A trio of Cornish surnames – from the transparent to the obscure

Polgrean is a Cornish placename meaning gravel pit. It’s hardly uncommon, cropping up in at least eight parishes from Ludgvan in the west to St Veep in the east. By 1861 Polgreans were confined largely to West Penwith, with just single Polgrean households at Falmouth and St Germans. But in the seventeenth century there were many more Polgrenes in mid-Cornwall, which suggests multiple origins. Indeed, if we look at the earliest records, we find Polgrenes at St Mawgan, Newlyn East and at Wendron in the west, all parishes with this placename. Moreover, a cluster of Polgrenes east of Ludgvan and another instance on the Lizard strongly imply that Ludgvan and Cury were also origins of this surname.

Rabling is also a western surname, but more obscure. It seems to have arisen in the Camborne district somewhere between the mid-1600s and the early 1700s. It looks to be a diminutive form of Robert, via Rab – like Tamlyn, from Thomas. There is just one early example, Elinora Rablin, who was married at St Teath in 1587. This is miles away from Camborne and the absence of other Rablins implies there was no direct link.

Even more obscure is Raddall. The surname dictionaries suggest this might be a spelling of Redhill (a place in Surrey). It doesn’t seem likely that this explains John Redell’s name at Newlyn East in 1524. Reddel was found occasionally in mid-Cornwall thereafter, a John Redell being baptised at St Enoder in 1578, while the surname was present at Lanivet in 1641. But was there a link between these and the Redells and Radells found at Callington and south east Cornwall in the late 1500s? Furthermore, Raddles at Lezant near Launceston appear to be the origin of the nineteenth century Raddalls. Family history is required to connect all these up, if indeed they are connected. And is there any connection with the east Cornish (and Devonian) name Rodd? Were all of them originally from the same first name?

Geevor tin mine: its rise and fall

It’s almost thirty years since the pumps were turned off at Geevor at Pendeen and the mine was allowed to flood. Now the site of the one of the best museums and heritage centres in Cornwall, Geevor Tin Mines Limited came into being in 1911.

The area had been mined for centuries prior to this. North Levant Mine worked the area from 1851 and that had brought together older and smaller ventures such as Wheal Mexico and Wheal Stennack. However, production of tin before 1911 was relatively small, peaking at 199 tons in 1876 and dwarfed by neighbouring Levant to the south.

Production next peaked in 1918 at 439 tons of black tin and grew further during the 1920s to 811 tons in 1929. This was despite Geevor, like other Cornish mines, closing temporarily in the slump years of 1921 and 1930, when it remained shut for a year until late 1931.

Yet production resumed and by the late 1930s exceeded 900 tons. The mine remained in operation after the Second World War, despite a labour shortage that led to the migration of Italian and Polish miners to Cornwall. After the 1960s the mine extended its operations to include Levant, Pendeen Consols and Boscaswell Downs Mines, eventually including more than three square miles of underground workings.

Geevor viewed from the west

Interestingly, employment actually peaked at the mine in 1943, when there were 436 workers. Productivity at Geevor barely grew from 1914 to 1943, although it was around 50% higher than in the 1880s. By 1980, in contrast, each of the 376 employees at the mine was producing around two and a half to three times more tin than in the inter-war period.

Production hit 1,110 tons in 1973. A fall back in the later 1970s was followed by a final surge to peak at 1,344 tons in 1981. Four years later however, in 1985, the International Tin Council, a cartel of producers that combined to maintain tin prices, collapsed and the price of tin plummeted.

It had become unprofitable to extract tin from deep mines like Geevor. Struggling on for a few years, Geevor failed to receive government support and in 1988 closed, although pumping continued for another three years. Its closure was soon followed by Wheal Jane and Mount Wellington, leaving only South Crofty to fight the inevitable until it too succumbed in 1998.

Stormy weather: past, present and future

It’s been henting down recently, with a succession of weather fronts, heavy rain and consistently strong winds reaching gale force at times. On the one hand there’s nothing new in this, as the hundreds of wrecks around Cornwall’s coast testify. These brought welcome temporary relief to coastal communities if they could succeed in snaffling away the wrecked goods before the authorities. But they also brought problems inland.

Carew wrote in the late 1500s that “the country is much subject to storms, which fetching a large course in the open sea, do from these violently assault the dwellers on land, and leave them uncovered houses [most roofs were thatched], pared hedges and dwarf-grown trees as witnesses of their force and fury … ”

Penzance seafront in January

Later, John Wesley had obviously had enough of the rain. During an early trip to Cornwall he commented: “I saw a strange sight, the sun shining in Cornwall”, a view that could be echoed this month.

