The nineteenth century distribution of a surname is sometimes a good guide to its point of origin, sometimes less so. Take the following three names, which are all likely to have begun life in the district around the Fal estuary in south Cornwall.
Mankee was a name associated entirely with west Cornwall in 1861, with four of the six families of this name living on the Lizard, or at Helston and Falmouth. The surname had not moved far. It comes from the place called Mankea near Penryn (meaning hedge stones). For 250 years after 1524 when John Mynke was found at St Gluvias, it remained around Budock and immediately to the south across the Helford estuary, before venturing (a little) further afield.
Matta is probably a pet form of Matthew. In the 1520s there were lots of men called Mathy but only one named Mata – John Mata at St Just in Roseland. Earlier, in 1460, we find a Walter Mata at St Keverne. It’s quite likely that one or both of these was the ancestor of all later Mattas (the additional t appeared in the early 1600s). Most were found at St Just in Roseland until the 1700s when Mattas seem to have headed east along the coast towards St Austell Bay.
Mewton is a little more problematic. In 1861, although there were only eight households headed by someone called Mewton, the family name was scattered over a wide area of mid and west Cornwall, from Bodmin to the Lizard. In the 1540s it was found as Mewdon or Meudyn but restricted to Probus and the Roseland district. This was across the Fal from Mawnan, where there is a place called Meudon (unidentified element+ fort). This was spelt Meuthyn in the 1500s and we find a Jane Muthon living there in 1543.
The name Mewden then drifted east in the 1500s and 1600s, to St Columb Major by the 1700s, by which time it also began to be spelt -ton rather than -don. The only question mark about all this is the relatively early appearance of the name Mewton at St Mabyn in 1597, well to the east of Mawnan. Does this indicate a separate, additional origin for the modern name?