Allen Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Allen Surname Meaning

Alan was originally a Breton name. St. Alan was a 5th century bishop in Quimper who had become a cult figure in medieval Brittany; and St. Alan was a 6th century Breton saint in Cornwall. The name Alamnus was found on 10th century Breton coins. 

Alan was already a popular Celtic-Breton name and was thought to have derived from the Celtic word aluinn meaning “fair” or “handsome.” Another meaning in Scotland was from the Gaelic word ailin, a diminutive of ail meaning “rock,” and possibly described someone who lived by a rock.

Allen is the principal surname spelling today. Spelling variants are Alleyne and (in Scotland) Allan.

Allen Surname Resources on The Internet

Allen Surname Ancestry

  • from England and Scotland
  • to Ireland, America, Caribs (Barbados), Canada and Australia

England.  The Bretons who came with William the Conqueror spread the name in England. Many of those who spelt their name that way were descended from the soldiers who settled as farmers. The name was being widely used in Lincolnshire in the late 12th century.

One Allen branch, originating with Alanus de Buckenhall in Staffordshire, included the 16th century mathematician Thomas Allen from Staffordshire and was later to be found in Portugal. The line was also thought to have gone to Suffolk and Wiltshire (as Alleine). Two Alleine brothers were Puritan ministers in Somerset in the 1640’s.

London.  Thomas Allen or Aleyn was appointed High Sheriff of London in 1414 and Sir John Allen and William Allen were Lord Mayors of London in the following century.

Edward Alleyn, born in London, was an Elizabethan actor at the time of Shakespeare and later went on to found Dulwich College and Alleyn’s School. Later Alleyns, and there were many of them, were masters at Dulwich. His endowment to Dulwich College in fact stipulated that the master and secretary should always bear the name of Allen.

SW England.  The Allen name was also to be found in the west country. The Domesday Book showed an Alyn holding land in Somerset.

Allens from Bridgewater sailed for America in the 1630’s, but there was a notable Allen family that remained. The forebear of this family was Dr. John Allen of Bridgewater, said to have been from an old west country family. He was a much respected physician with many scientific interests. Later Allens of his family, local gentry, held Lyngford House near Bridgewater from 1830 to 1937.

Later Allens.  By the time of the 1881 census there appeared three main areas for the Allen name:

  • in London and the southeast
  • in the west midlands, primarily Staffordshire and Warwickshire
  • and in Lancashire and, to a lesser extent, Yorkshire.

Wales.  According to family lore, the Allens had come to Pembrokeshire in the early 17th century when a certain Thomas Allen had been washed up on their shores after a shipwreck. Later Allens were one of the dominant gentry families in the county for the next three centuries. Their early home was Gelliswick House.

There were two main Allen lines, those of Cresselly (after a propitious marriage in 1728) and those of Rickeston. The diplomat Sir Roger Allen, who died in 1972, was a descendant.

Scotland. Allan is the Scottish variant form of Allen, from the Gaelic MacAileain. MacAllen was a Gaelic title born by some Highland chiefs.

Some MacAllans and Allans settled in Aberdeenshire in the 16th century. Allans in Peterhead date from the mid-1700’s, many of them being involved in the whaling industry. There was also a village in Berwickshire called Allan from which Allans came.

Alexander (Sandy) Allan, born in Ayrshire, was a sea captain who in 1819 started the Allan Shipping Line trading between Scotland and Canada. Under his five sons the Allan line became the largest privately-owned shipping company in the world.

Ireland. Donegal Allens have Scottish ancestry, from the Scottish MacAllens who came to Ireland as Gallowglass mercenaries in the 16th century. Today most Allens in Ireland are in Ulster, with a large proportion of them being of Scottish origin. Allen ranks at eight among the most common surnames in county Armagh.

There have been English Allens in Ireland too. John Allen who had come to Dublin around 1600 as a “bricklayer and architect” was the first of a prosperous line of Dublin Allens. His son Joshua did well as a merchant and became Dublin Mayor in 1673. The last of this line, a man addicted to gambling and nicknamed “King Allen,” died in London in 1845.

America. New England was an early arrival point.

New England.  Various Allens – from Somerset, Essex and Norfolk in England – came to New England in the period between 1630 and 1640.

Samuel Allen arrived in 1630 and settled in Braintree, Massachusetts. This line later migrated to Connecticut. Amasa Allen who fought in the Revolutionary War afterwards headed north to New Hampshire.

Six Allen brothers from Cornwall, Connecticut – Ethan, Zimri, Heman, Levi, Heber and Ira – were merchants and land speculators in the 1770’s in Vermont.  They were later influential in the creation of the state of Vermont. Ira helped found the University of Vermont in 1791. The Ethan Allen homestead has been preserved as a museum in Burlington.

George Allen was in Sandwich by 1637. Many of his sons became Quakers there and faced persecution and imprisonment from the Puritan authorities. Later Allens of this family were to be found at Dartmouth and Martha’s Vineyard.

