More rare Cornish surnames

Skin is an occupational surname, short for Skinner. Its origin in Cornwall is unambiguous. Several men named Skin lived in the parishes around Saltash in 1544. Later, the surname cropped up further west, which may indicate migration or could just be independent examples of this variant. Nonetheless, south-east Cornwall remained the preferred home for this name, with the majority of the handful of Skin families in 1861 being found in the parish of Menheniot.

The other two surnames come from placenames. Sparnon or spernan is the Cornish word for a thorn tree. There are at least five places with this name. Interestingly however, the first record I have, a David Sparnon at St Clement next to Truro, was not living in one of those five places. Perhaps there is a lost place-name, but otherwise the nearest Sparnon to Truro is either Redruth or Budock. In fact Breage was the centre of this family name in the 1500s. From there it either spread east and west or there were multiple simultaneous origins. In 1641 the name was found spaced quite widely from Gwinear and Gunwalloe in the west to Lanhydrock and St Blazey in the east. However, the Sparnons of the central mining district were the most prolific and by 1861 the name was found only in the Camborne-Redruth area.

Spettigue was first found as Spetego in North Tamerton, on the border with Devon. After the mid-1500s it spread from there to other parts of north-east Cornwall, where it was still most common in 1861. Meanwhile the name had mutated from Spetego to Spettigue by the 1580s as it moved out of North Tamerton. But it has an earlier history. Despite its location it’s from a Cornish placename – Trespettigue in Altarnun. It had presumably migrated eastwards from there between the 1300s and 1500s. Trespettigue was found as Trespethegou in 1401 and Rospethigou in 1332. Ros means a moor but spethegou or pethegou is less clear. Could it be from spethas – brambles, meaning something like moor of the little bramble patches?

Cornish surnames of the far west and the far east

One might be excused for assuming that the surname Sangwin must have a Cornish language derivation – gwin meaning white. However, its past geography quickly dispels such a notion. John Sangwin was found at Launcells, on the border with Devon, in 1525. The surname was recorded as early as the 1270s at Whimple in east Devon, where it was previously used as a first name. Presumably this was a nickname from the Old French/Middle English word sanguine, meaning an optimistic or cheery sort of person. If so, optimism seems to have been confined to the very margins of Cornwall. The surname flourished from the 1500s to the 1700s in just two districts, the far north east and an area to the south of Launceston. In 1861 half of the Sangwins were still living in the Stratton district.

Captain Sampson Shakerley was buried at St Just in Penwith in 1681. Before this his surname was unknown in Cornwall. The captain – it’s not clear whether he was a naval, military or a mining captain – must have brought his family with him, as Mary Shakerley was married at St Just in 1686 and the name then made a regular appearance in the St Just parish registers. It remained confined there into the 1800s. It appears that the Shakerleys arrived in St Just in the 1600s and then stayed put for over a century before tentatively venturing into the less civilised parts of Cornwall. There is a place called Shakerley in Lancashire, near Leigh. Did the Cornish Shakerleys come from there? Any information would be very welcome.

In contrast, some surnames showed very little propensity to migrate. Shearm is one. The meaning of this name is unclear – is it an occupational name with a link to shear, as in shearing sheep? But its geography is very clear. There were several Schermes in 1525, all living in the far north east of Cornwall. Where they stayed. All but one Sherme or Shearm family was still there in 1641 and even in 1861 three of the five Shearm families were found in the parishes of Stratton, Poughill and Kilkhampton.

Cornish surnames with origins in Penryn, Devon and France

The next three in our rare Cornish surnames series originated in places far apart. In fact, sufficiently far apart that we are able to display all three migrations on just one map.

Roskrow is a place near Penryn, meaning rough land or moor with a hut. Peter and John Rescrow in Penryn and St Gluvias in 1524 were presumably from this place. At some point between the 1640s and 1740s the Roscrow family name began to depart Penryn and migrate to the mining district of Camborne-Redruth, where it was found by the mid-eighteenth century.

