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 For those that have been suggested but have been covered before I’ll be posting some hitherto unpublished maps – and all free of charge!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.

Three Cornish surname puzzles

The following three surnames are all a little puzzling.

Trevan looks like a classic trev- name, but it isn’t. There’s a place called Trevan at Probus. However, this was originally Tolvan (from tal and ban, meaning brow of a hill). That placename also occurred at Constantine, Illogan and St Hilary in west Cornwall. In those places the name remained Tolvan or Tolvaddon (a later pronunciation).

Yet, while the surname Tolvan was present at Constantine in the 1500s and 1600s it then disappeared. The spelling Trevan or Trevane eventually popped up, although not until the eighteenth century, in south-east Cornwall, between Liskeard and Saltash. It then dispersed fairly widely across east Cornwall and into Devon. It’s more likely therefore that the origin of the surname is the place called Talvans, spelt Tolvan in 1748, at Landrake near Saltash.

Trevellick is a surname associated with the isles of Scilly since at least the 1700s. But did it origjnate there? Unfortunately, early records for Scilly are sparse. But there is no placename Trevellick there. In contrast there are several Trevillicks or Trevallacks, most first spelt as Trevelek, in Cornwall, from St Keverne in the west to Tintagel in the east. The meaning is probably Eleck’s farmstead. The surname was found in mid-Cornwall and on the Lizard in the 1500s but it then vanished. Had it been taken from the Roseland or the Lizard to Scilly in the period before the mid-1600s, where, in contrast, it flourished?

The origin and meaning of Trewavas is more certain. The surname arose from placenames at Breage and Wendron in west Cornwall that mean farm of the winter-dwelling, or winter farm. The surname stayed in that district in the 1500s and early 1600s but then migrated to West Penwith. Dying out in the Carnmenellis district, it established itself mainly at Mousehole, where it grew as the fishing industry expanded in the 1700s and 1800s.

When surnames mutate – why spelling matters

Often, the surnames we have nowadays can differ from their ancestors of half a millennium ago. In the case of the three below the difference is subtle but nevertheless significant in identifying their origin.

There is a place called Trengrove in Menheniot, near Liskeard. But this was not the origin of the surname Trengrove. The Menheniot Trengrove was also spelt Trengof in the medieval period and is in fact an example of the common placename meaning smith’s farmstead. Like the placename the family name is a re-spelling of this more common name. The first example I’ve found is from the late 1590s in west Cornwall between Hayle and Camborne. Trengroves remained confined to this district until the 1800s when they headed eastwards (or maybe some Trengoves to the east independently began to add the <r> to their name.)

The surname Trenwith stems from a place in St Ives spelt Treyunwith in 1391 and Treunwith in 1508, meaning farmstead of the ash trees or possibly the farm of someone called Yunwith or similar. Sure enough, in 1524 we find a Thomas Treunwith at St Ives, one of the wealthiest men in that town. During the 1500s and 1600s the surname usually changed to Trenwith and some migration occurred to the east. This reached as far as Redruth (with a single example in east Cornwall at Calstock) by the 1700s. But it then contracted smartly back to West Penwith to huddle around Mount’s Bay in 1861, on the opposite side of the peninsula from its starting point.

Trescowthick only gained its <th> in the 1700s. Before then it was Trescowick or similar. It originated in the place also spelt Trescowick in the 1500s but now Trescowthick in Newlyn East south of Newquay. There a David Tresuyacke was living in 1543. The surname never strayed far from that part of mid-Cornwall until the eighteenth century, when branches sprouted both to the east and to the west.

By Tre, Pol and Pen. But mainly Tre

My series of notes on the rarer Cornish surnames has reached the Tre- names and these will occupy the next few weeks. It’s not the number of families with a Tre- name that is so impressive – Willamses, Thomases and Richardses far outnumber them. It’s the frequency and variety of Tre- names themselves. Tre– is the most common placename element in Cornwall, originally referring to an agricultural settlement but later extended to any settlement. Moreover, there are around 1,300 places with names that contain this element.

Not all of those gave rise to a surname, although many did. Fortunately, explaining the origin of Tre surnames is usually a lot easier than other names, the main question being whether a name has a single point of origin or arose in multiple places. The first three below each had single points of origin, although their 1861 distributions might well mask these.

Tregoweth arose at a place of that name in Mylor parish near Penryn. The meaning is a little unclear. Middle Cornish coweth (friend or companion) has been suggested as the second element. But many Tre- placenames involved a personal name and the earliest spelling of Tregewyd could hint at an unidentified name of that type. The family name moved away from the Penryn district in the late seventeenth century, at first towards Truro and then further east to the St Austell district.

Tremellan means mill farm and occurs as a placename at St Erth. It’s an earlier spelling of Tremelling, which has an entry in The Surnames of Cornwall. The pattern of its dispersal, first across west Cornwall and then in the nineteenth century to the St Austell district, might suggest involvement in the mining industry.

Tremethick is not connected with Trevithick but is a name in its own right. Originally it must have been Tre’n methak, meaning farm of the doctor. The <an> prevented the normal lenition (or mutation) of the second element following the feminine noun tre. The surname first appeared in the Madron parish registers as Tremethack in the 1570s and this is where we find the place of the same name. Unlike Tremellans, Tremethicks largely stayed put, suggesting an involvement in fishing rather than mining.

More Cornish surnames from placenames

The following three surnames all seem to have originated as the names of places. I say ‘seem’ as in the case of the first, it’s difficult to pin down the actual place involved.

Tingcombe looks very much like a placename. There is a Tincombe nature reserve near Saltash and also a Tincombe House at Topsham near Exeter. But I have no evidence for the existence of these placenames in the medieval period. What we do know is that the element ‘combe’ is more common in east Cornwall and Devon and this was exactly the area in which the name Tingcombe or Tinkcombe first made its presence felt. It was found at Landrake, not far from Saltash, in the 1580s. While a brace of Tinkcombes appeared (and then disappeared after a century) much further west at Penzance, this surname was most common around Saltash and near Looe. It then dispersed quite widely in the later 1700s. As a result, its distribution in 1861 offers few hints of its origin in south east Cornwall.

Unlike Tingcombe, there are a multitude of places named Towan, Cornish for sand dune or more generally seashore. Several of these might have given rise to the surname which indubitably has multiple origins. In the 1500s and early 1600s it was found scattered across the land from Gwinear in the west to Padstow in the east, although by the mid-1600s it seems to have become confined mainly to the Camborne-Redruth district.

Tredwen was one of the most common Tre- surnames in the early 1500s. However, its frequency had declined to a level in 1861 that meant it didn’t qualify for inclusion in The Surnames of Cornwall. Let’s remedy that. The surname arose from a single place – Tredwen in Davidstow on the northern slopes of Bodmin Moor. This was originally known as Riguen (1080) or Rigwyn (1296), but by the 1400s had become a tre- name through folk etymology. The name is Cornish, from rid and gwyn, meaning white ford, or possibly pleasant ford or even Gwen’s ford. Meanwhile the surname had probably become hereditary by the late 1300s in this part of Cornwall. It then scattered far and wide, and surprisingly quickly, being found across a wide swathe of the region in the early 1500s. This distribution thereafter contracted so that by 1861 the surname was found in just three districts: mid-Cornwall, where it had had an early presence, around Penryn, where it first appeared around the 1610s and at Penzance, which appears to be the result of a later migration.