How to Name a Capital City

Naming the colony of South Australia was easy enough. It was in Australia. And it was in the southern bit of Australia. So … South Australia. A year later, of course, like everything else throughout the British Empire, it would have been named Victoria. But Victoria wasn’t yet queen. In fact she wasn’t even Victoria. She was Alexandrina.

But naming the capital city of South Australia was a little trickier. It came down to the way South Australia was governed. You can almost guarantee that the first thing a South Australian will tell you is, ‘We were a free settlement. There weren’t any convicts in South Australia.’ (Which isn’t entirely true, but that’s a story that can wait for another day.) South Australians all know we weren’t a convict settlement. What we mostly don’t know is that we weren’t simply run by the British Government. We were a partnership between private interests (represented by the Board of Colonisation Commissioners) and public interests (represented by the first Governor, Captain John Hindmarsh).

And the two sides didn’t get on. Long before anyone came to South Australia they were squabbling with each other, making their own secret plans, sure that when they finally arrived in the colony their side would take power and have it all their way. One of these squabbles was over the name of the colony’s capital city.

There only was a colony at all because of the Duke of Wellington. It was only because of the assistance of Wellington that the South Australia Act passed through British Parliament. To express their gratitude, the Colonisation Commissioners promised the duke that they would name their capital city in his honour.

Which was fine, until Governor Hindmarsh heard rumour of what they were up to. Immediately he wrote to the King, William IV, and asked if he might have the honour of naming his capital city after his gracious majesty. The king wrote back (well, I’m sure it was one of his minions) saying ‘That’s very kind of you to make such a suggestion, but I don’t need a city named after me. I’d be happy with a street.’ So King William Street runs through the heart of the city. But he continued on, ‘However, it would be lovely if you could name your city after my wife.’

The request of the king trumped the promise to a duke. So the city is Adelaide, not Wellington, purely because Governor Hindmarsh wanted to get one over those annoying Colonisation Commissioners.

The commissioners, though, didn’t completely forget their promise to the duke. Wellington Square sits in the heart of North Adelaide. And Edward Gibbon Wakefield (the so-called ‘Father of South Australia’ — he never actually came to South Australia) went on to found the colony of New Zealand. Where he kept his promise; the duke got his capital city, just not the one he was expecting.

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