What makes a surname ‘Cornish’?

So what exactly comprises a Cornish surname and how is this different from a surname in Cornwall? The old saying tells us that ‘By Tre, Pol and Pen, you shall know the Cornishmen’. Actually, you won’t. At most, you’ll only know about one in 20 Cornishmen (or women) by these criteria. Even in the later 19th century, only around 4-5% of people in Cornwall had surnames beginning with Tre, Pol or Pen. This proportion did however vary, from less than 2% in parts of the east to over 10% in parts of the west.
Proportion of Tre, Pol, Pen surnames 1861
In addition, we could look for those surnames that were most frequent in Cornwall prior to the in-migration that began in the 1960s. In the 1861 census, the following were the 20 most common surnames in Cornwall. The figure in brackets shows their rank in England and Wales, as provided by a parliamentary report from the Registrar-General in 1853 that lists the top 50 surnames at that time.

  1. Williams (3)
  2. Thomas (7)
  3. Richards
  4. Rowe
  5. Harris (26)
  6. Martin (33)
  7. James (35)
  8. Roberts (9)
  9. Pearce
  10. Stephens
  11. Johns
  12. Pascoe
  13. Hicks
  14. Harvey
  15. Bray
  16. Phillips (44)
  17. Rogers
  18. Mitchell
  19. Hocking
  20. Jenkin

As we can see, the names differed in Cornwall although the only uniquely Cornish language name on the list is Pascoe. Most of our forebears had names that could also be found in England and/or Wales, although they were far less popular east of the Tamar. Nonetheless, as we know, those bearing these names can be as ‘Cornish’ as anyone with a Tre/Pol/Pen type name. As Robert Morton Nance put it in the late 1940s,

‘the most aristocratic of Cornish surnames may record only the loot, by a Norman, of the estate of a Saxon, who dispossessed the heir of a Cornishman, who founded it and gave it his own name with Tre- before it; while the Cornish founder’s heirs may still walk among us bearing perhaps, like so many Celts in Wales, some name such as Williams, Thomas or Richards.’

While we could quibble about Nance’s definition of an ‘aristocratic’ Cornish surname, and while archaeologists and historians have revised the picture of a simple takeover by the English, now preferring a process of cultural change, the point stands. If your parents and a grandparent or two were born in west Cornwall and you possess one of the common names of the 19th century, then there’s a very good chance that your forebears were Cornish-speakers into the 1500s and 1600s.

Moreover, there’s a third possible way of identifying ‘Cornish’ names. We might ask which names were most unique to Cornwall. In 1881 the likelihood of encountering someone of the ten names listed below was around 90 times greater in Cornwall than in England.

  • Beswetherick
  • Daddow
  • Keverne
  • Medlyn
  • Oxnam
  • Penlerick
  • Sturtridge
  • Tellam
  • Tremewan
  • Vellanoweth

Several of these have their origin in Cornish placenames, for example Tremewan, Vellanoweth or Penlerick. Others like Medlyn and Daddow originated in personal names. Meanwhile, Sturtridge and Oxnam come as more of a surprise. These names are presumed to have originated in places in Devon, but had become restricted to Cornwall by the late 19th century.

If we assume that the purpose of identifying ‘Cornish’ surnames is to add to our credentials as Cornish, a people now recognised, however belatedly or reluctantly, by the UK Government as an indigenous national minority, then we must surely draw the boundaries as widely and inclusively as possible. That means including the most common and the most unique names in addition to those that more obviously have their roots in the Cornish language or Cornish placenames. This provides us with a distinct stock of surnames, some exclusively Cornish, some commonly Cornish and some frequently Cornish, but all borne by Cornish people or their descendants.

58 thoughts on “What makes a surname ‘Cornish’?

  1. My name – “Wearne” – is from (much shortened and smoothed out) the pre-Cornish Brythonic language that once was spoken throughout Southwestern Britain in the Dumnonian Kingdom. It refers to a place with alder trees growing near a marsh, and originated at the Easternmost edge of the Dumnonian lands, in what is now Somerset, near the river Parrett. There is a hamlet there called Wearne, in which I like to think my ancestors originated.