Train derailed in the blizzard of 1891

Backalong, we used to get more snow. In the Breage parish registers there’s an entry in 1692: “great snow fell at the end of January and the beginning of February”. This heralded a series of cold winters. In 1814, the snow on January 14th was so bad that the mail coach overturned at Mitchell Common.” “The snow in many places was as high as the horses’ shoulders”. Further east, it was impossible to make out the road at Goss Moor. Travellers had to stop trying to cross the moor as stream works excavated very close to the road made it too dangerous.

Snowstorms are less likely now. Instead the climate scientists predict up to 30% more winter rain over the next half-century and an increase in ‘extremely wet days’ as we continue to be strangely unable to stop increasing our carbon emissions, let alone cut them.

Get ready for the next storm. It’s on its way.

The Black Prince. ‘Our’ first Duke of Cornwall

In 1337 King Edward III upgraded the existing earldom of Cornwall and made it into a duchy. He also established the convention that it would henceforth belong to the eldest son of the monarch. The recipient in 1337 and first Duke of Cornwall was the seven-year old Edward of Woodstock.

A romanticised image from the 19th century

On coming of age young Edward ensured that Duchy offices were packed with his own men. Very few Cornish in the years before the 1460s held Duchy posts. The Duke was keen to make more money from his estate. In addition, unlike the immediately preceding earls, he was also prepared to order action against local gentry who overstepped the mark and took the law too frequently into their own hands. He curbed local hard men such as John Trevarthian and Sir John l’Ercedekne, while imprisoning his own Duchy steward in Launceston Castle in 1357 for misdemeanours.

But despite this oversight, Edward remained an absentee lord, only visiting Cornwall twice, for a couple of weeks in 1354 and over Christmas and the New Year in 1362-63. Each time he ventured only as far west as Restormel. His main interest became squeezing the surplus from the Duchy to pay for the wars he was busy fighting in France.

Here you are, son. Here’s
Aquitaine. Forget Cornwall” Edward III rewards the Black Prince

At the age of 16 Edward had played a prominent part in the victory at Crecy. Later, in 1356, he captured the French King at Poitiers and took him back to England. Becoming Prince of Aquitaine in 1362 Edward never returned to Cornwall after his visit late that year. In his absence over the Channel, oversight inevitably became looser and even more remote. Cornishmen began to pick up more Duchy offices, while endemic lawlessness and family feuding returned.

Meanwhile, the Duke was getting involved in the Castilian civil war. More battles were won there until he contracted dysentery in 1367. Recurrent bouts of illness pursued him through his final decade and he eventually died of dysentery at Canterbury in 1376, aged 46.

And why was he ‘black’? This may be a later designation as the first reference did not appear until the 1530s. It’s been suggested that it came from the colour of his shield or armour. Others insist it stems from his brutal reputation in Aquitaine, where he was not slow to put the French to the sword. However he obtained his sobriquet, this martial Duke seems to have treated his Duchy as a convenient cash cow rather than any more meaningful constitutional possession.

Locative Cornish surnames with a hint of mystery

While all three of the following surnames have their origin in placenames, or at least we assume they do, all three contain an element of mystery.

It’s been suggested that Penver, which looks immaculately Cornish, has its origin in Penmear or Penmeur, meaning a large hill-top. The only problem with this interpretation is that no-one can be found in the records with the name Penmear or similar. While we don’t know what Penver might mean, it originated to the west of St Austell Bay. Entries of Penvar are found in the parish registers at Mevagissey and St Ewe in the late 1600s and in 1641 Penvars were living in neighbouring Gorran. Here, there is a place called Penford Gate, pronounced Penver Gate in 1814. Unfortunately, there is no earlier spelling example. Moreover, intriguingly, there is a Penfold burial at Fowey as early as 1663. Which came first, Penford or Penver?

Permewan is an even more elusive name. Suggestions it came from Porthmewan founder on a lack of any supporting evidence. The surname first appeared at St Buryan in West Penwith, where a James Permewan was baptised in 1665. From there it spread eastwards, reaching as far as Redruth by 1861. But I can find no place called Permewan or anything similar in West Penwith and there is no earlier name that looks a likely candidate for re-spelling. Is it significant that the origin of Tremewan, a St Agnes name, is also shrouded in mystery?

Any theories on the two names above are welcome. Our third surname is more straightforward.

Pezzack is a surname now associated with Newlyn and Mousehole. Indeed, it first appeared there in the 1780s. However, although now largely confined to Mounts Bay, its history is more complicated and provides a fascinating example of migration. The word pezzack in Cornish means fly-infested or rotten/decayed, originally gwibesek, from gwebesen, middle Cornish for gnat or midge. The element appears in two placenames, Halabezack in Wendron and Carnpessack at St Keverne, places well to the east of Mounts Bay. In the 1520s we find folk called Halevesek at Wendron and Carnhesack or Cranepesack at St Keverne. The surname Halebesack had disappeared by the mid-1600s but Carnpesacks were found living at St Erth by the 1640s. From there they moved west to Madron in the 1710s and by the 1760s had ended up in Paul parish. At some point around the 1780s, the Carnpezzacks of Paul had decided their name was too long and shortened it to Pezzack.

