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.

7 thoughts on “Which is more ‘Cornish’, Stevens or Stephens?

  1. This is where you need to use YDNA to see how many different unrelated families there are. As with all patronymics, there will be many – each one with a different Stephen as the ancestor.

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  2. My mother was a Stevens from St Ives and in researching her ancestry it appears that her 3x GtGrandfather was John Stephens born in Saltash in 1765. His son was also born in Saltash but became George Stevens when he moved firstly to Lelant and then St Ives, where he died in 1886.

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  3. To add to the irony, here is the name of Thomas Stephyn, who co-scribed and possibly co-translated parts of the Cornish language ‘Tregear Homilies’ in the 1550s. http://bit.ly/thomas-stephyn-tregear

    This typescript of the manuscript was produced and sent to me courtesy of Professor Nicholas Williams (my apologies for using without permission).

    To be fair, the Tregear Homilies manuscript only ‘turned up’ in the late 1940s.

    Perhaps R M Nance & co were partly suggesting that if people in the snives area tended to adopt the ‘v’ spelling more than ‘ph’, then, since they were in/native to the recently Kernowphone west, maybe they themselves rather than their name’s spelling origin were more ‘Celtic’ somehow.

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  4. I doubt there is any significance to the different spellings. The people were 99% illiterate. My name is “Auger” but when Cornish ancestors were born, some children were named Odger, some Augier, some Audger, and yet their offspring were all spelled Auger again. Other spelling never returned to the same phonetic spelling style. It depended on the person writing the baptismal certificate. Some had multiple certificates written out because they were not sure how to spell the name.

    I can imagine burials in Cornwall in the 1500-1700s. The officiant would ask what the dead person’s name was and if anybody knew how to spell the name. When nobody knew there would be three and four burial records made with every variation of spelling the parishioner could think of. The multiple record spellings still show in the OPC records.

    Have a good one!!

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  5. one of our names. , mother of grandpa sam.

    On Thu, Nov 7, 2019 at 3:02 AM Cornish studies resources wrote:

    > bwdeacon posted: ” 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 St” >

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