Rouffignacs migrated later, arriving in Paul parish by 1775 when Elias Roufignett was baptised. Once in Newlyn, the Rouffignacs liked it so much few of them ever left. Rouffignac is a place found in western France and, as always, any French name is always assumed to be that of Huguenot refugees. Yet the main flight of Huguenots followed 1685 so perhaps the Rouffignacs arriving in Mount‘s Bay in the late 1700s came via somewhere else, or perhaps from the Channel Islands. For what it’s worth, Elias’s parents in 1775 had impeccably English names – William and Elizabeth – rather than French ones, ignoring the fact that William was originally Norman-French that is!

Saltern is supposedly an occupational name for someone working with salt. Whether that’s the case or not, the surname was more common in Devon than Cornwall and seems to have originated in north Devon near Torrington. This fits its Cornish geography, with the first Salterns making an appearance on the border at Bridgerule in the 1580s. From there they spread into east Cornwall, but not that far.

Three tricky Cornish surnames

Explanations for my next three rarer Cornish surnames are by no means clear-cut.

Reep is a name found in Cornwall from at least the 1540s, with John Reep at Antony and Thomas Ryppe at St Germans, echoing the presence of the same name just across the Tamar in Devon. It’s claimed to be occupational, from Old English repan, from which we get reaper or from hripe, for a pannier, applied possibly to a carrier. Whatever its meaning, the geography of the name in Cornwall is clear enough. It was confined to south-east Cornwall until the 1620s, by which time a branch had moved west to St Winnow, next to Lostwithiel. Despite a general drift to the Liskeard district in the eighteenth century, Reeps were back in south east Cornwall by 1861, at Calstock and St Dominick.

It’s been suggested that Repper was another version of Reep. Alternatively, it could be from the name for a fish seller or maybe a shortened version of the French placename Barripper or Bareppa, found at Camborne and Mawnan. Its early geography was very different from Reep, implying that in Cornwall at least there was no connection with that name. An origin at Barripper near Camborne isn’t impossible as the surname appears to have first arisen at Breage, only a few miles south. Also found on the Lizard in the 1600s, the spelling then usually became Ripper at Breage. With population growth there, the name – as Repper or Ripper – then dispersed quite widely across the west by the mid-1700s.

Rillstone is more of a puzzle. There is a place in Linkinhorne – Rillaton – that was once known as Risleton. However, the geography of the surname doesn’t suggest an origin in east Cornwall but in mid-Cornwall, around Wadebridge and St Columb Minor. This coastal location may imply it was imported from elsewhere. In the 1600s the name Risdon or Risden was also found in the same area. (There is a place called Risdon in north Devon). Just to confuse matters further the only example in the 1543 tax lists was found much further west – Roger Ryssdon at Cury on the Lizard. Rillstone and Risdon look to have been interchangeable. Both versions had scattered widely across Cornwall by 1861, leaving few clues to its origin or its earlier geography.

A trio of Cornish surnames – from the transparent to the obscure

Polgrean is a Cornish placename meaning gravel pit. It’s hardly uncommon, cropping up in at least eight parishes from Ludgvan in the west to St Veep in the east. By 1861 Polgreans were confined largely to West Penwith, with just single Polgrean households at Falmouth and St Germans. But in the seventeenth century there were many more Polgrenes in mid-Cornwall, which suggests multiple origins. Indeed, if we look at the earliest records, we find Polgrenes at St Mawgan, Newlyn East and at Wendron in the west, all parishes with this placename. Moreover, a cluster of Polgrenes east of Ludgvan and another instance on the Lizard strongly imply that Ludgvan and Cury were also origins of this surname.

Rabling is also a western surname, but more obscure. It seems to have arisen in the Camborne district somewhere between the mid-1600s and the early 1700s. It looks to be a diminutive form of Robert, via Rab – like Tamlyn, from Thomas. There is just one early example, Elinora Rablin, who was married at St Teath in 1587. This is miles away from Camborne and the absence of other Rablins implies there was no direct link.

Even more obscure is Raddall. The surname dictionaries suggest this might be a spelling of Redhill (a place in Surrey). It doesn’t seem likely that this explains John Redell’s name at Newlyn East in 1524. Reddel was found occasionally in mid-Cornwall thereafter, a John Redell being baptised at St Enoder in 1578, while the surname was present at Lanivet in 1641. But was there a link between these and the Redells and Radells found at Callington and south east Cornwall in the late 1500s? Furthermore, Raddles at Lezant near Launceston appear to be the origin of the nineteenth century Raddalls. Family history is required to connect all these up, if indeed they are connected. And is there any connection with the east Cornish (and Devonian) name Rodd? Were all of them originally from the same first name?

