Old family names of the Channel Islands
This article by Mike Bisson is partly based on Old Family names of the Channel Islands by Frank Le Maistre, previously published twice in the journal of the Channel Islands Family History Society.
Surnames, which had been common in the Roman Empire, when every free man had three names, personal, family and surname, only began to emerge in the British Isles in the 12th century, lagging behind France which had begun to introduce them some 200 years earlier.
Jersey fitted somewhere in the middle, introducing family names, doubtless mainly imported from Normandy, in the 11th century. But initially, although nicknames may have been used to distinguish one Jean from another, there were not necessarily carried down from father to son, even as late as the 14th century.
Forwards and backwards
Names associated with locations, used to distinguish between one Nicolas and the next by identifying which town in Normandy (or elsewhere) they originated from, were more likely to be carried through the generations.
However, what is equally likely to have happened is that a surname which had come into common usage by the 14th century, was retrospectively applied to earlier generations by genealogists in the years to come. Early supposed holders of a surname may never have been known as such in their lifetimes. Sometimes these names did not originate in the family, and were certainly not used in the family, but were applied by officials who wanted some means of distinguishing one parishioner from another.
Care must also be taken when researching noble families of the Middle Ages and earlier because many official documents in both England and France (and the Channel Islands) at the time were written in Latin, and surnames were Latinized. So, for example, the d’Aubigny and d’Aubiné families to which many long-established Jersey families can trace their ancestry, were often referred to as de Albini. Sorting out members of one family from the other has proved a headach for genealogists ever since.
Some historians make no attempt to revert in translations to the original surname. Others come up with often weird and wonderful interpretations of a Latinized surname, so that successive generations of one family can appear to change their name almost at will.
Spellings have changed more frequently than the pronunciation of a name, but variations are regularly found in both in the Channel Islands. The name Le Maistre has remained spelt in this way in Jersey, but although pronounced the same, it is more commonly spelt Le Maitre in Guernsey today. The French have converted most two-word surnames into a single word and Lemaitre is the version more likely now to be encountered in Normandy.
Conversely, some surnames which are spelt identically are pronounced differently in Jersey and Guernsey. Langlois is pronounced longwa in Jersey (the original French version) but langlay in Guernsey.
It is a fallacy that all names of apparent French origin in the islands orginated in Normandy. Some came from further afield, many brought to the islands by Huguenots fleeing religious persecution. Just as Jersey’s Portuguese community, which assembled in the island in the last four decades of the 20th century, originates mainly in Madeira, so word-of-mouth brought French originaires from particular areas, such as Nantes in Brittany and the Poitou region of south-west France.
It is often suggested that some French-sounding surnames originated in the islands themselves, although a statement to this effect can be an excuse for a failure to trace origins elsewhere.
Dr Le Maistre believed Hacquoil in Jersey, de Garis and Naftel in Guernsey, Drillot in Sark and Duplain in Alderney to be examples of names which had their origins locally. Some believe that Poingdestre, which can now be found throughout the world, although mainly in variations such as Poindexter, Pendexter and the like, was a name which originated in Jersey, but recent research seems to prove that it existed in Normandy some time before its first appearance in records relating to Jersey. Other names, such as Deslandes and De La Lande, which the so-called experts have claimed to have Jersey origins, can now be shown to have existed in France before they appear in any Jersey records. Indeed, we at Jerripedia are not aware of the existence of any evidence which categorically proves that a surname found in the island originated there and was subsequently 'exported' to France, rather than vice versa.
Although the spelling of most of the old names has now been standardised, pronunciation can still vary considerably.
Le Feuvre is today the accepted spelling for what could at one time be variously found as Lefebvre, Lefevre, Le Feyvre, Le Febure, and others. Although most would now use the pronunciation le fever, there are still those who adhere to the French le feuvre.
Dr Le Maistre, undoubtedly the greatest authority on Jèrriais or Jersey Norman-French in his lifetime, believed strongly in adhering to the old pronunciation of Jersey surnames, although many would challenge his assertion that Hacquoil was still pronounced Hacou, as it once was. Perhaps in his corner of St Ouen, but elswhere one was, and is in the 21st century, much more likely to encounter hakwal - certainly that was what my primary school teacher in the 1950s expected to be called.
I grew up wondering exactly how my own surname should be spoken. My father preferred biss’n, whereas others adopted a pronunciation to rhyme with the Biblical esau. Indeed, a rather eccentric distant relative, Robert Chalmers Bisson, actually changed the spelling of his name to Besau, which perhaps he thought fitted better with the biblical quotations with which he daubed the walls of his Mont Cochon house.
In Normandy, where I lived until recently, and the name originated, there is no question that the pronunciation best approximates to bee-saw, with a stressed but very short vowel in the first syllable. Frankly, anything is acceptable to me other than bison, and I have yet to understand why the French mostly believe that I am enouncing my name as pisson. Perhaps they don't expect an expat Brit to have a common French name, so assume it must be something different from the norm.
Dr Le Maistre, and others, much regretted the anglicisation of the pronunciation of many Jersey names. As far as he was concerned, Le Cornu was corr-noo and not caw-niou; Le Lièvre should be lee-evre with the two syllables merged as far as possible into one, and not leever’; Lucas was loo-kaa to him, and not loo-kus; Mauger should be mow-gerr, not major; and Vibert vee-berr not vybut.
He was fighting a losing battle, for there are few, if any, who would pronounce the common Jersey surname Voisin vwa-zan (as the French for neighbour), rather than voy-zin. However, those with the surname Simon are more likely to pronounce it see-maw than sy-monn as the forename is pronounced today.
