What’s in a name? Now I don’t claim to be an expert but I do enjoy a mystery and so I thought I’d throw together all the bits and pieces I could find on the possible origins of where the name Toowoomba came from. Have a read, then it’s up to you to make your own decision/
As I mentioned in a previous article about Drayton, Toowoomba was originally known as “The Swamp” or “The Drayton Swamp”, and people settled in the area due to the close proximity to water and better growing conditions.
The earliest mention I can find of the Toowoomba name being used is in 1852 by Thomas Alford. Thomas, who built the first shop in Drayton, later moved to “The Swamp” and built another general store at Toowoombah (spelt both with and without the h in the advertisement). In 1857 you could buy plots for Toowoomba/Drayton Swamp from the Drayton Police Office for around £2 per acre and in 1860, Toowoomba became a municipality.
Archibald Meston journalist, explorer and public servant, from 1870 claimed the origin was Aboriginal choowoomba indicating place of melon (Cucumis pubescens). However the pie/paddy melon isn’t native to Australia and is thought to have been brought over from Africa and introduced into Australia in the mid 1800s. These plants can be found in grassland/bushland, prefer to grow in well drained soil (i.e. not in swamps) and flourishes in dry climates, requiring only limited rainfall.
Thomas Davis claimed derivation from toogoomba, indicating “place where reeds grow”. Alfred George Stephens literary critic, editor and publisher, in 1892, claimed origin from toowoom indicating “berries place”. Frederic Slater in 1934, suggested toogoom/toogoon (Yandukal language) indicating white man, with toogoolmba=many white men while James Tolmie newspaper proprietor and politician, suggested it was simply an Aboriginal attempt to pronounce the English “The Swamp”.
I did find a Letter to the Editor of the Darling Downs Gazette from Saturday 10 December 1910 written by Mr T. Allen. Mr Allen’s letter begins; “Sir, There have been so many surmises for a number of years, why Drayton Swamp was called Toowoomba, and what the name signifies. I now wish to make matters clear, as I was one of the four who coined or originated the name….” What follows is a brief history of Drayton and the swamp and the account of a group of men who met in the back room of “Mr. Lord’s Store” and wrote letters to get the locality name changed because The Swamp was too common a name. “…we determined to give it the blacks name, which was Too-woomba, as the blacks said because ‘It was where the water jump up’…” The four gentlemen who met were Robert Eales (Mehan’s managaer), Jack Mathwson (Lord’s manager), W. H. Groom (photographer) and Mr T. Allen.
As seen all over the country, place names have been chosen purely because someone likes the sound of an indigenous or foreign word or name and so have spelt it how they think it sounds. I guess the only person who knows where the spelling of the word (and the word itself) really came from is Thomas Alford, but it’s a bit late to ask him.
This story took a bit of digging so if you would like to see more and maybe do some more digging here’s some of the publications I used:
- M. French. Conflict on the Condamine. Toowoomba, 1989
- www.Trove.nla.gov.au for digitised newspapers
- Drayton State School 150 years : 1851-2001 / compiled by Debbie Powell.
- Moreton Bay Courier : abstracts & indexes : people, places and events relating to Drayton District & Darling Downs, 3 Jan. 1852 to 31 Dec. 1859 / by Mary Hollis for Toowoomba and Darling Downs Family History Society Inc.