Two recent surname queries demonstrate how studying the early distribution of a name can complement the detailed researches of the family historian.
The first query asked whether an ancestor in Manaccan on the Lizard in the late 1500s could have been linked to the Penrose estate near Helston. Penrose has featured here before and I have to admit a personal interest, as it was the name of my grandmother. The surname comes from the placename meaning end of the heath in Cornish. There are several examples, at least 11, found from Sennen in the far west to North Petherwin in the far east.
Two of the Penrose placenames are close to the Lizard, while there are no examples on that peninsula itself. The first is at Sithney, to the west of Helston. This was indeed the parish in which John Penrose built his house near to Loe Pool in the 1600s. However, there is another Penrose at Budock, just across the Helford from Manaccan and somewhat closer. The early geography of the name suggests the Penroses on the Lizard would have originated either in Sithney or in Budock. If the former there may well have been a connection at some point with the John Penrose of the Penrose estate. If the latter, then there would not have been.
The second query concerned the origin of Provis, a very different surname. Unlike the name Penrose, which was common in the records from before 1500, this name only began to appear, usually spelt as Proves or Provos, in the early 1600s. Thomas Proves was buried at St Gluvias in 1609. This relatively late appearance implies the name evolved from another name or was imported from elsewhere. At St Gluvias, within a year of the burial of Thomas we find another, this time of Nicholas Provost. Similarly, at Helston we find the surname Provist while at nearby Breage there were folk called Provos.
The simultaneous presence of the names Proves/Provos and Provost strongly suggests the former was a development of the word provost, a nickname from the name for a church administrator. It may be no coincidence that the seventeenth century Provises were all found close to major churches, St Gluvias/Penryn being home to Glasney College before the 1540s, a place that would have housed a real provost.
If you have a query about the origins or early presence of a surname why not let me know. It could be the subject of a future blog.