I confess that it took me a little while to remember that my long-time colleague Diane Simon, who outlasted me by many years at the Jersey Evening Post was Diane with a dee- but Simon with a sy-, rather than the other way round.
My French teacher at Victoria College, a John Hamon, was an immigrant to Jersey, not, as might be thought of someone with such a common local surname, born in the island. He expressed surprise on his arrival that islanders sharing his surname would invariably pronounce it hamm-un, rather that the French humm-aw he had previously been used to.
No choice of name
It is, of course, for any individual to decide for themselves how their name should be pronounced, but we do not have the ability to choose our surname, if it ever existed, because it is now invariably passed down from father to child (or occasionally from the mother). Had the choice existed in the earliest days of forenames and surnames, many might never have seen the light of day, for they could be far from flattering, as we shall discover, yet are still in common use today.
But those which have died out, and there are many, have done so not because they were deemed objectionable by the owners, but because male lines have been extinguished and there has been nobody left to pass the name to. It is remarkable that names which were commonly encountered as recently as the 19th century, when large families were commonplace, are now extinct.
Some of these names linger in island place names. La Ville Bagot, La Poudretterie, La Ville ès Rénauds, La Chouquetterie and Le Val ès Reux will doubtless endure for ever, although there are not Bagots, Poudrets, Rénauds, Chouquets and Reux left in the island.
Other family names, including my own, have survived in the island since the 12th century or earlier, and are sufficiently numerous today to suggest that there is little danger of them becoming extinct.
Few baptismal names
In early years there were undoubtedly more surnames in existence than there were forenames. There was a very limited choice of names with which to baptise children, or at least Jersey families chose to limit those choices by opting for names already current within their own family or branch of the family. First sons were named after their fathers with such regularity that to distinguish one Philippe from another it was often necessary to go back several generations, resulting in someone being known as Philippe, fils Philippe, fils Philippe, fils Philippe, fils Jean, not as a genealogical exercise but as a means of identification.
Indeed, names such as Philippe were so common that several cousins alive at the same time would be distinguished as Philippe fs Jean, Philippe fs Philippe, and Philippe fs Martin, and these were perpetuated in surnames, which were the same as baptismal names.
There are many of these still in common use, such as Jean, Martin, Clement, Nicholas, Hamon, but the confusion could still reign when the Jean brothers all insisted in naming one of their sons Philippe; the existence of several cousins Philippe Jean being no less bewildering than several plain Philippes.
It is remarkable that a much greater variety of forenames is found in island records up to about the early 1600s, than in the succeeding two centuries. It may be that many simply became unfashionable, although there is evidence to suggest that the more limited choice which leads to so much confusion for today's family historians was actually imposed by the Rectors of the time.
The problem was really only overcome in the late 18th century, when two or more baptismal names started to be given, some considerable time after the practice became widespread in France. Today there are so many forenames in common circulation that most people never use their middle name except when filling in official forms.
A popular source of surnames was the occupation of the holder. So we find Le Couteur, derived from Le Cousteur, the Norman for Church sacristan; Le Feuvre from the French for smith; Le Marquand or Le Marchand, the merchant; Le Sueur the shoemaker (pronunced today sweer which is much closer to the old Jèrriais than the French of today. Perhaps understandably the anglicised version, which would be sewer has never caught on.
Many early islanders were given names based on their appearance, and these have remained in the family even though subsequent generations did not have similar features. The original Le Gros must have been somewhat overweight; Le Brun either had brown hair or a dark skin; Le Roux was a redhead. Other names described a person’s character or status: Jeune (young), Le Riche (wealthy), Le Hardy (bold), Laffoley (crazy).
An important group of surnames is based on where an individual lived. The early Bissons were actually Buisson or de Buisson (a form which still exists in Normandy but not in Jersey) which indicated that they lived in a bush or thicket; the first du Val, or Duval would have been found in a valley; de la Mare lived by a pond.
Others denote more distant and more specific origins, referiing to the place where an individual or family came from. We have de Carteret, which for many years was Jersey’s leading family and whose ancestors popped across the water from Carteret on the Normandy coast; the Le Bretons came from Brittany; the Normans, of course, from Normandy.
Which came first?
As has already been indicated above, some families in turn gave their names to places in Jersey. Whole fiefs were named after the original seigneur, other locations were named after a family which lived nearby.
But in some instances it is difficult to know which came first – the place name or the family name. There are certainly places in France which were named after a family which settled there, having brought its name from elsewhere.
Referring back to the d’Aubigné and d’Aubigny families mentioned earlier, they originate, respectively, from the Normandy village St Martin d’Aubigny and the nearby Brittany commune of St Aubin d’Aubigné. Whether or not these were two families, or one and the same, it seems likely that the family name was added to that of an existing village when the family settle there.
In other circumstances in France the process works the other way round and descendants of a noble family who established satellite communities in the area surrounding the family seat added their own forename to that of the principal community.
In Jersey itself the situation is not quite so complicated, and it may generally be safely assumed that French families named after places brought that name with them to the island whereas places in the island which share a family name were named after the family.
- Detailed explanations of the origins of many individual surnames will be found on their family pages.
- An article by historian George Balleine on the derivation of Jersey Surnames
- An article on the use of baptismal names in Jersey families
- A Frenchman’s examination of the proliferation and meaning of Jersey names of French origin
- The perils of French sounding names