Surnames in Madron: By Nicholls. Mitchell and Roberts you shall know the Cornish

Everyone knows that ‘by Tre, Pol and Pen, you shall know the Cornishmen’. However, everyone could well be mistaken. Surnames are usually divided into four types. Tre/Pol/Pen names are examples of local names, derived from a specific placename. Local names will also include names from general landscape features such as Wood or Hill The other three categories are names which originated in first names, which I shall call family names, names from occupations, and nicknames.

Family names
If we list the most frequent names at various points in time it’s striking that most are family names, coined at some point from a first name. Yet it’s also noticeable that the precise names changed over the centuries. This indicates that, while in former times people may not have moved far, they were nonetheless constantly on the move. Moves within a 10 mile radius from one (usually rented) cottage to another were the norm as families adapted to changing jobs or rapidly growing or shrinking family sizes.

The most common Madron surnames

1524/45 1641 1861 2001
Thomas Lanyon Hall Nicholls
Trembagh Noye Jenkin Mitchell
William Nicholas Rowe Roberts
Boswarvan Champion Richards Williams
Noye Eddy Maddern Smith
Holla Pengelly Thomas
Leggo Warren

In the mid-17th century some of the commonest family names included Eddy (possibly from a Middle English first name Edwy, although perhaps equally likely in Cornish-speaking Madron to be influenced by the saint’s name Udno or Ednoe which appears in the placename Perranuthnoe), Davy, James, Nicholas, Stephen and Sandry (from Alexander). There were also the Cornish surnames Holla, Leggo and Rodda, while Noye was the local variant of Noah.

Holla succumbed to confusion with the English landscape name Hollow over succeeding centuries. It was maybe from Hal or Henry, with the -a (originally an -o or -ow) at the end denoting ‘son of’ and equivalent to the English -s added to surnames. On the other hand, the Cornish language scholar and revivalist Robert Morton Nance suggested it could have been a Cornish counterpart of the Breton name Hellou. Leggo is even more intriguing and the Christian name it was formed from has yet to be convincingly identified. Meanwhile Rodda, now well known from the cream, still thrives, although its origin is also up for debate, possibly stemming from Roger.

In 18th century Madron parish registers the most common family names were James, Richards, Roberts, Rowe (from Roul or Rolf), Thomas and Batten (a pet name for Bartholomew). While Holla and Leggo had diminished in numbers, Rodda was still relatively common, as was the name Eva. This is not from the female name Eve but the Breton male name Yvo, popularised or re-popularised by the migration of large numbers of Bretons to mid and west Cornwall in the later 15th century. This also lay behind the popularity of Uren, a common first name in medieval Cornwall, Brittany and Wales.

In 1861 James, Richards and Rowe were still among the most common family names, but joined by Jenkin (from John), Semmens (Simon) Reynolds (from the Norman name Reynaud) and Lawry (Lawrence). Warren was another relatively common name in 19th century Madron. This is usually taken by surname dictionary compilers to be a landscape name for someone living near a rabbit warren or a local name from places in northern France or Devon. But the spelling confusion in early records between Warren and Warne, and the presence of Warne as a first name in 16th century Cornwall suggests it may instead have been a family name.

By the 21st century new family names were topping the charts in the parish. Nicholls, Mitchell (from Michael), and Williams (the most common Cornish surname) now joined the established presence of Roberts and Thomas among the more common family names in Madron.

Distribution of the most common Cornish name in the 19th century
Distribution of the most common Cornish name in the 19th century

Local names
The proportion of surnames in Madron originating in Cornish placenames (the Tre/Pol/Pen names) has sadly declined over the past half century. These are now far outnumbered by generic geographical names relating to landscape features, such as Hill, Green, Wood or Westlake, or English placenames formerly very unusual in Cornwall, such as Barraclough, Cowlishaw or Wakefield, all present in Madron in 2001 and all places in Lancashire or Yorkshire.

In the 16th century it was very different. Madron placenames such as Boskednan (then spelt Boskennen), Ninnes, Nanscothan and Penhale were being employed as second names by some, while other names such as Halgarreke or Chynals suggest their bearers or their ancestors had moved from Crowan and Paul respectively. The most common local surname this early was Trembaghe, taken from a farm at the southern end of the parish. This name, which means farmstead or hamlet at the corner, then ramified at an early stage. At some point after the 16th century the spelling of both the place and the surname changed from Trembagh to Trembath. This had happened by 1589 when a man called Maddern Trembath was recorded as getting married in neighbouring Morvah.

Trembaths on the move, but not very far
Trembaths on the move, but not very far

Maddern, showing the pronunciation of Madron, was here used as a first name. Although there are no examples of the parish name as a surname in the early 16th century tax lists, a Richard Maddern was born in Breage around 1549 and a John Williams at St Just was also known as John Maddern in the 1570s. Both Trembath and Maddern had spread more widely by 1861, although curiously Maddern (a name presumably originally bestowed on someone from Madron living away from the parish) was three times more common than Trembath in Madron parish itself. Maybe this hints at considerable return migration. Meanwhile, both names in the nineteenth century remained heavily concentrated in West Penwith, Trembath in St Just and Maddern in Paul and Madron. Other Cornish local names have come and gone over the centuries, for example Lanyon, Bolitho, Pengelly, Trewhella and Roskilly.

