Hosking: a bit of a Cornish mystery

Hosking and its variants (Hoskin, Hosken, Hoskings etc.) is one of the more common Cornish surnames, ranking in the top 15 in the 1950s. The name was at that time found across Cornwall although there was a preponderance in the west. Hayle, Penzance, St Buryan, Redruth and Truro in that order housed the greatest number of Hoskings. Yet there was also a considerable cluster of Hoskings at Saltash, well away to the east.

There are broadly two theories attempting to explain the origin of this name, one of them Cornish and the other English. One suggests that it was derived from the Cornish placename element heschen (sedge, or an area of boggy ground). This could be a general topographical name, from someone living in the vicinity of this landscape feature. Thus, Richard Blewett in the 1950s proposed it was the Cornish equivalent of the English surname Sedgeman. Or it could be a locative name. There is one place in Cornwall called Heskyn – in St Germans parish, while the same element appears in the names Penhesken in Ruanlanihorne and Poliskin at St Erme. In these it was normally spelt hesken, although we can find a Penhoskon spelling in 1249 and Heskyn in St Germans was spelt Hoskyn in 1314.

On the other hand, English surname dictionaries tell us the name was a patronymic. The -kin was added to Os- to make a short form of first names like Osgood, Osborn and similar. The Oxford Names Companion specifically cites the name as the Middle English Osekin, a diminutive of names beginning Os-, and asserts that it is found mainly in Devon. However, this is not the case. In the late 19th century, Hosken was 70 times more likely to be encountered in Cornwall than in England, Hosking 58 times and Hoskin 33 times. Only the Hoskin variant was anywhere near as frequent in Devon.

Incidentally, the spelling variants indicate nothing more than changing fashions. The universal spelling in the 16th century was Hoskyn. A preference for Hoskin in the 17th and 18th centuries then gradually gave way to Hosking by the mid-19th century.

Proportions of Hosking spellings

16th century 1641 18th century 1861 1950s
Hosken 1% 12% 21% 9% 16%
Hoskyn 99% 16% 13% * *
Hoskin 55% 41% 27% 29%
Hosking 17% 24% 63% 55%

Does the distribution pattern of the name shed any light on the explanations for its origin?

In the 19th century the surname was concentrated in the western, mining parishes, from Gwennap to St Just. But there were also concentrations of Hoskings in south east Cornwall and to the north of Bodmin Moor, with an interesting gap in between, where relatively few Hosking households could be found.

Hosking 1861

If we express the number of Hosking households as a proportion of the total we get the following map. This more clearly shows there were two blocks of Hosking names, one in the west and one in the east.

hosking 1861 by SD

This pattern repeats fairly closely that for the 18th century, although the western focus was then more narrowly restricted to the parishes between Sancreed and Lelant. Migration outwards to St Just and Camborne seems to have been a feature of the century from the mid-1700s onwards.

Hosking C18

In 1641 the distribution was more even. There’s still a hint of three foci – in west Penwith, the south east and on the coast north of the Camel, while Hoskings were relatively thin on the ground in parts of mid-Cornwall and the far east. This latter does not therefore support the notion that the name had spilt over the Tamar from Devon.

Hosking 1641

The earliest map reinforces this. The name in the early 16th century was found in the far west and into the Lizard, as well as along the coast between the Fal and St Austell Bay. Meanwhile, in east Cornwall it was less frequent generally but there were two concentrations of the surname – at Tintagel in the north and St Ive in the south east.

Hosking C16

The number of families with the name Hoskyn in the early 16th century would strongly suggest multiple early origins. It was particularly frequent in Cornish-speaking west and mid-Cornwall, where surnames at this time were still liable to be unstable and not always hereditary. Given the relative rarity of sedge marsh in Cornwall, the name looks too common to be topographical in origin. However, the usual explanation of its origin in a Middle English Osekin, a diminutive of names beginning Os-, also seems unlikely in view of its location in the Cornish language zone. Moreover, it’s always spelt with an H, never without. So why had all the Oskyns gained an H, whereas none of the Osborns had?

Similarly, it’s possible some of the Hoskyns in south east Cornwall may have had their origin in the Heskyn settlement in St Germans. But this single placename is very unlikely to have given rise to such a strikingly scattered distribution across the west this early. On the basis of this, and without trying to find earlier examples, the precise origin of the name must for now remain shrouded in some obscurity.

2 thoughts on “Hosking: a bit of a Cornish mystery

    • I would suggest the widespread early distribution, especially in the west, suggests a family name. No reason this could not have been Irish. Yet the ramification of the name by the early 16th century looks too early (surnames were only just becoming hereditary in the west) to have an Irish origin. We might expect the latter, in the absence of any recorded major immigration flows from Ireland (as opposed to Brittany), to be at first more geographically restricted. Incidentally, the earliest reference to the surname I have is John Hoskyn at Lanivet in 1464. Has anyone found an earlier one?

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