Celtic hero and Camborne invention: 2 Cornish surnames

The surname Arthur obviously stemmed from the first name. It was found in various parishes up and down Cornwall in the 1500s. As the name of the great Celtic mythical warrior it’s interesting that it was no more likely to be found in the Cornish-speaking than the English-speaking districts at that time.

Aver presumably derived from the more common Avery in one Cornish parish.

If you want to compare these distributions with the nineteenth century position see here.

Ambushed in a Cornish village

Four Lanes is a village on the higher land south of Redruth, straddling the road to Helston. As people rush through it on their way to school, work or shops they probably give little thought to the place, a rather nondescript and uninspiring ribbon development. Their main preoccupation will be to find their elusive brake pedals to avoid the cars parked along the main road.

You might have been less blasé back in 1868. On Tuesday October 27th in that year a letter was posted to the West Briton newspaper from Four Lanes. It reported on dangerous doings in the village.

Four Lanes around 1900

‘On any person passing by, a party of uncultivated, uncivilised people will sally forth from their favourite place of resort, the public house, and detain him until he has given them money, or carry him off to their den to pay for their beer … I suggest that a missionary should be sent among these uncivilised people.’

Don’t try this now or you’ll get mown down by the relentless traffic.

Cornish Town Councils save local services!

With the UK Government and regional and local authorities recently at daggers drawn, devolution is in the news. It’s timely therefore to consider current relations between the different tiers of local government in Cornwall. A recent article by Jane Wills, Professor of Geography at Exeter University, Tremough, does exactly that.

During the austerity decade of the 2010s, local government in England and Cornwall bore the brunt of cuts. On average the budgets of local councils fell by 50% in real terms as central government successfully passed the blame for cuts onto councils. But in Cornwall an unlikely hero rode to the rescue in the shape of Town Councils.

Jane Wills claims that ‘almost all’ public toilets, parks, libraries and community centres in Cornwall have been saved from closure by the simple device of transferring them to town councils, who then raise their precept to cover the costs. The author suggests this is part of a more general shift from one tier of local government to a lower one.

Inside one of the smart public toilets now run by St Ives Town Council

She also claims this ‘asset transfer’ is underpinned by a new social contract with residents in the towns, who willingly pay to maintain these services. Are town and parish councils, a political backwater since the 1970s, emerging from their chrysalises as gloriously coloured butterflies fluttering to a new era? Or will their short lives be terminated by the icy winds of a post-covid world, shoved into a second wave of austerity?

A detailed summary of this article can be found here.

Surname origins and maps of early distributions: three examples

The early distribution of these three surnames provide us with some good clues concerning their points of origin

You can compare these with maps of their nineteenth century distributions here.

Anstis is from a medieval first name.

The origin of Argall is unclear but the map below suggests that the place Argal (near Falmouth) may not be the source.

Arnall is a spelling of Arnold.

A year of Cornish studies resources

Time trundles remorselessly onwards. I was shocked to realise it’s been over a year now since I began adding two or three blogs a week to this website. Maybe it’s because people had nothing better to do during the covid lockdown but the number of visitors in 2020 is already almost double that of 2019, which was itself double that of 2018.

Readers may be interested to know that what the most popular pages and posts have been …

The page on ‘18th century surnames by parish’ continues to be by far the most frequent consulted, with more than twice as many hits as the next most popular pages, most of which concern surnames and their history. I will add a similar page for the seventeenth century at some point, based on the 1641/42 Protestation Returns.

Generally, information on surnames in Cornwall remains the most popular content, although the page on ‘Cornish mining: a short history’ gets a lot of views, as does an old review of the first TV series of ‘The Last Kingdom’. This appears regularly in the top ten pages, which shows the importance of having a vague title.

Meanwhile, the most visited blog posts in the past year have been

  1. Challenging negative stereotypes of Cornwall and its people’, a short summary of an academic article.
  2. Cholera in Cornwall – the Victorians’ coronavirus
  3. The Black Death in Cornwall
  4. The myth of Dumnonia’, based on the argument in my book Cornwall’s First Golden Age
  5. From rarer Cornish surnames to surnames on demand

Those were the days! But less of this cloying nostalgia. Thank you for reading these blogs and others, adding your comments and helping to make the website the most reliable, informative and entertaining source of information on Cornwall and Cornish studies available online. Do get in touch if you have any suggestions, although I can’t guarantee a quick reply.

Onwards! Ever onwards!

Cornish beaches the most littered in the UK

A recent academic article has discovered that beaches in Cornwall are among the most litter-strewn in the UK. Using beach clean data going back 25 years, they found those beaches bordering Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at the Land’s End, Mount’s Bay, Padstow Bay and Newquay & the Gannel were among the ten most polluted in the UK, with levels of litter second only to the Thames estuary.

Almost 70 per cent of the litter picked up was plastic, while, of the litter that could be sourced, over half came from the public discarding items, a fifth was from fishing activity and the rest from sewage and shipping. Meanwhile, eight of the ten MPAs with the highest levels of plastic litter were found in Cornwall. In addition to those mentioned above, this included Hartland Point to Tintagel and Lizard Point.

