Three surnames from the Fal district

The nineteenth century distribution of a surname is sometimes a good guide to its point of origin, sometimes less so. Take the following three names, which are all likely to have begun life in the district around the Fal estuary in south Cornwall.

Mankee was a name associated entirely with west Cornwall in 1861, with four of the six families of this name living on the Lizard, or at Helston and Falmouth. The surname had not moved far. It comes from the place called Mankea near Penryn (meaning hedge stones). For 250 years after 1524 when John Mynke was found at St Gluvias, it remained around Budock and immediately to the south across the Helford estuary, before venturing (a little) further afield.

Matta is probably a pet form of Matthew. In the 1520s there were lots of men called Mathy but only one named Mata – John Mata at St Just in Roseland. Earlier, in 1460, we find a Walter Mata at St Keverne. It’s quite likely that one or both of these was the ancestor of all later Mattas (the additional t appeared in the early 1600s). Most were found at St Just in Roseland until the 1700s when Mattas seem to have headed east along the coast towards St Austell Bay.

Mewton is a little more problematic. In 1861, although there were only eight households headed by someone called Mewton, the family name was scattered over a wide area of mid and west Cornwall, from Bodmin to the Lizard. In the 1540s it was found as Mewdon or Meudyn but restricted to Probus and the Roseland district. This was across the Fal from Mawnan, where there is a place called Meudon (unidentified element+ fort). This was spelt Meuthyn in the 1500s and we find a Jane Muthon living there in 1543.

The name Mewden then drifted east in the 1500s and 1600s, to St Columb Major by the 1700s, by which time it also began to be spelt -ton rather than -don. The only question mark about all this is the relatively early appearance of the name Mewton at St Mabyn in 1597, well to the east of Mawnan. Does this indicate a separate, additional origin for the modern name?

Cornish surnames where the spelling obscures the origin

Sometimes the changing spellings of surnames can tend to confuse us.

The first example is fairly obvious. The name Lidgey began life in the early 1600s in Redruth and on the Lizard (where it was more likely to be Ludgy). It doesn’t take a great deal of detective work to find the placename Lidgey at St Gluvias, spelt Lugie in 1613. Earlier, in 1342, this was spelt Lusy, the/s/ being pronounced /dg/ in Cornish by the later 1500s. (The placename is either from les, plant, or possibly lus, bilberries.) Sure enough, in the 1540s there was a John Lusye living at St Gluvias.

Lanxon is much more ambiguous. It’s been suggested that it comes from Lanson (the town). But it’s more likely to have originated in the English placename Langstone or Longstone. Admittedly, early spellings are ambiguous. Walter and William Lanston were found at Blisland and Camelford on the north west fringes of Bodmin Moor in 1543. While that might indicate they hailed from Lanson, there is also, significantly, a place called Langstone in the parish of Blisland. There were also folk called Langston or Langstone in various places in south-east Cornwall in the late 1500s and early 1600s, no doubt from another two places called Langstone to the east of Bodmin Moor.

During the later 1500s Langstone became the most common spelling and the variant Lanxon also emerged, both found in roughly the same two areas. However, while Langstone in the south east seems to have died out by the 1700s, Lanxon prospered in the district around Blisland. This strongly implies the modern Lanxons are likely to be able to trace their ancestry back to the place Langstone in Blisland.

Loam is the most puzzling of these three names. Its first appearance was not until the beginning of the 1700s in St Agnes. However, before that date several people named Lome are found in the records. This was clearly the original spelling, but its meaning is not obvious. The geography of the surname before the mid-1600s doesn’t give us many clues but also doesn’t preclude a Cornish language origin. But what?

More Cornish surname puzzles

Actually, two of the following are not too puzzling. Their point of origin seems clear enough even if their later geography is less so.

Keskeys is the most straightforward. It clearly originated in the place of the same name in St Erth parish. That was spelt Caerskes in 1363, which takes us closer to the Cornish meaning of a shady or sheltered fort (caer = fort, skes = shade or shadow). The surname itself made a relatively late appearance in the records in 1641. There were a handful of Keskes, Keskeys and Keskeas, one venturing as far as Padstow, but the majority remained in the St Hilary/Ludgvan district neighbouring St Erth.