Locative Cornish surnames with a hint of mystery

While all three of the following surnames have their origin in placenames, or at least we assume they do, all three contain an element of mystery.

It’s been suggested that Penver, which looks immaculately Cornish, has its origin in Penmear or Penmeur, meaning a large hill-top. The only problem with this interpretation is that no-one can be found in the records with the name Penmear or similar. While we don’t know what Penver might mean, it originated to the west of St Austell Bay. Entries of Penvar are found in the parish registers at Mevagissey and St Ewe in the late 1600s and in 1641 Penvars were living in neighbouring Gorran. Here, there is a place called Penford Gate, pronounced Penver Gate in 1814. Unfortunately, there is no earlier spelling example. Moreover, intriguingly, there is a Penfold burial at Fowey as early as 1663. Which came first, Penford or Penver?

Permewan is an even more elusive name. Suggestions it came from Porthmewan founder on a lack of any supporting evidence. The surname first appeared at St Buryan in West Penwith, where a James Permewan was baptised in 1665. From there it spread eastwards, reaching as far as Redruth by 1861. But I can find no place called Permewan or anything similar in West Penwith and there is no earlier name that looks a likely candidate for re-spelling. Is it significant that the origin of Tremewan, a St Agnes name, is also shrouded in mystery?

Any theories on the two names above are welcome. Our third surname is more straightforward.

Pezzack is a surname now associated with Newlyn and Mousehole. Indeed, it first appeared there in the 1780s. However, although now largely confined to Mounts Bay, its history is more complicated and provides a fascinating example of migration. The word pezzack in Cornish means fly-infested or rotten/decayed, originally gwibesek, from gwebesen, middle Cornish for gnat or midge. The element appears in two placenames, Halabezack in Wendron and Carnpessack at St Keverne, places well to the east of Mounts Bay. In the 1520s we find folk called Halevesek at Wendron and Carnhesack or Cranepesack at St Keverne. The surname Halebesack had disappeared by the mid-1600s but Carnpesacks were found living at St Erth by the 1640s. From there they moved west to Madron in the 1710s and by the 1760s had ended up in Paul parish. At some point around the 1780s, the Carnpezzacks of Paul had decided their name was too long and shortened it to Pezzack.

Some Cornish surnames with single points of origin

My next three less common Cornish surnames all have obvious points of origin although in the case of the first this may be a district rather than a single parish.

Pawlyn is a pet form of Paul, retaining the conservative spelling of Pawl which was usual in the early 1500s. At that time people called Pawl or Pawly were found up and down Cornwall. However, Pawlyns were restricted to a narrow band of parishes close to the Tamar between Week St Mary in the north to Saltash in the south. It’s significant that this district was also home to many Rawlyns and Tomlyns, indicating a local preference for adding ‘lyn’ to a first name. Given that in this area surnames had been hereditary since the late 1300s, it’s difficult to pinpoint a precise point of origin. If there was one it looks likely to have been the South Petherwin/Lezant district south of Launceston. Most Pawlyns stayed in the far east, although a branch established itself in mid-Cornwall at Mevagissey in the 1610s.

Pendray was originally Pendre and means either town’s end or possibly the principal or top settlement. Only one example of this placename survives, Pendrea at St Buryan in West Penwith. However, the presence of the surname in mid-Cornwall at St Blazey and St Ervan in the 1520s suggests at least one other, possibly two, lost placenames in mid-Cornwall. In fact, St Blazey was the place where the surname Pendray emerged. As the name disappeared in the west during the 1500s, transformed into Pender, it became confined solely to mid-Cornwall.

Penfound is the most obvious of these three examples. Thomas and William Penffoun were members of the largest landowning family in Poundstcok in north Cornwall in 1543. Poundstock was the parish containing the place called Penfoun (meaning either hilltop with a beech tree or end of the beech trees) and by 1598 spelt Penfound. Some Penfounds migrated west to St Columb in the early 1600s but by the 1700s that branch had seemingly evaporated and the surname returned to cluster around its original home of Poundstock.