Few local names have featured in the list of the most common parish names however. After the 16th century, the only cases were Lanyon in 1641 and Maddern in the 19th century. Another exception is Hall, supposedly originating in someone who lived at or worked in a manor or large house. In Cornwall however, is it possible that this originated as a description of someone living on a moor or near a marsh, hal in Cornish? Another possible local surname is Bone, found in Madron parish since the late 16th century. We are told this was a nickname, either from French bon, or English bony. But in Madron it may be a local name from the placename Bone, spelt Boden (little dwelling) in the 14th century.

Occupational names
In former times surnames derived from occupations were more likely to emerge in towns. As Cornish market towns were small and the majority of people lived in the countryside before the 20th century, the specialised occupations that gave rise to surnames were relatively rare. The main exception is Smith and its Cornish version Angove, which have been encountered in Madron since the 16th century. The frequency of Smith has no doubt been topped up by the demographic changes since the 1960s.

That same process has produced a steady rise in the proportion of occupational names. Some are obvious, such as Cartwright, Cook or Thatcher. Others are less so, for instance Spencer, from a dispenser of supplies, or Fish, an occupational name for a seller of fish. Although the name Fish could also apparently be given to someone resembling a fish, reminding us of the considerable ambiguity involved when determining the origins of surnames. An earlier name associated specifically with Cornwall was Champion. This was purportedly applied to someone who was a professional jousting tournament champion.

The last category of surname is arguably the most interesting. In the early 16th century there were Cornish language examples of nicknames in Madron including Enmonek (perhaps the Monk) or Envan (possibly the Stone). These unfortunately became obsolete with the language shift of the 16th to 18th centuries. But others took their place. Cock was a common name in 18th century Madron, originating from a nickname with various meanings, from a young lad to an early riser to, apparently, an awkward man. In 2001 among the more frequent names we find White (someone with fair hair or a pale complexion). Some surnames that look like occupational or status names are in fact nicknames. People named Abbott or King, both present in Madron in 2001, may be disappointed to find they are unlikely to be able to trace their ancestry back to an actual abbot or king. Instead some dim and distant predecessor behaved like an abbot or a king (or acted as such in a play) and was given those nicknames.

Finally, there are puzzling names that cannot easily be slotted into any of these four categories. An example from Madron was Sudgeow or Sudgiow. This was one of the more common second names in 1641 and we find an Agnes Sugiowe born in 1559 in Madron. But the name appears nowhere in the taxation lists of 1524 or 1545. Specific to Madron from the late 16th century, it had disappeared entirely by the mid 18th century. Could it have been a Cornish language nickname? Or perhaps a now lost local placename?

The overall picture
As the following table shows, around half of residents at all periods have borne family names.

Table 1: Names of Madron residents

1524/45 1641 1861 2001
Family names 52 54 52 46
Local (Cornish) names 31 17 14 4
Other local and landscape names 2 6 18 22
Occupational names 8 5 4 14
Nicknames 8 19 12 14

This table tells us two things. First, as the proportion of local names fell rapidly in earlier centuries, the proportion of nicknames rose. The period from the early 15th to the mid 16th centuries was one when, in Cornish-speaking west Cornwall, second names were not always passed on from fathers to children. This was a fluid phase, during which families could still swap their surnames from one generation to the next. It seems that in Madron there was a tendency for new names to be coined from nicknames while names of settlements were less often adopted as permanent surnames.

Second, since the 1960s the scale of in-migration has again altered the pattern of local surnames. This is seen in the rising proportion of names derived originally from occupations, such as Smith, Chandler or Tanner, much more common formerly in England than in Cornwall. It’s also reflected in the falling proportion of local Cornish names in Madron. Names such as Polkinghorne, Lanyon or Trewern by 2001 made up just 4.4% of the inhabitants.

Another way of charting change over time is to ask how concentrated the surname distribution was. Table 2 tells us how many people in Madron shared the most common 10% of names.

Table 2: Proportion of households with the most common 10% of names

1524/45 1641 1861 2001
27% 29% 37% 30%

Over time, from the formation of fixed surnames into the 19th century and possibly the mid-20th, surnames became steadily more concentrated in the parish. By 1861 over a third of Madron families shared a tenth of the names. Again, the in-migration of the last half century has reversed this trend and is now producing a more diverse surname pool, although 10% of the available names still account for 30% of families.

Those classically Cornish surnames of the Tre/Pol/Pen type have always been a minority in Madron, as in other Cornish parishes. In fact, the most common traditional Cornish names are family names. So it’s not ‘by Tre, Pol and Pen you shall know the Cornish’ but ‘by Nicholls, Mitchell and Roberts’.

2 thoughts on “Surnames in Madron: By Nicholls. Mitchell and Roberts you shall know the Cornish

  1. Yes, the names Nicholls and Nicholas can be found in Madron well before 1940. According to the lay subsidies there was a William Nicoll in Madron in 1524 and a John Harry Nicoll in Penzance the same year, although the two-part name implies it may not have been hereditary at that point. Note that the lists at the top of this post refer to the ‘most common’ names. There were of course many others present.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.