Lambrick is another surname derived from a place. But which place? There are two places now called Lambourne, one at Ruanlanihorne and the other at Perranzabuloe. This originally meant either a holy site on a hill (lanbron) or a pool by rushes (lynbron). The Lanbron at Perrranzabuloe was split into two settlements as population grew in the 1200s or early 1300s. One was called Lanbronmur (great Lanbron) and the other Lanbronwegha or Lanbronwigen (from Lanbronvean or little Lanbron?) The development of the name Lanbronwegha to Lambriggan by 1584 provides a model for the Lambrick surname.

Lambourne and Lambriggan at Perranzabuloe in 1879

Sir William Lambron, who owned the Lambourne manor in the 1390s, shows this was an early family name. But the earliest example of Lambrike in 1525 was not found at Perranzabuloe but at Tregony, near the other Lambourne at Ruanlanihorne. There we also find Pascoe Lambourne in 1543. In the seventeenth century Lambricks moved west, to Truro, and then on to Constantine. They didn’t stop there; in the mid-eighteenth century marriage registers the name was most frequent on the Lizard.

There are speculative suggestions that the surname Kinver had an origin in the Cornish language, possibly involving the element keyn (ridge). However, its historical geography suggests another story. The surname Kenver was indeed found early, and in the west. Thomas and Blanch Kenver at Sithney in 1524 and 1543 could be evidence for a Cornish language derivation. Later, in the 1570s Kenvers popped up at Bodmin. And then there was a 200-year gap.

No Kenvers or Kinvers were recorded in the registers until the 1760s. They then appeared well to the east, at Jacobstow in the north and Treneglos and South Petherwin near Launceston. While there were no Kinvers earlier in 1641, there were Kinners and Kenners at South Petherwin and around Launceston. It looks as if the name Kinver evolved from Kinner, which was originally Kenner. There is a place called Kennerleigh in Devon, based on the Old English personal name Cyneweard. Is this a more likely source?

Were Cornish speakers slower to add an -s to their name?

Because the practice of adding an -s to a personal name that then became a surname first arose in England and within English-speaking communities, one might assume that non-English speakers were slower to adopt it. It didn’t stop them eventually doing so, of course. Quite the contrary, as the number of Williamses or Evanses in Wales in the 1600s and 1700s attest. That came as Welsh-speakers were transforming their traditional naming system into hereditary surnames on the general European pattern.

But what about Cornwall? Here’s a hypothesis. Cornish-speakers more belatedly added an -s than did their English-speaking compatriots, who had embraced the -s much earlier. As we saw in the previous blog, for most patronyms this change was about half-completed in the mid-1600s. So maps of distributions in 1641 ought to give us a picture of its geography. At that point the Cornish language was still in use west of Truro, had probably largely ceased a generation or so earlier in mid-Cornwall and had been defunct east of Bodmin since the 1300s at the latest.

Here are two maps, one for Richard/Richards and the other for Robert/Roberts.

Hmmm. Richard/s may support my model, although numbers are low in the east. But Robert/s doesn’t appear to do so. What do you think? Perhaps the presence of an -s was merely the result of the preference or whim of the local literate elite.

When did William (or Richard or Robert or … ) add an -s to his name?

Some of our most common surnames in Cornwall were very uncommon 500 years ago. Take the names Williams and Richards for example. Nowadays these are the the most frequent surnames found among the native Cornish. In the 1540s there were hardly any examples of people named Williams or Richards. But of course there were scores called just William or Richard, without the -s.

When was the final possessive -s added? This practice had first appeared in some English regions in the later 1200s and became particularly common in the west midlands in the 1300s and 1400s. That geography helps to explain why later, in the 1600s and 1700s, when Welsh speakers adopted hereditary surnames they looked for examples to their neighbours across Offa’s Dyke and favoured names such as Williams, Jones or Evans.

As the table below shows, in Cornwall in the 1540s the practice had yet to appear, with the sole exceptions of Harries or Harris for Harry and Hicks for Hick (a short form of Richard).

