The Surnames of Cornwall

The book, The Surnames of Cornwall, a gazetteer of family names in Cornwall, grew out of my Surnames of Cornwall Project. That aimed 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. The Surnames of Cornwall

The book is on sale at Amazon for £9.99
  • gives the purported meanings for 760 of the surnames which were the most common or the most unique to Cornwall in past times.
  • includes spelling variants of the names.
  • describes the areas in which the names originated and where they were found in the 1800s.
  • notes some well-known bearers of some of the names.
  • includes an introduction setting out the context for the study of surnames.

The book is supported by maps (see example below), which are online at this site. These provide snapshots of the distribution of names in the 1861 Census. This book is now available from Amazon for £9.99 (+ postage). Copies can be purchased direct from me. It is also available from The Edge of the World Bookshop, Penzance. There is also an ebook version available from Amazon for £4.99.

sloggett 1861 small

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.

wms rds thos 1861

For more see

Why do surnames matter? An introduction.

Where surnames come from – a brief history.

Surnames and the Cornish language.

Classifying surnames.

What makes a surname ‘Cornish’?

11 thoughts on “The Surnames of Cornwall

  1. Fascinating! I have been looking over your website and would like to be in touch with the debate over the constructions of Cornish identity. I approach from the angle of cross-cultural psychology.

    For what it is worth I have a handwritten piece of humorous doggerel, possibly 1750-1850, starting ‘I, Edwerd Thomas, alious Scot . . ‘ and I have seen only one ‘alias’ in the OPC records, dating from 1699, which happened to be ‘Thomas, alias Scott’. What was the significance of ‘alias’ in the 17/18th century?
    Richard Pearce


    1. For that matter then, how many occurrences of ‘byname’ have you found, in your fulsome research into ‘constructions’ of Cornish identity?


  2. My basis was the 1861 Census, not the OPC lists, which will obviously give a lot higher total number. There were only 16 Aunger heads in the 1861 census, which was well under the qualifying line, given the name wasn’t unique to Cornwall. That said, Aunger does appear on a secondary list I have of surnames that were more likely to be found in Cornwall than elsewhere. In fact 44% of Aungers in the 1881 census in the UK were found in Cornwall.


  3. I’m trying to track James Symons born 1801 ancestry. He came to NZ 1841. I went to St Breacas Breage and saw many Symons graves. They were also at St Germans. So my question is, the name spread numbers you are quoting, are they before 180?


    1. Hi Margaret, I’m not too sure which ‘name spread numbers’ you’re referring to. The maps on the website are just 1861 although I also have combined maps for the early 1500s and 1641. In the book and in my blogs I make use of various frequency distributions from the early 1500s through to 1861 and I have non-digitised data for 1951 as well. I’ll try to email a map of the surname Symon in the earlier period to you.


    2. Greetings from South Africa, Margaret, your James went to N.Z. in 1841 (before or after the census of 6 June that year?) My earliest N.Z. Hallamore [mother’s side] was Thomas Cotton Hallamore, II, (1810, Falmouth – 1909, Onewhero, arrived Waitemata harbour 21 May 1842 on the Louisa Campbell. Your James, did he croak after place of birth required to be furnished in N.Z. death certificates from 1875? Or do you have that data already? Kind regards, Neil + them fur angel BEASTS.


  4. In most languages and in English in particular, depending on the variant, truncation of words is quite common. Elongation of words, whilst not unknown is quite rare in comparison.
    In searching through the surnames list I came across ‘Dunstan’ which along with ‘Dunston’ and some other variations is a derivative of the actual, Dunstone. Speech and the dialects involved are usually the first reason for truncations followed by fluidity of spelling thence to writing.
    There are too numerous examples to throw back and forward as to which is correct but if your name is pronounced incorrectly or spelt incorrectly, do you not correct it ?
    I have seen many examples of people who were obviously literate yet the ‘records’ show there name as spelt as the commonly accepted version. Just because there is safety in numbers, do you not think it more important to accept the person signing wanted to be known that way, as we do today ?


  5. Can you tell me some additional resources for finding family name origins? The family name I am trying to track is Lipsey or Lipse. I sincerely doubt it is Cornish but I am unsure what resources are good.
    Thank you.


    1. The soundest resource based on considerable research is the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names. Unfortunately, the book costs £345 and even the kindle version is £217. Otherwise it’s only available via academic or other libraries that subscribe to OUP reference. Even then you may find your name isn’t in it. Ive checked and Lipsey isn’t! The other main traditional source (for English language names) is Reaney’s Dictionary of English Surnames, but Lipsey isn’t there either. It’s also not found in other reliable books on surnames that I possess. As for the various online sources I’ve not found them very useful at all; their explanations for Cornish names at least are often way off beam. Furthermore, there’s a tendency to base their derivations on very old, often 19th century, work.


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