Allison Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Allison Surname Meaning

Allison is both a Scottish and an English surname.  

In Scotland Allison would seem to have come from Alister or Alexander and the MacAlister (i.e. descendants of Alexander) Highland clan. The MacAlister name in the Lowlands became Alison, Allison or Ellison (initially the spelling could have been interchangeable) until Allison apparently won out.  In England the name could also have been patronymic.

But son of whom – Allen, Alice, or Elias perhaps?  The names Johannes Alysson, Robertus Alaynson, and Adam Elisson all appeared in the 1379 Yorkshire poll tax records. There are no clear indications here as to the origin of the name.  Allenson and Ellison are other English surnames that could have gotten mixed up with Allison at some time.

Could the Allison name have had Norman origins? There was a Norman family in Lincolnshire, originally D’Alenson (from the town of Alenson), that had assumed the arms and name of Blanchard in 1280.  But the name of D’Allison, later Dallison, persisted there.

Allison Surname Resources on The Internet

Allison Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland and Northern England
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland. Early Allisons of various spellings came from different places – Berwickshire, Lanarkshire and the east coast of Scotland for instance.

The largest numbers were in Lanarkshire. Here these Allisons were apparently an offshoot of the MacAlister Highland clan at Loup in Argyllshire. Their branch had opposed Robert the Bruce at the time of the fight for Scottish independence and had to flee their homes. Around 1310 they sought sanctuary with the Hamiltons at Cairnduff in Avondale parish in Lanarkshire. It was said that they then assumed the Lowland name of Allison.

There was little account of Allisons in Avondale for nigh on three hundred years. Then they began to appear as emigrants, either to the American colonies or to the Ulster plantations in the 1600’s. In 1664 James Alison or Allison, a Covenanter who was being persecuted, fled Avondale for Renfrewshire.

“James Alison, along with forty others, was compelled to walk through wind and snow to Stirling where they were imprisoned. The same parties were then sent to the Canongate prison in Edinburgh and then to a distant prison in Dunottar castle. After remaining there for a time, James was able to return to his Renfrewshire home and farm in Kerrs of Lochwinnoch.”  

However, many Allisons did remain in Avondale parish, at Windyedge and Browncastle farm.

An alternative spelling of the surname in Scotland has been Alison, although this version has now somewhat faded from view.

One formidable Alison family began with Patrick Alison of Newhall in Angus who was born in 1714. His line by generation ran as follows:

  • Patrick who was a merchant in Edinburgh and served as its lord provost (mayor).
  • the Rev. Archibald who was an Anglican clergyman, well-known for his writings on aesthetics.
  • Archibald who served as Sheriff of Lanarkshire and was also a historian of note. He was made a baronet in 1852.
  • and Archibald the second baronet who was a general in the British army in the 1880’s.

England. The first sightings of the Allison name in England would appear to have been in Norfolk.  Thomas Alysson was recorded as the rector of Melton Constable in 1447. The name appeared in Aylsham and Peterborough further south a century or so later. There was also a D’Allison family prominent at Laughton in NW Lincolnshire at this time. Their name later became Dallison.

However, the larger numbers have been further north, primarily in the counties of Yorkshire and Durham in the 1881 census. Here it has been difficult to untangle the Allisons from the Ellisons or Allensons over many centuries. William Allenson, for instance, was a draper in York who became its mayor in 1633 and again in 1655.  Allenson or Allinson could so easily have become Allison. It was Lawrence either Ellison or Allison from Howden in Yorkshire who emigrated to America in the 1640’s.

One Allison line in Durham started with the marriage of John Allison and Anne Westmorland in Sherburn in 1677. A later John established the family on Wearside in the mid-1700’s. It was his son James Allison of Monkwearmouthwho made the family rich through his ventures into shipbuilding and brewing in the first half of the 19th century.

Another line in Durham began with the marriage of Robert Allison and Jane Usher in Houghton-le-Spring in 1728. Later Robert Allisons of this family moved to London in the early 1800’s and to Canada in the 1860’s.  Other Allisons remained at Bishopwearmouth in Durham.

The Allison name, possibly originally from Durham, first appeared in the lead mining district of Alston in Cumberland in 1724. The census showed John Allison and his son William (aged just thirteen at the time) as lead miners there in 1841. William emigrated to Australia in 1862.

Ireland.  To avoid religious persecution as Presbyterians or Covenanters, many Allisons left Scotland for Ulster in northern Ireland. Their numbers included John Allison who had inherited Windyedge in Avondale parish, Lanarkshire in 1651. His son Michael, however, did return in 1690 after the defeat of James II.

