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 academic and trustworthy books available on the subject of Cornish place names. These give the meanings of Cornish places and some history of the names. 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).
Many place names from the twelfth century onwards gave rise to bynames of the type John of Trevingey. Sometimes these were 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 probably 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, but these were not yet fixed. They might still have had a number of aliases, or the byname changed from generation to generation.
This fluidity into the 16th century 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.