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Origins of island surnames

How islanders got their family names

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A name may have buoyancy enough to float upon the sea of time.
Quoted by Gladstone, Eton Miscellany, Nov. 1827.

The surnames on St Helena are as curious as the ancestry of its people.

This page is in indexes: Island People, Island History, Island Detail

Origins of island surnames [Saint Helena Island Info:Origins of island surnames]

If you want to trace people who are or were on St Helena, our Family And Friends page may be helpful.

Go to: Commonest names and their originsThe first English settlersSaints Around the worldRead More

Commonest names and their origins

The island’s surnames seem to come from several distinct sources:

  • Some are ‘slave names’. Slaves were always known by a first name only (not, of course their original name - a ‘Christian’ one given to them by the slave-trader or their master). When the slave was given his or her feedom the common practice was to generate a surname from the first name of the previous owner. Examples include ‘Thomas’ and ‘Benjamin’.

  • Others are straightforward English surnames. These would have been handed down from Settlers, either brought out as ‘planters’ when the East India Company first settled St Helena in 1673 or from the emigrees who were moved here after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

  • Some have obvious Chinese origins, from the Chinese labourers who were here from 1810 until the 1840s, many of whom subsequently settled.

  • More have their origins in Dutch/Afrikaans and originate in the Boer Prisoners brought here at the beginning of the 20th Century, many of whom intermarried and settled.

Others will relate to those who emigrated here over the 350 years since the island was settled and more still may attribute their name to short-term residents, maybe members of the Garrison, who fathered children during their time on St Helena.

Basil George [Saint Helena Island Info:Origins of island surnames]
Basil George

Basil George, a local tour guide, has traced his lineage back to white settlers, black slaves, a Chinaman and a Boer.

Based on an empirical survey{1}, the commonest surnames and their probable origins are as follows (in descending order):

Thomas: ‘Slave name’ • Yon: Chinese origins • Williams: ‘Slave name’ • Henry: ‘Slave name’ • Benjamin: ‘Slave name’ • Fowler: English, from Settlers • Peters: ‘Slave name’ • Leo: Probably from Dutch (Leon), i.e.Boer origins • Stevens: ‘Slave name’ • George: ‘Slave name’ • Joshua: ‘Slave name’ • Francis: ‘Slave name’ • Duncan: ‘Slave name’ • Lawrence: ‘Slave name’ • Richards: ‘Slave name’ • Moyce: English, from Settlers • Young: English, from SettlersColeman: English, from Settlers • Bowers: English, from Settlers • Bennett: English, from Settlers • Buckley: English, from Settlers • Piek: Boer • Vanguard: Boer

It should be noted that many names would have been corrupted over the years. Imagine a Colonial official attempting to record the surname of a baby, and faced with parents with a strong accent and who were barely literate so could not check what he wrote. What the parents said and what was written down may well have been at variance{2}. Even today, allowing for a strong accent, it can be hard to tell whether someone is giving their name as ‘Yon’ or ‘Young’.

It also does not follow that two people who share a surname are necessarily related. A slave owner called, say, Thomas Smith, may have posessed two unrelated slaves. Upon emancipation, both would have acquired the surname Thomas.

According to past issues of the St Helena Government Gazette, in 1994 one Nigel Henry changed his name to Nigel Lamborghini. As far as we are aware there are no Lamborghinis on the island today, so whether Mr Lamborghini had no subsequent issue, or later changed his name back (or to something else) we don’t know. If you can help, please contact us.

The first English settlers

{a}

Two ships, the European and the John & Alexander, set sail from England in December 1673, bound for St Helena with the aim of settling the island.

All the old planters formerly settled on the said Island, & now bound thither, shall be repossest of their severall houses & plantations w’ch formerly they enjoyed, in the condicon they shall be found at the arrival of these shipps, and that all new planters, shall upon their arrivall have twenty Acres of Land rough & plaine, sett out unto them, by the Gov’ & Councell for each family to build and plant upon it, and that all the plantaicons, both to the old, and new planters, be conveyed to them, their heirs, and assignes for ever. That besides the said porcon of land, each family shall have two Cowes.

