More rare Cornish surnames

Here are three relatively rare surnames that don’t appear in my book. All three were more likely to be met with in the 1600s in mid-Cornwall, on the north coast. Two of them definitely stem from placenames while the third is uncertain.

The place Carevick in Cubert, near present-day Newquay, gave rise to the surname Carrivick. The place was originally called Crowarthevick (hut next to the summer-land). It was spelt as such in 1529, five years after a William Crowarthelek [sic] was listed in the same parish. As local knowledge of the Cornish language faded, the name of the place was shortened to Carrevicke by 1602. The surname followed suit. It lingered in the Newquay area until the end of the 1600s, before moving south-east to Ladock in the 1710s. There it multiplied.

Carevick in 1879

Docton was a later arrival, not appearing in numbers until the 1670s, after which it ramified in the parishes of St Ervan and St Mabyn, to the west and east of the Camel estuary respectively. Yet its presence in that district from 1637 at the latest is a bit misleading. It was first recorded in Cornwall in 1603, when Jane Docton was married at Kilkhampton, in the far north. In the 1650s there were also marriages of Doctons at Launceston. This first appearance in north-east Cornwall points to an origin in the place Docton in Hartland, just across the border in Devon. Those around the Camel estuary may have arrived there by sea from north Devon in the early 1600s.

More problematic is the surname Chivell. There were early examples of the name – Richard Chevell at St Minver in 1525 and John Chyvall at Cubert in 1543. The spelling Chyvall may look reminiscent of a Cornish placename, but there is nothing similar in mid-Cornwall. Many of the earliest Chivalls and (the most frequent spelling) Chevalls were found in Padstow, across the water from St Minver. But there were also Chivells at Boyton, far away to the east and next to the Tamar.

While two thirds of Chivells in the UK lived in Cornwall in 1881, most of the other third were found in Devon. There, Kivell is a more common surname than in Cornwall and there is some evidence that the /k/ in Kivell could be pronounced /ch/. Was Chivell a version of Kivell and had the Cornish Chivells arrived in mid-Cornwall from Devon?

And what does the name mean? There is an old Celtic name Cuvel (as in Nancekivell), but there’s also a place in Wiltshire called Keevil, also spelt Chivele in Domesday Book.

Tintagel: reminder of Cornwall’s golden age

Now that most of the hordes of sightseers who flock to Tintagel to commune with King Arthur have better things to do, it’s as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the proper significance of this iconic site. While it has no significance at all for English heritage, it has major, if still not fully understood, significance for Cornish heritage.

Marketing of Tintagel sells the myth
rather than the reality

We have to forget its present marketing as a commercial tourist honeypot and home of Arthurian fantasy. The castle remains point to the earlier role of Tintagel, as a symbolic centre of great importance. When Earl Richard planted his castle there in the 1200s it had no military point, but was instead a massive folly, built to symbolise the earldom’s control over Cornwall, squatting on a revered site for the Cornish.

The real importance of Tintagel lies in a period 800 years earlier, and 250-350 years before the English arrived at the Tamar. Even before then it had some sort of special meaning for the Romans, who took the trouble of constructing some way-markers on the route to the place.

The astounding fact is that this inhospitable spot has provided archaeologists with more sherds of fifth/sixth century Mediterranean pottery than any other site in the British Isles. Far more. More goods passed through it than any other place between around 450 and 550. Tintagel was at that time the primary site of a trading system that stretched far up the Atlantic coast and back to the eastern Mediterranean. It was the gateway through which the remnants of the Roman Empire maintained contact with the Christian parts of Britain.

It doesn’t end there. Tintagel was some sort of royal citadel, the pinnacle of a pyramid of tribute centres. It may well have been the geographical centre of the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia, or Greater Cornubia, one that in the 500s organised the colonisation of parts of what was to become Brittany.

Bridge built to maximise
tourist revenue

Look beyond its present condition and the twaddle peddled to tourists. Tintagel speaks to us down the centuries of a time when Cornwall was at the centre of the Atlantic world, not a marginalised periphery of England. It deserves to be remembered as such.

When Camborne-Redruth was the most radical place in the UK

The general election of 1885 has one major similarity with the one we’re now enduring. Polling day was in December. But in most other respects it was quite different. And although the newly created Mining Division in 1885 had very similar boundaries to the present Camborne-Redruth constituency, nowhere was this difference starker than in the central mining district.

