Early Distribution of some Surnames in Devon


Where did they come from?


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




If when tracing your family tree you cannot find the birth of an ancestor in the parish in which that ancestor married, the advice you will usually get is to search in the Registers of the adjoining parishes. For example Hey (1993/2002) says

"When an elusive ancestor cannot be located, the first step for the family historian is therefore to consult the records of the parishes adjacent to the one where the surname last appears."

The logic behind this advice is sound. People in the past commonly only moved a few miles to find a mate or work and, if the records are in the IGI, following the advice is simple and rapid. However, following the advice can be long and tedious if the records are not in the IGI. Most Devon parishes abut onto 9 or 10 others and adjoining these there is a second ring of 16 or 17 more parishes. If one searches within a 10 mile radius there may well be 30 to 35 parishes to check. I therefore suggest that before undertaking such a task it could be worthwhile looking at the surname's distribution.

It is common knowledge that O'Neil is an Irish surname, MacNab is Scots and Jones Welsh. It is also well known that individual English counties can have a distinctive suite of names: we all know that we can recognise Cornishmen by the Pol, Tre & Pen. And in Part One I have developed Guppy's list to define the distinctive Devon names. An expert such as Hey (1997) can say:

"when I come across the names Gollop, Sturmy, Squibb, Samways, and Snook I know I am looking at the Dorset Returns and when I find numerous Bloores, Eardleys, Plants, Salts, and Tooths I am looking at a list of Staffordshire people."

(As an aside I would point out that, at least in the 1881 Census, Gollop was more in Devon, Squib was an IOW name and Snook was to found in Wiltshire but he is right about the Staffordshire names and to be fair, was talking of the Lay Subsidies)

He then goes even further and suggests that even many smaller areas, "countries" or "pays", such as the area around Sheffield known as Hallamshire, can also have distinctive suites of names. This seems perfectly feasible for Devon as it has long been known that some Devon surnames have a very limited distribution within Devon. (e.g. Chugg, Pugsley, & Churchward, see Hoskins, 1984.) Generally this has been linked to a single farmstead origin some 700 years ago. (e.g. Reddaway & Seccombe, in Hoskins, 1959, or Galsworthy, in Hoskins, 1966.) I have myself found that my own ancestors' names come from only two limited areas, one around the Exe estuary and the other along the lower Tamar valley, but none of my forebears have locative surnames linked to an ancient farmstead. Indeed I think on the basis of my revision of Guppy's "Homes of Family names" (see Part One) most Devon names are local and that I can distinguish lists of citizens of Devon towns and say whether the town is northern, southern, eastern or western. That is, I think I can tell the difference between Honiton and Hatherleigh, or Tiverton and Tavistock lists but perhaps not differentiate between Sidbury and Colyton, or between Bideford and Barnstaple, lists.

If this is true, that in Devon we are able to recognize such local suites of names it would be of inestimable value to family historians, particularly in sorting out the origin of local economic, or marital, migrants. It may, for example, help with finding the origins of passengers on immigrant ships. Or if real "pays" exist we might also determine whether they have some recognizable physical cause (centered on a manufacture like Sheffield's cutlery, on a market town, on a localized resource such as fish, tin or cloam, on topography such as a river valley or a region based on farm type?--- a "pays" in a more traditional sense). Alternatively we might find each individual surname has its own individual distribution or home range, probably caused by there having been only a limited number of starting points for each surname 700 years ago and small random local migration movements up to the present era. It may even then be possible to find out if there are particular directions for the less common but longer migrations and even assess their frequency in time. For the Family Historian, however, narrowing down the probable origin of the name(s) of interest to a single parish or farmstead may be a cherished desire. How, and how often, might such desires be satisfied?


The pioneer work was done by Henry Guppy (1890) who used farmers names as listed in Directories to produce his "Homes of Family Names" but, apart from producing an excellent list of distinctive Devon names, Guppy is not always to be trusted on his distributions within Devon. Moreover his work post dates the coming of railways and Civil Registration. Were names more local before Queen Victoria?

