also be loosely translated as “at the watermeadow”. Folk etymology connects it with the suburb of St. Denis in Paris, named after the city’s patron saint. The surname originates from Kent, where the Sidney family had a seat at Tunbridge Wells.
Sydney has been used as a personal name since at least the 16th century, and was in use by the Townshend family. The name was originally given to both sexes fairly evenly, and then gradually became more common as a girl’s name, although still given to boys. By the 19th century, the situation reversed and it became much more common for boys – a variant of Sidney, rather than a feminised form of it.
Famous people named Sydney include Sydney Smirke, the architect who designed the famous Carlton Club in London; witty author Sydney Smith, whom Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is said to be based; actor Sydney Greenstreet; Sydney Silverman, the British MP whose efforts helped bring about the abolition of the death penalty in that country; American astrologer Sydney Omarr; and Hollywood director and producer Sydney Pollack.
Two famous actors named one of their children Sydney. Comic genius Sir Charles “Charlie” Chaplin had a son named Sydney, named in honour of Chaplin’s brother, actor Sydney Chaplin. Distinguished Hollywood star Sir Sidney Poitier has a daughter named Sydney, apparently named after himself. Both Sidney Earle Chaplin and Sydney Poitier entered the acting profession.
The most famous Sydney in fiction is Sydney Carton, from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Although a flawed character, he redeems himself through an act of heroism, and Dickens gives him some farewell lines that are among the most quoted in English literature.
In Australia, Sydney charted as a unisex name from 1900 to the 1960s. It peaked in the 1910s at 222 births per year, but by the 1950s registered only 4 births per year. Although recent data is hard to come by, it would seem that Sydney is still given to both sexes, with perhaps more girls with the name overall. It is in steady but unobtrusive use.
In the UK, Sydney was a popular name for boys from the 19th century until the 1940s. Since the mid-1990s, it hasn’t been popular for either sex, and consistently charts higher for girls. Currently it is in the 300s for girls, and the 800s for boys. The name peaked for both sexes in 2001, the year after the Sydney Olympics, when it was #206 for girls and #805 for boys.
In the US Sydney charted for boys steadily from the 19th century until the 1950s, after which use became sporadic. It was last on the Top 1000 as a boy’s name in 1996, and has never charted higher than the 300s.
As a girl’s name, Sydney had a burst of use from the 1930s to the 1960s, but at lower levels of use than for boys named Sydney. After coming back in the early 1980s, the name was been consistently on the Top 1000 as a girl’s name, and was a Top 100 name from 1994 to 2013. it peaked in the early 2000s at #23 (around the time of the Sydney Olympics) and is currently just outside the Top 100.
It’s interesting that even though the name Sydney came well before the city of Sydney, the city inspired the name to peak at the time of the Summer Olympics in 2000.
Sydney may have passed its Olympian peak, but this is an appealing vintage unisex name that could honour someone named Sidney, or the city of Sydney. Despite being an “American-style” name, it will always have an undeniable Australian connection.
(Picture shows Circular Quay in Sydney, the area where the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in 1788)