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).
Surnames or family names have been less well covered. What guides exist are not that reliable and tend to suffer from wishful-thinking in 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 established in east Cornwall until the later 14th century and by that time English was the dominant language east of the Camel-Fowey line. The Surnames of Cornwall Project aims to inject a bit more rigour into the study of surnames by looking at the historical evidence of their geographical distribution and at early spellings. This often enables us to pin down their origin and sometimes helps confirm suggested meanings. I’m working on a series of guides to the historical geography of family names in Cornwall, the first of which will be published this year or next. Keep checking in for news of this. 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?
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.