Hosted websites will become read-only beginning in early 2024. At that time, all logins will be disabled, but hosted sites will remain on RootsWeb as static content. Website owners wishing to maintain their sites must migrate to a different hosting provider before 2024 (More info)


Life in the Parishes


of USING ALIASES by J. Mosman


While Cornwall is not singular in its use of aliases, the practice has been long-standing, and is very important to genealogical researchers. Many 'brick walls' can be attributed to this cause; but with luck, perhaps an aged person with a good memory, and lateral thinking, one may overcome the difficulties.


As John Chynoweth said, in his book "Tudor Cornwall", "There are particular problems in identifying some individuals in Cornwall because of the many families which changed their surname, used aliases or patronymics, had more than one living child with the same given name, or had cadet branches with the same surname." These practices were not limited to "the gentry" who, because of land interests, made limited use of patronymics. According to Chynoweth, in the 1569 Muster Lists, 41% of the able-bodied men of St. Ives thus mustered had the forenames of their fathers as surnames.


What is properly termed an 'alias'? The online 1911 Encyclopedia says:

ALIAS - (Latin for “at another time”) [or “otherwise”], a term used to connect the different names of a person who has passed under more than one, in order to conceal his identity, or for other reasons; or, compendiously, to describe the adopted name. The expression “alias dictus” was formerly used in legal indictments, and pleadings, where absolute precision was necessary in identifying the person to be charged, as “John Jones, alias dictus James Smith.” The adoption of a name other than a man’s baptismal or surname need not necessarily be for the purpose of deception or fraud; pseudonyms or nicknames fall thus under the description of an alias. Where a person is married under an alias, the marriage is void when both parties have knowingly and wilfully connived at the adoption of the alias, with a fraudulent intention.

Evidently, by 1911, the term had negative connotations, but that was not so in earlier times.

In Cornwall, use of surname aliases occurred most frequently in the period when use of surnames was being established - the 1460's to 1600's. By the 1500's, the practice of using alias surnames in Cornwall was sufficiently established for them to be recorded in official documents, as evidenced by frequent mentions in various registers -especially those of Breage - wills, and manorial court documents. One of the earliest uses of aliases in Cornwall was a marriage in Liskeard in 1540 for Thomas LAWRENCE alias CODE. The last mention in this line appeared in 1761, in Callington, recording the death of Margaret LAWRENCE alias CODE. For this family, use of the alias was worthwhile for 221 years.


In other parts of Britain, use of surname aliases became common in the 1500s for southern areas, slowly spreading northward. In 1575, John VOVVEL alias HOOKER, gentleman, published "Order and usage of keeping the parlement in England" in London. 75 years later, a genealogist maintains "surnames were just settling into common usage in this section of rural Yorkshire [in 1646], and parish records contain many alias names." The Ireland TENURES ACT, 1662, contains mention of dame Jane CHICHESTER, alias ITCHINGHAM, wife, and in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Catherine Finlay alias KNIGHT.

By the end of the 18th century, as surnames were more or less static, use of an alias was not as pronounced in "respectable" families, and by the mid-1800's such use became associated with criminals, and those trying to escape their past.

Most historians believe that the use of Cornish Surname aliases usually reflects one of the following circumstances:


1. Retention of patronymics. During the 16th century many men were reluctant to abandon ancestral names and consequently retained the forenames of their fathers or grandfathers as surnames. For example William HARRY of Luxulyan in 1547 was described as William HARRY alias WATT - Watt being his grandfather's forename.


2. Retention of topographical reference points - especially in relation to a manor or place name from which some families derived their surnames. A case in point is that of John RICHARDS of Bosavarne (1547) who had a son Thomas BOSAVARNE (1620) who had a son Martin THOMAS alias BOSAVARNE (1620).

One can often determine where a person lived,as well as other tidbits, by their surname; for example, JOHN RIPPER alias CROHALL, or Cariohall, (meaning "of Crawle"). In the 16th century, it was not unusual for a farmer to be born and grow up on a particular farm, for example Tresize, and be known as John Thomas TRESIZE, son of Thomas TRESIZE; he would then marry, and either buy or rent another farm, and become John Thomas TREGONNING; lastly, as a prosperous farmer, he moved to a much bigger farm, and became John Thomas TREGAIR (which in Cornish means “camp town”.).


3. Commemoration by descendants of a marriage to a heiress, or to a member of a "socially superior" family.

In some cases, persons legally changed their names to obtain an inheritance from a line in their family which was in danger of 'dying out'. In St. Austell, Sir CHARLES GRAVES SAWLE GRAVES is such an example. He was Charles Graves Sawle, with his mother's maiden name as his second name; on his maternal uncle's death, he took that gentleman's surname, and became his legal heir.


4. Illegitimacy. For example John RESKYMER had an illegitimate son with Margaret GERBER named John RESKYMER alias GERBER. In later generations the son may well have been baptised as John Reskymer GERBER which, as with the use of an alias, served the purpose of publicly proclaiming his parental origins.


5. Rights of inheritance, and other economic reasons.

For instance, in the days of copyhold land, a persons’ entitlement to land was recorded only in the manor court rolls. Deeds as we know them did not exist. The only “proof” one had that one owned particular land was in the “copy” rolls. If a woman was widowed, and later remarried, the children of her first marriage often took the name of the step-father. But, to maintain their right to their inheritance, they would use the step-father’s name as an alias. There were variations in this practice. In one well-documented case, circa 1558, William CAMBORN(E) married Elinor Wilton PAYNTER, a widow with seven children, and adopted the surname of her first husband, becoming William CAMBORNE alias PAYNTER of Trelissick, St. Erth. Their descendants used both Paynter and the alias, with the use of Paynter eventually overtaking the use of Camborne..