1540s1640s1740s
Williams1%85%99%
Richards0%51%98%
Harris12%52%71%
Martin0%0%4%
Robert1%58%99%
Stephen0%57%100%
Rogero%39%100%
Bennett0%0%33%
Philip (including Philp)0%44%78%
Johns0%13%69%
Davi(e)s1%7%38%
Hicks5%90%94%
Names with -s as a % of all examples of patronym

By the 1640s the transition was well underway. By the 1740s, the process was complete for most names and William, Richard and Robert had become Williams, Richards and Roberts.

There were a few exceptions. Martin (and Allen) did not experience the addition and it only partially occurred for Bennett. Moroever, the development of the separate surname Philp in the the later 1500s meant that Philips did not become universal.

Patronyms such as Williams, Richards (or Thomas) were more common in west than in east Cornwall. As in Wales, this was a result of the relatively late formation of hereditary surnames among the Celtic-speaking community. But did Cornish and English speaking zones also differ in the speed they adopted -s? I shall look at that issue in the next blog.

Some surnames that don’t look Cornish but are

There are several surnames that give few hints of their Cornish provenance. It often comes as a surprise to learn that they have impeccably Cornish pedigrees.

The name Hurdon for example has a long history. William Hurdon was living at Lezant, next to the Tamar, in 1544 and he had a namesake in the neighbouring parish of North Hill. North Hill became the core district for Hurdons until the 1700s, when this family name began to spread. Its early geography proves the origin was the placename Hurdon, found at Altarnun and at Launceston. This looks English but is actually thought to be from the Cornish language, meaning fort of the ram.

Kelway is clearly a spelling variant of Callaway. But perhaps we should turn that around as Callaway was an eighteenth-century development of Calway and Kelway merely an alternative spelling for Calway. This name was widely dispersed from an early point, but the main location of Kelways was in the west, at Lelant and on the Lizard. Meanwhile, Calways were more likely to be found in north Cornwall. The name is claimed to have an origin in a place in Normandy.

Hubber doesn’t have such a long history but appears to have been coined in Cornwall. The name appeared very late, in the Newquay area in the 1810s. It’s been explained as a dialect form of the surname Hubert, of which there were no representatives in Cornwall before the 1700s. If an unfamiliar name arrived in a district, it could be more prone to being re-spelt.

Cornish names with Devon roots

Two of the next three in my ‘rare Cornish surnames’ series have their roots east of the Tamar or straddle the border, while the third may possibly also fit that same category.

There is a small hamlet called Crowden near Northlew, a few miles north west of Okehampton. This name, spelt Growden, was already found in Cornwall in the 1500s – at St Neot – and in the 1600s moved into mid-Cornwall. Unless there is a lost placename in or near St Neot with this English name, probably meaning crow’s down or hill, it must indicate a migration from Crowden in Devon. Although the Growden family name settled down to the mid-Cornwall district, it was relatively dispersed.

The opposite was the case for Gubbin. This first appeared in the records as Gubbing, losing the -g by around 1600. It’s thought to be a form of Gibbon, itself from Gib, which was in turn a short form of Gilbert. While there were a few people called Gib, Gibb and Gibbs in east Cornwall in the sixteenth century there’s no convincing geographical relationship. The name Gubbin(g) was first recorded from the 1570s or thereabouts at North Tamerton, next to the border, suggesting a local cross-border spelling variant. It remained remarkably loyal to the parishes north of Launceston and was still found only there three hundred years later.

Finally, what about Henna? With its -a, this looks as if it should be name associated with the Cornish language community. But was it? It’s been proposed it came from Henn, a short form of Henry, or perhaps from Hann, from Johan (John). Or maybe it originated in the English word hen, a female version of the common surname Cock. Or was it from the Cornish word henna, meaning elder or senior? This last is unlikely as it didn’t crop up until the 1700s, usually spelt Hennah.

It was clearly linked to the parishes of Mevagissey and Gorran and a scatter of other nearby coastal locations. Its earlier absence suggests it wasn’t an example of the conservative custom of tacking an -a onto a personal name – as in Jacka. Nor did it stem from an earlier Henno, along the lines of Clemo/Clyma, as the name Henno isn’t found in early records. Given its coastal location, had it arrived in Cornwall by sea from somewhere further east? Was it perhaps a version of the name Anna? It may be significant that in 1861 there were as many Henna/hs in and around London as in Cornwall.