The blog

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.

Housing and population: how Cornwall compares

From 2011 to 2018 the number of people in Cornwall grew from 534,000 to an estimated 566,000. This was a faster rate of growth than the other parts of Great Britain.

The number of houses built in Cornwall grew even faster. Interestingly, while the growth in the number of dwellings in England was less than the growth in population, the reverse has been the case in the Celtic countries.

A disturbance at Camborne in 1874

Camborne in the 1870s, a time of economic depression, could be a rough place. Here’s one incident reported in the West Briton of March 26th, 1874.

A man named Webster, a resident of Crowan, who has not the reputation of being the quietest character in the neighbourhood, and who, on account of certain pugilistic propensities, is known by the nickname of ‘Nipper’, … having got drunk, found his way  … into the kitchen of Abraham’s Hotel, where he became so noisy that, after some trouble, he was turned into the street. He next favoured Mr Arthur of the White Hart Inn; but here he made himself singularly obnoxious, and a second time he found himself ejected … He then commenced kicking with great violence at the door, and made such a disturbance that the attention of the police was called to his conduct.

The police officers – Gill and Sobey … endeavoured to persuade the man to go quietly home and took some pains to induce his friends, who were now collecting around him, to take him away. This was not a very easy thing to do, but eventually two men led him away, and the police took no further notice, although the fellow was swearing all the way going through the street. Gill and Sobey followed slowly in the same direction as Webster was taking … when he suddenly broke away from the two men, turned back and struck Gill a severe blow on the face. The policeman drew his staff, and hitting Webster over the head, knocked him down.

Immediately, there was a cry that the police had killed him and in two or three minutes an immense mob of excited men and boys had collected around the two policemen who were endeavouring to handcuff ‘the Nipper’ … But in this they failed, for Webster was forcibly removed from their grasp, and he went off, carrying with him the handcuffs that were fastened to one of his wrists. The unfortunate policemen were then hustled and jostled through the streets until at last they found themselves within the shop of Mr Eddy, P.C.Sobey taking in with him a man who gave the name of Williams, and who, while in the street, had been beating Sobey about the head with his fist.

Stone throwing was then commenced, but this was soon discontinued and the only damage done was the breaking of a pane of glass over the door of Mr Eddy’s shop. The mob, however, found out that Williams was in custody, and they thenceforth set up a cry for his release. … Fearing that further mischief might probably be done, the police took the advice of Mr Eddy and set their prisoner at liberty, … the two policemen remained in Mr Eddy’s shop until after midnight, eventually leaving by the back door and reaching their homes by a circuitous route.

This took place five months after serious anti-police riots had convulsed Camborne in 1873.

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.


What is it about mid-Cornwall that produces such prolific authors? The Hocking siblings, from St Stephen in Brannel, wrote almost 200 novels. A century later Alan Kent, who grew up in the clay country, is giving us scores of novels, plays, poems and histories. Not to mention Jack Clemo and Anne Treneer. And then there was Arthur Leslie Rowse, born at Tregonissey, just outside St Austell, on December 4th, 1903. Rowse became Cornwall’s foremost academic of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike his predecessor Arthur Quiller- Couch, he was of more working-class background, although his clay worker father had a small shop.

Rowse in 1942

Keenly supported in his career by Q, Rowse gained a scholarship to Oxford in 1921 to study English literature. He soon switched to history and it was the combination of history with a literary bent that made his name. He became best known for his work on the sixteenth century and Elizabethan England. His Tudor Cornwall, published in 1941, is still a key text for that period of Cornish history.

After being overlooked in 1952 for the post of warden of All Souls, Oxford, where he was a research fellow, Rowse spent a considerable time in the States, especially in California. It was there that he wrote The Cornish in America (1969). Never one to take either rejection or criticism easily Rowse later admitted that losing the wardenship enabled him to concentrate on his best work.

Rowse was never backward in coming forward to assert his own greatness. But equally, he was able to laugh at himself too. Everyone who met him has their favourite Rowse anecdote. Mine is of him at a conference at Perranporth in the 1980s. He had pompously backed up some opinion by stating ‘I’ve got a first-class Oxford-trained brain’. Responding from the audience the late Pedyr Prior prefaced his question with ‘As someone with a third-class Plymouth-trained brain … ’. Collapse of audience, as well as Rowse.

Rowse’s ground-breaking work on Shakespeare’s sonnets, when he claimed he had identified Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ involved him in his best-known academic controversy. While largely ignored in the outside world, it caused some bitter academic fallings out and much harrumphing over the port. Rowse’s autobiographical books, beginning with the widely acclaimed A Cornish Childhood (1942) were the tip of his unpublished and voluminous diary writings, which are by all accounts not a little scurrilous in their acid observations on academic colleagues.

Loyalty to his background meant that in the 1920s and ‘30s Rowse was a Labour man, even standing as Labour candidate for the Penryn and Falmouth constituency (which included St Austell) in 1931 and 1935. The voters of that constituency were saved the fate of having Rowse as MP when he resigned as candidate in 1943, later leaving the Labour Party over its opposition to Suez.

Rowse’s attitude towards the common people was ambivalent, to say the least. His love-hate relationship with both Oxford and Cornwall are summed up in the titles of the two biographies written about him. For Richard Ollard, he was a ‘man of contradictions’. From a Cornish perspective, Philip Payton dubbed him a ‘paradoxical patriot’.

Paradoxical or not, in later life he mellowed somewhat (although never totally) and became reconciled once again to his homeland. He spent his final years at Trenarren on St Austell Bay, a house he had first leased in 1953. Rowse continued to publish extensively, even after his All Souls fellowship ended in 1974. From that time, aged 71, to his death in 1997, he turned out a phenomenal 36 books. There’s hope for us all yet!

Christmas offer

Stuck for something to buy that Cornish relative this Christmas? What better present could there be for someone of Cornish descent than a copy of the best-selling The Surnames of Cornwall? Moreover, as a pre-Christmas treat the ebook version of this will soon be available at the reduced price of £4.99 ($6.46/AU$9.47).

And don’t forget to check out my From a Cornish Study and Industrial Celts too – essential for those with a serious interest in Cornwall and Cornish Studies.

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?