Resisting the workhouse: poor relief in nineteenth-century Cornwall

On 17th February 1837 a riot occurred at Camelford in north Cornwall. There were also reports of disturbances at Stratton, further north. These events were caused by the establishment in that year of Poor Law Unions, following the implementation of the New Poor Law of 1834.

This reform transferred responsibility for poor relief from the local parish vestry to Boards of Guardians elected by ratepayers in groups of parishes (there were 13 in Cornwall). It also included plans to build a centralised workhouse in each union. It was this combination of centralisation and the fear of the workhouse that triggered widespread protests in 1837. Henceforth the intention was that the able-bodied poor would only receive help by entering the workhouse, which was made deliberately grim.

Camelford Workhouse in 1881:
handy for the pub!

Its critics pointed out how the new system was too inflexible to cope with short-term or temporary unemployment. It was little surprise that slate quarriers from Delabole, liable to be laid off in bad weather or during building slumps, were prominent among the rioters at Camelford. In the event, the authorities found it impossible to stick to their principles. Out-relief (cash or kind given to those living in their own homes) continued for some at least of the temporarily unemployed and at Camelford the workhouse wasn’t even built until 1858.

There were further reports of riots over the New Poor Law in the summer of 1837 at St Ives and Perranarworthal in the west. But why did the first and most active opposition arise in north Cornwall in the two smallest (in terms of population) Poor Law Unions?

The answer is simple. Before 1837 these were the districts with the highest per capita poor law expenditure in Cornwall. Poor relief was relatively high because wages for farm labourers were notoriously low. The poor justifiably suspected that the farmers who would now control the boards and paid the rates would not spurn the opportunity to reduce spending.

In fact, there were two contrasting poor relief regimes in Cornwall. In east Cornwall expenditure was close to rates in Devon. Further west expenditure was much lower. There, competition for labour from a growing mining industry into the 1860s kept wage levels up. In addition, there was more access to smallholdings and potato patches. These were in turn bolstered by Methodist teachings about self-reliance and a tradition of resolute independence and community/family support that avoided dependence on poor relief.

The imposing entrance to
Liskeard’s workhouse

The main purpose of the Victorian workhouse was to discipline the able-bodied poor. We now have universal credit which has a similar function.

Goldsworthy Gurney, the inventor of limelight

With the recent success of the Cornish film Bait, it’s an appropriate time to remember an unwarrantably obscure Cornishman. Henry Lovell Goldsworthy Gurney was born on February 14th, 1793 at Padstow and died at Bude as Sir Goldsworthy Gurney on February 28th, 1875. Gurney’s connection with the dramatic arts is via his improvement of stage lighting.

Gurney was one of that glittering band of Cornish scientists and inventors that included Humphry Davy and Richard Trevithick. At first training as a doctor and taking over a medical practice at Wadebridge at the age of 20, Gurney uprooted himself and left for London in 1820. There, he became a lecturer in chemistry and a prolific inventor, including things such as high-pressure steam jets and early telegraphy.

Bude Castle

In 1825 he had copied Trevithick and built a steam carriage. This was more successful than Trevithick’s earlier effort, proving itself between Gloucester and Cheltenham. Unfortunately for Gurney, it came to nothing in the face of opposition from horse-drawn transport interests and prohibitive tolls on steam road vehicles. From the early 1830s Gurney divided his time between London and Cornwall, settling at the small maritime and resort town of Bude. There he built Bude Castle near the beach, close to the canal that had been cut in 1823 to take sand and lime to inland farmers.

It was in the 1820s that Gurney improved on the oil lamps and candles previously used to light theatres. He directed an oxyhydrogen flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide or quicklime, producing a brilliant light. These lights were called ‘limes’, hence ‘limelight’. This was followed up by ‘Bude light’, introducing oxygen to an oil-lamp flame to give a more intense light, which was then ingeniously transmitted around his house by a number of mirrors.

Gurney used a similar technique when re-designing the lighting, heating and ventilation system of the Houses of Parliament, where the members were complaining of the smoke emitted by the candles that lit the place and the fetid stench that permeated the chamber. The latter was caused by a lack of ventilation and the close proximity to the Thames, rancid with sewage. Gurney installed a new furnace and a system that circulated the air more efficiently, adding his lighting to illuminate the darker corners of the place.

He was knighted for this in 1863 but soon afterwards suffered a stroke. He survived for a number of years however, and was buried at the peaceful church of Launcells, home of his first wife and close to the upper reaches of the Tamar.

Some Cornish surnames with single points of origin

My next three less common Cornish surnames all have obvious points of origin although in the case of the first this may be a district rather than a single parish.

