Extending the definition of Cornish surnames

Here are two surnames that haven’t appeared in either book or blogs. The reason they didn’t feature is because they are more common in places outside Cornwall and neither reached the number of 1861 household heads required for inclusion. Yet both were present by the middle of the 1600s and have a long history in Cornwall.

The first record I can find of the name Yeats is the burial of Arthur Yates at Boscastle in north Cornwall in 1627. From there this surname, more likely to be spelt Yeats in Cornwall than Yates, had by the mid-1700s dispersed to mid and west Cornwall. Over half the Yeats households were then found in the Wadebridge district of mid-Cornwall. By 1861 however, it had ramified in Camborne, a reflection of the population expansion there caused by the mining boom. As a result, the centre of gravity of the name in Cornwall shifted even further west.

Our second name – Watts – was present in large numbers at an earlier point, as early as the 1520s. It was then usually just Watt, with just a handful of parishes in east Cornwall showing the additional -s. By 1641 that had completely turned around, with only two Watt men listed (at Feock), the other 44 being Watts. The name was quite widely dispersed in Cornwall by the 1800s. However, it’s clear that it was most concentrated on the Isles of Scilly. It was present there in numbers in the 1730s. Lack of early records prevents us from deciding whether it was taken to Scilly from Cornwall, or arrived from somewhere else, or emerged independently.

Both names have generally accepted origins. Yeats is from the word gate, given to someone living by a gate or possibly to someone who was a gatekeeper. Watts is from the popular medieval first name Wat, a short form of Walter.

Maps for the surnames Guy and Ivey

Many thanks to the various readers who have requested information on surnames. Only four of the 18 requests received were not included in The Surnames of Cornwall. These four have now been covered in the last two surname blogs here and here.

The other requests have not been forgotten. I will place a previously unpublished distribution map for each of these, two at a time.

Here are the first two. You can find maps of these in 1861 for comparison here.

In the meantime, if you want information on a surname that hasn’t appeared in my book or been a subject of a previous blog do let me know.

Two surnames in Cornwall: a study in contrasts

The next two requests for information on the history of surnames in Cornwall bring together a starkly contrasting pair. One is fairly common; the other relatively rare. One was present early in east Cornwall before dispersing more widely; the other arrived late and remained mainly restricted to a small district. One has its origin in a first name; the other in a placename (maybe).

The first name is Elliott, with all its numerous spelling variants. This is usually supposed to have evolved from a pet form of the Old French name Elias, perhaps incorporating some Old English first names on its way. It was a name in the main confined to east Cornwall in the 1500s.

However, numbers gradually expanded and by 1861 Elliotts were present in most parts of Cornwall, although still favouring south east Cornwall between Liskeard and Saltash.

In contrast, Cadwell was not recorded in Cornwall until 1737 when a John Cadwell was buried at Redruth. It then ramified in the Camborne-Redruth district, where most Cadwells were still located in 1861. The surname dictionaries suggest it may have an origin in Coldwell, a name for a landscape feature. Yet, in Cornwall, the spelling Caldwell doesn’t appear until later, the first a burial at Mylor in 1798. Caldwell looks more likely to have been a spelling offshoot of Cadwell rather than the reverse. According to Reaney’s Dictionary of English Surnames there is a place in Devon called Cadwell. This may be the origin of our Cadwells, although the initial occurrences in the west might imply an origin from anywhere and not just Devon, as people were attracted to this precociously early industrial region. Or did this name spring from Cardell, found to the north and east of Redruth from the 1500s?

If you have a surname you’re interested in that hasn’t been covered in my book or in previous blogs do suggest it. For those that have been suggested but have been covered before I’ll be posting some hitherto unpublished maps – and all free of charge!

Two surnames; two questions

Fanfare in order. This is the first of my on-demand surname blogs, where I respond to requests for information on surnames in Cornwall that do not appear in my The Surnames of Cornwall or in any previous blog. If you’re interested in any such surname let me know and I’ll see what I can find out about its Cornish antecedents.