  2. I have been trying to find the origin of my surname. Do you think it could be Cornish from chei tes meaning heat house? Have you ever encountered this name in Cornwall or its records?

    • Hi Hamish, Sorry but there’s nothing resembling your surname in any 16th Cornish source that I can find. It’s an unusual name that also doesn’t appear in any of my surname dictionaries. You’re unique! However, it’s unlikely to be chy, as chei was a very late spelling derived from Lhuyd’s orthography in the 18th century. Earlier names with chy would usually be spelt chy- or che- as in Chynoweth/Chenoweth.

  3. I heard there is a cornish surname spelt in English “Fear/Feer” which is similar to my own breton surname “Fur” : both mean “Wiseman”. “Jewell” originated from Breton surname “Juhel” (<*Iud-hael)

  4. While not listed in this article, I believe Crago is a very likely unique Cornish surname. I’d like to know how to produce a map like the one in this article. Can anyone tell me how to get that done?

    • The maps were produced using gimp (free photoshop software) and various templates. And yes, Crago is a Cornish locative name, from either Cragoe in Ruanlanihorne or Creggo in Mylor.

    • It’s one of those puzzles – very common in Cornwall but with supposed derivations (OE personal name or Co for sedgemarsh) that aren’t exactly convincing. The -ken/-kin/-king suffix is typical of patronyms and I would lean in that direction but unsure what the original given name would be.

  5. There was significant migration from Cornwall in the years before the 1861 Census – making it likely that the proportion of ‘Cornish’ surnames would be higher in those of 1851 and 1841 respectively.

    • Not sure this follows, Owen. You’re right that mass emigration began in the 1840s, But if there was no net in-migration, which there wasn’t at that time, it wouldn’t affect the proportions of surnames in the population, just the absolute numbers. Unless people with ‘Cornish’ surnames were more likely to leave that is.

  6. My famly name is Bennetts and most of my forefathers included the name Vivian as a forename, I have traced them to Leylant, St Ives and to Camborne and have noted that it still is a common name. Can you tell me where my name originated please?

    • The surname Bennetts is a patronymic from a popular medieval first name – Benedict, or in the vernacular Bennet. It was originally from the Latin Benedictus (blessed) and was the name of St Benedict who founded the Benedictine order of monks around 500. Bennet was already a common byname/surname across Cornwall in the early 16th century although at that time usually without the -s

    • Yes, there are a couple of places in Cornwall with this name and it could have originated in either. Tre- was more of a hamlet than a manor though, although manor sounds posher.

  7. I have able to trace my EDYVEAN family in Cornwall back to the mid 1700’s. And my LAMPSHIRE/LAMPIER family back to mid 1600’s – where do suppose they originated from going by this blog

    • Lampier first appears in the 17th century in St Clement. I can’t find anything resembling this name in the 1500s. In the 1700s it was still restricted to the Truro area but seems to have spawned the name Lamshear, which appears in Gerrans in 1771. By 1861 Lampshire was more common than Lampier. Although I have no idea what it could mean!

  8. I would be interested to discover if my surname is originally Cornish. CHIVERTON. Obviously there is a fair amount of land east of Redruth which bears that name but according to an Uncle [no longer with us I’m afraid] it was previously spelled Chywerton at one point and I have seen an awful lot of Chy-Wer-Tha named houses etc.

    • In fact, there are at least four, possibly five, different places in Cornwall with this placename (which means house on pastureland) at St Buryan/Sancreed, Lelant, Perranuthnoe and Perranzabuloe, which is the one east of Redruth you refer to. All the others were further west and they all tended to be spelt Chywarton in the 14th century. So the surname Chiverton could have come from any of these places and its origins could well be further west. In 1524 we find a Richard Chywarton living at Camborne and a Thomas Chywarton at Paul.

  9. Have you any idea about the derivation of the surname Basher (My paternal ancestors”)? It seems to be almost solely (?) present in the Lizard at least back until the 16th century (spelled Bassher) and later moved up (as work became available in the mines). “Basher’s Harbour” at Rinsey Head also had a Basher’s cottage nearby.

