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Bonner - 700_tcm16-37336Today is Palm Sunday, which commemorates the triumphal ride into Jerusalem by Jesus about a week before the Resurrection. The people hailed him as if he were a victorious king, laying palm branches in his path. We already know that James Cook named the Whitsunday Islands and Trinity Beach after important days in Easter-tide, and on Palm Sunday 1770, he named the Palm Islands in northern Queensland after the day. After World War I Palm Island became an Aboriginal settlement, where the government maintained a repressive control over the Indigenous population.

On March 28 it will be 91 years since Aboriginal activist and Jagera elder Neville Bonner was born, and another tie-in with this time of year is that Neville once lived on Palm Island. Born on a small Aboriginal island settlement in northern New South Wales, he never knew his father and received almost no formal education. After working as a farm labourer, he moved to Palm Island with his family in 1946, and became assistant overseer of the settlement.

His time on Palm Island gave him both an interest and experience in politics, and after moving to Ipswich in 1960, he became the president of moderate indigenous rights organisation One People of Australia League, and an office holder in the Liberal Party. He was the first indigenous Australian politician, and elected senator in his own right four times.

Neville was appointed to the board of the ABC, and the council of Griffith University, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate. In 1979 he was named Australian of the Year, and in 1984 appointed as Officer of the Order of Australia. After his death, the Neville Bonner Memorial Scholarship was created for Indigenous students to take honours in political science. There is a Queensland electorate and a Canberra suburb of Bonner, named after him.

Neville is an English surname which was introduced to Britain by the Normans, and refers to a French place name in Normandy, either Neuville or Neville. Both places mean “new settlement” in Old French, and are common names of towns in France.

The House of Neville is an aristocratic English family which can trace its lineage back to Anglo-Saxon times. Although they married into the Norman nobility and assumed a Norman surname, the male line of the family had been ruling landowners in Northumbria since before the Conquest, with their ancestral seat near Durham, and were already wealthy and powerful in their own region.

The Nevilles continued to gain power, often appointed to prestigious royal offices and administrative roles. Ralph Neville was one of the founding members of the Peerage of England, being one of those summoned to sit in the House of Lords when it was established in 1294, and by the 14th century the family owned large tracts of the north of England.

They married into the royal family, but lost a great deal of power by getting involved in the War of the Roses, and also backing the wrong horse by supporting Mary, Queen of Scots instead of Elizabeth I (the Nevilles also claimed descent from one of the royal families of Scotland). Although their glory days were over, the Nevilles continued gaining earldoms and baronies through a junior line of the family, and they are still members of the peerage.

Neville can be found used as a first name from the 16th century, but remained extremely rare until the 18th century. Given that the Nevilles were so powerful in the north, you might expect to find the name greatly more common there than in the southern counties, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It did appear to originate in Lincolnshire though, which is one of the many areas where the Nevilles owned estates and had loyal political supporters.

In Australia, Neville just squeezed onto the Top 100 of the 1900s at #99. It continued rising and peaked in the 1920s (when Neville Bonner was born) at #30; it didn’t leave the Top 100 until the 1960s, missing out by only a few places at #104. Neville hasn’t charted at all here since the 2000s.

It is sometimes suggested that the character of Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter books could help raise the popularity of this name; however, it seems that almost as soon as the first book was published, Neville disappeared from the charts altogether.

The trouble was that Neville Longbottom, although a good person and loyal Gryffindor, was not necessarily an attractive character to parents. Chubby, unpopular and low on self-esteem, he seemed to be dogged by the chronic bad luck suffered by the self-conscious and unconfident. He lost and forgot things, had minor accidents, was bullied by both students and teachers, and was a mediocre student except in Herbology.

In the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, it was revealed that Neville’s parents, brave and gifted warriors in the fight against Voldemort, had been tortured to madness and permanently institutionalised. Although this evoked enormous sympathy for Neville, it didn’t help to make his name seem more usable. Nobody was saying, “Yes, I’d love to name my child after a character with insane parents, I can really relate to that”.

With Harry’s encouragement, Neville’s skills as a wizard improve and his courage grows. Once out of Harry’s shadow, he becomes the leader of the resistance group at Hogwarts, the protector of those younger and weaker, and a vital part of Voldemort’s downfall. He is the story’s alternate hero – brave, noble, kind, selfless, and pure-hearted.

Is this late blooming enough to rehabilitate Neville as a name? Or will parents continue to think of the awkward klutz that Neville is for most of the book series?

Neville is a dated name, but we have seen other old-fashioned names come back into use and even become popular. It’s a little clunky, and a tad geeky, but also solid and dignified. I often see Neville used as a middle name to honour a great-grandparent, and I wonder when someone might feel brave enough to use it up front again. Older people will find it almost irresistible to use the long-popular nickname “Nifty” Neville, but the standard Nev still sounds surprisingly dashing.

Name Combinations for Neville

Neville Anthony, Neville Charles, Neville Frederick, Neville John, Neville Peter, Neville Winston

Brothers for Neville

Edwin, George, Harold, Ralph, Stanley, Theodore

Sisters for Neville

Cecily, Emma, Flora, Isabel, Peggy, Susan

POLL RESULT: Neville received an approval rating of 69%. 26% of people liked the name Neville, and only 4% hated it.

(Photo shows Senator Neville Bonner 1979; image from the National Archives of Australia)