The history of two Cornish surnames, one common and one rare

There were two enquiries this week about surnames from the opposite ends of the spectrum. One is in my surnames book; the other isn’t. One is very common; the other very rare. The two surnames are Roberts and Matta. I’ve mentioned both before in these blogs but let’s re-visit them.

Robert was a personal name introduced by Norman influence and then conquest. Along with other Norman-French names such as William and Richard it became a popular first name for men and by the 1400s had become a common surname.

The early sixteenth century tax lists show it was present in many Cornish parishes by that date, although absent from north Cornwall. Numbers grew over the following century and the name ramified in south-east Cornwall, producing two distinctive concentrations, one in the east and the other in mid and west Cornwall. By 1861 it was Cornwall’s eighth most common surname. For a map of the distribution in 1861 see here.

In the 1500s virtually all those people with this name were plain Robert, without the -s. By 1641 59% were Roberts, the other 41% Robert. The addition of an -s seems to have been almost complete by the mid-1700s when only three brides out of 477 in the marriage registers were named Robert rather than Roberts.

The rare surname is Matta. An early bearer of this name was Walter Mata, who was renting a smallholding at St Keverne in 1460. Other Matas could be found in the tax lists of 1524/25 at Wendron and at St Just in Roseland. In addition, there was a John Mathowe also on the Roseland at Philleigh and a William Mathowe at Fowey. Their names were likely to have been based on the pet form of Matthew and were similar to the surnames Sandow (from Alexander) and Clemo (from Clement). The -ow then tended to became -a in speech (as sometimes happened to Clemo and often occurred in surnames derived from placenames.)

Matta became confined to the Roseland peninsula and particularly St Just during the 1500s. It then later moved to the east, found at St Ewe, Mevagissey and St Austell. However, there is a slight mystery as the name disappeared from the St Just registers after 1699 and did not re-emerge at St Ewe until 1818. In the eighteenth century however, there were folk named Matter at St Ewe from 1725. It appears that, on migrating eastwards the surname may have undergone a temporary spelling change.

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