Rare Cornish surnames explained. Perhaps.

Edward Bickerley was buried at St Ives in 1854. A few years later the only three Bickerley households appearing in the 1861 census were found less than ten miles to the east, at Gwinear. Was this distinctively Cornish yet very rare family name a respelling of Bickley (from the placename in Devon)? There were early Bickleys in Cornwall, but they lived far away, in north-east Cornwall. A much more likely origin is a respelling of Beckerleg, a name that emerged at Newlyn and Penzance and was mainly confined to West Penwith. The meaning of Beckerleg remains a mystery.

People called Fitz were mentioned in a will of 1512, made by a resident of St Allen, near Truro. It’s from the Norman-French for son, from the Latin filius. Usually the first name remained attached, as in Fitzgerald for example, but not in Cornwall, where Fitz was found as a standalone surname. Although a John Fitz lived at Bodmin in 1525, the heartland of the Fitz family name was on the other side of Bodmin Moor, at Lezant south of Launceston. From there the name spread across south-east Cornwall.

Frayne was another east Cornish name. It’s claimed to be a name for someone living by an ash tree, from the Old French fraisne. Frayne made its Cornish debut quite late, not being recorded until the 1620s, and then at North Tamerton, on the border with Devon. Devon was in fact the origin of this name and in 1881 contained four times as many Frayne families as did Cornwall. The map of Fraynes in 1861 clearly indicates the Devonian connection.


What is it about mid-Cornwall that produces such prolific authors? The Hocking siblings, from St Stephen in Brannel, wrote almost 200 novels. A century later Alan Kent, who grew up in the clay country, is giving us scores of novels, plays, poems and histories. Not to mention Jack Clemo and Anne Treneer. And then there was Arthur Leslie Rowse, born at Tregonissey, just outside St Austell, on December 4th, 1903. Rowse became Cornwall’s foremost academic of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike his predecessor Arthur Quiller- Couch, he was of more working-class background, although his clay worker father had a small shop.

Rowse in 1942

Keenly supported in his career by Q, Rowse gained a scholarship to Oxford in 1921 to study English literature. He soon switched to history and it was the combination of history with a literary bent that made his name. He became best known for his work on the sixteenth century and Elizabethan England. His Tudor Cornwall, published in 1941, is still a key text for that period of Cornish history.

After being overlooked in 1952 for the post of warden of All Souls, Oxford, where he was a research fellow, Rowse spent a considerable time in the States, especially in California. It was there that he wrote The Cornish in America (1969). Never one to take either rejection or criticism easily Rowse later admitted that losing the wardenship enabled him to concentrate on his best work.

Rowse was never backward in coming forward to assert his own greatness. But equally, he was able to laugh at himself too. Everyone who met him has their favourite Rowse anecdote. Mine is of him at a conference at Perranporth in the 1980s. He had pompously backed up some opinion by stating ‘I’ve got a first-class Oxford-trained brain’. Responding from the audience the late Pedyr Prior prefaced his question with ‘As someone with a third-class Plymouth-trained brain … ’. Collapse of audience, as well as Rowse.

Rowse’s ground-breaking work on Shakespeare’s sonnets, when he claimed he had identified Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ involved him in his best-known academic controversy. While largely ignored in the outside world, it caused some bitter academic fallings out and much harrumphing over the port. Rowse’s autobiographical books, beginning with the widely acclaimed A Cornish Childhood (1942) were the tip of his unpublished and voluminous diary writings, which are by all accounts not a little scurrilous in their acid observations on academic colleagues.

Loyalty to his background meant that in the 1920s and ‘30s Rowse was a Labour man, even standing as Labour candidate for the Penryn and Falmouth constituency (which included St Austell) in 1931 and 1935. The voters of that constituency were saved the fate of having Rowse as MP when he resigned as candidate in 1943, later leaving the Labour Party over its opposition to Suez.

Rowse’s attitude towards the common people was ambivalent, to say the least. His love-hate relationship with both Oxford and Cornwall are summed up in the titles of the two biographies written about him. For Richard Ollard, he was a ‘man of contradictions’. From a Cornish perspective, Philip Payton dubbed him a ‘paradoxical patriot’.

Paradoxical or not, in later life he mellowed somewhat (although never totally) and became reconciled once again to his homeland. He spent his final years at Trenarren on St Austell Bay, a house he had first leased in 1953. Rowse continued to publish extensively, even after his All Souls fellowship ended in 1974. From that time, aged 71, to his death in 1997, he turned out a phenomenal 36 books. There’s hope for us all yet!

Christmas offer

Stuck for something to buy that Cornish relative this Christmas? What better present could there be for someone of Cornish descent than a copy of the best-selling The Surnames of Cornwall? Moreover, as a pre-Christmas treat the ebook version of this will soon be available at the reduced price of £4.99 ($6.46/AU$9.47).

And don’t forget to check out my From a Cornish Study and Industrial Celts too – essential for those with a serious interest in Cornwall and Cornish Studies.

Cornish surname conundrums and questions

What’s the origin of these three rare Cornish surnames?

The first Drowns were recorded close to the Tamar at Stoke Climsland and Lezant in 1544. Then a smattering of people with this surname popped up at various places across Cornwall in the later 1500s and 1600s in no particular pattern. Either the first Drowns were especially prone to migration or this was a fashionable nickname from the English word drone (as in bee), applied to an idle person and appearing simultaneously in separate places.

The name Fradd was originally Frodd. A William Frodde was living at St Kew in 1525 and a Thomas Frod was found in the same parish in 1543. By the middle of the 1600s Frodd had become Fradd. The family name had not strayed far however, as most Fradds were still living in mid-Cornwall in the district between St Minver on the north coast and Lostwithiel. Was there some connection to the placename Fraddon, some miles west at St Enoder? This placename, meaning place of the stream, was spelt Frodan in 1356. Did Frodd emerge as a short version of Frodan?

Goninans were relatively late arrivals on the surname scene. The first record I have found was Wilmot Goninnin who was buried at Breage in 1639. All Goninins before 1650 were found in the parish of Breage, where the surname had clearly originated. Was this family name linked to the place Tregonning, a farm that gave its name to the nearby hill, known as Conyn or Conin in 1540? Had the old Celtic personal name Conan or Conyn survived into this period in the Cornish language?