Tremur was a specifically Cornish second name found in the 1300s. It was given to someone who had come from or who lived at the place named Tremur, of which there were at least nine examples. This is unsurprising given that it means a big or great (in the sense of being more important) settlement. By the 1500s these Tremur places were all being spelt Tremere or Tremeere, or Treveere in parishes that had been Cornish-speaking after the 1300s.

In the 1500s a few Treveres or Trevears were found in the west but none appear the early 1600s. Meanwhile, there was a considerable number of families with names spelt Tremere/Tremear or Tremeer, apparently with multiple origins from at least five places (see map). The question is what happened to them? By the 1861 Census only three Tremeer families were still listed in the Census – at St Juliot in the north, St Ive in the south-east and Newlyn East in mid-Cornwall.

The meaning of Greenaway is also straightforward – the English green way. The heartland of this surname was the English south midlands, but it was present at Kilkhampton in the far north of Cornwall at least from the 1540s. From an early point it was spelt both Greenway and Greenaway. Until the late 1700s the principal spelling in Cornwall was Greenway but, by 1861, it had become Greenaway, which was then five times more common than Greenway. Why did this occur? Although the Greenaway name was still more frequent in Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire in 1881, it was much more likely to be found in Cornwall than in Devon, where Greenway remained more popular.

From rarer Cornish surnames to surnames on demand

The origin of Whitehair would seem to be obvious – a nickname for someone with white or grey hair. Not so. According to the guru of English surnames, P.H.Reaney, this is a version of the original Whityer, an occupational name for a white leather dresser. His theory would appear to be backed up by the spelling of the surname in Cornwall. It first cropped up in the border parish of North Tamerton in the 1620s as Whithear. It was only in the 1700s on moving into mid-Cornwall that the family name began to be spelt Whitehair. It then ramified in the St Austell district in the 1800s.

Wroath came from the medieval name Worth, a nickname for an angry person (or perhaps used ironically for someone who was exceptionally meek). It was present in the 1500s over a wide zone of east Cornwall. The spelling Wroath only began to make an appearance in the early 1600s, first in the Camelford district. At the same time some Wroth family names began mutating to Worth, which in the 1800s became the most common variant (see The Surnames of Cornwall). In 1861 a few Wroaths could still be found in north Cornwall but a branch had also migrated west to the Truro district.

With these two names I’ve now reached the end of my list of rarer surnames that were more common in, or unique, to Cornwall. This has added another 100 surnames to the 750 or so in my book on Cornish surnames. We are now left with the very rare Cornish surnames that have only ever been counted on the fingers of one hand or surnames, such as Taylor or Brown, that appear in numbers in Cornwall but were even more numerous elsewhere. However, even these names also have their Cornish geography and many of them have been well-established in Cornwall since the early days of surnames.

Here’s an offer you can’t refuse. If your name or a name of one of your ancestors hasn’t been covered in any of these blogs or the book why not get in contact. I’ll then include it in a blog covering its origins, meaning and local geography. You can use the comments below to suggest names or get in touch by email.

Rarer Cornish surnames continued

To explain the origin of the following three surnames we have to negotiate various spelling changes over the centuries.

In the 1500s we find no-one called Weary until Richard Weary was baptised at St Pinnock, near Liskeard, in 1598. On the other hand, there were many Werrys. As the surname Weary appeared in broadly the same districts as Werry we can safely conclude it was a spelling variant of that name. I have discussed Werry/Wherry in my book on surnames, where I tentatively follow Morton Nance’s suggestion of an origin in a previously unknown saint’s name. Whereas Wherry and Werry came to be centred on mid-Cornwall, the Weary variant tended to be found further east.

Werring is not so common nowadays. It was found principally in south-east Cornwall in the nineteenth century. But in the 1500s it was spread over a somewhat wider zone, but all significantly found in English-speaking east Cornwall. The addition of <ng> to a name ending in <yn> or <in> was common in the English language at that time. Werring came via Weryn from Waryn, a medieval first name popular among the Normans, also probably the origin of Warne.