The election saw the Radical Liberal, the splendidly named Charles Augustus Vansittart Conybeare, challenge the former Liberal MP for West Cornwall and local landlord Pendarves Vivian for the new seat. Conybeare was put forward by many of the working men who had been given the vote in 1884, some of them return migrants from the States imbued with notions of democracy. Conybeare stood on the most radical platform in the UK, pledged to abolish the House of Lords, disestablish the Church of England, bring in a graduated income tax, return the land to the people and end the ‘gigantic system of confiscation and robbery of the poor by the rich’.

Redruth’s Radical Club: built after the election

In a closely fought election between Vivian and Conybeare (the Tories stayed out of it) Conybeare emerged victorious with 2,926 votes to Vivian’s 2,577. For a decade Camborne-Redruth was then represented by Britain’s most radical MP. How times have changed!

Conybeare’s supporters wrote a ditty called ‘The Man for the People’. Here’s an extract.

Maaster Vivian, now so thick,

Longs weth his great friends to stick;

We’ll trate’n weth all due respect,

But we ‘one and all’ object

To have a ‘limping’ reer-rank man,

When we c’n have one in the Van

The seventeen year ‘pon Committee

Have earnt a rest, I think, quite fitty;

For some reforms he edn ripe,

So we’ll lev’n touch-a-pipe.

He’ll git the voters by the thousan’;

Because we’ll go for Working Men,

And not the Lords and Upper Ten.

The men of Buller’s Row he’ll meet,

And likewise Tallywarren Street,

And though Dolcoath is very deep,

He’ll git the men all in a heap.

Three more Cornish surname puzzles. Or are they?


Apart from the isolated example of Alice Copling, buried at St Columb in 1632, the name Coplyn first appeared in the Falmouth district in the 1670s and 1680s with baptisms and marriages at Mabe, Budock and St Gluvias. Does this geography, near the Fal estuary, indicate that it had arrived by sea? Is it relevant that the other place in which this name was found in numbers in the late 1800s was Norfolk? Its meaning is anyone’s guess. Any suggestions?


It’s been suggested that this surname may be from a crowder, or fiddler. This is unlikely. It appeared in Cornwall very late. Christian Crothers was baptised at Redruth in 1763 and the name then spread to neighbouring Illogan and by the end of the century west to St Hilary. It’s more likely to have been a local spelling of the name Carruthers, which supposedly has a Scottish origin.


Cunnack is unlikely to be a nickname from the Cornish word for clever – connek – as is sometimes claimed. This is because it was found nowhere in the Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall in the 1500s or early 1600s. Yet it was present in Cornwall from early times.

The surname Connack or Connek was limited in the early 1500s to the Liskeard district in the east. It remained in that area until 1641 when a Nicholas Connock was buried at Truro. It then turned up further west at Madron in 1649. The first spelling of Cunnack appeared there, with Alice Cunnack, married at Madron in 1705. From that parish the surname Cunnack spread to St Ives by the 1730s. It’s more likely therefore that Cunnack is a local spelling of Connack or Connock, as the vowel /o/ often became /u/. But what’s the origin of Connock? The early concentrated distribution in south east Cornwall may imply an origin in a placename. Could it possibly be from a shortened version of Boconnoc, a few miles west of Liskeard?

Charles Rashleigh and Charlestown

Next weekend sees the anniversary of the birth of Charles Rashleigh in 1747. He was the tenth child of Jonathan and Mary Rashleigh of Menabilly near Fowey. With six older brothers and unlikely ever to succeed to the family estate, he became a property developer.

His best known purchase was on the coast south east of St Austell, a place called Porthmear. In Cornish, Porthmear means a great cove or landing place. However, landing on the open beach was neither easy nor safe. Therefore, in 1790 John Smeaton, builder of the third Eddystone lighthouse, was commissioned to design a harbour, which was constructed in the early 1790s.


Behind this, inner harbours were dug. At first these would have sheltered vessels engaged in importing timber and supplies for the mines and lime for the farmers and then exporting copper when mining boomed in the locality in the 1810s. When the mines faltered Charlestown, as it quickly became known, was perfectly placed to become a china clay port, until eclipsed by Par and Fowey in the early 1900s.

When the harbour was built, Charlestown was home to a farm, a hotel which had been built in 1782 and a few cottages. Within a generation it had grown to more than 100 houses. Its decline in the twentieth century left it intact as an unspoilt example of a nineteenth century working port. It now has a new role as the picturesque backdrop to films and TV series set in that period.