And William Allen, a carpenter, came to Salisbury by the late 1630’s. This line led to Zachariah Allen, a wealthy merchant in Rhode Island and to his sons – Philip Allen, Governor and Senator for Rhode Island between 1851 and 1859, and Zachariah Allen, the man who invented the cutoff valve for steam engines.

Virginia. Arthur Allen became an agent for English tobacco merchants and arrived in Virginia sometime in the 1640’s. By the 1660’s he had put together one of the largest tobacco plantations in Surry county. There he built a large three-story brick house, Bacon’s Castle, which still stands today.

Then there were the Allens of Carroll county, Virginia:

“Family tradition is that William Allen had come to what is now Carroll county in 1791 and settled on a crest of the Blue Ridge mountains on a tract of 400 acres which had been awarded to his father for his services in the Revolution.”  

The Allen clan as they became were prominent landowners in the area, known for their production of moonshine whiskey and also for their lawlessness and violence. Matters came to a head in 1913 when Floyd Allen was convicted and executed for murder after a sensational courthouse shootout which had left a judge, prosecutor, sheriff, and two others dead.

Scots Irish.  Allens here had come to America, primarily to Pennsylvania. Among them were:

  • William Allen, a native of Tyrone, who had arrived in Philadelphia around 1700. His son rose to prominence through his ties with William Penn and became a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. The town of Allentown was named after him.
  • and James Allen who had come to Philadelphia from Ireland with his widowed mother in the 1750’s. He migrated to Kentucky in 1780 and built his Allendale farm near the town of Bloomfield. His son John was a colonel during the War of 1812, but was killed during the fighting. Allen county in Kentucky was named in his honor.

Caribbean.  Reynold Alleyne from a Lincolnshire-originating family was an early settler in Barbados in 1630. His great grandson Sir John was Speaker at the House of Assembly in 1767.  Many Alleyne descendants remain in Barbados today.  Indeed Alleyne is the second most common surname in Barbados today.

Canada.  Ben Allen, of probable Scottish origin, fought under Wolfe in Canada and then married and settled down in New Brunswick. His son Matthew, fighting on the British side in the War of 1812, was press-ganged into an American ship and found himself in the Caribbean. The stories vary. But apparently he did manage to escape and return to New Brunswick three years later.

Wolfe Island, at the start of the St. Lawrence river in Lake Ontario, was named after General Wolfe. In 1847 it became the home of the Rev. Joseph Allen from Ireland who had married into the Grant family of the island. His son Charles Allen who grew up there became an early Canadian crime writer.

Australia.   George Allen was born in London in 1800, the son of King George III’s physician Richard Allen.  He arrived in Sydney in 1816 with his mother, following his step-father who had been transported to Australia for fraud three years earlier.

George started in Sydney in 1821 what is considered Australia’s first legal practice.  Now known as Allens Arthur Robinson, it made his rich.  Later Allens of this family were:

  • Arthur Wigwam Allen who became known for his Edwardian photographs of Sydney.
  • and Gubby Allen who was England’s cricket captain in the 1930’s.

William and Ann Allen reached Melbourne from Cambridgeshire on the Marion Moore in 1855.  William and his sons became active in market gardening in the Hawthorn district of Melbourne.

Allen Surname Miscellany

Alanus de Buckenhall.  Old histories have recorded:

“About the time of Henry III Alanus had land in Staffordshire, from whom all the Allens of this country do pretend to derive themselves.”

This chronology would place him in the 13th century.   Alanus was reported to have held the lordship of Buckenhall at that time, as well lands at Brookhouse, Garrishall, and Cotterfeter. His son was said to have taken the family name of Alleyne which later became Allen.

Dr. John Allen and His Inventions.  Dr. John Allen of Bridgewater in Somerset was a noted early 18th century physician and writer on medical matters.  He also turned his attention to some interesting inventions.

Brice’s Weekly Journal of Exeter reported in 1727:

“Dr Allen, a noted physician of Bridgewater, has invented and perfected a chariot which goes on steel springs and is drawn by two horses.  Having a door behind, it will hold four persons beside the coachman.  It is not liable to be overturned, but will travel with a pair of horses sixty miles a day with as much ease as a common chariot with six can, carrying the same number of people.”

In 1730 he had letters patent granted him for three inventions:  the navigating a ship in a calm; the improvement of an engine to raise water by fire; and a new method of drying malt.  His scientific mind got him admitted to the Royal Society in 1732.   he died in 1741. 

Allans in Scotland.  The Alan name became popular in Scotland by its frequent use in the family of the Stewarts.  Alan, son of Waldeve, witnessed charters by King David I in 1139.  Subsequently it appeared regularly in old Scottish records.  Alanus the brother of Galfridus Redberd, for instance, witnessed the sale of a tenement in Perth in 1219.

