There has been much speculation over the years regarding the origin of our town’s name. Lyn McSwan in A History of Yamba and Iluka, 1978, stated that “Yamba” is usually accepted as being an aboriginal word meaning “headland” although two other interpretations of the meaning were offered from other sources. Stuart Lee in An Historical Gazeteer of Old Yamba Town, 1997, offered a fourth possibility of Greek origin. What was the story behind the town’s name?
Captain William Albert Braylesford Greaves (1829-1925) came to Australia in 1852 at the instance of the then Surveyor General of NSW, Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792-1855). After being appointed as a licensed surveyor with the NSW Survey Department, he “carried out surveys in the neighbourhood of Botany Bay, Port Hacking, and George’s River. While carrying out those surveys he gave native names to various places, such as Yowie Bay, Wattamulla, and Cronulla (although he originally named it Coronulla)” (Sydney Morning Herald, 15/01/1925). Greaves was later given charge of the Clarence District and arrived in Grafton with his wife during 1856.
Greaves received instructions dated 30th August, 1860 to make a preliminary survey and design for a town in the vicinity of the Pilot Station at the South Head of the Clarence River and to mark out a few allotments for sale. He had completed his survey and design by August 1861 but it was not until May 1863, after much paper shuffling between Sydney and Grafton and design amendments, that his final plans were submitted to the Surveyor General. Based on his previous practice, it would seem likely that Greaves would have had a hand in giving the new town a name.
PYHS member, Warrwick Hoad, has recently found the proof. On giving evidence on 16th January, 1902, to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works investigating the proposed breakwater works, Greaves was asked “Have you had frequent opportunities of observation at the entrance to the Clarence?”, to which he replied “I have. I surveyed the whole of the surroundings about the year 1857. I laid out the town of Yamba and named it. I also laid out the town of Iluka and named it. They are both native names. ….”
The timing of the decision is unclear. It seems probable that Greaves recommended the name and someone in Sydney approved it but may not have communicated the decision to Greaves. In Greave’s letter and plan of 6th May, 1863, he still refers to the town of “Wooli”. His original plan, which was used in the Lands Department for many years, has the word “Wooli” crossed out and “Yamba” written above. Redrafts of the plan had the correct title.
Copy of the correspondence from this period, together with transcription, is held within the Yamba Museum. We can now be satisfied that the name “Yamba” is a native name. However, as far as the translation of the name is concerned, we will have to continue to speculate.