The place-names of Cornwall have been of abiding fascination since the Cornish cultural revival began in the 1800s. As a result, there are now a number of trustworthy books available on the subject, giving the meanings of Cornish places and some early examples of their spelling. The most accessible and comprehensive is Craig Weatherhill’s Place Names in Cornwall and Scilly (Wessex Books, 2005). For a more academic treatment see the works by Oliver Padel (Cornish Place Name Elements, English Place-Name Society, 1985 and A Popular Dictionary of Place-Names, Alison Hodge, 1988).
Surnames or family names are less well covered. What guides exist are not that reliable and tend to suffer from assuming every surname in Cornwall originated in the Cornish language. (For example G.Pawley White’s A Handbook of Cornish Surnames, 1972.) Some did, but many didn’t. Hereditary surnames weren’t generally established even in east Cornwall until the later 14th century and by that time English was the dominant language east of the Camel-Fowey line.
My Surnames of Cornwall Project aims to inject a bit more rigour into the study of surnames by looking at the historical evidence for their geographical distribution and at early spellings. This often enables us to pin down their origin and sometimes helps confirm suggested meanings. Currently I’m working on a book, provisionally titled The Surnames of Cornwall, a gazetteer of family names in Cornwall. This will
- give the purported meanings for 650 to 750 of the surnames which were the most common or the most unique to Cornwall in past times.
- include spelling variants of the names.
- describe the areas in which the names originated and where they were found in the 1800s.
- note some well-known bearers of some of the names.
- include an introduction setting out the context for the study of surnames.
The book will be supported by maps (examples below), which will be available online at this site. These will provide snapshots of the distribution of names in the 1861 Census. The text is now (end of November 2018) in complete and in first draft format. Maps have also been completed for all 750 surnames. I’m now working on revising and getting the draft proof-read. It will probably be published early next year, or possibly next month, but keep checking in for news of its progress.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of information in these pages about surnames in general and in Cornwall in particular. If you’re interested in surnames in Cornwall a good place to start is What makes a surname ‘Cornish’? You may even find your own name there if you scroll down through the many comments. But first, where did surnames come from, because we haven’t always had them. At the time of Domesday (1080) and before, almost everyone would have had just one name. They then started to acquire bynames or second names, such as John of Trevingey or John (son of) John, or John an Goffe, or John (with the) White (hair), although these would change from one generation to the next.
From the twelfth century onwards bynames began to be passed on to sons and daughters, becoming hereditary surnames. In England, fixed surnames were almost universal in the south east by around 1350 and in the north by 1450. Families in east Cornwall also possessed hereditary surnames by the 15th century, as did some in the west, especially those with names from local places. But a large number, probably the majority in the Cornish-speaking mid and west (west of the Camel-Fowey line) had bynames which were not yet fixed. They might still have had a number of aliases, or a changing byname from generation to generation as late as the 16th century.
This fluidity meant that, as in Wales, surnames were relatively late to appear in the Cornish-speaking zone of Cornwall and remained subject to change into the 1600s. When they did appear, they were more likely to be formed from the first name of the father, or sometimes the mother – patronyms and metronyms. During the medieval period however, the stock of given first names, both male and female, had shrunk and a limited number of first names gave rise to a host of surnames in Cornwall during the later 1400s and into the 1500s. This explains why, again as in Wales, a small number of patronyms in Cornwall accounts for a large number of families. The most common names in the 19th century were Williams, Thomas and Richards and their distribution tells us a lot about the history of Cornish surnames and of the Cornish language.