More modern methods and sources for discovering the distribution of English surnames are fully discussed by Bulson (1978), Dark (1998), Hey (1993-2002) and Rogers (1995). Now, with modern computer software, such as the "Surname Atlas" by Archer Software, it is possible to map the distribution of surnames from the 1881 Census by county and by Poor Law Union. This will certainly show if your chosen surname is from Devon and in some cases show a concentration in a part of Devon. Nevertheless 1881 is after the railways came to Devon and after the major slump in West country farming. Also it is well after the beginning of Civil Registration and the smallest Archer Software Atlas mapping unit is the Poor Law Union. We require both more precision in area and an earlier data source to provide a finer focus in time & space.

Therefore in these studies I began by using the 1851 Census data, as transcribed and published on a compact disc by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have, with few exceptions, plotted the parish birthplaces of male Heads of Household, so the distributions generally represent the situation from about 1790 to 1830, both before the railways came and before the beginning of Civil Registration.

The significant variation in the standard methods that I have adopted has been to plot only a limited number of Christian names to approximate the distribution of common surnames. That is I have plotted the distribution of, say, only John and William Hooper, and assumed that this pattern is not significantly different from that of all male Hoopers. This assumption has been tested and appears valid. (For example see maps of the Ridd family or those of the Salters) It is not a precise method but does produce an approximation quickly.

The sample size will vary with the Christian names used. The frequency of some Christian names has changed with time but others have remained more or less constant. Postles (1995, see his table 5.19) found 21 % of taxpayers in 1332 were called John and 16 % called William. For the 1851 census I found, in a sample of 10,000 men, 19 % called John and 17 % called William. Using only John and William forenames is therefore equivalent to using about a 30% to 40 % sample of males with one family name but it is not strictly a random sample unless the parental choice of forenames within families was random. This is unlikely to be generally true: certain rarer forenames, like Abraham or Bartholomew, do run in families. Nevertheless with a large sample of near 35% the sample distribution may be assumed to approximate to that of the population. Smaller samples can be taken by using Thomas (7 to 9 %) or Henry (circa 5 %) when dealing with a very common surname but Robert, Richard, and Walter each give sample sizes under 3.5 %, which I regard as too small and have not used.

I have also plotted the distribution of some taxpayers in the various Subsidy Rolls and birth places of males from the IGI in 40 year tranches, from 1601 to 1640, 1641-1680, etc.

My choice of surnames to investigate has not been at random. I began with the names of my ancestors and relatives (Fox, Hatch, Hatswell, Heynes, Hooper, Jory, Knighton, Parr, Pring, Voysey, etc) and then concentrated on East Devon names to test the theory of a "pays". This also allowed me to test some pet theories:

a) I included -man and -ing surnames because I originally had the impression that -man names were northern and western while the -ing names were eastern and southern.
b) Also I thought that monosyllabic names (e.g. Bess, Clapp) were characteristic of south and east Devon, with the underlying idea that these might be evidence of a dialect "pays".
c) I have also looked for migration along the coast, believing that mariners, notably fishermen, are more likely to have been a community separated from their local town or country, and in closer contact with fishermen in the next harbourage along the coast. Or, in other words, that the sea might be a "pays".

Most of the names selected for study are among the less common as I thought these would be the most likely to show clear clusters but even the rarest (like Boalch, Coyde, Vittery or Vye) are all names of people I have met.

I have tried to cover a range of names from all parts of Devon but not all these surnames are Devonian in the sense that they originated in Devon nor were they always most common in Devon rather than elsewhere. Most are Devonian in both these senses but some are better described as South-Western, like Hooper which, though most common in Devon, is also frequent in early records from both Dorset and Somerset. A few, like Fox and Waldron, always were much more common elsewhere. These are included here because their distribution within Devon appears significant and they have existed in Devon for centuries.

Results and Discussion

The basic results are included in the lists of names given in Part One; maps of the distributions are provided, where they illustrate particular points.

The Distributions:

a) Some surnames are generally dispersed throughout the county at all points in time. These include not only surnames of occupation, which are probably of multiple origin like Hooper, but also surnames which may be assumed to be locative and stem from a single place, like Rattenbury or Luxton.
b) A few surnames are at the other extreme, being confined to one or two parishes, apparently for all time. Examples include Littley in Ottery St. Mary, Coyd/Coyde & Vittery in Brixham, Vye in Ilfracombe, and Boalch in Beer & Churchstanton (now in Somerset).
c) Most surnames fall into an intermediate class, showing at least a tendency to cluster in one particular area at all points in time.

