Three obviously Cornish toponyms. Or are they?

Here are three Cornish surnames. Their early distributions, clustered in one district, is the classic sign of a toponym, a surname that has its origin in a specific placename. But things may be more complicated than they seem.

Benallack is a placename that turns up in three Cornish parishes. It comes from the Cornish word for broom – banathel. Banathelek, the original spelling of the placename, means broomish or broom-like. This was clearly seen in the name of Reynold Banathelek at Probus in the early 1500s. By the 1590s it was being spelt Benallack, reflecting the changing pronunciation, and the surname had begun to move eastwards towards St Austell.

The early distribution of the name Behenna seems equally straightforward. In the early 1500s all the Behannows or Bahannows were living on the Roseland. But, while the geography of the name is plain enough, we can find no actual placename to explain it. Could it be from a personal name instead, like the contemporary names Higow, Dogow or Clemow?

Finally, we have the mysterious name Beckerleg. In 1881, 90 per cent of all the Beckerlegs in Britain were found in Cornwall. A classically Cornish name then. Or perhaps not.

The name Beckerledge was first recorded in Paul parish, on Mount’s Bay, in the 1620s. In the 1641 Protestation lists there were just five adult men named Beckaleg, four of them at Paul and one in neighbouring Penzance. By the mid-1700s however the name was both ramifying and dispersing eastwards, as the map shows.

When writing my The Surnames of Cornwall I speculated wildly but with little hard evidence. The late appearance of the name and the coastal location suggested that it may have arrived from elsewhere. Since then, I have been informed that there were Beckalecks living in Black Torrington in north Devon in 1553/54, well before their appearance in west Cornwall.

Eureka! This looks like the source of the West Penwith Beckalegs, although the route from north Devon to Newlyn is unknown and the motives remain obscure. Nonetheless, we might now slightly more firmly conclude that the surname came from Devon and derives from an English placename (possibly one meaning Becca’s stream or bog) but then evolved into a Cornish surname.

I’m indebted to John Beckerleg for the information on the Devonian Beckalecks.

For maps of these names in 1861 see here.

2 thoughts on “Three obviously Cornish toponyms. Or are they?

  1. Thanks for the article and acknowledgement. I do find your articles really interesting – keep them coming. Best wishes John


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