The history of our names 

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What’s in a street or even a town name?

In a previous column I commented on names and naming, quoting Shakespeare’s ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’  A poetic narrative that has stood the test of time and resonates now as it did when the Bard first coined the phrase.

With personal names, family names I recently asked a group of people I was engaging with whether they knew the origins of their names.

Not surprisingly, most did.  I then asked if they knew the origins of the names of the town, and the street names, they live in, and/or were born.  Again not surprisingly, most did not.

Driving along the main street of Te Awamutu, Alexandra Street, how often do we pause to consider the origins of the street name, the name of the township?

Te Awamutu I understand was named for the fact that the use by canoes of the Mangapiko River (awa) as a primary highway between the mountains Pirongia and Maungatautari ended (mutu) here.  Another story has it that the river (awa) and the region was full of snares (mutu) to trap food.

Alexandra street is a pathway to travel primarily in getting from one place to another, or to pause to transact business, or, as I did recently, to listen to a street musician, and drop a koha in his hat.  Alexandra St ‘becomes’ Pirongia Street, the main road between Te Awamutu to Pirongia, formerly Alexandra.  The township at Alexandra/Pirongia was named in the 1860’s for Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law Princess Alexandra of Denmark who married Albert Eward Prince of Wales.  On Queen Victoria’s passing she became Queen Alexandra, her husband then becoming known as King Edward VII.  In the 1960’s, because of the postal confusion with the township of Alexandra  near Queenstown, the local community decided to rename the township Pirongia after the outstanding landmark nearby, Pirongia Mountain.

And then, what of other streets which adjoin Alexandra St?  There is an excellent webpage (  produced by the Te Awamutu Museum which explores the origins of Waipā Streets.   I discovered there that Jackson St was named after William Jackson, an officer in the Forest Rangers who later became a member of the House of Representatives.

In the context of re-visiting and re-considering our past, the names and naming of streets (and towns) is receiving some considerable, and considered, re-thinking.  As a historical personage who played a role in our early Pakeha history William Jackson and others of his ilk should be remembered.  But then is the naming of a street an effective way of memorialising him?  Indeed is the naming of streets an effective way of learning about our history?

The history of a place is important.  How that history is to be presented can be well-served by story boards, or through The Waipā District Council’s ‘Te Ara Wai Journeys’ (

Using both storyboards and smartphone technology self-guided tours of culturally significant sites throughout the Waipā District promote that learning for locals and visitors/tourists.

The Maori name in full of Mount Pirongia is “Pirongia-te-aroaro-o Kahu”.   A politically correct, sensitive, translation of that is sometimes given as ‘the scented presence of Kahu’.   The word ‘piro’ however has another less flattering interpretation, whereby the Bard’s smelling of ‘the scented presence of Kahu’  can not be described as ‘sweet’.

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