    • Sorry, Dominic, but I’m not able to add much to your research. The name doesn’t appear in the early 16th century subsidies and I can find no example earlier than yours. In the marriage registers from 1730 to 1780 there are just three examples of the name (2 spelt Bashar for what it’s worth) but all in Grade, which reinforces your view that the origin of the name was on the Lizard. As for the meaning, the surname dictionaries make no suggestion. The -er suffix can sometimes mean an occupational name, or perhaps a nickname. Or perhaps, given its location, it’s from a Cornish word. But what word I haven’t a clue!

      • Thanks for checking this. There is a tenuous family tradition that the name came from a shipwrecked Breton or French sailor which might be consistent with it being so localized on the Lizard. If that is true there might be some connection to the old French word Bosch (now spelled Bois) meaning wood. (I found an old document where the name is spelled alternatively Basher and Boscher) Seemingly Boscher meant something like woodsman or lumberjack in old French. I didn’t want to complicate the original query with my random speculations but as it is a name at least associated with Cornwall for some centuries now you may find this of some interest.

        Very good to discover all your work on Cornish surnames!

  10. Fascinating article, my maiden name was Bodilly, and yes I did once go out to the village to see what it was like. The usual narrow Cornish lane eventually got us to Bodilly, one manor house, 16th century, a farmhouse and a small cottage. Plus one farmer, who delightedly entered into the favourite Cornish pastime of working out who I was related to. Having established that es he thought he did know my father, but definately knew his younger brother.

  11. Interesting article. My great grandparents were Cornish. Have heard that the Chellew surname has strong cornish roots. Is it true?
    Thanks!

    • Chellew is most definitely a surname with Cornish roots. In 1881 it was 73 times more likely to be found in Cornwall than elsewhere. Originating in the placename Chellew in Ludgvan (which may mean either house of colour – chy+lew or Lew’s house), in the 17th century it was still only found in and around Ludgvan parish. By the 19th century the name had spread but in Cornwall only as far as parishes to the west in West Penwith..

  12. Eustice was my maiden name and my Fathers family from Crowlas, while doing my family history there are numerous variations many without the ‘E’, Ustice etc….In my early years nobody knew how to spell it and even sometimes pronounce it My son-in-laws Gundry family from Portsmouth I have found a few of these in Ludgvan. It is a fascinating subject. Thank you.

  13. My surname is Cocking, I’m 55 Years old and my family has been based in the north east of England since at least the mid-1700s. I have traced it back to that period directly from father to son so far.

    As a child I was taken to Mevagissey, and while walking around I received the most massive, and only, belt of deja vu that I have ever experienced. So powerful that I still picture it over 40 years later.

    It may be that my family migrated north to follow the coal when tin mining declined in Cornwall, though as yet I have no evidence of this.

    I have always felt ‘stateless’, as though something is missing, though by birth nail my colours firmly to the English mast.

    Who knows? Maybe I’ll find a bit of Cornwall running through me someday!

  14. Kellow on my father’s side, Trenhaile on my mother’s and Tregunna on cousin’s side. I know there is a West Kellow near Polruan but I think the family were from Pensilva area. Trenhailes were from King Harry Ferry/Feock area but unsure of that. Tregunnas from Grampound are but unsure again. Any ideas please?

    • Sorry for the delay in replying – moving home! Yes, Kellow is from a placename meaning grove or groves or a small wood, There are places called Kellow near Looe, but also further west at Kea and Cornelly, The placename also gave rise to Kelly, which could also become Gelly, as in Angelly. So it’s possible the surname originated in lots of different places. This seems to be borne out by its early distribution. In the 1520s Kellows were found in the west (Wendron, Helston, Illogan), mid-Cornwall (Luxulyan, Lanhydrock, Bodmin), in north Cornwall at St Teath, and in the south east at St Neot, St Cleer, Warleggan, Lanteglos by Fowey and Lansallos. By 1861 the name was widespread but with a concentration in St Teath.

      Trenhayle is a placename in St Erth (farm on the estuary), although it could have been confused with, or fallen together with Trenhale (meaning farm on the moor) at Newlyn East. In 1523 we find a John Trenhale at Lelant and a James Trenhaylle at Truro, This name never ramified and in 1861 there were only four families called Trenhail or Trenhaile in the Census, 3 at Feock and 1 at Kenwyn, They look to have been descended from James at Truro and my bet is that he had gone to Truro from St Erth, given the spelling in 1523.