Do "pays" exist?

One could say the idea of a "pays" has some validity. Many Devon names can be called distinctive of a district, say, East Devon, Teignmouth, or the South Hams coast. However there is significant overlap between any two districts, as defined by surname suites, and no two name clusters have the same bounds. Each family name which shows any tendency to cluster by occurring more frequently in one group of parishes, seems to have its own individual, distinctive country or "pays".

I think it likely that each family name behaves independently of the others around it and, while moving in reaction to the economic environment in the neighbourhood, does so in its own individual way. Hence I would say that each family name has a home range rather than that a group of names occurs in and/or defines a "pays". For example the surnames Anning, Bagwell, Bess, Channon, Churchill, Clapp, Eveleigh, Minifie, Mutter, Priddis, Scadding, Rugg and Wiscombe are all concentrated in East Devon but no one name shows the same distribution as another. In some part this may be more apparent than real because of the rarity of the name: neither Minifie nor Wiscombe is common enough to draw any conclusion other than that they are East Devon names. With the more frequent names the spread is obviously in different directions: the Scaddings, for example, spread northward into Mid Devon while, in contrast, the Ruggs spill over into Teignbridge to the south-west. Nevertheless both Rugg and Scadding appear to be concentrated in East Devon and I assume both originated there.

-Man and -Ing names

The surname distributions do not support my preconceptions. Each name either has its own home range or is widely dispersed across Devon.

Nevertheless I cannot explain the very high number of -ing names which have occurred in East Devon places such as Ottery St. Mary. Here I have found, in various records, Anning, Bending, Browning, Denning, Gooding, Harding, Hilling, Manning, Sonning, Stoning, Styling, Thorning, Tirling, & Whiting---fourteen -ing names in this one place. East Devon does not have a monopoly of -ing names. Perring, for example, is only found in the eastern half of the South Hams while Thorning is clustered a little further west. Gooding and Manning are spread widely and Hilling is usually much more a Norfolk name.

Monosyllabic names

These are not necessarily characteristic of East Devon. Babb, for example, is scattered, Nutt is basically a Barnstaple name, Tapp is in mid and north Devon on the Somerset border and Ridd (as I should have guessed) occurs only in the most northern parts, adjacent to Exmoor. Nevertheless there do seem to be a high number of monosyllabic names in the south east, for which I have no explanation.

Coastal movement/migration

There is some evidence that names are linked to the coast. A significant number of names, from Avant/Avent to Vittery and Yabsley, hug the south coast in a way which suggests a maritime "pays". Genealogical research could perhaps confirm this thesis.

Finding a finer focus

A quick test of whether the distribution of a name in the early 19th. century is representative of its origin is possible if the origin is known. There is the problem of which gave the name to which, person to place or place to person but surnames come into use later than the evidence for many placenames. More significant is the problem of finding unique placenames: there are many bridges, fords, hills, leahs, or pitts which are early but need a distinguishing suffix - Petherbridge, Blatchford, Churchill, Eveleigh, Clampitt - before they would be of any significance and it only needs a couple of Church hills and we could be into a circular argument. Nevertheless the place names of Devon are documented (Gover, Mawer& Stenton 1931, 1932) and dated. Thus the place Pethybridge is that in 1318, Blachford in 1086, Eveleigh in 1086, but for Clampitt there are two places, one in Sandford which only goes back as a name to 1749, and one in Christow which goes back to 1219 so it is clear that Christow is the more likely origin and the Sandford Clampitt is secondary, acquiring its name from a person with the surname. When it comes to Churchills there are too many places of the name to be certain which gave the name to the family. All we can say is that the distributions indicate a place called Churchill somewhere in East Devon.

Having taken all such precautions, many points of origin for locative surnames can be compared with their later distributions. Typical examples include Galsworthy in Buckland Brewer, Pugsley at Satterleigh, Seccombe in Germansweek, Nosworthy in Widecombe , or Wiscombe in Southleigh. Though not all name clusters are centred on the probable point of origin the movement over six or seven centuries is small.

In addition there are several cases where the distribution in later centuries can be said to have a focus on a taxpayer in the 14th. century. Rugg and Fox illustrate this very well. We may conclude that the distribution circa 1820 is a good guide to where the name started. It is not wholly accurate because people do move.

