Tourists and residents alike of the small town of Dungog on the Williams River are usually informed that the word ‘Dungog’ is a local Gringai word meaning ‘clear hills’ or ‘thinly wooded hills’ with the assumption that this refers to the general location of what is now the town of Dungog. As with many local legends, this one seems to have appeared relatively late in the day – in 1927 in fact – at which point, a mixture of academic authority and popular press guaranteed that this became the ‘official’ version. Like many official versions this one too is open to serious doubt.
While there are many accounts of the origins of the name Dungog to be found, that which seem most plausible, particularly if appearance in time is given any weight, is that from 1832. The New South Wales calendar and general post office directory, of that year describes in great detail the land journey from Sydney to many places, including the road from Wallarobba to what was then known as Upper William (the River William having since morphed into the Williams River of today). In this account we are told that at a mile past the Melbee Estate comes the point where ‘the Myall Creek joins the William’ at which is a ‘village reserve’ called, not Dungog, but Wihurghully. The road then continues ‘following the course of the Myall, along its western bank’ for another mile and a half, when it comes to ‘Dungog, a high hill, part of the range, dividing the waters of the William and Myall’.
While Upper William was for a time the name used for the district near the junction of Myall Creek and the William River (now Williams), this was soon substituted, not with Wihurghully, but with the name of the easily seen high hill (though whether clear or thinly wooded is not so clear) of Dungog. With succeeding generations having little time for writing memories or historical accounts, the origins and meaning of names appears to have become obscured. By 1890 one account, for example, is that Dungog ‘derives its name from an aboriginal long since deceased …’ While another in 1904, by one signing himself simply as ‘Old Timer’, seems to preserve the 1832 story: ‘I have often heard the name Dungog attributed to aboriginal origin as a corruption of Dungar, applied by the natives to the hill at Cairnsmore. … ’ This was quickly backed up by another Dungog Chronicle correspondent: ‘One disputed point, I think, has been definitely settled, viz., that “Dungog” derived its origin from the aboriginal styled Dungar Hill at the north end of the town. I remember distinctly that the hill was so called by the blacks …’
With the specific hill origin of Dungog or Dungar having survived into the 20th century, how then did the ‘clear hills’ version come about? It would appear that by the 1920s Dungog was anxiously seeking tourists and the then Major of Dungog, who was also the leader of the Tourist League (responsible for the Monument) felt the need for a perhaps slightly more ‘poetic’ meaning for the name of his town. In any event, the ‘Mayor (Ald Jones) offered a prize through the “Daily Telegraph News Pictorial” for the person establishing the meaning of “Dungog”’. Naturally if you ask a question you will get an answer, and in this case ‘Mr WW Thorpe, of the Australian Museum, Sydney’, replied ‘that the original native name for the district of Dungog was “Dunkok” meaning “Clear Hills”’.
What basis Mr Thorpe had for his version of the up till then unrecorded meaning Dungog or Dunkok is not known, and his assertion may have simply faded away if it were not for Gordon Bennett’s booklet, The earliest inhabitants: aboriginal tribes of the district – the blacks of Dungog, Port Stephens and Gresford, which soon after popularised this explanation. Nevertheless a final effort to preserve the old account was made by R W Alison a few years later in 1939, who cited both his grandfather and the 1832 directory as proof of his belief that ‘Dungog pronounced Dungah by natives’ referred to a single hill.
Despite the Alison account and the 1832 directory, ‘clear hills’ – it is not known when ‘the thinly wooded’ variation arose – has been preferred and repeated until it, like many things we think we know, has become unquestioned. While Dungog may in fact actually mean ‘clear hill(s)’ – though that Mr Thorpe actually knew any words of the local Gringai dialect is doubtful – it seems certain that Dungog referred to a single hill to be seen just to the north of the town of Dungog today.