The full list of settlers aboard these two ships is as follows:

  • Capt. Antho: Beale; Elinor his wife; Richard his sonne; Mary his daughter; and seaven Serv’ts - 11

  • Wm. Gates; Bridget his wife; William & John their Children; Eliz. Palmir their Serv’t - 5

  • James Easting; Anne his wife; Thomas and James their Children; Anne their Serv’t - 5

  • John Walls; Bridget his wife; Dorothy Draper Serv’t - 3

  • John Greentree; Mary his wife; Elizabeth, Anne & Jane their Children; one Maid Serv’t; one Black - 7

  • Mr Wm. Swindell Minister; Jno. Wharmly his Serv’t - 2

  • Tho. Smouet; Anne his wife; Elizabeth their Child; Rich. Walett; Alice Walett - 5

  • Richard Mattby Armo. - 1

  • Tho: Collins - 1

  • Rob’t. Tamps; Ann his wife - 2

  • Wm. Young; Eliz. his wife; John, Richard, Robert, Phillip their Children; Two Maid Servants - 9

  • John Fuller; Ann his wife; one Child - 3

  • Rich: Swallow; Marga: his wife; Margaret, Martha their Children; Abyas Betts. single woman; Two Negro Serv’ts - 7

  • Fran: Rutter; Marg: Griffin; Sarah Butler - 3

  • Francis Rangham; Anne his wife; Samuell, Mary, Francis their Children; Mary Bennet; Mary Plowright - 7

  • John Coulson; Grace his wife; Nathaniell, Elizabeth, Martha their Children; Wm Dufton; Abigail Cox; one negro - 8

  • John Younge; Sarah his wife; John & Barbara their Children; Elizabeth Lewis Serv’t - 5

  • Fran: Moon Chyrurgion; Marg: his wife; Francis, Ephrath, Mary their Children; Anne Perry, Sarah Tremor, Richard Hall Serv’ts - 8

  • John Amps; John Starling; one maid Serv’t - 3

  • John Keneday; Elizabeth his wife; Sarah Gray - 3

  • Twelve Negro serv’ts of the Compa. - 12{3}

It should be noted that only the names Greentree, Young and Fuller can still be found on St Helena, with only Young being common.

Saints Around the world

Naturally, not all Saints have remained on St Helena. There are sizeable populations in the Falklands and Ascension Island, though these tend to be temporary workers who do not settle. More permanent pupulations exist in the UK and in Cape Town, South Africa. This article relates to this latter group:

Joshua Day poster [Saint Helena Island Info:Origins of island surnames]

Joshua Connect Day brings family together at the Cape
By Simon Pipe, posted on St Helena Online 23rd April 2015{4}

If you meet a Joshua in Cape Town, you can be pretty sure that somewhere in their family line, there’s a Saint. Now they all have their own special day: Monday, 27th April 2015 is Joshua Connect Day. Organiser JOLENE JOSHUA tells the story:

I started researching my own branch of the Joshua family about eight years ago, as I knew very little about my dad’s side of the family.

A few years down the line, my research has turned into somewhat of an international project as I’ve been able to connect with Joshua descendants across the globe and even managed to find connections between branches.

The Joshua Connect Day is a response to a number of requests from descendants to get together. I decided to arrange something in Cape Town but the event is open to any and every Joshua that is able to attend.

In a nutshell, the purpose of the day is to connect the various branches so we will share info on the various Joshua branches which we are aware of. We will also be sharing a bit on St Helena (past and present) as the Joshua’s in Cape Town can all be traced back to the island. And then of course we will give people a chance to interact and make their own connections.

The big gathering takes place in the Recreation Hall at Tokai Correctional Centre, from 10am to 2pm.