Can we produce a map of earlier distributions? One way is to map the births in the IGI. For example the Mutter family from the 1851 census data is well spread in East Devon. Representatives are in Yarcombe, Axminster, Honiton, down to Seaton & Beer, across to Woodbury & with outliers at Sampford Peverell. Most are at Seaton & Beer, as is to be expected of a famous smuggling family. Is this their origin? Births between 1750 & 1800 only fill in the East Devon area a little more, with births at Sidmouth, Broad Clyst, Topsham & Exeter. Before 1750, however, there are some 50 births recorded in the IGI of which 44 are in Yarcombe and the other six are in Upottery, Offwell, Widworthy, & Northleigh. The Mutters originated in Yarcombe and only spread across East Devon from 1750 onward. This approach does not always work. The dispersal may have occurred before the Parish Registers started e.g. the Bagwells of the early 17th century have the same distribution as those in the late 19th. Alternatively there can be suspect information in the IGI e.g. for John Churchill I believe 25 out of 30 entries for 1600 to 1640 refer to a single person.

Immigrant lists

In New Plymouth, New Zealand, the general consensus is that the early immigrants to the town came from Devon & Dorset. The Timandra sailed from Plymouth, Devon (2nd Nov. 1841) to New Plymouth in New Zealand (arr.23rd Feb) and its passenger list survives (and is on the web). Does the passenger list bear local tradition out? Several of the names are widely spread across England (Allan, Andrews, Bishop, through to Taylor) and do not define a locality. A small group are likely to be from Dorset (Crann, Spurdle,) and more are likely to be Devonian (Brooking, Candish, Kerslake, Loveridge, Steer,) but by far the largest group appear to be Cornish (Barraball, Joul, Prout, Treweek, Varcoe & Vercoe). The tradition is right but incomplete - ignoring the Cornish input. But in any case a knowledge of the distribution of these names in England at the time the Timandra sailed would help a New Zealand Barraball, Brooking, Steer or Sturdle, find their ancestors.

Uncle Tom Cobley

One surprising result is in the distributions of the surnames of the riders of Tom Pearce's gray mare. Hoskins (1954) firmly places Uncle Tom Cobley at Spreyton and says

"His companions on the famous ride to Widecombe Fair all came from this district."

This is not confirmed by the surname distributions in 1851. Brewer, Cobley, Davy, and Pearce do all fit with a ride south, through Chagford, of a group of friends from the Spreyton, Bow, Crediton Hamlets, Morchard Bishop, and Zeal Monarchorum area. The distribution of Whiddon is closer to Widecombe but is centred on Ashburton to the southeast rather than north of Chagford like the Cobleys & Pearces. On the other hand Whiddon Down is north of Chagford and Hoskins (1954) notes a Sir John Whiddon at Whiddon Park 2 miles north east of Chagford. More significant is that both Hawke and Gurney are Dartmouth or Plymouth names in the 1851 Census and Hawk is from Dartmouth and the Tamar Valley. Even more significant is that I have found no Stewer in 1851 and no Stewer in any other Devon nominal lists from 1332 to the current telephone directories. The nearest are a Stuer in the list of Exeter Freemen for 1289 (Rowe & Jackson, 1973) together with a single female Stuer in the 1851 Census, resident in Newton Abbot though born in Chivelstone. (Neither of which is anywhere near Spreyton.) One has to conclude that either the distribution of the names has changed over time, (Hoskins does place Uncle Tom at the last quarter of the 18th century) or the name list is, at least as far as Jan Stewer, Harry Hawk and Peter Gurney are concerned, fictional. The spellings Stuer/Stewer I have assumed to be the same name because spelling was not as formal in the past as it is now. It would appear that this formalization was already well established in the early 1800s because names like Avent & Avant or Hawke and Hawk are clearly separate names or family lines at that time.


The main conclusion is that many Devon surnames have a very limited spread in space within Devon in the early 19th century. This clustering persists back through time. It is possible to produce a map of a surname's distribution back to the first half of the 17th century. This may well assist in finding a missing ancestor. It can also help in many social history studies.


I thank Brian Pears for his advice on making maps, Brian Randell for introducing me to Archer Software & providing a base map of Devon, the local librarians for allowing me to re-cycle their old telephone directories, and Dr. P.H. Reaney for starting my interest in surnames 56 years ago.