Notes on Aboriginal Place Names and People
by Leigh Budden
Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: This paper contains references to Aboriginal cultural practices surrounding male initiations ‒ but does not provide secret details about those ceremonies. It also contains names of Aboriginal People who are deceased.
The author pays respect to all Aboriginal Elders, past, present, and emerging, and fully recognises and honours their intellectual property, knowledge, and traditions.
Niel Gunson’s 1974 Work on Threlkeld’s Reminiscences
It was recently pointed out to me how much the author Niel Gunson, in his 1974 publication, had curated Lancelot Edward Threlkeld’s recorded works.
Threlkeld, L.E. Australian Reminiscences & Papers of L.E. Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859. 2 vols, ed. Niel Gunson. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1974.
While clearly a great piece of work, Gunson’s summaries and footnotes did appear to add credibility to Fraser’s 1892 creation of the name Awabakal for the language of the Lake Macquarie and the Hunter River Aboriginal People.
It was probably the historical narrative of the times, and not intentional. But I have been fascinated to revisit some of the things that I assumed were historically straight forward and thought I might briefly share with you some of those observations.
The names Pambalong and Kurungbong
I was surprised to learn that Threlkeld didn’t record the “clan” names of Pambalong and Kurungbong.
These two words were recorded by the settler Jonathan Warner in his 1833 blanket list return for the Governor.
Warner had used them to describe the designated country of residence of the local Aboriginal People along with the description of the place they most frequent.
Some of the original blanket lists have been digitised by the NSW State Archives & Records Authority (now known as Museum of History N.S.W.):
So, it seems that Pambalong and Kurungbong are not descriptions of People but of locations.
The ‘with-having’ suffix in Aboriginal languages
This makes much more sense, as in the Hunter River Lake Macquarie (HRLM) language recorded by Threlkeld the ‘lang’ or ‘ang’ suffix is the proprietive/comitative suffix.
This suffix is often referred to as the ‘with-having’ suffix.
The ‘with-having’ suffix derives a new word (with a different but related meaning) from the root word it tags.
For example, changing a noun into an adjective to describe the characteristics of a place i.e., ‘water-having’ (Amanda Lissarrague, 2006 A salvage grammar and wordlist of the language from the Hunter River and Lake Macquarie).
The ‘with-having’ suffix is common in Aboriginal Languages.
For example, ‘baraay or araay’ are the “with-having” suffixes in Gamilaraay Language. Narrabri (Nhari-baraay is with-having tree knots) and Collerenebri (Galariin-baraay, is “with-having coolabah blossoms”).
The town names we know today are the english-ified Gamilaraay words for locations (now towns) in NSW (Anna Ash et al, 2017, Gamilaraay, Yuwaalaraay, Yuwaalayaay Dictionary).
In the Hunter, Central Coast and Sydney region you can see remnants of original Aboriginal Language place names.
These end in ‘long’ or ‘ong’. Which is the Engishification of ‘lang or ang’. For example, Ettalong, Yarramalong, Quorrobolong, Yourong.
Pambalong is pretty straight forward as Warner records it as swamps district and near Newcastle.
Growing up in Wallsend in the 1960’s and spending lots of time in the wetlands the Pambal (or Bampul) tree (as it was referred to me by my family) was well know as it grew profusely throughout the district.
It was also known as the mock orange and apparently was a bush tucker tree – the seeds were roasted then ground to flour.
It is a pittosporum, and you can still see large stands of it in Blue Gums Regional Park at Minmi and it probably still grows on the University of Newcastle Callaghan campus as well.
But the Pambal/Bambul tree as I knew it, is this one, and it grew all over the Wallsend swamp districts of Iron Bark Creek out to Minmi.
Therefore my understanding of Pambal-ong means “with-having the Pambal (mock orange) tree”.
It describes a feature of the location not the People.
Please note that this is only my assumption. If the designated country occupied is described as “with having Pambul” then it’s most likely this pittosporum with the orange fruit.
There is no other published reference, than the oral testimony in my childhood memories.
The meaning of the descriptor Kurungbong is less clear.
A similar “with having” word was first recorded by Lieutenant Percy Simpson in 1826 as Kourumbung and he used this as the name for his land grant at Dora Creek.
It is likely to be a local word but its meaning, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t survived.