Pawlyn is a pet form of Paul, retaining the conservative spelling of Pawl which was usual in the early 1500s. At that time people called Pawl or Pawly were found up and down Cornwall. However, Pawlyns were restricted to a narrow band of parishes close to the Tamar between Week St Mary in the north to Saltash in the south. It’s significant that this district was also home to many Rawlyns and Tomlyns, indicating a local preference for adding ‘lyn’ to a first name. Given that in this area surnames had been hereditary since the late 1300s, it’s difficult to pinpoint a precise point of origin. If there was one it looks likely to have been the South Petherwin/Lezant district south of Launceston. Most Pawlyns stayed in the far east, although a branch established itself in mid-Cornwall at Mevagissey in the 1610s.

Pendray was originally Pendre and means either town’s end or possibly the principal or top settlement. Only one example of this placename survives, Pendrea at St Buryan in West Penwith. However, the presence of the surname in mid-Cornwall at St Blazey and St Ervan in the 1520s suggests at least one other, possibly two, lost placenames in mid-Cornwall. In fact, St Blazey was the place where the surname Pendray emerged. As the name disappeared in the west during the 1500s, transformed into Pender, it became confined solely to mid-Cornwall.

Penfound is the most obvious of these three examples. Thomas and William Penffoun were members of the largest landowning family in Poundstcok in north Cornwall in 1543. Poundstock was the parish containing the place called Penfoun (meaning either hilltop with a beech tree or end of the beech trees) and by 1598 spelt Penfound. Some Penfounds migrated west to St Columb in the early 1600s but by the 1700s that branch had seemingly evaporated and the surname returned to cluster around its original home of Poundstock.

Cornwall’s literary and philosophical societies

Currently, Cornwall’s largest museum, the Royal Cornwall Museum at Truro, is temporarily closed to the public. This is the result of ‘continued reduction in grants and consistently low visitor numbers’. The museum’s origins date back more than 200 years. On the 5th February 1818 a number of gentlemen met together at Truro Library. From that meeting came the Cornwall Philosophical Institution, which soon added ‘literary’ to its title. It later became the Royal Institution of Cornwall (RIC). The RIC remains the managing body for the museum.

The building that housed the original RCM
(to the right)

Literary societies in the 1800s provided lectures and in the days before mass education were often associated with libraries and museums. The RIC was one of a triumvirate of literary societies that were established in the 1810s in Cornwall. The first had been the Cornwall Geological Society at Penzance in 1814 and the third was the Cornwall Physical Institution at Falmouth. This latter body folded but in 1833 the Cornwall Polytechnic Society took up the baton in the same town.

Falmouth, Penzance and Truro were the three Cornish towns with the largest and most confident professional and middle classes, who comprised the bulk of the membership of these societies. They were also situated on the edge of the mining districts of west Cornwall. Those districts had from the 1730s onwards created the wealth from which the urban middle classes benefited.

Three lit and phils in such a relatively confined district reflected Cornwall’s dispersed population structure but could prove a drawback in terms of collaboration and ability to take advantage of economies of scale. Some sporadic efforts in the 1840s to combine the societies came to nothing, foundering on the rocks of small town patriotism.

Unfortunately, a museum explicitly devoted to the pan-Cornish story with widespread popular support never emerged. The recent failure of the RCM to discover a viable ‘business model’ for the museum, in a Cornwall with twice the population as in 1818 and many times wealthier, presumably tells us something about the nature of modern Cornwall and its prevailing priorities.

The impressive frontage of the current RCM, opened in 1919

An eighteenth-century Cornish strongman

In 1758 the Universal Magazine published an account from William Borlase which related the ‘manners of the inhabitants of Cornwall’. Among several far-fetched stories it included the following as an example of the strength of Cornish people …

A Cornish wain

On Tuesday March 22,1757, John Chilew [normally spelt Chellew] of the parish of Ludgvan, carrier, aged 41 years, walking by the side of his wain, accidentally fell on his back in the way of the wheel, which, before he could extricate himself, pressed on his left shoulder, broke his collar-bone and went off just below his right armpit. The wheels were about three inches and a half wide, shod with iron plates and nails in proportion thereto. The whole weight of the wain, at a moderate computation, was 600 lb. wherein were four blocks of tin, each of 310 lb, a cask of brandy 250 lb. and some baskets with trifling weights, which may be reckoned at 20 lb. The road on which he lay was so level, that his chest had the full pressure of one half at least of 2110 lb, during the passage of the wheel and yet, on Friday April 1, he was able to come on foot to church, half a mile from his own habitation. He only complained of his chest being sore, which he attributed to the buttons on his coat being pressed inwards by the run of the wheel; and he has ever since, without any inconveniency, followed his calling as he did before.

They bred them tough in those days!