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.

Rare Cornish surnames explained. Perhaps.

Edward Bickerley was buried at St Ives in 1854. A few years later the only three Bickerley households appearing in the 1861 census were found less than ten miles to the east, at Gwinear. Was this distinctively Cornish yet very rare family name a respelling of Bickley (from the placename in Devon)? There were early Bickleys in Cornwall, but they lived far away, in north-east Cornwall. A much more likely origin is a respelling of Beckerleg, a name that emerged at Newlyn and Penzance and was mainly confined to West Penwith. The meaning of Beckerleg remains a mystery.

People called Fitz were mentioned in a will of 1512, made by a resident of St Allen, near Truro. It’s from the Norman-French for son, from the Latin filius. Usually the first name remained attached, as in Fitzgerald for example, but not in Cornwall, where Fitz was found as a standalone surname. Although a John Fitz lived at Bodmin in 1525, the heartland of the Fitz family name was on the other side of Bodmin Moor, at Lezant south of Launceston. From there the name spread across south-east Cornwall.

Frayne was another east Cornish name. It’s claimed to be a name for someone living by an ash tree, from the Old French fraisne. Frayne made its Cornish debut quite late, not being recorded until the 1620s, and then at North Tamerton, on the border with Devon. Devon was in fact the origin of this name and in 1881 contained four times as many Frayne families as did Cornwall. The map of Fraynes in 1861 clearly indicates the Devonian connection.

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Cornish surname conundrums and questions

What’s the origin of these three rare Cornish surnames?

The first Drowns were recorded close to the Tamar at Stoke Climsland and Lezant in 1544. Then a smattering of people with this surname popped up at various places across Cornwall in the later 1500s and 1600s in no particular pattern. Either the first Drowns were especially prone to migration or this was a fashionable nickname from the English word drone (as in bee), applied to an idle person and appearing simultaneously in separate places.

The name Fradd was originally Frodd. A William Frodde was living at St Kew in 1525 and a Thomas Frod was found in the same parish in 1543. By the middle of the 1600s Frodd had become Fradd. The family name had not strayed far however, as most Fradds were still living in mid-Cornwall in the district between St Minver on the north coast and Lostwithiel. Was there some connection to the placename Fraddon, some miles west at St Enoder? This placename, meaning place of the stream, was spelt Frodan in 1356. Did Frodd emerge as a short version of Frodan?

Goninans were relatively late arrivals on the surname scene. The first record I have found was Wilmot Goninnin who was buried at Breage in 1639. All Goninins before 1650 were found in the parish of Breage, where the surname had clearly originated. Was this family name linked to the place Tregonning, a farm that gave its name to the nearby hill, known as Conyn or Conin in 1540? Had the old Celtic personal name Conan or Conyn survived into this period in the Cornish language?

Tanners, talkers and trappers? Three Cornish nicknames.

These three rare Cornish surnames originated in nicknames or occupational names.

Croggon is usually assumed to come for the Cornish word croghen (leather or skin) and be a name for a tanner. Its connection with Grampound’s tanning industry and its concentration in Grampound and Creed until the 1800s look to prove the point. The only slight doubt is that the name didn’t appear in the records until 1700, when Jacob Croggan was buried at Creed. This implies it arose in the late 1600s, which seems quite late for a surname to be derived from the Cornish language this far east.

Flamank was a family name well established at Bodmin in the middle ages. John Flamank, who had been MP for Bodmin, was one of the commissioners appointed to oversee the collection of the subsidy of 1525. His elder and more famous brother, lawyer Thomas Flamank, had been one of the leaders of the Cornish rising in 1497. Thomas’s execution for treason didn’t seem to affect the fortunes of the family however. The surname came from the French word for Flemish speaker. In the 1500s there was some switching between Flamank and the English version Fleming, which was found in the west, at Penryn and Helston, and in mid-Cornwall around St Blazey. By the 1600s Flamank had dislodged Fleming, apart from at Penzance. The name remained concentrated in mid-Cornwall, with its core area between Padstow on the north coast and Bodmin and Lostwithiel.