Unknown man ponders his future
at Charlestown

Charles himself made little from his venture, being swindled not only once but twice and bankrupted in the process. He died in 1823, a tenant at the home he’d formerly owned at Duporth.

Cornish rugby football finds its feet

Last weekend saw the Rugby World Cup final. Nowadays rugby and association football are viewed as entirely separate games. In fact they share a common ancestor, which we should just call ‘football’. In the middle of the 1800s football was played at the public schools as well as by more working-class communities up and down the British Isles. The schools had evolved rules, but each was different.

The earliest organised football clubs were formed by ex-pupils of these schools. This was so even in Cornwall. For example, Redruth R.F.C. was founded in 1875 by men from Clifton School and from Marlborough. Incidentally, the oldest club in Cornwall is claimed to be Penryn, formed in 1872 by a return migrant who had come across the Rugby version of the game when he played for Blackheath in London.

The Rugby school code dominated in the 1860s with most clubs playing by its rules. Association football, an amalgam of various other sets of rules, only challenged the Rugby code in the mid-1870s when its FA Cup became a popular spectator sport.

Penzance RFC 1887-88. The public school influence is clear

In those early days the rules of the game were still remarkably fluid. In 1873 at a match between St Austell and Bodmin, ‘St Austell generously altered several of their rules for the benefit of Bodmin, or the result might not have been quite the same.’ In November 1872 teams from Truro and St Austell fought out a draw. It was reported that there were two touchdowns each but ‘the tries were unsuccessful’.

As touchdowns were abolished under association rules in 1867 the teams were clearly playing rugby. However, at that time the word ‘try’ referred to an attempted shot at goal, or a conversion in modern terms. A try (or conversion) required a touchdown first, but games were decided on the tries or goals, not the touchdowns. Thus, the return match between the same two clubs at St Austell was described as a draw as no tries were scored. This was despite St Austell scoring three touchdowns and Truro none. The earlier formation of permanent football clubs in the west probably explains why rugby became the dominant code in the district between Truro and Penzance. East of this there was a gradual drift from Rugby to Association rules. In 1877 at a meeting at Liskeard for example, it was decided to start a football club, to play ‘by association rules’.

Which is more ‘Cornish’, Stevens or Stephens?

In the 1950s the surname researcher Richard Blewett asked ‘are the Stevens at present in Cornwall descendants of Breton Celtic immigrants’, citing the Cornish revivalist Robert Morton Nance. This was repeated by G.Pawley White in 1972 who claimed that Stevens was the ‘Cornish form’ of Stephens. But is this actually the case?

In 1881 both surnames were more common in Cornwall than elsewhere in the UK. Almost 4% of all the Stevenses in the UK lived in Cornwall. On the other hand, Cornwall was home to an even higher proportion of Stephenses – 6%.

If we look at a map of these two names in 1861 we can see where Morton Nance’s claim came from. While the name Stephens was scattered across mid and south-east Cornwall, Stevens was concentrated in West Penwith. One in five of all Stevenses were living in the single parish of St Ives, the home of Nance it should be noted. Yet the simultaneous presence of the name Stevens in east Cornwall might cause some hesitation.

Go back a century to the marriage registers of the 1700s and we find a similar, though less pronounced pattern.

However, if we turn the clock back another 100 years, instead of a presence of Stevens in the far west and an absence elsewhere we find the two spellings intermixed in most parts of Cornwall.

And what do the very earliest records tell us? The tax lists of the 1520s and 1540s do not indicate any concentration of the name Stevens (actually it was Steven at that time, the -s being added in the 1600s). Instead the spelling Steven was focused on mid-Cornwall, with Stephen being the norm in west and east.

In fact, these are just two spelling variants of the same name. Whether Stephen was spelt with a <ph> or a <v> was down to luck or fashion. This can be illustrated by the case of Richard and John Stevyn at Luxulyan in 1525. The same men re-appear in the 1543 lists, but this time spelt Stephyn.

The later concentration at St Ives is nothing to do with Breton immigrants. The name Stevens was multiplying there just as spellings were becoming more fixed in the 1800s. There is nothing more ‘Celtic’ or indeed more ‘Cornish’ about the surname Stevens as compared with Stephens. Both are good Cornish names and both more likely to be encountered here than in England.