Warner could be simply have been approximating the name for the area which was known by Simpson’s land grant, or it might be a similar sounding but different noun with a “with-having” suffix.
An 1872 county map records the area as Coorumbung.
Don’t know what Kourumb might mean but the area was known and described as ‘with-having Kourumb”.
In 1833 Lieutenant William Henry Breton wrote of meeting the “Wollombi and Illalong Blacks” during his travels through the Hunter Valley. (Lieutenant W. H. Breton 1833, Excursions in New South Wales, Western Australia and Van Diemen’s Land, during the years 1830, 1831, 1832, and 1833).
There are also historical records of the Aboriginal People around Morpeth and south of the river calling the country Illulung, Illalung or Illulaung. https://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2013/11/19/3894224.htm and
This may have also morphed into the name township name Ellalong.
Illa-long – “with-having Illa”? Possibly Yiilla which is the native hop bush.
Was the country west of the Sugarloaf range through to Morpeth known as the place of hop bush which was an important bush medicine plant?
So, it appears that those descriptions of country that have the ‘long or ‘ong’ suffix recorded by the British are not clan names.
This fits with what Threlkeld wrote in his Australian Grammar published in 1834 when he wrote of the men and women of Newcastle being identified by the kal or kaleen suffix.
Kal being ‘men of’ and kaleen being ‘women of’.
He records the men of Newcastle as mulubinbakal and the women of Newcastle as mulubinbakaleen.
Threlkeld wrote in 1834 that mulubin was the name of an indigenous fern, and later in 1850 as the name of a flower that abounds the place called Newcastle (Lissarrague 2006).
Mulu-bin-ba. ba means place of; bin means many or lots of; and mulu is the name of the fern and flower in Language that Threlkeld saw but recorded as mulubin.
It’s possible that mulu is the native water ribbon which is both an aquatic fern with long leaves as well as having very unusual tall cylindrical flowers.
Trigochin procera is its botanical name, common to south-eastern Australian wetlands and coastal regions, and its bush tucker. The tubers are roasted and eaten.
Mulubinba means place of plenty of an important food source – which, in this case was mulu. Therefore, Mulubinbakal would have likely been the Mob or clan name of the People of the Newcastle district.
And what could possibly have been the name for the Mob or clan that occupied the district south of the Hunter River through to the foothills of Mount Sugarloaf?
The 1828 map of the Hunter River, Port Stephens and Lake Macquarie published by J Cross shows this area as Burraghihnbihng. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-230579854/view
Breaking this down (using Lissarrague 2006) it is likely to be parray-kaniyn-bin = country (of)- freshwater eels – many (or lots of).
This is speculative, but using this reasoning, Pur-rai ka-nin -bin is how Threlkeld would have recorded it if he ever did. Purraikaninbinkal would have most likely been the name for the Mob that lived there.
Again, a significant part of country identified by an important food source.
Threlkeld’s Observations of the People and their Language.
The other thing that struck me was that Gunson appeared to have completely overlooked the written statements of Threlkeld regarding his observations of the People and their Language.
It is, as if, these observations in the 1820’s and 1830’s weren’t considered because they didn’t conform to Tindale’s contemporary map of Language and People for this part of the East Coast.
In 1828, on completing a return for the governor on the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie People, Threlkeld states “there is no proper name for the tribe” and the “Tuggerer Beech Tribe are occasional visitors, as is the tribe from the opposite shore”
In 1838 Threlkeld writes “those tribes occupying the limits bounded by the North Head of Port Jackson on the south, and the Hunter River on the north and extending inland about sixty miles all speak the same dialect. The natives of Port Stephens use a dialect a little different, but not so much so as to prevent our understanding each other. The dialect of the Sydney and Botany Bay natives varies in a slight degree”.
You don’t have to go far to find corroboration from other sources. For example, Captain Wallis wrote that in Newcastle in 1820 Burigon told him that his new wife was merrybudgeree meaning very nice. https://hunterlivinghistories.com/2016/02/09/burigon/
This is very similar to the words shared by Patyegarang to William Dawes in 1780, now written as Marri Budyari in Dharug. It means “very good”. https://dharug.dalang.com.au/
Likewise, Governor Arthur Phillip reported in a letter to Lord Sydney in February 1790 that the district of the British settlement in Port Jackson is called Cadi by the Aboriginal People, and the ‘tribe’ living there are the Cadigal; the women Cadigaleon.
