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About the study

The Sillifant surname was registered with the Guild in 2002 after several years of collaborative research with Beryl Young (NZ). Before the modern age of digitised resources, we began piecing family lines together using the 1851 and 1881 census discs produced by the LDS. With regular visits to the Family Records Centre in London and the Devon Record Office, as well as Beryl borrowing LDS films, we slowly began to develop Sillifant trees. Over the past ten years, the study group has grown with 23 people subscribing to a journal which is published three times a year with many other interested individuals who keep in touch via email and on social networking sites.

Variant names

Many people in rural life in the last two/three centuries were not able to read or write and many parish clerks and even Ministers did not spell at all well. When their unlettered parishioners gave their name, the cleric wrote down what he thought was a literal representation of the name he heard. Consequently, there are many and various spellings of the name, such as: - Sillifant, Silliphant, Sellefant, Silavan, Sellivant, Sullifan, Syllivan, Sillyvan, Sillefint, Sellefent, and so on. The first letter of the name can be a 'P' instead of an 'S' and although lexicographers state that the names are two separate surnames, it is clear in our research that the surnames are linked. In more recent years, transcribed documents present us with even more challenging 'variant' spellings with Lillifant, Lillefant, Lillyfant and Tillifant appearing regularly! At the last count, the variant spellings/transcription errors was just over 50.

Name origin

In a wonderful document of 'The Sillifant Legend' (London, 1977), the author states that:

'In the time of Henry II, the King of Leinster in Ireland sought leave to Henry to recruit allies from among the descendants of the followers of de Sully living then on both sides of the Bristol Channel, to help him in his struggle with the O'Connors of Connaught for the high kingship of Ireland. These allies comprised Norman-Welsh, Norman-English, Flemish and Saxon groups whose traditions and language were French. Descendants of the original followers of the Sullys were prominent in these forces and they rallied to the battle cry of 'Sully-en-avant'. The name Sullyvant was established in this way and was Gallicised into the Form Ui Suilleabhain which in turn became O'Sullivan.'

It goes on .... 'In face of rising threats against England from the Continent which grew in strength in the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII and much more menacing in the time of Henry VIII, a new Irish policy was introduced which led to drastic changes in the system of land tenure and taxation and evenutally in the removal of the Earl of Kildare from office. Titles were disputed, rents and taxes raised and..... as a result, some 20,000 Irish descendants of the original followers of the Marcher Barons, flooded into Pembrokeshire, no doubt many Sullyvants among them. In local speech, their name changed and became Sullyfant. From Elizabethan times onward many families of this name settled in Devonshire in the valleys of the Torridge, Taw and Tamar where their name changed again and became Sillifant.'

This document has many references though it is certainly unclear what information might have been gained from elite works such as D.C. Douglas' 'William The Conqueror', L.M. Cullen's 'Life in Ireland' and 'The Reign of Stephen' by H.A. Cronne, as well as numerous others.

'General history: Gentry', Magna Britannia: volume 6: Devonshire (1822), pp. CXXXII-CLX presents a similar but slightly different story:

'Sillifant, of Combe, in Colebrooke. — This family, who formerly wrote their name Sullivan or Syllivan, came from Beare, in Ireland, in 1641. Combe was acquired by marriage with Snell, in 1677. John Sillifant, Esq., now of Combe, married the heiress of Prideaux, of North Tawton.'

The Sillifants did acquire Combe House on marriage though the reference to Beare in Ireland is currently unconfirmed.

Although the origin of the surname is currently unknown, it is clear that the bearers of the surname are predominantly Devon-based when they are in the UK.

History of the name

Reaney and Wilson's 'Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames' gives references to Pellefant back in the 15th century - Judith 1612, Alse 1619 and Andrew Pilliphant 1633 in Hartland Parish Registers, Devon and states that Pillifant probably comes from East, West Pilliven in Witheridge, Devon. For Sillifant, wills for John Silliphant in 1616 and Thomas Sillafant in 1776 are noted. The 'Consolidated Index to Devon Wills' on the Genuki website - - shows wills for Pill(i/e/a)v(i/e)n in the 1650s in Braunton, Ashford and High Bray in Devon as well as Christian Pyllaven, a widow of Chittlehampton in 1591.

There are very few famous people who have held the surname - Stirling Silliphant, film director, is perhaps the most widely-known Silliphant in living memory, with fan clubs and many search results on the web. The great great grandson of William Sillifant and Mary Ann Logg who migrated from Devon, England to Prince Edward Island, Canada in around 1833, he was fourth child of Lemuel Leigh Silliphant and Ethel Noaker.

Name frequency

In the 1881 census, Surname Atlas give 159 results for SILLIFANT and .... for PILLIFANT. Though once all the variant spellings are included (ranging from Selligant, Pellifeaut, Sillifaut, Tellifent and Tillifant), the total comes to 274.

With the search on Sil*nt in the 1891 census for Canada on Ancestry, 55 hits are returned and the US 1880 Federal Census only returns one Sillifant and two Sillipphent references.

Distribution of the name

Of the 274 in 1881, 166 are in the county of Devon with 82 residing in the Holsworthy Poor Law Union. In relation to the number of people residing in this region in 1881, 910 people per 100,000 were named Sillifant (or a variant) at this time. This remains the main location for bearers of the surname to this day, although of course, there has been much more migration in the last 50 years than there was in the 150 years before!