Cornish surnames: How to tell if you have Cornish ancestry

Family historian Stephen Colwill reveals his research into Cornish surnames

Cate Blanchett Cornish surnames

Thousands of people around the world can trace their roots back to Cornwall in England. If you’re one of them, the clue to Cornish origins could be in your surname.

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Between 1815 and the beginning of the First World War, an estimated 250,000-500,000 people migrated from Cornwall. Over half relocated to other areas from the UK, while others went overseas to Australia and New Zealand, North and South America, Europe and South Africa.

At the time, Cornwall was one of the most important mining districts in the world for its copper and tin resources, and skilled Cornish mineworkers were sought out for their expertise, exporting their technology to mines across the Britain. Celebrities including actors Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford and singer Shakin’ Stevens can all trace their ancestry to Cornish mining emigrants.

Genealogist Stephen Colwill used census records to track distinctive Cornish surnames and mining occupations across the UK, and found pockets of Cornish mining populations in areas such as Northumberland, Wales and Cumbria.

Stephen explains how to tell if you have a Cornish surname in your family tree:

The most common Cornish surnames

“By Ros-, Car-, Lan-, Tre-, Pol-, Pen-, Ye may know most Cornishmen”.

This ancient rhyme describes some common Cornish surname prefixes:

Ros (promontory or moor) – e.g. Rosevear, Roskruge, Rosewarne, Roskilly, Rosemergy.

Car (fort or round) – e.g. Carthew, Carlyon, Cargeeg, Carveth, Carvossow.

Lan (church enclosure, sometimes originally Lyn (pool or pond)) – e.g. Lansallos, Landeryou, Lanyon, Lander.

Tre(v) (farm or settlement) the most common Cornish prefix- e.g. Tregenza, Tregoning, Treloar, Trevethan, Trevaskis, Trethewey, Treweek.

Pol (pit, pool, sometimes originally Porth (cove) – e.g. Polmear, Polsue, Polkinhorne, Polglaze. Pen (head or end) – e.g. Pengelly, Penhale, Penhaligon, Penberthy, Penaluna.

To this list could also be added:

Bos and Bod (dwelling, home) – e.g. Bodilly, Bosanko, Boscawen, Bosustow, Beswetherick.

Chy (house, cottage) – e.g. Chynoweth, Chegwin, Chirgwin, Chenhalls, Chellew.

Nans (valley) – e.g. Nance, Nancekivell, Nancarrow, Nanchollas, Nankervis.

All of these surnames are locational names derived from places in Cornwall.

This is just a small sample and there are many others with these prefixes (particularly Tre(v) names).

There are of course, many other Cornish locational surnames not containing the above prefixes.

A few examples include Menadue (dark hill), Kernick (little corner), Glasson (greensward), Minear (long stone), Vellanoweth (new mill), Kelynack (holly grove), Skewes [or Skewis] (place of Elder trees).

There are also a number of Cornish occupational and descriptive surnames – e.g. Angove (the smith), Tyack (farmer), Trahair (tailor), Dyer (originally Tyer, meaning thatcher), Annear (the long), Angwin (the white or fair), Teague (fair, beautiful), Tallack (big browed).

Miners on the Man Engine at 190 Cook and Hitchin, Cornwall, circa 1900. Cornish surnames (Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images)
Miners on the Man Engine at 190 Cook and Hitchin, Cornwall, circa 1900. (Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images)
Photo by Past Pix/SSPL/Getty Images

Unfortunately the old “Tre, Pol, Pen” rhyme is inaccurate in that despite the many unique Cornish surnames, the majority of Cornish people (like their Welsh linguistic cousins) have patronymic surnames (i.e. the father’s first name taken as a surname), and a whole host of pet names and diminutives derived from these.

A few of these patronymic surnames are uniquely Cornish, where an “o” or “a” is suffixed to the name to denote son of – e.g. Clemo (son of Clement), Bennetto (son of Bennett), Kitto (son of Christopher), Sandow and Santo (son of Alexander) and Jacka (son of Jack [John]).

The three most common Cornish surnames are Williams, Richards and Thomas.

This preponderance of Welsh sounding surnames has often led to the mistaken belief (at least outside Cornwall), that if you bear such a name then you must be of Welsh descent, when certainly in the mining areas of Northern England, your family are as likely to have originated in Cornwall.

Due to the vast numbers of Cornish migrants in the copper, lead and coal mines of Wales, there are no doubt many Welsh families unaware that the origin of their very Welsh surname may have been in Cornwall.

Some of the most numerous Cornish surnames and their variants are:

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Andrew, Bennett (Bennetts, Bennetto), Bray, Brewer, Davey, Dawe, Dunstan, Eddy, George, Gilbert (Gilbard, Jelbart), Hancock, Harris (Harry), Harvey, Hawken, Hicks, Hocking, Hodge, Hooper, Hoskin, James, Jeffrey, Johns , Jenkin, Lobb, Martin, Matthews, Mitchell, Moyle, Nicholas, Nicholls, Pascoe, Pearce, Phillips (Philp), Richards (Rickard), Roberts, Rogers, Rowe, Rundle, Saunders (Saundry, Sanders, Sandow), Stephens (Stevens), Symons (Simmons, Semmens), Thomas (Toms), Trebilcock, Treloar, Truscott, Williams (Wills).