‘Gal’ and ‘galeon’ were recorded as the male and female suffixes for place in the Dharug Language of Sydney. Very similar to ‘kal’ and kaleen’ of the Lake Macquarie Language it seems?
I’m surprised Geoff Ford didn’t pick this up as it would have added even more clarity to his thesis, and further confirmation of the work of R.H. Mathews. See: https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/7745
Ford concluded that Darginung was the language spoken from the Hunter River in the north to Port Jackson in the south. He also concluded that the Wannungine were the coastal People, and they were closely affiliated with the Wallambine People of the inland.
This was the information that R.H. Mathews gleaned from Joe Goobra, Charlie Clark, and their families at the Sackville Reserve in the 1890’s.
He had spent many years meeting with Joe Goobra and Charlie Clark – two initiated Aboriginal men that trusted Mathews enough to share non-secret information about the male initiation ceremony with him.
They spoke of cultural practices, as well as the Language of the People
“practised by the aboriginal tribes spread over the coastal district of New South Wales, from Newcastle southerly to about Sydney, comprising approximately the Counties of Northumberland, Hunter, Cook, and the greater part of the County of Cumberland” – Click here for Mathews 1897
Mathews even published a map, but this seems to have been overlooked by Tindale and not mentioned in Gunson’s edited volumes.
Historical references to the territory of the Wallambine are well documented.
For example, the Wallambine were identified and recorded by Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell and his assistant surveyors as they undertook survey of land north of the Sydney settlement in the late 1820’s. The country north of the Hawkesbury to around Broke was known generally as the “Wallambine” in the 1820’s and 30’s, and the Aboriginal People as the Wallambine blacks. Their northern border with the Gamilaraay was documented with death of Robert Greig in 1825 at Bureen near Denman. When Mitchell mapped out the township of Wollombi, he adopted Wollombi as the English spelling of Wallambine, and named this English version for the creek and township he planned, but didn’t change Wallambine swamp as the name of the headwaters of the Macdonald River in his 1834 map (Allan E J Andrews 1992, Major Mitchell’s Map and A Woods 1987, Dawn in the Valley)
Mathews specifically identifies Wannungine as being spoken from Lake Macquarie south to Lane Cove (cited on page 18 of Mathews undated and Untitled Red Notebook held in the National Library reported in W J Needham 2019, Burragurra Revisited).
Geoff Ford also concluded that the Wannerawa and Wannungine were likely the same People. This might well be true as the Wannu-ngine and Wanne-rawa may have the same root but just different suffixes.
The Darginung suffix ‘ngeyn’ means ‘all the people’ or ‘we all – excluding you’. Pronounced like ‘nine’ in English, this ‘we all’ suffix is common. For example, the area now known as the town Narromine apparently means the Bee People in Wiradjuri – Ngarru-mayiny (personal communication Aunty Beth Wright 2021).
So Wannu–ngine could be the “Wannu People”. Wanne-rawa could be Wanne-ngura or the country of the Wanne People? Mathews recorded wannagan as flying fox – gan is the female suffix for animals in many of the Languages on the east coast – so perhaps wanna is flying fox and Wanna-ngeyn is the Flying Fox People and Wanna-ngura the country of the Flying Fox People? (For an example see Amanda Lissarrague 2010, A grammar and dictionary of Gathang)
Wallambine? Maybe Wallamb-ngine, the Wallamb People? In 1825 Threlkeld recorded the word wallumbung for female large rock kangaroo. https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/digital/2NboLAzb7zdQP
In 1887 Tuckerman recorded wallambang as kangaroo, and in 1903 Mathews recorded wallumbang as grey kangaroo (Caroline Jones 2008, Darkinyung grammar and dictionary).
If the -ang is a suffix, then wallamb/wallumb may mean kangaroo. Could Wallamb-ngeyn mean the Kangaroo People?
Perhaps historically there really were two closely aligned People between the Hunter River and Port Jackson, sharing language and culture, each family ‘clan’ with its own territory that was described by a feature of the country?
I’m not aware of any reference to a mention of a Wallambine totem, but Mathews did record a Darginung verb ’wallumbagan’ as ‘to come back’ in his no.7 notebook (see Caroline Jones 2008 Darkinyung grammar and dictionary).