Many of the MacAllans, Allansons and Allans who settled in Aberdeenshire were descended from the son of a MacFarlane chief who had migrated there when his clan was proscribed in the 16th century. Some sons of the chief of clan Grant also took the Gaelic surname MacAilean which eventually converted to Allan.  Many of similar names who settled in the Lowlands were descended from Clanranald Macdonalds.

The Allens of Gelliswick.  According to family legend the Allens came originally from Ulster and had arrived in Wales in the early 17th century when one Thomas Allen was literally washed up in Pembrokeshire after a shipwreck.

They first appeared in the historical record in the mid-17th century when William Allen took on the lease of Gelliswick. They remained tenants at Gelliswick until 1808 when the Allens acquired the freehold at Rickeston.

Gelliswick House was an L-shaped house consisting of a tall five bay single-pile block with a rear staircase projection of three full storeys above the cellars, with an earlier five-bay Elizabethan house retained as a service wing.

The Allens who lived at Gelliswick were:

  • firstly William Allen (1624-88)
  • then his son, William Allen (1658-1722)
  • then his son, William Allen (c.1678-1744)
  • then his son, Joseph Allen (1726-98)
  • and finally his son, John Allen (1752-1808).

Gelliswick House survived until 1980 when it was demolished by Esso Petroleum.

Arthur Allen and Bacon’s Castle.  Bacon’s Castle in Surry county, built in 1655, was originally the home of a prosperous Virginia planter, Arthur Allen, and his family.

Following Allen’s death the house was inherited by his son, known as Major Allen. A loyalist supporter of the colonial government and member of the House of Burgesses, Major Allen was driven from his house in 1676 by followers of the patriot rebel Nathaniel Bacon whose uprising later came to be known as Bacon’s Rebellion.  The episode later gave Bacon’s Castle its name though the house remained in the Allen family until 1844.

Bacon’s Castle, which has been maintained to this day, features distinctive triple-stacked chimneys and curved Flemish gables.  It is one of only three surviving high-style Jacobean structures in the Western Hemisphere and is the oldest datable brick house in Virginia. A reconstructed garden replicates what was on site during the lifetime of Arthur Allen and his son. 

The Alleyne Line in Barbados.  Reynold Alleyne (pronounced “Alleen”), son of the Rev. Richard Alleyne and his wife Christian, left his home in Kent and ventured to Barbados in 1630 at the tender age of 21.  In 1651 he allied himself with the Cromwellian forces there against the King’s supporters.  During the fighting which followed he was hit in the throat by a musket ball and died of his wounds.

His great grandson Sir John Alleyne became Speaker of the Barbados House of Assembly in 1767 and was made a baronet two years later.  Sir John’s grandson, also Sir John, was Warden of Dulwich College in the 1840’s, a position reserved for those who held the Allen name.

Sir John’s uncle Abel had left Barbados due to poor health in 1739 and settled in Braintree, Massachusetts. There his family was to remain for three generations until Thomas Harbin Alleyne returned in 1802.  Dr. Francis Alleyne, born in Barbados in 1884, has a line of seven children, 39 grandchildren, and more than 75 great and great great grandchildren.

Shy Ben Allen in New Brunswick.  The story was told that in 1771 Benjamin Allen was at a New Year’s Eve dance in Fort Cumberland, New Brunswick. He was apparently extremely shy, hence his nickname “Shy Ben.”

That night, after suitable liquid fortification, he went to the center of the dance floor and said: “I am in dire need of a wife! Who will have me?”

Up stepped a hearty lass of German descent, Sarah Somers, who said “I’ll have you, Ben!”

The happy couple were married on the spot by a minister who happened to be in attendance. It is said that any pugnacious tendencies in the Allen female descendants can be attributed to Sarah.

Allen Names

  • William Allen was an English Catholic priest who conspired with the Spanish to help organize the Spanish Armada.
  • Thomas Allen was a 16th century mathematician from Staffordshire.
  • Richard Allen, born a slave, was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.
  • Gracie Allen was an American comedienne who was the zany partner and foil for her husband George Burns.
  • Harry Allen was Britain’s last hangman, officiating from 1941 to 1964.
  • Woody Allen, born Allan Konigsberg in Jewish Brooklyn, is the well-known American comedian, writer, and film director.
  • Paul Allen was the co-founder, with Bill Gates, of the computer giant Microsoft.

Allen Numbers Today

  • 113,000 in the UK (most numerous in Hertfordshire)
  • 175,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 83,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Allen and Like Surnames

The Norman Conquest brought new rulers to England and they brought their names and language, a form of French, with them.  Over time their names became less French and more English in character.  Thus Hamo became Hammond, Reinold Reynolds and Thierry Terry and so forth.  The names Allen, Brett, Everett, and Harvey were probably Breton in origin as Bretons also arrived, sometimes as mercenaries.

The new Norman lords often adopted new last names, sometimes from the lands they had acquired and sometimes from places back in Normandy.  Over time the name here also became more English.  Thus Saint Maur into Seymour, Saint Clair into Sinclair, Mohun into Moon, and Warenne into Warren.

Here are some of these Norman and Breton originating names that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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