      Tregunna comes from the placename Tregonna or Tregenna (farm on the downs, originally spelt something like Tregonyowe). This placename is found in several places (Blisland, St Ewe, St Breock, Breage). At least three of these seem to have given rise to the surname by the early 16th century, when it was quite common, in the west at Phillack, St Ives, Ludgvan and Breage, on the Lizard at Mawgan in Meneage and St Keverne, in mid-Cornwall at Gorran and St Ewe, plus another cluster at Mawgan in Pydar, St Columb Major and Little Petherick. By 1861 there were very few Tregonnas or Tregennas and the surname had given way to Tregunna. However, by this time it was concentrated entirely on the Roseland peninsula, with a particular focus on Veryan. Perhaps the western Tregenna name was not hereditary as early as the 1520s. But your ancestor in Grampound had almost certainly come from the Roseland.

  15. Hi my fiancee’s name in Trembath, and we have traced it to Madron ,just outside PZ , meaning ( we believe?) Farmstad by the pool / pond

  16. Yes, Trembath is a farm in Madron. But it was spelt Trenbagh before the 16th century and is usually read as meaning farmstead of the nook or corner (Tre an bagh), possibly relating to its position at the edge of the parish.

  17. I’m wondering if there might be any connection between the Cornish hamlet Downinney and my surname, Downing. It would be easy to transform one into the other – even unintentionally via unclear handwriting. I am in the U.S., by the way. My great-grandfather Richard Downing and 4 brothers left Cornwall for North America in the early 20th century. They came from a tiny little place called Cutmere, in St. German’s parish.

  18. My grandfather’s name was Wearne Ivey.He was born in St.Erth Parish in the 1860’s but arrived in Swansea at the age of nine.His family is traceable in Cornwall until at least as early as Elizabethan times. He was my maternal grandfather,the other three grandparents were Welsh.
    Thomas/Williams/Williams.

  19. Bernard, you’ve replied to so many people about their surnames I hesitate to add mine but here goes: I’m researching the name Leane, sometimes spelt Lean but when the family emigrated to Australia the ‘e’ was still there. I can trace the family to Sheviock, Looe and Quethiock as far back as the 1600s. Family oral history claims the Leanes were Huguenots, the name originally something like D’Leane or Delaenus but I haven’t been able to find any evidence for that. Various stories also link them to the Treloys in the north west and the Trelawnys of Menheniot. Leane doesn’t seem to be a common name these days in Cornwall but I am hoping you know something about it.
    Thanks, Wendy, Australia

    • Hi Wendy. I’m afraid the origins may be a little more mundane. The name is definitely NOT a Huguenot name as it was well established by the 1520s, a century and a half before the Huguenot migration. The obvious origin of the surname Lean is as a nickname for a thin or lean person. Indeed, we find this is the explanation given in the surname dictionaries, which state that the name is particularly common in Devon. In fact it was equally common in Cornwall. In 1881 you’d have been 44 times more likely to find someone called Lean here than elsewhere in the UK.

      In Cornwall there may also be a different origin for the name. Pawley White suggested the surname originated in the placename Lean, which was originally lyn or leyn, and meant a stitch of land. It appears in several field names but also at hamlets in Liskeard and St Martin in Meneage parishes. Sure enough, in the earliest records (1520s) we find a Robert Lene at St Martin and a John Lene at Liskeard. The name was also spelt Leyne (which could have led to confusion with Lane), Len and Lenne. At Tregony William Lene’s surname was spelt Lene, Lenne and Len in three differing records.

      In the early sixteenth century Leans were found mainly in south east Cornwall, with a couple around Launceston and a handful in mid-Cornwall at Probus and St Issey. By the 1640s, the name had ramified and become fairly common. There were 72 examples, usually spelt Leane or Lene, in the 1642 Protestation returns. These were spread over mid and east Cornwall, but there was a concentration around Liskeard, suggesting that at least some Lean families had their origin in the placename there rather than as a general nickname. Meanwhile, the mid-Cornwall Leans were focused on Lanlivery while those in the far west on the Lizard had largely vanished. As surnames were more prone to change in the Cornish-speaking west into the 1500s, this may explain the disappearance of the family name in that area.

