The surnames that reveal Cheshire's history

Harry Parkin with book

Senior University of Chester English Language lecturer Harry Parkin, editor of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain - Credit: Harry Parkin

Dr Harry Parkin, a senior lecturer in English Language at the University of Chester and editor of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain, shares his research on the surnames that reveal Cheshire's history.

The names we are given reveal a huge amount about our ancestors and the areas they came from. The family names found in Cheshire reflect the great cultural and linguistic diversity of the region. Research into their origins tells us about past stages of the English language, and the county’s history, people and identity.

A study of local family names can therefore supplement and improve our knowledge of local places, people and communities.

The five most common surnames in Cheshire in 1881 were Jones, Smith, Davies, Williams, and Taylor. These are also some of the most common in Britain, and so they do not tell us much about the unique history of Cheshire.

Some of the names that are much more common to Cheshire than any other county in Britain include Pleavin, Skellern, Coppenhall, and Pimblott, and it is these which provide more of an insight into the county’s individual identity. 

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Senior University of Chester English Language lecturer Harry Parkin, editor of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain - Credit: Harry Parkin

Pleavin
According to the 1881 census, there were 128 people with this name in England, Scotland, and Wales, and 109 of these were recorded in Cheshire, with most of them in Chester.

The linguistic origin of this name also reflects the unique history of the county. Given its position, we would expect some Welsh influence, and we know that Wales has had an important part to play in the history and culture of the county.

The name Pleavin further reflects this Welsh influence. It means 'son of Blethyn', and in earlier forms is composed of two separate elements: the Welsh first name Blethyn and the element ap, which means 'son of'.

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We see this in, for example, Llewellyn ap Bledyn, recorded in 1313. The final consonant in ap and the initial consonant in Bledyn became more similar (a linguistic process known as assimilation), giving forms such as Dauid ap Plethyn, recorded in Denbighshire in 1391.

The ap element was then lost, giving forms like Plethyn, and then, via a process called th-fronting, forms like Plevin and Pleavin from the 17th century. While the origin of the name is not clear from the present-day form, connecting it with earlier surname forms confirms its Welsh origin.

Skellern
This is another example of a family name that is strongly associated with Cheshire and which contains important information on the county’s diverse past. Of its 195 bearers in 1881, 113 were resident in Congleton.

Skellern is a locative family name, meaning it was once used to indicate the place or origin of any person who bore this name as a non-hereditary description or by-name (rather than a hereditary surname). It derives from any place named with Old Scandinavian skáli ‘temporary shelter’ + horn ‘horn-shaped piece of land’, such as Skeleron in Rimington (in the West Riding of Yorkshire). 

There is a place called Skellorn Green in Adlington (Cheshire), so it might be tempting to assume that this is the origin of the family name, but there is no evidence for this place-name before the 19th century, making it more likely that Skellorn Green was named after a family who migrated to the county from somewhere else.

The presence of this surname in the county, therefore, indicates internal British migration, while also representing past linguistic diversity, with the place name from which the family name derives having been formed with words of Old Scandinavian, rather than Old English, origin. 

Just by looking at two family names common to Cheshire, Skellern and Pleavin, we see evidence of Old Scandinavian, Welsh, and migration, demonstrating how a very small sample of local family names can provide a picture of the region’s history.

Coppenhall
Cheshire family names do not just reflect the different languages and possible cultural influences on the region, but they also preserve historical dialect features of the region. This is apparent in the name Coppenhall.

It is not a particularly common family name, with 39 bearers in 1881, but all but one of these were recorded in Cheshire; the one who wasn’t recorded in Cheshire was from Flintshire but treated as being a resident of Chester, so this is clearly a name that is heavily associated with the county.

This is another locative name, either from Coppenhall in Cheshire or Coppenhall in Staffordshire. The form of these place names (and therefore the surname too) preserve a particular form of the English language that was once relatively common to the West Midlands.

