Is your surname Cornish?

New research to mark the latest Man Engine tour reveals the spread of the Cornish diaspora across Britain

Thousands of people around the UK may have unexpected Cornish roots, according to new research into the diaspora of Cornish mine workers.


To mark the latest UK tour by the ‘Man Engine’, a giant mechanical miner created to celebrate Cornwall’s mining heritage, the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site (CMWHS) commissioned research by genealogist Stephen Colwill into the spread of Cornish surnames around the UK.

“We thought this was an ideal opportunity to access our Cornish mining heritage throughout the UK”, Ainsley Cocks, research and information officer at CMWHS, told Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

“We have unveiled lots of interesting information.”

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.

Celebrities including actors Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford and singer Shakin’ Stevens can all trace their ancestry to Cornish mining emigrants.

Stephen used census returns 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.

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.

In Roose, Cumbria, from 1873, 196 miners’ cottages were built by an iron mining company to house its new workforce.

At the Magpie Mine near Sheldon in Derbyshire, the influence of Cornish workers can be seen in the engine house and surrounding shaft-head features.

Mike Thomas

The Man Engine will tour the former homes of Cornish mining populations across the UK (Credit: Mike Thomas)

In 2016 the Man Engine, the largest mechanical puppet ever constructed in Britain, toured former mining sites in Cornwall and Devon to mark the 10th anniversary of the CMWHS before winning the 2017 National Lottery Best Arts Project prize.

Is your surname Cornish?

“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. (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 language 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 names 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.

A list of some of the most numerous surnames and some of their variants found in Cornwall:

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).


Written by Stephen Colwill, commissioned by the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site