A brief history of the origin of the Tonkin family name
This narrative is taken from my book 'The Lives and Times of a Cornish Family' full details of which can be found here. I would like to emphasize that this is how I strongly believe our surname came into existence, based on the documents that have survived. I am aware that there are others who disagree, all I can say is for you to read below and come to your own conclusion!

Most surnames in England evolved during the 12th to 13th centuries as a result of overuse of popular Christian names. They evolved mainly from a persons physical appearance, family relationship, place of residence, or from their occupation. It is difficult to say for certain that all the people in the world of one particular surname are related to each other; in some cases it is certainly true. People with the name Sinden, for example, are all related because they are all descended from a 16th century monk who changed his name in honour of St Sinden.

The name TONKIN is not so straight forward. The earliest possible reference to our name occurs in the early 14th century. A tax assessment for the year 1305 reveals that a Walterus Tonker was living in Bodmin; this is the very earliest reference to anything like the name Tonkin, and presumably this man must have been born before 1290 at the latest. Another tax assessment for the year 1337 lists a Stephen and Andrew Tonkere, Stephen living in St Winnow and Andrew some 15 -20 miles away at Creed.

Stephen was listed under the manor of Penlyn, his entry reads as follows-

Stephen De Tonkere The mill of Polscuth rent 8s
The same Stephen half an acre of moor in one parcel by the said mill rent 6d
The same Stephen 1 messuage 9 acres English of which 4 acres are waste in 1 ferling at Polscoith rent 4s 4d. For services, and suit etc.

Andrew is listed under the manor of Tybeste and reads-

Andrew Tonkere 1 messuage 21 acres of land English in half an acre of land Cornish which Richard De Treuyller took of the said Earl to hold in convention for the said term rent 10s.

No further research has been done, as yet, to ascertain whether these two individuals are Tonkins or not, for I have been told that the name might have been wrongly transcribed, and should read Tucker. However, there is a deed belonging to the Vivian collection concerning the manor of Polscoyth, where Stephen lived. The deed which was drawn up in 1569 reads as follows-

Thomas Litelton lord of the manor of Polscoyth grants to Rowland Teague the wardship of John son of Stephen Tonkyn for his lands in Polscoyth St Winnow.

Now, I know this is some 232 years later, but it is not entirely impossible that this John, son of Stephen Tonkyn is a direct descendant of Stephen De Tonkere, and who now holds those same lands; obviously, when time permits this will need to be followed up. Another Rental and survey of 1389 reveals a Thomas Tonker living at the other end of the county, in Perranuthno, not far from St Michael's Mount.

I have included the above paragraphs because it is possible that a (Tonkere) is one of our ancestors, but it is very much more likely however, that our remote ancestors were named (Tomkyn) or (Tomkin), for that is how we find the name spelt in most of the other early records, The following paragraphs may give us a better understanding of how it evolved.

The Tomkyn spelling is first recorded in 1423, at St. Breock, when one John Tomkyn was ordained as a priest; this is recorded in the Registers of Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Exeter.  The location of his ordination is unlikely to be significant, however, as thirteen other people were ordained on the same day, and they may have came from all over the diocese (which covered Devon and Cornwall). The following references for the rest of the 15th and early 16th century are:-

1448/49 John Tomkyn being mentioned in the records for Lanherne Manor.
1449/51 John Tomkyn as lately (reeve) of Trenynneck.
1450/51 John Tomkyn, (bailiff) of Trennynneck, same as above?
1451/52 John Tomkyn of Tregeustek, received allowances of 6s 9d as (reeve).
1453/54 John Tomkyn of Tregustek made plaint against a neighbour, same as above?
1466/69 John Tomkyn of Trewalabyan, Trevennen Manor, (tithingman), presented for default.
1483/87 John Tomkyn of Carantok, (Smyth).
1491/92 John Tomkyn) of Lanhaddron, receiving rents as (reeve).
1500 John Tomkyn of Lanhadron mentioned in lease, same as above?
1508/09 John Tomkyn of Enyscawyn.
1518/19 Thomas Tomkyn of Enyscavyn, (reeve), son/brother of above?

There were other Tomkyn families elsewhere in the country, the earliest recorded being a William Tomkyn from Staffordshire in 1330, but he and the other English Tomkyns seem to be entirely separate from their Cornish namesakes. The Cornish Tomkyns as yet, have not been found in any records before 1522 living further east than Bodmin.

The earliest large scale reference to the Cornish Tomkyns appears in the 1522 muster roll for Cornwall. There were 20 references to the name, in 15 parishes. Ten entries were spelt TOMKYN, 9 THOMKYN and 1 THOMGKYN.
In the subsidies of 1543/5, there were 32 references to the name in 22 parishes. Of these 27 were spelt TOMKYN, 1 THOMPYN, 1 TOMPKYN, 2 TOMKY and 1 TONKEN. By this time the (TH) spelling was on the way out and the (TON) spelling was just beginning to emerge.

When the muster roll of 1569 was taken, the spelling (TON) had almost completely taken over from (TOM). Of the 39 entries in 22 parishes, 21 were spelt TONKYN, 8 TANKYN, 2 TANKIN, 2 TANKEN, 1 TAMKYN, 1 TANNKYN, 1 THOMKYN, 1 TOWNKYN, 1 TONKY, 1 TONKEN, 1 TOMKYN and finally 1 TONKIN.

It was not to be until the latter part of the sixteenth century before the TONKIN spelling became commonplace.

Over the next one hundred years there were just three main spellings, TONKIN, TONKEN and TONKYN. Within another hundred years the main spelling was TONKIN, with TONKEN prevailing in the Western parishes. In our own time a look through the local telephone directory reveals out of a total of 240 entries, 213 of them were spelt TONKIN.

So with TOMKYN then, being the earliest large scale reference to the name, it would suggest that it was most probable that the name evolved out of a family relationship i.e. (son of Thomas)  If this is the case, then it is most improbable that we are all descended from the same ancestor. Also the 1522 muster roll shows that even at that early date there wasn’t a nucleus for the name; it being already established in 15 parishes.

Having said that the name Tonkin evolved from the name Tomkyn, it doesn’t mean of course, that the spelling remained the same over the following centuries. The scribes during those times wrote down the name Tonkin, as they heard, and thought, it should be written often with some amusing outcomes.

To add further to the confusion many Tonkins also went by the name of the place they came from, notably the Trevaunance Tonkins, who are often described in records as John, Richard, Thomas etc, Trevaunance. Sometimes it was written as Tonkin als Trevaunance, or Tonkin de Trevaunance. The name Trevaunance adds further to the confusion by being found written in a multitude of variations. Another family of Tonkins, down in St Erth, went under the name of Trewarnhayle, and under its variations. All of this, of course, makes tracing particular people very difficult at times.

To simplify in conclusion, we can be fairly certain that the Cornish name of Tonkin evolved from the name Tomkyn, which in all essence means son or kin of Thomas, and the earliest to bear that name in original surviving documents was John Tomkyn, who was ordained as a priest at St Breock in 1423.


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There are people who believe that the name Tonkin came first and then evolved into Tomkyn, from the records I have researched I just cannot see how that is possible! Others believe that the name came from Athony. Then there is a certain website (not to be named) whose creator believes we all descend from one 'Thom the Saxon' in the Doomsday Book and through his immediate descendant 'Toni'. It has been proved though that no such persons are mentioned in that book at all. As I said at the beginning, you must decide what to believe!
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