Sometimes the modern distribution of a surname gives few clues to the origin of a name. Sometimes it does. Those surnames derived from places seem the most clear-cut. But even then, if there are several examples of places of the same name, which one, or ones, gave rise to the surname? Let’s take one example and see what the historical data tell us.
Polglase or Polglaze, meaning green/blue pool, is a common placename in Cornwall, with at least 12 examples. Here they are.
Although the placenames are quite widely distributed, by the 1950s two thirds of those named Polglaze were found in the far west, with the largest number living in the parish of Breage. Given this pattern, we might think the origin of the surname lay in the far west and then spread out from there. Did it?
In the 18th century and in 1861 the picture was similar, with the majority of Polglase households living between Penzance and Helston. At both periods by far the greatest number were found in Breage.
But if we look at the picture in the 1500s and add the placenames back to the map we can see that at least half of the places had in fact given rise to surnames, those on the Roseland seemingly being the exception. Although the parish of Breage did not have this placename, the surname was presumably introduced there from the nearby parishes of Crowan and Wendron, and then multiplied the most vigorously, producing the western bias of later centuries.
If you’re called Polglase or Polglaze therefore, although it’s possible your remote ancestors came from mid or east Cornwall, the distribution of the name in the past tells us it’s far likelier they had an origin in the west. However, this wasn’t the parish that’s been home to more Polglases than any other. Not Breage but Crowan or Wendron. The recent distribution of a surname may well give a good clue as to origins but for a fuller picture it’s essential to go back in time.