  20. Hi Bernard, I have an ancestor (early 17th century) whose byname surname was ‘Williams als Cornish’. I have been reading about bynames (and this is how I found your informative blog – thank you for your efforts, here) and understand the various possible reasons people had bynames. Two things: I have heard my family has Norman ancestry, and have read the name Cornish is Norman, but the byname (with ‘Williams’, it being Welsh) stumps me. Both names’ commonality is challenging – Williams being common and ‘Cornish’ being the name of our ethnicity. Any light you may shed on this would be appreciated. Thank you, Michele USA

    • Hi Michele,
      Aliases were common in the 16th/17th centuries and your ancestor is a good example. Williams is not especially Welsh, but is common in Wales because of late hereditary surname formation. For the same reason, it’s almost as common in Cornwall and arose seperately at the same time. A patronymic based on the first name William actually makes it the Norman bit! Cornish is an ethnic or regional name, presumably originally applied to someone from Cornwall. As such we’d be more likely to find it outside Cornwall. That was indeed the case in 1881 when it was twice as frequent in Devon than Cornwall. Within Cornwall it was more likely to be found in the east, which makes sense. However, there were quite a few in the west, notably at Gwennap, which makes me wonder whether at some point it was a nickname for someone who had particularly ‘Cornish’ characteristics, or was a Cornish-speaker when those around were switching to English.

      • Bernard, Thank you so much. You have me thinking and I’m going to investigate further. I am grateful! Michele

    • Hunkin/Hunking or similar was recorded in Cornwall in the 1200s. I’m away from home for a while, or I could give you a little more info….

    • Cornish surname dictionaries assert that the Cornish Grose has no connection with the nickname Gros (for a big man). But little evidence is offered. The explanation usually given is a derivation from a placename Crows, which would be An grows or An grouse after the definite article, as it’s feminine. The earliest 16th century distribution of the name is in three districts. The most westerly is around Newlyn East and St Columb, the second is to the west and north of Bodmin Moor, from Braddock to St Teath, and the third is along the Tamar, from Warbstow and Launceston in the north to Antony in the south. Some at least of these may come from a now lost eastern placename with the element crous. This distribution seems to lend itself to multiple origins, but these could be nicknames, or they could be placenames.

  21. Hello, It is 14th April 2017 & I am just Googeling Sturtridge Cornwall.
    My maiden name is Sturtridge. My father was William Alfred Sturtridge. His grandfather was Elijah Sturtridge who came to Australia & was a tin miner in
    Emmaville NSW Australia. Love to hear from any of my relatives in Cornwall.
    I live in Sydney Australia. My email is oldtrout@optusnet.com.au Cheers Margaret Dyer (née Sturtridge)

  22. Hi Bernard. Hope your well Mate. So Champion as I have been told is a name from North Cornwall. I have seen it called a Celtic/Cornish name on a few websites. Love to have your input on it…… Thanks

  23. This is fascinating 🙂 I’d love to hear your thoughts about my name, Hunkin, before it arrived in Mevagissey?

  24. Hi Bernard, my Olds ancestors left St Just just before the end of the 19th century, moving to Durham to work in the mines there, before eventually my grandfather and his brother moved to the Hunter Valley in NSW in the 1920s to work in the mines (we would still have relatives upcountry as there were three other siblings who stayed. I would think we’d also have relatives still in Penzance although it doesn’t appear that the family kept in touch to my knowledge, apart from one old family photo Dad had of a relative in Mousehole).

    In his book A Glossary of Cornish Surnames on p.103, Bannister records the name as being of Cornish origin: “Olds, n.f,’\ = als, a cliff” (https://archive.org/stream/glossaryofcornis00bann/glossaryofcornis00bann_djvu.txt). Public Profiler records the name as being Cornish/Celtic, but most anglocentric sources simply record it as ‘English’ coming from the word ‘old’. Americans in particular tend to interchange Old/Olde/Olds without any differentiation between the names.

    Do you have any further information on the name and its prevalence or otherwise in the St Just/Penzance region, and its origins?

  25. My Cornish surnames are Ellery from Mawgan-in-Pydar and Jacka from Perranzabuloe. Do you have any information about these surnames?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s