DW index - search    

Mysterious names from Wales.

Over the years we have tried to help with many queries about Welsh family names and the interest of our American visitors in this subject has helped to reveal the Welsh genesis of certain names not normally associated with the country. There follow some examples  - how many more remain to be discovered?  (see also: A short note on Welsh names

Apperson. This name is known in America but the writer is not aware of any examples in modern Wales. However, I have little doubt that this name was originally the Welsh "ap Person" that is, "son of a man who was concerned with a religious foundation". Person is the Welsh word for parson or vicar but when used as a name it indicates a layman rather than a cleric. 

In 1327, Dafydd Person took part in the siege of Caerphilly Castle. His name was written as David Bersone by a scribe more familiar with Latin and French than the Welsh language. Many of his fellows bore names of the "ap" type and it may well be that our scribe actually heard "ap Person" when this archer gave his name. An American correspondent reports a variant, Epperson. 

Bedortha. An American correspondent born with the surname Bedortha traces her line back to a Reice Bodurtha, born in Wales in 1625. This would appear to be an Anglicised version of a Welsh name, Rhys Bodwrda. This is a very rare surname and seems to be one of the small group based on Welsh place names. There was a village called Bodwrda in Caernarfonshire.

Bettis. At first sight, this looks like a version of the Welsh "Bettws" nowadays familiar as a place name but with the original meaning of "oratory" or "private chapel". In south Wales at least, the pronunciation of Bettws is close enough to Bettis to make this quite possible in some cases. However, I hope to surprise the Bettis researchers who stumble on this page with my theory that, in most cases, the name derives from the ancient Welsh name Maredudd. It is well known that this gave rise to the modern surname Meredith but outside of Wales few are aware of the hypocoristic form Bedo and its many descendants (a hypocoristic form is a "pet name", usually a shortened version first used within the family circle). 

Morgan & Morgan show how Bedo resulted in surnames like Beddoe, Beddoes, Bettoe, Betthouse, Beddus and Beddies. They note that Beddis is most common towards the southern border of Wales and surmise that "this kind of change to the final vowel belongs to the speech of Gloucestershire". The current telephone directory for south east Wales contains around 40 entries for Beddis and sprinklings of Beddoe, Beddoes and Beddows. The UK census of 1901 contains 192 examples of Beddis and these are largely associated with Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire. 

The 1901 census also lists 152 examples of Bettis. These are almost all associated with the London area and there is a surprising concentration in the Mile End district. My theory accounts for these by supposing that they were descendants of some of the many Welsh people drawn to London after the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485. Presumably the speech of London accounted for the Bettis spelling as the centuries rolled by.  

Bettwy. Another modern American name, possibly with its roots in one of the many ancient Welsh place names which contain Bettws (or Betws). Examples include Bettws Garmon in Gwynedd, Bettws Newydd in Monmouthshire and Bettws in Newport.

Bobbitt . A visitor's e-mail about a distant ancestor, William Bobbitt of Glamorgan in South Wales, surprised the present writer. I knew that the name was used in America, but had seen no examples in modern Wales or in histories of Wales. The spelling looks typically English, but the name did not appear in my dictionary of British surnames. However, a check in a south Wales telephone directory revealed a small group of entries under "Bobbett". It seemed safe to assume that these names had a common ancestor and in both cases the present day bearers were known to be linked to Wales. 

Could these unusual modern names really have their roots in Welsh history? A quick look at Morgan & Morgan's Welsh Surnames turned up an entry for Bobbyth, which was expanded under its correct spelling as the Welsh word "pobydd" or in English, "baker". Unusually, Welsh Surnames  gives only a few examples of the name and most of the half dozen or so instances are dated around 1560. It is clear, however, that several spellings were current. Pobydd, Bobydd and Bobyth are noted, the last of which shows the English "th" fairly accurately representing the "dd" sound in Welsh.   

The "dd" spelling of the name would have diminished as families moved away from Wales and lost touch with the old language. One would expect the Bobbitt and Bobbett spellings to be more usual in America but even there the name must be rare. Surnames of this type, those that have their origin as occupation descriptions, are unusual in Wales and very few bearers could have found their way to America over the centuries. (2017 - Paula M. from England alerted me to another spelling: "You might be interested to know that the name "Poppett" appears in some parish records in my area, which is Bishops Castle in South Shropshire. A family by that name, was killed in an avalanche coming off the Long Mynd onto their house at Asterton, in Norbury parish in c. 1772.").

