The origins of place names in Boroondara (with bonus fun facts!)
Sometimes I just want to collect a pile of local information and place it on the internet in one place. This is one of those times.
The interesting thing about all the place names within the Boroondara district is that Boroondara is the only name that dates from the time of the Wurundjeri. All the suburbs within it take their names from local estates and properties or the musings of homesick but highly influential and politically connected British settlers.
Local historians agree that Boroondara means ‘shady place’ or ‘where the ground is thickly shaded’ in the Woiwurrung language. According to eminent Camberwell historian Geoffrey Blainey, writing in 1964, Boroondara ‘was the native name which surveyor Hoddle gave to the parish embracing these uplands; and with its tree-lined creeks and clumps of trees on the hills it was indeed a place of shade.’
One 1882 source suggests the original spelling was Burroondarrah but it was almost immediate Anglicised to Boroondara by European settlers.
So that’s Boroondara out of the way. How about all the other places? Here they are in alphabetical order (and not because I mostly write about Ashburton), with some fun facts you may not know and publications - often by Gwen MacWilliam and available at Ashburton and Camberwell libraries - where you can find out more.
The assignation of Ashburton to the area stems from the train station built in 1890 as part of the ill-fated Outer Circle Line. It was originally called Norwood (after Norwood Road – now Toorak Road) but in October 1890, the Railway Board agreed to the Boroondara Shire Council’s request to change it to Ashburton. The councillors believed there to be potential for the name to be misleading because the station is not that close to Norwood Road.
There are two stories about how the name Ashburton came about. One is that Edward Stocks, the first major land-owner in the area, came out from England on a ship called Lord Ashburton in the 1850s and identified his original homestead (situated down near where Holmesglen Station is now) by the name Ashburton.
The area remained largely unpopulated for another forty years but the Stocks family stayed on the land, eventually opening Ashburton Dairy in the 1960s. So it’s possible the name ‘Ashburton’ began to apply to land outside of the Stocks holdings too.
The other story is that City of Camberwell Councillor Edmond Dillon thought the area reminded him of the rolling hills around Ashburton Terrace in County Cork, Ireland.
Stocks was a church man and not much involved in local politics but he and Dillon’s lives did intersect. So it’s quite possible that Dillon knew Stocks called the area Ashburton and it reminded him of Ashburton Terrace in Ireland.
Fun fact Ashburton residents are among the longest-living in Australia. They live to an average age of 89; at least four years above the average for women and eight years above for men.
Less fun fact Ashburton’s reputation was so bad well into the 1990s that people on the border with Glen Iris and Burwood asked for their streets to be rezoned so they did not have to say they lived there.
Balwyn was originally a wine-growing area. The name Balwyn comes from a property owned by Andrew Murray situated near the corner of Balwyn and Whitehorse Road. He took it from the Gaelic ‘bal’ and the Saxon ‘why’ meaning ‘home of the vine’.
Murray was quite a successful wine-maker and an influential member of the Boroondara District Road Board. A village grew up around the intersection that adopted the name Balwyn but by 1890, the vineyards disappeared (probably killed by disease). The arrival of the electric tramline to Balwyn in 1913 revitalised the region and contributed to its suburban development.
Fun fact Balwyn is home to Maranoa Gardens, Australia’s first botanical garden dedicated to indigenous flora.
Less fun fact In 1902, residents in Balwyn discovered the bodies of Reuben Newbigen and Jessie Shallcross lying arm-in-arm in a field. A cocker spaniel dog that did not belong to either person refused to leave their sides. The police suspected a double suicide; but could find no cause for it. The inquest returned an open verdict.
Although technically not in Boroondara anymore, Burwood has long had an association with it. In 1853, the Burwood area was known as Ballyshanassy. The name could have come from Charles Duffy, the Minister of Lands who suggested naming the area after the premier, Camberwell resident John O’Shanassy (‘Bally’ meaning ‘place of’ in Gaelic).
Within five years it became most notable for being the dead centre of Melbourne’s east: the site of the Nunawading General Cemetery. The name Nunawading came from the Woiwurrung word Numphawading, meaning a ceremonial ground or battlefield.
At some point that no-one has yet to pinpoint, Ballyshanassy gave way to Norwood, after the road. By 1879, the area had abandoned the Nor and replaced it with Bur: Burwood. The name Burwood came from a house built by Sir James Palmer in Hawthorn West. In 1916, Burwood was described as the ‘unlocked jewel of the East’ and praised for its beautiful easterly views of the Dandenong Ranges.
The suburb has been passed between several local government administrations over the years, including the pre-1990s City of Box Hill, City of Camberwell and City of Waverley. Today it is situated within the Cities of Monash and Whitehorse.
Fun fact Michael Balzary, bass player for the American rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers and known professionally as “Flea”, was born in Burwood in 1962.
