When did William (or Richard or Robert or … ) add an -s to his name?

Some of our most common surnames in Cornwall were very uncommon 500 years ago. Take the names Williams and Richards for example. Nowadays these are the the most frequent surnames found among the native Cornish. In the 1540s there were hardly any examples of people named Williams or Richards. But of course there were scores called just William or Richard, without the -s.

When was the final possessive -s added? This practice had first appeared in some English regions in the later 1200s and became particularly common in the west midlands in the 1300s and 1400s. That geography helps to explain why later, in the 1600s and 1700s, when Welsh speakers adopted hereditary surnames they looked for examples to their neighbours across Offa’s Dyke and favoured names such as Williams, Jones or Evans.

As the table below shows, in Cornwall in the 1540s the practice had yet to appear, with the sole exceptions of Harries or Harris for Harry and Hicks for Hick (a short form of Richard).

1540s1640s1740s
Williams1%85%99%
Richards0%51%98%
Harris12%52%71%
Martin0%0%4%
Robert1%58%99%
Stephen0%57%100%
Rogero%39%100%
Bennett0%0%33%
Philip (including Philp)0%44%78%
Johns0%13%69%
Davi(e)s1%7%38%
Hicks5%90%94%
Names with -s as a % of all examples of patronym

By the 1640s the transition was well underway. By the 1740s, the process was complete for most names and William, Richard and Robert had become Williams, Richards and Roberts.

There were a few exceptions. Martin (and Allen) did not experience the addition and it only partially occurred for Bennett. Moroever, the development of the separate surname Philp in the the later 1500s meant that Philips did not become universal.

Patronyms such as Williams, Richards (or Thomas) were more common in west than in east Cornwall. As in Wales, this was a result of the relatively late formation of hereditary surnames among the Celtic-speaking community. But did Cornish and English speaking zones also differ in the speed they adopted -s? I shall look at that issue in the next blog.

3 thoughts on “When did William (or Richard or Robert or … ) add an -s to his name?

  1. There are a surprising number of rare or localised patronymics in Cornwall, apart from the big ones and all the -kin variants (Jenkin, Hockin, Tonkin, Wilkin, Perkin), For example Maddern, Pawley, Kitto Sandow Hancock Rouse Davy Dennis Sampson and lots of others, Only the big personal names scored an ‘s’ in the Welsh style – presumably as you have suggested under English influence..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, although some Hoskins and some Jenkins gained an -s. It looks to me as if the -s was more likely added to the basic full name. Pet forms and patronyms with -kin and -cock were unlikely to have an -s appended. As for the language influence wait for the next blog!

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