Cornog. Another modern American name which must share a common ancestor with the few Cornocks and Cornicks to be found in the South East Wales telephone directory. Is it possible that the ancestor is Cynog, the 6th century Celtic saint. Canon Doble, in "Lives of the Welsh Saints", notes that there was a chapel of St. Cynog in Llawhaden, Pembrokeshire. As is common in the case of these early saints, Cynog is also commemorated across the channel in Brittany. The village of Plogonnec is around eight miles from Quimper. 


Edevane. Cornish, Welsh or Celtic? There appear to be just a handful or so of Edevanes in America and a similar quantity in here in south Wales. Present day American and Welsh Edevanes are aware of Cornish roots but the writer had to rely on Stephen Edevane in England for the information that, in Cornwall, the name is more commonly spelled as Edyvean. 

This surname is so rare as not to appear in the typical surname dictionary but is far from being a modern invention. The "wall" in "Cornwall" had the same sense as "Wal" in "Wales", its root was an Anglo Saxon word for "foreigners" or "Celts". Investigating the Edevane name takes us back to the time when the ancient Brythonic tribes were pushed westwards by the Anglo Saxon invaders to become the Cornish and the Welsh. At least one element of the name reminds us that they once shared a language. 

The librarian of the Royal Institution of Cornwall was kind enough to refer me to an unpublished work "The Celtic Surnames of Cornwall" by Richard R. Blewett (1970). This interesting manuscript reveals that the name once showed a concentration in mid and north Cornwall, especially in Roche Parish where a Margarette Udyvean was married in 1579. Mr. Blewett looked at 70 marriages in 28 parishes of Cornwall and reports spelling variations such as: Edivian, Endivean, Edevean, Endevean and Idevean. 

The name was not restricted to Cornwall, however. In Herefordshire (an English county bordering Wales) Edvin Loach is supposed to have taken its name from the ancient landowners, a family called Edeven or Ediven. 

This surname is made up of two elements. "Ed" is not a shortened form of Edward, but derives from the ancient (Old English?) "ead" meaning "prosperity, happiness". This also gave rise to names like Edmund - prosperity protector, Edward - prosperity guardian and Edwin - prosperity friend. The second element, "vean" or "vane" means "little" or "the younger". The Cornish "byghan" became mutated in the same way as the Welsh "bychan" became "fychan" (i.e. "vychan") when added to a personal name, and performed the same service of distinguishing between father and son where they had the same name. In Wales, this ultimately led to the well known surname Vaughan.

Edevane and variants, therefore, would seem to have the sense "the younger happy one" or "the younger prosperous one".

Flewelling, one of the versions of the ancient Llewelyn. Shakespeare wrote the name as Fluellen. In 1685 hundreds of men convicted of treason as a result of the Monmouth Rebellion were sent to the colonies. On arrival at Barbados, the services of several of these men were sold to Peter Flewilling, presumably a plantation owner. The old Welsh name also seems to have given rise to surnames names like Welling and Wellen. The authorities show that Llewelyn was sometimes replaced with Lewis ( "... due to the deliberate policy of medieval clerks using Anglo-Norman names as substitutes for Welsh names." Morgan & Morgan).

Even in Wales, there is often confusion about the origin of the name. Interpretation of the initial "Llew" as the Welsh for "lion" is misleading since the original was Lugubelinos, an ancient Celtic name. The Romans called Lugus or Lugos the Gaulish Mercury and this Celtic deity is recalled in the many Roman towns which were called Lugudunum but became modernised in examples like the French Lyon and the Dutch Leiden. 

Garnant. The last bearer of this surname within an American family asked for help in confirming the family tradition of Welsh ancestry. The name Garnant does not appear to have ever been in wide use in Wales. However, the "nant" element is the Welsh word for "stream" and this led the writer to check a detailed map of Wales (most Welsh place names draw on natural features of the landscape). Garnant was found, a small village just a few miles from Ammanford in south Wales. See a note on Garnant contributed by Alan Price. 