Less fun fact In 1992, Summit Road in Burwood was the site of one of the worst murders in Australian history. The killer was caught but never gave any reason for the three murders except that he ‘wanted to know what it was like’. He remains in prison today.
Camberwell took its name from the south London district of Camberwell. An early settler thought the way the roads crossed at the junction reminded him of the Camberwell Green intersection there. Anywhere else it would be cooler to say that Camberwell took its name from the Camberwell Inn that sat on the junction’s intersection. Since that was demolished when the area became a dry-zone in the early 1900s, maybe the intersection story is better.
Nevertheless, by 1882, Camberwell was a charming, rural village with Burke Road little more than a lane. At this point, the Prospect Hill area near the railway station developed first. Its developers sub-divided it very generously and the blocks quickly filled with impressive Victorian and Edwardian houses.
After World War I, the rest of the suburb developed in organised estates designed for upwardly mobile Melbourne residents.
Fun fact Camberwell was the sight of Australia’s first drive-in bank; opened on 3 February 1954. It was a branch of the former English, Scottish and Australian Bank (now part of ANZ).
Less fun fact In 2018, the Daily Telegraph deemed Camberwell’s namesake in London the centre of the city’s ‘murder mile’ because of the high level of murders occurring there.
Originally settled as a gentleman’s country retreat (I’m assuming for hunting purposes rather than for well-to-do men to watch women take off their clothes), Canterbury was named after Viscount Canterbury, Governor of Victoria from 1866-73. It was a largely rural area until the 1880s, covered in heath, orchards, vineyards and tobacco crops.
Then the train line from Melbourne arrived and brought with it rapid sub-division and development. By the end of the decade, Canterbury’s population had grown from 1,400 to 6,000.
Canterbury is today considered very exclusive but until the 1970s was predominantly lower middle class. Its cricket club, founded in 1887, is one of the oldest in the area.
Fun fact Crawford Productions filmed The Sullivans, an Australian TV series (1976-83), in Canterbury. It followed the life of a Melbourne family living through World War II. Although the show’s universe was Camberwell, Canterbury was closer to the Abbotsford-based production company office.
Less fun fact Despite widespread belief, Kylie and Danni Minogue are not from Canterbury. They grew up in Camberwell. Kylie purchased a house for her parents there in 2002.
The Railway Board gave the name Deepdene to a station on the Outer Circle railway line, opened in 1891. The train that ran along the track became known as the Deepdene Dasher. However, the name’s origins are not clear. Historian Gwen Macwilliam suggested it could have come from Deepdene in Surrey, England.
After the train station, architect David Askew named his house Deepdene It was situated close to the south-east corner of Whitehorse and Burke Roads. The name was next used for a sub-division and a plant nursery. The area around the intersection then adopted the name.
For many years, Deepdene was a neighbourhood of Balwyn before becoming its own locality in April 2010.
Fun fact At only 85 hectares, Deepdene is the 13th smallest suburb in Melbourne. It is also 12th on the list of most expensive (by median house price).
Less fun fact A 2023 Reddit discussion deemed Deepdene a strong contender for the most boring suburb in Melbourne.
Glen Iris was once known as Windebank and considered a popular picnic spot on the Kooyong Koot Creek. The name ‘Glen Iris’ was a popular property name in the area: Captain Henderson, a navy man, named his house it after a ship called ‘Iris’. The name also adorned a property owned by Robert Kent in the early 1860s; and one owned by J C Turner in the 1870s.
After World War I, Glen Iris developed into a quiet suburb of returned servicemen and their families. By the 1970s, much to the chagrin of local residents, the pretty hamlet gave way to a massive freeway that cut the suburb in half.
Fun fact The person who invented a machine that put the dents into bobby pins lived in Glen Iris. Unfortunately, he never patented his invention so someone stole the idea. I heard this story from local resident Neville Lee, who said his father was an investor in the invention.
Less fun fact Kids playing football discovered the body of Margaret Elliott in Gardiner’s Creek in 1975. Her murder remains unsolved. Five years later, Glen Iris resident Beth Miller fell victim to the Tynong North Killer as she walked down High Street. There is a $1 million reward for anyone who can provide information on the killers of either women.
Hawthorne (originally with the ‘e’) was first settled in the early 1830s and officially gazette in 1840.
In another story of how place names came from the random musings of important people, the name Hawthorn allegedly came from governor Charles La Trobe’s rumination that the native shrubs in the area looked like flowering Hawthorn bushes. Another story goes that the name came from a bluestone house named and built by James Denham St Pinnock.
The large mansions of Hawthorn are remnants of the Victorian Gold Rush era. However, thanks to the longevity of Swinburne University and its predecessors, the suburb does have a lot of student accommodation.
Fun fact Hawthorn’s Glenferrie Road was the birthplace of Baker’s Delight (1980), burger franchise Grill’d (2004), and sportswear brand 2XU (2005).
