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.