It generally makes little sense to call oneself by a village name when living there and place name surnames were often only adopted on arrival in a new country where they could better serve to identify the holder. The absence of the name from the British reference books seems to support this theory. (But see Mr. Price's observations.) 

Garnant would appear to mean "The Heron Stream" but the writer would be pleased to hear from anyone who can offer an alternative translation.

Maddox, Mattocks, etc. These names are rooted in the ancient Welsh name Madog. Spellings such as Madoc and Madok are noted from the 13th century. Morgan & Morgan associate versions like Maddick and Maddix with border dialects. They also give some examples of ways in which the name was rendered in the 16th century in combination with "ap" or "son of". These include Hamhaddocke and Damhadoke.

Maughan. In medieval documents the Welsh village of Machen (near Caerphilly in south Wales) was written as Maughan. This spelling shows the same "gh" substitution for the Welsh "ch" as noted elsewhere. (There are also place names of this type in Scotland.)

Morris. In light of the above, this might be a good point at which to discuss the surname Morris in the context of Wales. Mauricius was the name of a saint said to have been martyred in Switzerland in A.D. 286. It is clear that the name was known in Wales in earliest times. The famous Liber Landavensis or Book of Llandaff was compiled in the early 12th century to assert the claims of the recently reorganized see of Llandaff. This contains several references to Mouric, king of Glamorgan and a fascinating note of his father Teudiric, "the patriot king who came forth from his hermitage at Tintern (see above J.W.) ... and was killed at the battle of Ryt Tindyrn". 

Meurig became the typical Welsh spelling but by the 15th century in Wales the soft ending of Morys / Morris had overtaken the popularity of the hard ending of Meurig / Merrick. This was no doubt due to the influence of the Norman French marcher lords and the settlements they introduced to Wales after their conquest of England in 1066. In 1640, John Walter of Piercefield made a will leaving "my suits and my sword done with gold wire" to "John Morrice". This may well have been John Morris, a cousin of Lewis Morris who became governor of New York State. The modern Newport and South East Wales telephone directory contains about 600 entries for Morris but only about 24 for Meyrick and 10 or so for Merrick. 

In the late 18th century Valentine Morris was advised that Morris was a corruption of "Mawr Rhys" being the Welsh for "Great Rhys", alias Rhys Fitzgerald, a companion of Strongbow (the earl of Pembroke) in the invasion of Ireland. This seems fanciful, since the Welsh construction of such a name would have been "Rhys Mawr". 



Jane married Row.(Rowland) Morgan
of Masaleck, Esqr. 
From a pedigree  of 1612

Mousley. A day after receiving mail from an American family by the name of Mousley (and purely by coincidence) the writer noticed a reference to Edward Morgan of Mousley in an old pedigree of the Morgans of Pencarn in Monmouthshire. Edward was a brother of Sir Thomas Morgan known to history as "The Warrior" or "The Knight of the Golden Armour" and who died in 1595. 

In a document of 1612, the same place is rendered as Masaleck. Both spellings are English versions of a supposed Welsh place name, Maesaleg. Maes is the Welsh word for "field" and is pronounced rather like the English "mice".

In 1991 Roger Phillips* noted that the chronicler Nennius had explained Maesaleg as being Welsh for "Alec's Field". According to Nennius, in AD 287 there had been a battle between a Roman, Allectus, and the south Wales tribe then known as the Silures. But Phillips goes on to say that most early documents used the "B" spelling and explains that the "M" spelling came about simply as a result of Welsh language mutation. The Welsh for "in Bassaleg" could have been overheard as "ym Massaleg" and wrongly interpreted as "Maesaleg".  

He is in no doubt that the correct form is Bassaleg and that this is simply the Welsh for "Basilica" a place name reflecting the importance (and presumably the very early foundation date) of the local church. 

Bassaleg has special interest for students of Welsh culture and history. Here, the Morgan ancestor Ifor Hael (in English, Ivor the Generous) held court in the 14th. century. Dafydd ap Gwilym,  the great medieval poet of Wales appears to have spent much time at Bassaleg. Several of his poems celebrate Ifor, his wife Nest and the splendour of their court. He writes of  "... drinking with Ifor, And shooting straight-running, great stags, And casting hawks to sky and wind, And beautiful verses, And solace in Bassaleg."

