Our history and heritage

4 fast facts about Sydney’s aldermen

As elected officials, they acted as the intermediary between the public and local government, representing residents and ratepayers.

  • 1. What is an alderman?

    In Australia, an alderman is an elected local government representative with powers varying according to local area.

    It is the term used in many jurisdictions founded upon English law.

    As an elected person, the role of an alderman was to represent the interests of the residents and ratepayers, lead and guide their communities, and facilitate communication between the public and the council.

    Credit: Election of Alderman Allen Arthur Taylor as Lord Mayor of Sydney, 1908 (City of Sydney Archives A-00041525)
  • 2. When and why did the name alderman change to councillor?

    The title ‘councillor’ was adopted in 1993. Section 222 of the Local Government Act stated “the elected representatives, called ‘councillors’ comprise the governing body of the Council.”

    If we dig into the City of Sydney Council minutes, you can find the term ‘alderman’ recorded on Monday 28 June 1993. One week later, on Monday 5 July 1993, the minutes show the term ‘councillor’ had been adopted.

    Credit: Councillors Elizabeth Margaret Farrelly and Julie Walton, 1994 (City of Sydney Archives A-00024997)
  • 3. Who was the first female alderman?

    Born in Cooma on 7 June 1886, Lilian Fowler seemed destined for politics from an early age. It is said she decided on a career in politics after an Inspector for Nuisances confiscated her marbles while she was playing with them on a public footpath in regional NSW.

    However, it is more likely that she gained an interest in politics from her father Charles Munro Gill, a Labor League organiser and alderman for Cooma Municipal Council. Fun fact: her father ended up being appointed Inspector of Nuisances on Cooma Council in 1890.

    Lilian served on the Newtown Municipal Council from 1928 to 1948 and was Newtown’s mayor in 1938-39. Her most important achievement was the creation of several children’s playgrounds in the inner west.

    Today you can visit Lillian Fowler Reserve located behind Newtown Public School.

    Credit: Alderman Lilian Fowler, Newtown Municipal Council, 1935-37 (Inner West Council Library and History, N3.282r)
  • 4. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry

    There are over 500 aldermen that have served our local area, and hundreds more have served on former amalgamated councils. But did you know 2 men named Sydney served Sydney?

    And unsurprisingly there are some names that are more common than others. The most common name is John with a whopping 169 having served on Council.

    Next we have William with 158 instances in our records.

    87 Georges, 79 Thomas’ and 28 Henrys.

    The most popular woman’s name is Mary.

    And we have one man named Moses Moses among the ranks of aldermen.

    Credit: Formal photo of Sir Thomas Hughes in mayoral robes. He was an alderman from September 1898 to December 1912 and was elected mayor in 1902, and lord mayor in 1903 and 1907-1908. (City of Sydney Archives A-00027215)

The Sydney’s Aldermen website lets you dig into the lives of the people who have helped govern our local area since 1842.

This History Week, you can learn the key elements of biography, important source material and resources, and how to summarise a life. Register now for the adopt an alderman session and try your hand at biographical research.

History Week is on from 3 September to 11 September.

Published 2 September 2022