This is the -en ending to indicate possession. These place names derive from the Old English first name Coppa and an Old English word halh  – corner of land. 

The original meaning would have been 'Coppa’s corner of land', but rather than indicating possession with the -es ending, similar to how we use the apostrophe followed by -s today, which would give a place-name like Coppeshall, we have the -en form often associated with the West Midlands, giving us Coppenhall.

Through this, we can see how local family names reflect the linguistic history of Cheshire.

Pimblott
Family names can also preserve regionally specific first-name patterns, showing us the kind of first names that were once used in the county. An example of this can be seen in the family name Pimblott, which had 212 bearers in 1881, and 142 of these were resident in Cheshire.

The family name Pimblott appears to derive from an unrecorded Middle English first name *Pimmelot (the asterisk is used here to indicate that the name is not recorded, but assumed to have existed based on other linguistic evidence). 

This is a pet-form, perhaps originally used to indicate affection towards someone, of the recorded Middle English first name Pimme (related examples include Roblett as a pet-form of Rob, and Hughelot as a pet-form of Hugh). 

The Middle English first name Pimme appears to have been found more often in Cheshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire than other parts of Britain, and the same is true of the surname Pimblott (and variant forms like Pymelott, Pimblett and Pimlott) since the 14th century.

This shows us how the distribution of a family name, over a number of centuries, can provide information on how other types of name were once common to a region, in this case showing us that, in Cheshire and nearby counties, Pimmelot was a first name that appears to have been used more frequently here than in other parts of Britain.

The family names discussed comprise just a small selection of names that reflect the history of Cheshire in some way. Many more of the family names found in the county preserve aspects of its linguistic and cultural history and diversity.

It would not be possible to cover everything in this short article, but do look into your own name, and see if you can find out any of the ways in which it relates to Cheshire’s past.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain - Credit: OUP

The family names projects
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain was published in August 2021. This dictionary is based on research that was carried out between 2010 and 2016 on the Family Names of the United Kingdom (FaNUK) research project.

One of its primary aims was to improve our understanding of the origins and history of family names in the UK. Dictionaries of family names were already available, but the reasoning behind the selection of names for these dictionaries is not always clear, and many names included were extinct, meaning these publications tended to serve as dictionaries of historical family names, rather than reflecting the present-day name stock.

There was therefore a need to research the names found in Britain and Ireland today, and this was the approach taken by the FaNUK project, looking into their etymology, history, and distribution.

By far the most reliable way to determine a family name’s original meaning is to trace it back to its origin, and most family names in Britain and Ireland originated at some point between about 1100-1450.

With the increasing availability of electronic forms of historical records online, it is much easier to research the origins of these names than it once was, and so the FaNUK project team was able to arrive at a greater number of more reliable family name explanations than has been achieved in the past, linking historical name forms with knowledge of the rules of historical language change.

Explanations in the full and concise versions of the dictionary are not just based on historical surname forms (though these are of vital importance), but also on distributional information, looking at where a surname is concentrated in order to find out more about its likely place of origin, and on more recent records, in order to trace some more recent surname changes that do not conform to the expected rules of language change.

As the project was concerned with the family names found in Britain and Ireland in the present day, the dictionaries do not just include names that are British and Irish in origin. Rather, they reflect the multicultural nature of today’s society.

The project was therefore a collaborative effort, drawing on expertise from a range of scholars of names and linguistics in order to compose explanations for family names borne by those who have come from many different parts of the world.

This has resulted in dictionaries that, through the explanations of family name origins, present the great cultural and linguistic diversity of Britain and Ireland.

Dr Harry Parkin is a senior lecturer in English Language at the University of Chester and editor of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain 

For further information on the dictionary visit: global.oup.com/academic/product/the-concise-oxford-dictionary-of-family-names-in-britain-9780198868255.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain abridges the key information on British names from The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names of Britain and Ireland in a more accessible one-volume format and includes almost all the British names from the original text, together with some additional rare names
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