The origin of the surname

Many surnames derive from an occupation. Examples of such occupational names are Butcher, Cooper, Paynter, Tailor, Tanner and Thatcher.

Others are derived from a location, such as Dale, Field, Forrest or Hill. Like these, the surname Yeo – and its variants, see Further surname variants – is a locational name, and it is not surprising to see early references to the ‘at Yeo’ or ‘atte Yeo’.

Because it arose spontaneously in a number of places in south west England, not all families with this surname are related; researchers who have assumed this have failed to find a single point of origin. At least ten separate locations have been identified.

John Prince, writing in about Alwington 17011 in the elaborate language of the time, appears to have given the earliest explanation, and for a time many researchers took his statement as definitive:
There was a fair dwelling named Yeo in the parish which gave its name to its inhabitants, which, as it is supposed, it took from a fair stream of water near by, in the old Saxon language called ‘ey’ or ‘e’a,’ and in the French ‘eau,’ and hence corruptly ‘yeau,’ and at last Yeo.
The reference to a Saxon derivation appears to be erroneous (see comments on Nymet in the next paragraph). Research by Sheila Yeo suggested that the family at Alwington was originally called Giffard, which became Giffard atte Yeo and later Yeo.

The late Crediton historian Thomas Venn2 commented:
Whether the River Yeo is styled from the Celcic eo = yew or from the OE for water, the pundits are still debating; but the surnames Ya, Yea, and Yeo have generated therefrom.
This Old English word yeo probably has its origins in Norman French, and is similar to the modern French word eau. Prior to the Norman Conquest the Anglo Saxon word nymet (river or stream) was used, and survives in Devon place names such as Nymet Tracey.

Humphrey Toms and Reg Walter looked for other places in Devon with similarly derived names, such as:
– West Yeo Farm on the Little Dart River near Witheridge (‘west yeo’ perhaps meaning ‘west of the water’)
– Treeyeo Farm on the River Troney west of Spreyton (there is also a farm called Treyeo in the parish of Launcells).
Toms speculated further on the existence of five River Yeos in Devon3 and the emergence of different Yeo families, citing:
– A grant of land at Westhill, Ottery St Mary to John Giffard of Yeo4
– A 1443 reference to Yoewton, beside the River Yeo in Crediton (1443)5
– A 1721 burial record from Bickington, ‘John Wotton of Yeo June 16 1721’
– A reference to ‘West Yeo in Witheridge’.6

There are references in a deed of assignment dated 14107 to ‘the rent of 1 close which John Whyte holds in Yeo in the parish of Goodleigh’, also by the Historical Research Center8 to Geoffrey de la Ya (Devon, 1242), Alexander de la Ya (Somerset, 1257) and Nicholas Yoo (London, 1439).

Peter Newcombe9 describes a farm at Chagford:
In the 1st year of the reign of King Richard II (9 May 1378) John Nywcomene paid 2s rent as a tenant in the Manor of Chagford, later he is recorded as John Newecomene atte Yeo paying 6d, atte Yeo meant that he lived at the freeholding of Yeo (meaning ‘water’), a property on the South Teign River, which lies amongst a tangle of medieval lanes to the southwest of Chagford. The present farmhouse … is mainly of eighteenth century date. But in the yard … stands an even older [building originally used] as a dwelling. This, all on one ground floor, may well date from the fourteenth century and could have been the home of Walter atte Yeo10 who is named in a tax assessment of 1332. Even this was probably not the first house on the site; I think it highly likely that Yeo was one of the Domesday farmsteads in the manor of Chagford.

An investigation by Eve McLaughlin11 is relevant in this context and to the Yeo descendancy, especially her comments about the pronunciation of the Yeo surname. Reg Walter later wrote12 about McLaughlin’s work, adding the comment that her notes certainly convey a professional touch of realism and legal authority as regards tenure and ancient relationships between a wife and eldest son.

If you have comments on this subject or the sources referred to, please get in touch via the Contact Us page.

1. As quoted by Thomas Westcote in A view of Devonshire in MDCXXX with a pedigree of most of its gentry, William Roberts, Exeter, 1845.
2. Thomas Walters Venn, History of Crediton, revised edition, 1972 (typescript, formerly held at the Westcountry Studies Library), p.222.
3. Typewritten letter to Humphrey Toms, 17 February 1969.
4. Deed dated 1 July 1438.
5. Modern spelling Uton.
6. White’s Directory of Devon for 1840, p.346.
7. From p.284 of a calendar of inquisitions from the reign of Henry IV.
8. Family Name History Certificate 28719 dated 17 May 1994.
9. Peter R. Newcombe, A Short Account of the Newcombe Family of Braunton, their Kindred and their Origins, published privately by the author, 1994
10. A 1366 grant of land in Barnstaple to ‘Walter atte Yoo of Barnestaple and Isabella his wife’ might be Newcombe’s source. See p.438 of Vol. 1 of Devon Feet of Fines, eds. O.J. Reichel, F.B. Prideaux and H. Tapley-Soper, Devon and Cornwall Record Society, Torquay, 1912.
11. Research commissioned by Cyril Courtney Yeo, copied to Reg Walter in 1970.
12. Handwritten letter to Sheila Yeo, 20 May 1994.