Why are there so many Williamses in Cornwall?

Williams was (and probably still is) the most frequently occurring surname in Cornwall. The last blog looked at an exceptional family with this name. This one reviews the more common Williamses. Williams, like Thomas, Richards, Harris and others, is relatively common in Cornwall (as in Wales) because hereditary surnames were sometimes adopted later, when the norm was to base them on a first name, eventually adding an -s. The surname Williams did NOT come from Wales; the frequency of the surname in Cornwall is the result of a similar process as in Wales.

In the Protestation returns of 1641 we find the name Williams or William in most parishes across Cornwall. But, as the Cornish-speaking communities often adopted hereditary surnames up to 200 years after English-speaking east Cornwall, we should expect to find that the proportions of Williamses were far higher in the west. And they were. The highest incidence was at St Buryan, as far west as you can go. There, almost seven per cent of adult men had the surname William or Williams. In most of Cornwall east of Bodmin it was just one per cent and usually far lower.

2 thoughts on “Why are there so many Williamses in Cornwall?

  1. Interesting – its always been said that patronymics were more common in Penwith, because they were still running on the patronymic system when the Tudor tax collectors turned up in the 1520s and gave everyone a surname Guess this proves it. .

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  2. This is very interesting and the statistics/maps really help. A good point also regarding patronymics and the Tudors – not just Penwith but the Lizard also was a last point for the “old ways”. In the 1522 Subsidy Roll for Constantine parish, for example, you can find Gilbert Carweddros and David Gylbart appearing together – but in the 1524 version they become Gilbert Carweddres and David Carweddres (plus “Henry his servant” so the Carweddres family must have been doing well enough). David in 1522 was using his father’s first name as his second name, but in 1524 it was fixed as Carweddres.
    An additional thought/question – how many Welsh Williamses (or Jenkins, Roberts, etc.) actually have Cornish ancestors who migrated for work, etc.? I know quite a few Gilberts (originally Cornish Jelberts/Jelbards) did.

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