My mother’s maiden name was Withell. However when I began to research her family in Padstow and St Merryn in Cornwall in the mid 1980’s, I found that although the surname Withell/Withiel was spread throughout Cornwall from as early as 1200, there was no longer a Withell living in that county. Here was a surname with a history in one area of at least 650 years, which at that point in time had completely disappeared from Cornwall. Currently there are 97 persons with the Withell surname listed in the UK Electoral roll.
I joined the Cornwall Family History Society and GOONS and began to record every occurrence of the surname from medieval times to present day. I am particularly fascinated with the evolution of the surname and continue to collect early references. The spelling encountered has been varied, even on a single document, and in Cornwall the spelling was often the same as the small village of Withiel. The collection now includes manorial records, family estate documents, wills, census, parish records and cemetery information worldwide. We have Excel files of Withell entries from the GRO index currently to 1970 and electoral rolls.
I am indebted to several dedicated researchers from Australia, England and Canada who have joined me in the study. When the sources for information about the earliest members of the family began to be exhausted, their work enabled me to track down living descendents, with the aim of truly completing the family tree.
Very soon it became apparent that not all present day Withells came from Cornwall. Whilst on holiday in New Zealand in 1988, I had contacted a Withell who showed me the research for his family who had emigrated from Goodmanham in Yorkshire. There are interested members of this family in England, Canada, US, New Zealand and Australia who have contributed to the research. Although the surname with its present spelling was not very prevalent in Yorkshire prior to 1800, descendants of one Yorkshire family comprise a large number of male Withells alive today.
The other largest group originated from one family in Cornwall. During the massive immigration from Cornwall in the 1840s, we found that Withell families from Padstow moved to Swansea, Plymouth and London where work was to be found in the shipyards or building trades. It has been a great delight to meet and correspond with descendants of this family.
There was also immigration to Australia and Canada. My own great grandfather had arrived in Australia about 1852, but I was unable to find what had happened to his father and the rest of his family. Imagine my excitement when I received a letter from a lady in Newfoundland who had found a box of letters in her attic belonging to her great grandmother. She had only just discovered the Withell connection and we were to find that our great grandparents were siblings. Her careful transcription of the fragile documents revealed that the family had been posted first to Ireland in 1841 and then Newfoundland where some of the family remained. Although other Withells from Cornwall also emigrated to Canada in the 1870s, the last actual Withell of Cornish origin passed away last year.
Several other Withells emigrated to Australia from Cornwall in the 1850s, and a later generation made a second move from the Portsmouth area to both Australia and New Zealand after WWII.
Records for US have been searched but although there was some emigration, the incidence of the surname in US appears to be somewhat isolated. It is a similar situation with South Africa. Two descendants of the Cornish Withells emigrated to South Africa about 1900. One was widowed whist there and subsequently returned to England where he remarried, whilst the other worked in the Railways for a short time and also returned to England.