Of course, aliases might be used in cases of adoption, as well.

It must be kept in mind that not everyone in a particular family used the same, or any, alias, and an alias might be used by someone who married into the family, not just those born into it. As the example from Liskeard shows, the use of particular aliases could be a long-lived practice; in that case, the alias was maintained for 221 years.


Fortunately, the use of two (or more) surnames sometimes appear in wills, the benefactor wishing to be unambiguous about the potential beneficiary. Manorial records and, later, land records may also be sources of information. . Spelling, however, was fluid, and most frequently records were in Latin. (for suggestions with translating Latin, see below; see Manorial rolls and records in Genealogy Index.)


As for forenames, traditional Cornish naming practices almost guaranteed serveral persons with the same fore-and-surnames occurred in every generation, which encouraged the use of nicknames and aliases. One often finds variations on a theme, such as a man called Tiny (because he was a very big baby), a father called John, and a grandfather called Jack -all of whom were legally named John.

1. Persons were often given the fore-names of their godparents. In the 1550's, five ERISEY daughters were baptised; four of which were given the name of one godmother.

2. Many families gave multiple children in the same generation the same forename - for instance, Marianne SYMONS, Mary Ann SYMONS, Mary Anne SYMONS, and Mary SYMONS in Ruan Lanihorne circa 1815-1830. Be sure to check for burial records, as assuming Marianne b. 1817 is the same person as Mary Anne, b. 1828, could lead to quite interesting, and misleading, results!

3. During the early 1800's, the Cornish adopted the custom of using Paternal Grandmother's names as second given names. Interestingly, one example is William Stanbury TREGLOWN, whose paternal grandmother was Jenifer STANBURY; "Stanbury" came from the village near Morwenstow where they lived. Not only is he an example of the use of paternal grandmother's names, it ties to "topographical" references too.

Less frequently, the maternal grandmother's name was used.

Of course, the mother's maiden name was also used in naming children. Many families followed this practice. It always is worthwhile to investigate "middle" names as possible maiden names for a mother or grandmother.

In all these cases, use was made of the names to distinguish a particular line, or family, from another, and to tie the family to the maternal line as well.


A very well-known Cornish habit was to give names to people which tied into personal features, or a person's job, etc. The result could be a teasing name they never escaped (Moley Brown). In addition, many ordinary Cornish folks 'adopted' a forename of their own choice, and were known by that name throughout their lifetime, especially toward the end of the 1800's. Ellen THOMAS of Camborne took the name "Nance", and was married and buried under that name; all records of Ellen disappeared after her baptism..

The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser newspaper of 1836-1855 often mentioned aliases; most were ordinary names, but some were slang. For instance:


Frances LETCHER, alias KEAST (a widow)

Mrs. Nancy DOWNING, alias DUNN, ELIAS, BRYANT (precisely as printed - she was marrying J. WILLIAMS, her 4th husband)

Alfred PURELL, alias Alfred PILCE

John KELLY, alias John MARTI, alias LITTLE JACK

Elizabeth CULLIS, alias Rough Face Jack (she was pock-marked)

Samuel GLASSON, alias The Ferret, of Truro (quite infamous in his day)

Francis O'NEILL, alias "One-eyed Lankey"

And of course, the infamous John Nicholas TOM, alias Sir William Percey Honeywood COURTENAY of Canterbury, who succeeded in fooling an entire county into believing he was of noble birth. See the West Briton transcriptions, June, 1838 for his story.

It benefits a researcher to keep in mind that names found in the census which don't agree with baptismal records are not necessarily a mistake - they could reflect an alias.

As Jim Thompson, a Cornish Rootsweb lister, has said -"These aliases or nicknames can often help with genealogy, or more often defy attempts to figure them out until more research is done."

"My great grandmother was born Catherine Berryman, but was always called Katie Clinch and later Old Katie Clinch. The Katie bit was self-evident, and later the old bit was logical as she lived to be 104, but Clinch was a mystery until I obtained some old large scale maps and some help from Rick Parsons. She was born at Polmanter Water in Towednack according to all family lore, but there on the map at Polmanter Water was a tiny lost hamlet of “Rough and Clinch”. When I did get her birth certificate it was listed as Clinch Towednack".

"My great grandfather Philip Hosking was known as Black Fel, due to his dark eyes and hair."


One genealogist has been quoted as saying “I attribute the use of aliases to the Cornish sense of humor, and a plot to discourage genealogists in future generations.” Unfortunately, for many, that is all too true. There is no doubt that the use of aliases can be a fascinating, if not perplexing, topic for all genealogists studying the history of Cornish surnames.


- The End -

Latin for Genealogists -

Latin links at (helpful for learning how first names are spelt, so you can recognise them more easily) - a good free dictionary list of words

for help with deciphering old writing,

(If this fails, go to Rootsweb's main page, click on "Search Thingy" and enter "oldalpha". The proper example will open.)


With thanks to Garry Hooker of New Zealand, Jim Thompson, Clare Pascoe, Thomas Bennett, Errol Walling, Danny Lawrence, Kenneth Heard, and members of the Rootsweb Cornish list for their help.


Main Index Resources Parish Life Maps Genealogy History Top
Last updated August 31, 2009 . In case of problem, please notify Webmaster.