Which are Devon Surnames?

- or Guppy's Homes of Family Names for Devon


Max Hooper


1 Which are Devon Surnames?

1.1 Guppy's List of Devon Surnames

1.2 Names I think ought to be added

2 Early Distribution of some Surnames in Devon

2.1 Sample Surname Distribution Maps

3. References



One pioneer in surname distribution studies was a certain Dr. Henry Brougham Guppy, who published a book, "The Homes of Family Names in Great Britain," back in 1890. Nearly every modern work damns this with faint praise or attacks the basic premises upon which Guppy based his collection of data. Hoskins, in his own chapter called The Homes of Family Names, (Hoskins 1959) says "like all pioneer work it has serious faults". Reaney (1967) in his chapter, again with the same title, gives a fuller description of Guppy's work but says things like "he gives us very little information on the real homes of family names". So for a long time I did not bother with finding a copy of Guppy's work, foolishly accepting that his critics were right. Now I have found a copy I find I do not agree with the critics. At least not entirely. Yes, there are some minor problems with his data and yes, some of the precise localities he gives are not entirely in agreement with my own observations and I do want to add names to his list. But for Devon he gives a list of about 400 names, with some ideas about the focus of their distributions, and examples of some prominent holders of those names; a listing which no one else has bettered. For anyone interested in the distribution of Devon names Guppy is a good place to start.

His work is divided into several parts beginning with an index of names studied. Then Chapter One deals with the literature and his methods. Chapter Two deals with the more widespread names, discussing their distribution. He follows this with what forms the major part of the book, "Notes on some of the characteristic names of the English and Welsh counties" in which he lists and discusses the names he found, county by county. (pp. 67-445, of which Devon is pp. 141-167) He brings this part to a close with an alphabetical list with the frequencies he found. (NB these frequencies are generally an overestimate when compared with the 1881 Census) Finally there is an addendum on Scottish names (pp. 576-601)

Guppy's description of Devon names in this main, "Notes", section is in two parts. First he gives a list of Devon names, divided into categories according to their spread across the country, and second he gives comments on some of the names in an alphabetical sequence. The first part seems to me to be excellent although there are some surprising omissions (e.g. Acland, Boalch, Clampitt to Yabsley and Zeal). The second part, if not inaccurate (he does give his sources) can be misleading as to the distribution within Devon.

What I do here is to give Guppy's Devon list (his pages 141-145), together with my comments based on a search of modern telephone directories, the Censuses of 1851 & 1881, the Lay Subsidies of 1544/5 and 1332, and my reading of miscellaneous transcripts of original documents. In other words it is an expanded version of Guppy's list, with his comments replaced by mine. My comments cover the distribution in 1881 by Poor Law Union/Registration District and by Parish for any earlier records I have found. If I have not found a name in the Subsidies it may not be very significant - only about a third of the population may have paid tax. Naturally the presence of the name on a Subsidy list does at least indicate an antiquity in Devon.

Guppy's comments are based on noting individual occurrences of prominent holders of the names, mainly in the 16th & 17th centuries, while mine are more biased to the relative frequency of names within nominal lists. My comments may give a better description of the distribution of a name through time but Guppy may have spotted your ancestor.

The search of the 1881 census was mainly done using the Archer Software Surname Atlas. If Guppy is the starting place for Devon name distributions for those who are used to books and manuscripts then this Archer Software Atlas is the first place for the computer literate (and could even make the purchase of a computer worthwhile for those who are not.)

I have not kept to Guppy's arrangement of the list in categories. These categories are:

  1. General Names (present in 30-40 counties)
  2. Common Names(20-29 counties)
  3. Regional names (10-19 counties)
  4. District names (4-9 counties)
  5. County Names (2-3 counties)
  6. Peculiar Names (confined mostly to Devon)

The use of categories does emphasise an important point: that some names have multiple origins across England, others originate from a single small farm, and there are many intermediates. As an example of the first type, Baker began as a surname in many places including Devon, but in contrast Bater looks as if it began only once in north Devon. Intermediate are some occupational names like Crocker, Hooper, Tucker and Webber which probably originate in a variety of places in several counties in the south-west, perhaps most in Devon. Or take ordinary topographic names like Hill, Down and Ley: Hill has many origins, Down too, but most were in the 3 or 4 south western counties. Any person with one of these names might well have a family history going back in Devon for 700 years. Without other evidence we can only be sure that is true for Bater. Nevertheless many a Baker or Hill shares an ancestral antiquity in Devon on a par with Acland, Bodley, or Drake. That being so and because a single alphabetical list is easier to use I give all Guppy's names in a single list, followed by a list of names I think should be added.

Note that not only are the extremes of interest, the intermediates can also be of significance: Crocker, Hooper, Tucker & Webber are known as south western dialect names for what most Englishmen would call a potter, cooper, fuller, or weaver, as Guppy realized. But there are still problems: why is Down a surname so far from the Downs of south east England? Why are Grigg and Griggs so different? Where does the South West dialect begin?

Names peculiar to a small area of one county are perhaps most obviously important because, as well as their intrinsic interest as probably of single origin and thus of interest to population geneticists (all males with such a surname should have the same DNA sequence on the Y-chromosome), they can also be used by the family historian to track migration across England and perhaps produce generalisations applicable to all migration.