Read More

Article: “A Rich Ancestry on St Helena

Published in the St Helena Independent 15th August 2008{4}

On Wednesday, Eben Welby-Solomon visited The Saint FM/Independent. Eben said:

I have come here to do research on my family history. It has been my desire for a number of years to come back and chronicle my family history, which is quite fascinating, particularly in light of its ties with St Helena. I am a descendant of the Welby and Solomon families. In 1873 Saul Solomon (grandson of the Saul Solomon who founded Solomon & Co.) married Katherine Welby (daughter of Bishop Welby, the 2nd Bishop of St Helena). They had four children, the second oldest of which was my great grandfather. This has led me here to come and research and record a lot of that history. I have sought to seek first hand accounts and records that provide the details and perspectives of there lives over the generations. Saul Solomon was the original founder at the turn of the 18th Century. I know there has been some speculation around exactly when he started trading here on St Helena which has been estimated to be about 1796, and Saul Solomon was one of a number of quite a big family. It is estimated that he had seventeen or eighteen siblings, bearing in mind at the time infant mortality was quite high so some of these did not reach adulthood. Saul journeyed here and set up a trading company with a number of partners. From there on, the family interests was passed through the generations to his one son, Nathaniel Solomon, and later on to his grandson Saul Solomon, from whom I am a descendant. He married Katherine Welby, who was the daughter of Bishop Welby on the island in the late 1800s as well, so they established the Welby-Solomon surname and they had four children, the first being Arthur Welby Solomon and then Cyril Welby Solomon, who’s my great grandfather and then Homfray Welby Solomon, who is quite well known on the island. He stayed on to consolidate a lot of the family interests and he passed away in 1960. This was really the end of the Solomon family dynasty and Solomons was then bought out by a number of investors and eventually ended up in Government’s hands, which is where it currently stands with some minority investors. There was also a fourth child, Mary Jessica Solomon. I am here to find out some of the detail around her whereabouts. I understand she moved back to England at some stage, but am also wanting to go through some of the Records{5} and understand the broader family movements in the early to mid 1900’s.

Solomon family tree [Saint Helena Island Info:Origins of island surnames]

Eben heard a lot about St Helena and the family background on the Island when he was young but:

Unfortunately, it was very limited because a lot of the history was passed down orally. There were some photographs and a few artefacts which were passed down the generations. One also needs to bear in mind that my great grandfather left more than a century ago, in 1899. Of some interest is that Cyril bought some land in Cape Town on his arrival and that that land has passed through the generations. My father currently still resides on that land. A lot of the land has over the years been sub-divided and is now part of a residential area. The only remnants of the original farm are the existing cowsheds, which I grew up to know, and are still on the property. The cowsheds were part of a small dairy and farming enterprise they had in the early 1900s. There has certainly been a great affinity with the island of St Helena, it is my first visit here and certainly been much anticipated and it’s really exceeded all my expectations, it has been quite incredible.

Eben hopes to write a book about his family history.

I think with this oral history that has been passed down the line, my curiosity really kicked into gear and I felt that I really would love to chronicle the family history. It is such a fascinating history and not only looking at the Solomon side. As I mentioned, the Welby family was also quite prominent, Bishop Welby was the longestserving Bishop on the island, he was the second Bishop of the Diocese and also some fascinating stories which I have been able to uncover. It has been fantastic to meet some people who knew my great Uncle Homfray and to be able to account some of their stories and interactions with the family.

Eben has had a lot of help with his research into his background, he said:

People have really been incredible. A sincere thanks to everyone including Solomon and Company, Eric Constantine in particular has been a great help and aid, as well as Tracy and Barry his colleagues. I have also had assistance from the Archives, where Lacosta and Tracy have been incredible. They actually began doing some research for me from three or four weeks before I came.

Barbara George was also kind enough to provide some research she and Trevor Hearl had done some years back. Eben is a Management Consultant by profession and has a passion for business.

I work predominantly with corporate clients in South Africa as well as the Provincial Government of the Western Cape on aspects of corporate governance and means of improving service delivery. We also have some small family interests in property and my dad has a well established engineering consulting firm in Cape Town. I am one of three boys in the family. I live in the suburb of Pinelands in Cape Town with my wonderful wife, Enid, and our two boys Christen and Matthew.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Origins of island surnames]

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Credits:

{a} Source: The St Helena Institute, Retrieved 3rd December 2015{4}



Footnotes:

{1} Done by counting the number with each name in to 2014 ‘phone book

{2} This may also explain how we got some of our Place Names

{3} Who were clearly so unimportant their names were not recorded.

{4} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged

{5} The St Helena Records is a collection of documents dating back to the earliest days of St Helena, held in the Government of St Helena Archives. The Archives can be accessed in person or via email - see our Family And Friends page for more. You can search our events database, extracted from the Records, on our Chronology page.



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