Less fun fact 2020 Census data revealed that up to 15 per cent of Hawthorn properties are vacant. The average vacancy rate in the whole of Victoria is 1.1%.
The first land sales in the Kew area occurred in 1851. Access to them was originally via Bridge Road in the area outside of Melbourne known Richmond. Since Richmond is near Kew in London, Nicholas Fenwick, an early land-owner named his new holding Kew.
Kew was a smash hit with the well-to-do so one of them built his own bridge at Studley Park to connect Richmond’s Church Street to Kew. Before long, new land-owners populated the area with Victorian mansions first, followed by Art Deco and other popular architectural styles.
It was not all fancy houses: in 1871 the colonial government built Kew Lunatic Ayslum in a style reminiscent of the area’s architecture. This is now the Willsmere apartments.
Fun fact The earliest records of Kew reveal that in 1838, the area was popular with bushrangers.
Less fun fact They may have subsequently become property investors.
In the 1860s, during the Gold Rush years, local speculators had high hopes of finding gold in North Balwyn. But it was not to be. As the Balwyn tram never made it that far north, the area was still quite rural until after the Second World War. Then it became a mixture of expensive suburban houses with beautiful gardens mixed in with decaying dairy farms and orchards with tumble-down fences.
As it was much newer than the rest of Balwyn, the suburb’s layout developed with cars in mind. By the 1960s, it looked pretty much how it does today.
Fun fact The first Coles supermarket opened on the corner of Burke Road and Doncaster Road in North Balwyn on 3 March 1960.
Less fun fact See Deepdene: Reddit debaters argued that North Balwyn was far more boring than Deepdene because in Deepdene you occasionally saw a fox.
Surrey Hills was the name of a property owned by James Henty. In the mid-1870s, estate agent John Knipe applied the name to a subdivision of 30 acres bounded by Mont Albert Road and Union Road. He had a taste for place names that reflected his British patriotism and named many of the streets after English counties: Norfolk, Durham, Essex to name a few. Unlike Surry Hills in NSW, he adopted the same spelling as Surrey in England.
The railway station acquired the name in 1880s.
Fun fact In 2015, Whitehorse Council tried to place a heritage overlay over the 45m steel communications tower on Canterbury Road but dumped the plan after a community backlash.
Not so fun fact Before its removal this year, the level crossing at Union Road had one of the highest fatality rates in Melbourne. Two people were killed in 2016, with eight near misses since 2005.
Honourable mentions: lost villages of Boroondara
Aside from Hartwell, this information comes courtesy of Gwen MacWilliam’s Camberwell Villages.
Bulleen The only Woiwurrung name in the group, Bulleen belonged to the confluence of Koonung Creek and the Yarra River. It was used for the name of a parish and an early road name.
Chatham A station on the Lilydale line opened in mid-1927. Gwen MacWilliam believed that similar to Canterbury, Chatham came from the town in Kent, England.
Greythorn The Towt family used the name Whitethorn in the 1860s, taken from the plants along their property fence line. For awhile it was the name of the road but it was changed to Greythorn to avoid confusion with Whitehorse.
Hartwell Although it is marked on Google Maps between Camberwell, Burwood and Ashburton, Hartwell is defined merely as a ‘neighbourhood’ by the Boroondara Council. Local historian Volkhard Wehner, who literally wrote the book on the history of Hartwell, discovered that the exact boundaries of Hartwell have never been clear. It can not even be clearly identified by the Hartwell Railway Station because this name originally adorned Burwood Station. He also attempted to trace the origins of its name but could not ascertain it with any certainty, only that it emerged fully formed with its own identity in 1853.
Mont Albert Used as the name of a sub-division planned near Monomeath Avenue. Gwen MacWilliam presumed the name came from Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria and the “Mont” was a fancy way of denoting the estate’s hilltop situation.
Riversdale Came from the name of a property built near Riversdale Court in Hawthorn. The name extended to the nearby road and then continued into Camberwell, replacing Moloney’s Road. The golf links took the name too and eventually the railway station in 1890.
Shenley A station name on the long-defunct Outer Circle Line, Shenley came from a nearby property owned by Charles Wentworth in the 1860s.
Willison Originally called Golf Links Station, the government created it on the Outer Circle (now Alamein) line from a carved off piece of Riversdale station to serve the nearby golf course. Its name changed to Willison after Camberwell Councillor Arthur John Willison in 1936. As recently as 2023, suggestions arose of changing the name again in honour of performer Barry Humphries.
 Blainey, Geoffrey, A History of Camberwell (Melbourne: Jacaranda Press, 1964). 1  Wigney, James, "Bittersweet Flea," Sunday Herald,  Wray-McCann, Jesse, "'Eyesore' Pub Has Fans," Whitehorse Leader, 1 June 2015.