The Morgans worshipped at the old church of Bassaleg for many generations and a great avenue of trees still marks the ride from Tredegar House just a few miles away. 

The modern name Mousley need not indicate descent from the Morgans but when a family of this name is known to have originated in Wales, an ancient connection with Bassaleg might be possible. As far as I know, there are no other examples of this place name in Wales. But (2003) a correspondent points out that Maesllwch (or Maeslough) is also a possible candidate for corruption to Mouseley. 



Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Piercefield. This is the name of the estate in south Wales which was bought in 1736 by Colonel Valentine Morris of the family which played such an important part in the history of America. Originally known as the Morrises of Tintern (near Piercefield, and the origin of the American Tinton, NJ) a descendant, Lewis Morris, was to sign the Declaration of Independence. Another, Richard Morris, became known as the "Financier of the American Revolution". 
It seems likely that the American surname Piercefield derives from this beautiful location in south Wales. The placename is ancient and I have not noticed any other examples in Britain. It would be quite easy to conceive of a person accompanying or joining one of the colonial Morrises at a time when many Welsh people were yet to adopt a fixed surname. Once in America and finding a surname necessary considerable numbers of Welshmen must have used the name of a Welsh village or estate. (There must be several modern American names which start with "L" but which in Wales would have started with "Ll", being based on the very common "Llan" placename element.)   

Prinold. Like many British names, Reynold arrived with the Norman French invasion of 1066. The fascinating "Surnames of Wales" (John and Sheila Rowlands, 1996) tells us that the name was found in very small numbers throughout Wales in the 15th century and that by the early 19th century, as the surname Reynolds, it "was found extensively across South Wales". 

The Welsh version of this was Rheinallt. There are examples like Rees ap Rynallt from 1574. As you probably know "ap" means "son of" and, in the border areas especially, often became reduced to an initial P when fixed surnames became the norm.

Morgan and Morgan (Welsh Surnames) give many interesting examples: Rinold ap Res (an early English rendering of a Welsh name, both father and son have been anglicised!) 1676 Prennald, 1670 Prunnald, 1786 Prynalt. They mention some modern versions, including Prinold, from the electoral registers. 

Sloo. An unusual family name which may well be derived from the Welsh place name Slwch. The Welsh pronunciation of this is something like the English word "slew" terminated with the "ch" sound as found in the Scottish "loch". The proper spelling of the place name was a mystery to early scribes and it was sometimes written as "Slough" or "Slowe". Dr. Prys Morgan, who drew my attention to the possibility of this derivation, notes a Slwch on the outskirts of Brecon. Although this is a very uncommon place name, there was another example in Monmouthshire. 

Tredegar.  This would easily be recognised as a Welsh location name but does it refer to the ancient Tredegar estate of the Morgans or to the town of Tredegar around sixteen miles distant? The town came into existence after the signing of the mineral exploitation lease in 1800. A correspondent notes a Susan Tredegar, born in England in 1793, so one would expect a family connection with the Morgan estate in this case.    

Woundy. A name known in America but not familiar in modern Wales. A 1662 survey of the manor of Caerlleon includes the following:

"It'm, we doe p'sent that Edward Morgan of Lanternam, esqr., houldeth the mannor of Brym al's Brymhold in Vndie under the forsaid castle of Carlion by knight's service and suite of court to to the said mannor of Carlion ." 

Around this time there are also examples of Undie, Wondy and Woundy spellings of the village known in modern times as Undy.




Morgan & Morgan, "Welsh Surnames", U of Wales Press, 1985.
Dafydd ap Gwylim presumed dates: 1320-80
Survey of Caerlleon to be found in Sir Joseph Bradney's  History of Monmouthshire. 
* Roger Phillips, "Bassaleg - Aspects of its History", 1991. ISBN 0 9517683 0 1

The unsolved ...

Gwartney. Several Welsh surnames start with "Gw" but this is unusual in English names. Suggested origins like the Monmouthshire place name Gwernesney and the Welsh personal name of Gwalchmai do not account for the "t" sound in Gwartney.

Pribble. This would appear to be a mis-spelling of one of the old Welsh "ap" names  (e.g. where "ap Rhys" - son of Rhys - became Price). 

©  John Weston / Data Wales, 2000-2016
    Data Wales Index