Crantock beach in July this year

These findings, coming as they do after other similar research, should start ringing alarm bells about the capacity of the Cornish environment to cope with an ever-growing residential population in addition to the millions of tourists who descend on our beaches every year. Many – both locals and visitors – seem incapable of understanding what ‘take your rubbish home’ means.

For more on this article see here.

Bridging the Tamar

At the very margins of Cornwall, the River Tamar is nonetheless central to Cornish identity. Countless books refer to the river ‘almost’ extending far enough to make Cornwall an island. When Brunel’s railway bridge spanned the estuary at Saltash in 1859 it was widely viewed as ending Cornwall’s remoteness. Even sober industrial archaeologists have written that ‘thereafter [Cornwall] lost its isolation and became wide open to English influence’.

But wasn’t it before? An exasperated former Prime Minister memorably annoyed a lot of people by blurting out ‘it’s the Tamar, not the Amazon, for heaven’s sake’. But it is a fact that several bridges cross the Tamar. Indeed, it might come as a surprise to find that there are 22 or 23 (estimates vary) road crossings of the Tamar, most of these dating back centuries. The truth is that the Tamar was never a very effective barrier.

The bridges in the middle reaches of the river are the best examples of late medieval constructions. In those days the Church encouraged bridge building by giving indulgences to folk prepared to pay for bridges. In this way Horsebridge, Greystone Bridge and New Bridge at Gunnislake were built in 1437, 1439 and 1520 respectively.

Horsebridge: the oldest surviving bridge across the river?

Higher up the river at Launceston is probably the oldest crossing at Polson Bridge, first built maybe in the 1100s. What we see there now is not the original. It was rebuilt in 1835 and then again later by the Victorians, who stuck a rather ugly iron span incongruously between two stone piers. In 1934 this was replaced by a more aesthetically pleasing concrete arch faced with masonry. In 1976 the pressure of the growing traffic over Polson Bridge was eased by the Launceston bypass. Hardly anyone would now notice the bridge the road sweeps across if it weren’t for the sign welcoming people to Cornwall.

Demonstration for Cornish rights at Polson Bridge

Above Polson Bridge in the higher reaches of the Tamar we find the majority – 16 or 17 – of the bridges. Some are medieval. Druxton Bridge is claimed to date from 1370. Alfardisworthy New Bridge looks medieval and it must have replaced an earlier ‘old’ bridge. Others have been rebuilt, for example the bridge at Bridgerule in 1923. Higher New Bridge at Netherton was supplemented by a stronger road bridge in 1985. Boyton Bridge was first built in 1614 as a timber structure, then replaced by a stone bridge, then in 1975 cast iron and finally in 2005 by a concrete span.

Bridges galore! And that’s not to mention the three dismantled late nineteenth century railway bridges across the Tamar or the fine railway viaduct at Calstock, built in the 1890s. So when someone next says the answer to all our ills is to blow up the Tamar road bridge at Saltash (built in 1961), remind them about the other 22.

Calstock viaduct

Pisky-led? Piskies and Cornish difference

Pixies or piskies are little people, about knee-high. They live in the otherworld and are usually invisible to humans. But if you look very carefully you might just spot them cavorting around in circles on a remote moor at the dead of night. Sometimes they will help farmers and others with their chores; sometimes they lead people astray, into bogs or even down mine shafts.

Illustration from Botterel’s book of folk tales, published in 1873. These are knockers, fairies who lived in the mines

There were many tales of pixies (or piskies) in the nineteenth century. They were temperamental denizens of the otherworld. They might help folk gather grain or give humans delicious gifts of food. But equally they could punish them for spying on their antics or just have fun playing malicious jokes on the big people.

Pisky legends were common to both Cornwall and Devon in the 1800s and early 1900s, when many such stories were collected. One collector – Robert Hunt – claimed that Cornish pixies were ‘darker’ than those of Devon, more mischievous, generally naughtier. A recent article by Ronald James, Nevada-based expert on Cornish folklore, investigates pixy legends in Cornwall. He finds that, although such tales have a common bedrock, there were subtle differences in their narratives. In particular, tales that were collected in the far west of Cornwall showed significant differences from those from Devon.

This leads him to conclude that there was little free interchange of such narratives up and down the south-western peninsula. This he explains by the geographical isolation of west Cornwall and also its legacy of linguistic difference.

For more on this article see my summary here.

Cornish surnames in the 1500s

From this point on in my weekly surname blogs, I intend to work through the names in The Surnames of Cornwall, providing maps of their distribution in the sixteenth century, if not already covered in previous blogs. I’ll deal with one to four surnames (depending on their frequency) in each blog. If such maps already exist for the name I’ll give the link to the relevant blog.

You can find maps of their nineteenth century distributions here.

We start with the following …

A map of the surname Allen in the sixteenth century can be found here.

Andrew or Androw was fairly common in the 1500s and as would be expected was widely found.

Andrewartha did not appear as a surname until the 1600s.

The distribution of Angilley may help pin down which kelly or gelly, meaning a grove of trees, it originated from.