And ‘wallamba’ is the Darginung verb ‘return’. Perhaps the root of this verb is wallamb and the suffix ‘ang’ in this use turns the verb to a noun?
So, possibly the feature of ‘coming back’ or ‘returning’ is a feature of the noun for kangaroo?
Seems obvious, when you consider that through firestick farming the Old People kept the kangaroo’s returning to graze on the new shoots of grass.
Flying Fox People
In 1854 W A Miles published that Threlkeld told him that the Lake Macquarie People didn’t eat flying fox. https://archive.org/details/jstor-3014132
This would make sense if they were part of the larger Mob who identified as the Flying Fox People. Helen Brayshaw also wrote this of the Lake Macquarie People in her 1987 work “Aborigines of the Hunter Valley”.
Although Brayshaw seems to go on to link this statement to the venerated male sex totem of the bat ‘kolungkolung’ that Threlkeld did record (along with the female sex totem of Dilmun the woodpecker/tree creeper).
The male small bat sex totem and female small bird sex totem was recorded by Threlkeld, but it is not unique to the Lake Macquarie People. These sex totems appeared to be universal across all south-eastern Australia Language groups. In fact, the Gathang Language group of Port Stephens and the Mid Coast of NSW had the same name for the bat and treecreeper as the People Threlkeld lived amongst in the 1820’s and 30’s. (see Amanda Lissarrague 2010, A grammar and dictionary of Gathang).
A couple of interesting references to the Flying Fox People include A P Elkin’s, Port Stephens’ Koradji’s, 1939 description of the petroglyphs at Finchley’s trig station south-west of the town of Wollombi.
On viewing the drawings of the site, he advised Elkin that it was a depiction of the ceremony of the visiting men and women of the Flying Fox totem. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40328236
Also at other sites in the same area, author W. J. Needham in his 1981 Burragurra Where the Spirit Walked, identifies petroglyphs as images of flying foxes as well as images of kangaroos.
And Geoff Ford’s thesis that Dargin-ung is a language? As a word for an NSW language, it certainly appears to have the with-having suffix like other NSW languages. For example, Gamilaraay (gamil is ‘no’ ‘araay is ‘with-having’); Wiradjuri (wira is no, djuri is with-having) and Wailwan (wail is no, wan is with-having). I wonder what ‘dargin’ might have meant? Maybe Geoff Ford was on the right track?
I wonder who is singing these Old People home?
Mathew’s map – in the 1890’s, Joe and Charlie told Mathews that the Aboriginal People of the geographical region defined as “4” on the above map share the same cultural practice relating to male initiation, have maternal descent and the same marriage sections, and that they all speak dialects of the same language. https://www.jstor.org/stable/983694
Geoff Ford’s thesis research supports this. He states that the language is Darkinung and the two main Aboriginal groups occupying the valleys and the coast from the Hawkesbury to the Hunter are the Wallambine and the Wannungine
5 thoughts on “Notes on Aboriginal Place Names and People”
This is a wonderful piece. The reasoning around the meaning of the word “Wollombi” is convincing. It certainly never meant “meeting of the waters” for which there is zero evidence
I should have included this info: The Flying Fox People – Wanna-ngine (ngeyn, ngayan, ngiyan, ngeen). Mathews recorded ‘wunnu’ and ‘wanna’ as the verb ‘to go away, to leave’ (in Jones 2008)
The suffix ‘gan’ turns a verb into a ‘doer’ noun (Lissarague 2006 & 2010). So wannagan is the doer of the verb to ‘go away’. This word (recorded by Mathews as the word for flying fox) describes exactly what flying fox do in the early evening when they fly from their camp to feed overnight in the dark. Also FYI – Mathews’ informants at Sackville Aboriginal Reserve in the 1890’s – Joe was born at East Maitland and Charlie at Broke (see Karskens 2020 People of the River).
No Gooringgai , Gringai, Guringay mentioned When well recorded north of the Hunter river NSW in Mathews work John Fraser wrote about the Gooringgai long before he took Threllkelds work
Such a pleasure to see some clarity emerging with regard to the people, the country and the language/s spoken over many thousands of years in this part of Australia. Congratulations on all your research efforts to date.