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About the study
My wife and myself have, between us, fifteen Welsh great grand-parents and a partly Cornish ancestor. My wife has the onerous task of trying to trace the right lines among the many thousands of potential ancestors with all too common names like THOMAS, MORGAN, DAVIES, GRIFFITHS and WILLIAMS.
I can trace my ancestral male line back to a John MORCOMB who married Grace Pierce in St Issey parish, Cornwall, on 13th October 1615. By the early 1700s my ancestor, his great grandson John MORCOM, had moved to Gwennap which, in the next century, became the most populated parish in Cornwall because of the employment provided by its copper mines. However, by the 1840s, the mines were suffering from overseas competition and my great great great grandfather Joseph MORCOM left Gwennap for Swansea in South Wales. In subsequent generations Welsh blood diluted the Cornish genes in my line.
When I started researching my family history I, innocently, thought that the best approach, with the apparently rare Cornish name MORCOM, was to pursue all references to the surname. By the time I had realised what I had taken on, I had become interested in the story of the Cornish Diaspora, and why so many of the largely mining families had scattered during the latter part of the 19th century to many places worldwide, as well as to other regions of England and Wales. I have also researched the MORCOMBEs for thirty years for reasons which are explained below.
Out of the 19,914 MORCOM/BEs and close relatives recorded in my ONS database, the numbers who spent at least part of their lives abroad include 2,326 (12%) in the USA, 428 (2%) in Canada, 3,010 (15%) in Australia, 228 (1.1%) in New Zealand and 70 (0.35%) in South Africa. While the population of England, Wales and Scotland doubled between 1841 and 2011, there was only an approximately 40% increase in the numbers of both MORCOMs and the MORCOMBEs in the UK- the result of the diaspora.
In addition, many MORCOM families settled permanently in the mining areas of Wales, Cumbria, and Durham and Northumberland, while the MORCOMBEs moved to South Wales, London and many parts of Southern England. In 1841 almost a third of MORCOMBEs were already living in UK areas outside Devon. By 1911 less than a quarter of UK MORCOMBEs remained in Devon.
As I researched more into MORCOM families, it became apparent that confusion could easily occur with the predominantly rural MORCOMBEs most of whose early origins were in parishes around the fringes of Dartmoor. When early families crossed the Tamar between Cornwall & Devon, in either direction, parish clerks sometimes recorded them with a spelling which matched other local families they had previously registered. Moreover many of the variant spellings could have been originally either MORCOM or MORCOMBE. I also found that researching the migration histories of both families was revealing. The poor rural MORCOMBE families often prospered better in Australia and Canada than the more skilled Cornish miners. Free or cheap land made it possible for them to build up sizeable farms, where they settled permanently, unlike the miners who were moving on from mine to mine. Life expectancy among the MORCOMBEs was also noticeably better.
If you are mainly interested in the MOR[E]COMBEs, Dave MORECOMBE, who has registered his interest in these family names with the Guild of One Name Studies will also be very glad to hear from you. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
It would be tedious to list the almost a hundred variants (or deviants) of MORCOM and MORCOMBE, but a particular difficulty arises with separating the ONS surnames from identical variants of the surname MORKHAM, a quite separate family which came originally from Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. These names are among those which could belong to MORCOM/BE or to MARKHAM: MARCAM, MARCOMB, MARCUM. MARKCOM, MARKOM, MORCOMB, MORKUM etc It is often only geographic location which helps to decide which family identity is more likely e.g. the MARKHAMs were early settlers in the plantation Southern States of the USA, while the MORCOMs did not migrate to the mines of the more northerly States until the mid-19th Century. The MORCOMBEs only rarely crossed from their base in Canada into neighbouring areas of the USA around the Great Lakes.
Neither the comedian Eric MORECAMBE (nee BARTHOLOMEW) or the MORCOM/BEs have their origin in the Lancashire seaside resort of MORECAMBE! MORCOM and MORCOMBE both probably mean "a hollow or small valley near the sea". "Mor" means sea in the closely related Britonnic languages Cornish, Welsh and Breton. "Cumb" in Cornish is a hollow or valley closed at one end (compare the Welsh "cwm"). Cornish was also widely spoken in Devon until the Middle Ages, when invaders from the east introduced the West Saxon dialect of Old English. It is, therefore, also possible that in Devon "mor" may have meant moor or swamp and MORCOMBE could have been a hollow in a moor. Old English sometimes incorporated Celtic words and "cumb" became Combe, Combe or Coomb.
MORCOM or MORCOMBE may originally have been the name of a number of farms or small hamlets, Surnames only began to emerge for ordinary folk in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the West Country, when someone moved away from his original home, he was still known by his new neighbours as John de (of) a particular farm, but soon became John MORCOM, MORCOMBE etc. The earliest homes for both families are widely scattered and this, together with the naming custom, suggest that genetic studies would reveal that there are multiple origins for the surnames.