Our third surname – Whinnen – is more difficult. In 1543 there were two examples of Wynyan, at St Just in Roseland and at Cury on the Lizard. By the 1600s the name, as Wynnan, Wannen or Winnan, had settled down mainly on Breage and neighbouring parishes. The <h> was introduced first at Gwinear in 1766. By 1861 spellings with <wh> vied with those with just <w> in equal numbers. By that time Whinnens were found mainly at Camborne and Hayle, whereas the spelling Winnan was more scattered. The name looks Cornish but what does it mean? It could be from a name Wynyan – there is a Winnianton in Gunwallow, not far from Cury. It’s most likely to stem from that place without its (English) additional <-ton>. Or is there a connection with the Cornish word gwin or gwyn (white), suggesting a nickname?

Two unexpected Cornish surnames and a relic of the old language

Sometimes surnames prove to be more common in Cornwall than elsewhere, even though they look to be anything but Cornish. Waddleton is one. This was probably a local spelling for the surname Waddington, named after a number of places in northern England and in Surrey. The first Waddleton appears in 1744 in the Antony marriage registers. This location, across the river from Devonport, suggests a maritime route into Cornwall. By 1861 the name had ramified and dispersed as far west as Bodmin although most Waddletons remained in south-east Cornwall.

Walkam is no doubt a spelling variant of Wakeham or Wakem, which has its source in a place in south-west Devon. Present in mid-Cornwall from at least the 1540s, Wakehams dispersed widely across the territory. Around 1600, the variant Walkham began to make an appearance in east Cornwall and at Padstow. This surname in the main confined itself thereafter to a belt of country in mid-Cornwall to the north and east of St Austell.

Distribution of these surnames in 1861

Like Waddleton and Walkam, Watty is a rare surname these days. But unlike the others, it was very common in sixteenth-century Cornwall. Its numbers then gradually diminished over time. By the 1700s there were just relics of its former ubiquity – at St Ives and in mid-Cornwall around St Austell Bay.

Parishes with the surname or second name Watty present

The clue to the history of this surname, presumably a pet form of Watt, short for Walter, lies in its early geography. In the 1500s and 1600s it was entirely confined to the western, Cornish-speaking parts of Cornwall. It was also present on several occasions as one part of the three-part names that were a distinctive element of the Cornish language community’s naming culture. However, with the erosion of the Cornish language, the name lost popularity and probably fell together with Watts or Watt.

Tre- surnames: an overview

There are around 1,300 places in Cornwall whose names contain the element tre, meaning a farmstead, hamlet or more generally a settlement. It is no surprise therefore, to find many surnames derived from those placenames. In 1861 there were around 125 separate Tre- surnames, amounting to 2.9% of the Cornish population. Over the centuries no doubt, some Tre- surnames have become extinct, others fallen together with more numerous similar names, while a proportion of places beginning with the element tre did not give rise to a surname.

Sometimes one place could give rise to more than one surname. This is so in the case of Trewern, the final surname on my list of rarer Cornish tre- names. There is a place of this name in Cornwall, a farm at Madron, near present-day Penzance. This was originally Treyouran, or Uren’s farm, Uren or Urien being a common Brittonic Celtic first name. It was still a three-syllable name in the early sixteenth century when a Thomas Treowran was living in the neighbouring parish of Sancreed.

Over time, the three-syllable Treuren became the two-syllable name Truran and moved eastwards (see my The Surnames of Cornwall and the map here). However, some Treurens became, like the placename, Trewern, a Gabriel Trewern being baptised at Sancreed in 1634. Unlike Truran, five of the six Trewern families were still living in West Penwith in 1861, with one to the east at Stithians.

This westerly orientation of the name Trewern reflects the more general geography of Tre- surnames. All those areas with a higher than average proportion of Tre-surnames in 1861 were found west of Bodmin. This repeats the earlier pattern found in 1641. Then, a very similar 2.7% of adult men bore Tre- surnames. If anything, industrialisation and population growth in the west had reinforced this earlier pattern. The migration of miners to the Liskeard and Callington districts in the early 1800s did not fundamentally change the pattern.

It remains to be explained, given that Tre- placenames were scattered fairly evenly across Cornwall, why the surnames derived from them more likely to be found in west than east Cornwall. This must be related to the timing of surname formation and the cultural differences between English-speaking and Cornish-speaking communities. In the latter, there was a greater tendency to retain or coin surnames based on places. But was this just a result of the different, later timing of surname formation in the west, or something more basic?