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.

6 thoughts on “Rare Cornish surnames explained. Perhaps.

  1. Interesting re Nancarrow.

    Re Beckerleg, perhaps NB the name Carrallack in births, marriages and deaths. These names are found in 17C west Penwith and St Keverne, between which 2 points the name Beckerleg has cropped up in your book and in your maps of the 1861 census. Carrallack is not now in the phone book. Given the usual Anglicising of Cornish clerical records, Carrallack ~ Beckerleg has a certain je ne sais quoi.

    Tangent 1: Another good book (C Weatherhill “Place Names:Land’s End” 2017 p 118) suggested Carn Creagle, 2.5km SSW of St Just, as from “crygel” / “cricket|grass-hopper|spider-crab“. 2km across the Cot valley from there, how about Carrallack, 0.5 km SW of St Just, spelt Cargallek in 1302 and Carallek in 1410 – imho I’d suggest from “crygel-ek” (say) “cricket-y” (cf Legassick “mouse-y“, Redannick “fern-y/fern-brake“, Saveock “strawberry-y/strawberry-patch” etc etc).

    Tangent 2: Nearby in Penwith are extant placenames with “bagh” / “hook/nook/corner” e.g. Bahavella at St Ives, and Trembath 1.5km NW of Newlyn. Both are in or by steep, deep, crooked tin-rich valleys (the top of Stennack/Stret an Pol and in Drift valley, respectively), like the Cot valley. Trembath isn’t now on the OS 25k map, nor is Carn Creagle. (By-the-by, viz St Keverne’s Carrallack family name, in that parish there is also a placename Bahow (“bagh-ow” / “nooks“?)). Economic opportunities, from backlong/”old men’s workings” in tin streaming areas such as in the Cot valley, would have given any surname a good chance to ramify.

    Theory: Given these, would it be a surprise were there once, near a fold of the Cot valley, or maybe near St Keverne, some place called *Bagh-crygellek? As with Carrallack c. 1410, so that, perhaps, “cricket-y nook” would’ve been named Baghcarrallack ~ Beckerleg?

    Theory! I know of no such place name. Alternatively, speculating, 17C Carrallack could’ve just been creatively accounted into 18C Beckalegg/19C Beckerleg so’s to look more English and thus – O tempora! O mores! – more rational & respectable. Would be great to see more evidence either way, perhaps reliable family trees.

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  2. I am doing a one name study of BECKERLEG and its variants and was interested in your post. I have traced the name back to the Paul and Madron area just outside Penzance. The burning of the Church in Paul by the Spanish in 1595 makes it difficult to go back much farther. That said there is a speculation that it actually came from the place name ‘Bicklea’ which is not in Cornwall but Devon where there are two such places. I am trying to explore if there was a possible migration from Plymouth to Penzance for some reason.
    In addition I have a name variant of BECKALAKE (and similar) which is also Devon based but disappears in the 17 century in Devon. I am also trying to establish the link to BECKERLEY which may be a variant. In some cases the name appears as BECKERLEGGE.

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    1. Hi John. Interesting. I’m convinced that beckerley is a late variant of Beckerleg but it would be useful if you could prove it genealogically. I’m also not convinced that Beckerleg comes from the common east Cornish name Bickley or similar because of its geography. However, your Beckalake in Devon looks intriguing. Could it be that this name transferred down the coast to Penzance/Newlyn around 1600 and was then respelt? Is there a placename Beckalake or similar in Devon?

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  3. Hi all – Interesting post. I can trace my ancestry on my Father’s side to an Oliver Beckerlegge who is registered as living at Paul / Mousehole in 1610. I have found some online research from a Roy Beckerleg of Hayle, which I have paraphrased below:

    The Beckerlegs (also spelt Beckerlegg and Beckerlegge) came from the Penzance area of Cornwall, moving to the area at some point between 1560 and 1610 AD.
    Earliest record of Oliver Beckerlegge is the register at Paul Church near Mousehole which was compiled from local knowledge in 1610. This was necessitated as Mousehole was ransacked by the Spanish in 1595 in the Raid on Mount’s Bay and any official records were lost as the church at Paul, St Pol de Leon, was burned down (it was later rebuilt in 1600).
    With regards to official record keeping, at the time of the ‘Muster Role’ in 1560 or thereabouts no Beckerlegs were listed in the area but in the ‘Protestation Role’ of 1640, four brothers were registered, Thomas, Oliver, John and Edward Beckerleg and it seems that all persons with the surname Beckerleg or it’s derivatives, are descended from them.
    Before then the Beckerlegs came from what is now Bickleigh near Tiverton in Devon. Bickleigh was called Bicanleag in 940AD around the time that the Cornish King Hywel was defeated by the Saxon King Athelstan and seemingly acknowledged that he owed allegiance to King Athelstan with the true left bank (the Wessex bank) of the River Tamar becoming the boundary between the kingdoms of Wessex and Cornwall. Bicanleag is called Bichelea in the Doomsday Book.
    Beckerleg was originally Bicca’s legh = Bicca’s clearing. The Biccas (meaning piackaxe) were a Saxon tribe in existence before the conquest and Leg derives from ‘Legh’ – a clearing.

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