Gynn could either be from the Old French word for skill and ingenuity and been given to an inventive person. Or it may have arisen from the middle English for a snare or trap and been used as a name for a trapper. It was present in Cornwall as early as 1544, when Thomas Gyn was listed at Launceston. The Launceston district remained the centre of this surname into the 1600s, although a few examples began to penetrate mid-Cornwall from the 1590s.

More rare Cornish surnames

Here are three relatively rare surnames that don’t appear in my book. All three were more likely to be met with in the 1600s in mid-Cornwall, on the north coast. Two of them definitely stem from placenames while the third is uncertain.

The place Carevick in Cubert, near present-day Newquay, gave rise to the surname Carrivick. The place was originally called Crowarthevick (hut next to the summer-land). It was spelt as such in 1529, five years after a William Crowarthelek [sic] was listed in the same parish. As local knowledge of the Cornish language faded, the name of the place was shortened to Carrevicke by 1602. The surname followed suit. It lingered in the Newquay area until the end of the 1600s, before moving south-east to Ladock in the 1710s. There it multiplied.

Carevick in 1879

Docton was a later arrival, not appearing in numbers until the 1670s, after which it ramified in the parishes of St Ervan and St Mabyn, to the west and east of the Camel estuary respectively. Yet its presence in that district from 1637 at the latest is a bit misleading. It was first recorded in Cornwall in 1603, when Jane Docton was married at Kilkhampton, in the far north. In the 1650s there were also marriages of Doctons at Launceston. This first appearance in north-east Cornwall points to an origin in the place Docton in Hartland, just across the border in Devon. Those around the Camel estuary may have arrived there by sea from north Devon in the early 1600s.

More problematic is the surname Chivell. There were early examples of the name – Richard Chevell at St Minver in 1525 and John Chyvall at Cubert in 1543. The spelling Chyvall may look reminiscent of a Cornish placename, but there is nothing similar in mid-Cornwall. Many of the earliest Chivalls and (the most frequent spelling) Chevalls were found in Padstow, across the water from St Minver. But there were also Chivells at Boyton, far away to the east and next to the Tamar.

While two thirds of Chivells in the UK lived in Cornwall in 1881, most of the other third were found in Devon. There, Kivell is a more common surname than in Cornwall and there is some evidence that the /k/ in Kivell could be pronounced /ch/. Was Chivell a version of Kivell and had the Cornish Chivells arrived in mid-Cornwall from Devon?

And what does the name mean? There is an old Celtic name Cuvel (as in Nancekivell), but there’s also a place in Wiltshire called Keevil, also spelt Chivele in Domesday Book.

Three more Cornish surname puzzles. Or are they?


Apart from the isolated example of Alice Copling, buried at St Columb in 1632, the name Coplyn first appeared in the Falmouth district in the 1670s and 1680s with baptisms and marriages at Mabe, Budock and St Gluvias. Does this geography, near the Fal estuary, indicate that it had arrived by sea? Is it relevant that the other place in which this name was found in numbers in the late 1800s was Norfolk? Its meaning is anyone’s guess. Any suggestions?


It’s been suggested that this surname may be from a crowder, or fiddler. This is unlikely. It appeared in Cornwall very late. Christian Crothers was baptised at Redruth in 1763 and the name then spread to neighbouring Illogan and by the end of the century west to St Hilary. It’s more likely to have been a local spelling of the name Carruthers, which supposedly has a Scottish origin.


Cunnack is unlikely to be a nickname from the Cornish word for clever – connek – as is sometimes claimed. This is because it was found nowhere in the Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall in the 1500s or early 1600s. Yet it was present in Cornwall from early times.

The surname Connack or Connek was limited in the early 1500s to the Liskeard district in the east. It remained in that area until 1641 when a Nicholas Connock was buried at Truro. It then turned up further west at Madron in 1649. The first spelling of Cunnack appeared there, with Alice Cunnack, married at Madron in 1705. From that parish the surname Cunnack spread to St Ives by the 1730s. It’s more likely therefore that Cunnack is a local spelling of Connack or Connock, as the vowel /o/ often became /u/. But what’s the origin of Connock? The early concentrated distribution in south east Cornwall may imply an origin in a placename. Could it possibly be from a shortened version of Boconnoc, a few miles west of Liskeard?