These Scottish arrivals tended to settle in Derry or in nearby Donegal or later on in Antrim. Among those who were there in the mid/late 1600’s were:

  • Robert Allison who had come to Ramelton in Donegal, close by the city of Derry.
  • John Allison who had come to Limavady in Derry and was the forebear of the Allisons of Magilligan.
  • and John Allison who was born in Derry around 1675.

Many Allisons subsequently departed for America.

America. Allison arrivals in America were from England, Scotland, and, probably the most numerous, Scots Irish.

The earliest to come was probably John Allison from Windyedge in Scotland who sailed on the Prosperous and settled at Archer’s Hope in James City, Virginia around 1625. However, Virginia’s spelling of his name was Ellison and his descendants generally bore that name. It was also Ellison for Robert Ellison who had arrived in Maryland in 1642 and taken up land in New Kent county, Virginia in 1656.

Then Thomas Allanson from London arrived in Charles county, Maryland in 1658. His children were Allison. Many later settled in North Carolina. The Allison-Deakin house which Benjamin Allison built there in 1815 near the Blue Ridge mountains is still standing. There was a family reunion of Thomas Allanson descendants in 2007.

Pennsylvania.  The arrivals here, somewhat later, were more clearly Allison and were more from Ireland.

John Allison came around 1720 from Derry to Donegal township in Lancaster county where he was a Justice of the Peace. Also found there was Robert Allison who later settled in Augusta county, Virginia.  And John and Martha Allison moved from there to Orange county, North Carolina in the 1750’s.

Other arrivals from Ireland were:

  • William Allison was operating a tavern in the Scots Irish community at Greencastle in Franklin county by the 1750’s. John Allison founded the township there in 1782 and his son Robert, settling in Huntingdon, became a US Congressman.
  • Robert Allison who came in the 1770’s to Mifflin county and was one of the founders of Menno township.
  • James and Jane Allison who arrived from Maryland in Washington county in 1773 when it was still frontier territory. Their son James and grandson John, who both made their homes in Beaver county, served as US Congressmen.
  • while Matthew Allison came with his parents to Northumberland county also sometime in the 1770’s. After the war he was one of the prominent citizens of Centre county. The line through his son John led to William B. Allison, the US Senator for Iowa for a staggering 35 years (from 1872 to 1908).

Elsewhere.  Two Presbyterian families from Scotland came to America in the early/mid 1700’s, one settling in South Carolina and the other eventually in Tennessee.

Hugh Allison arrived in 1736, making his home in what came to be called York county in South Carolina. His son Robert fought in the Revolutionary War.

“He was one of hundreds of local volunteers under no organized military unit, hot-headed Presbyterians smoldering with revenge for the persecution and murders inflicted upon them and their families by the British dragoons and by local Tories.”  

A later Allison of this line, William Barry Allison, was a planter and landowner at Little Allison Creek in York county until his death in 1895. William Floyd Allison’s 1968 book The Family and Colonel William Barry Allison covered his forebears and descendants.

John Alison or Allison came to Augusta county, Virginia in 1742 and died there in 1759. His sons John and Robert both fought in the Revolutionary War and later settled in Sullivan county, Tennessee:

  • John, popularly known as Captain Jack, had received a knee wound in the fighting which caused him to walk lame for the rest of his life.
  • Robert meanwhile was taken prisoner early on and held on a British ship during the course of the war. His son Francis Alisonmet an untimely end at Reedy Creek in Sullivan county in 1845.

Canada. Joseph and Alice Allison set off with their family in 1769 from Derry in Ireland for what they thought was Philadelphia. But they were ship-wrecked off Sable Island and ended up instead in Nova Scotia where they began their new life:

  • their sons Joseph and John prospered as farmers and served in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly in the early 1800’s.
  • while their grandson Charles moved to Sackville, New Brunswick as a young man and became a wealthy merchant there. He was to found the first university in Canada, Mount Allison University, in 1843. A subsequent Allison, David Allison, was President of the university from 1891 to 1911. The university still flourishes today.

A later arrival from Ireland was Andrew Allison who came to Ontario in the 1830’s from Antrim.  His son Jesse farmed at Chesterville, which was where Hudson Allison was born in 1881. Hudson became a very wealthy stockbroker in Montreal. However, he and his family perished on the Titanic in 1912.

John Allison from Yorkshire had joined the California Gold Rush in 1849 but later moved north to British Columbia in search of gold along the Fraser river.  He was the first European settler in an area now known as Princeton. Here he staked mineral claims and established a cattle ranch.  He and his wife Susan raised fourteen children.  Susan is better known than John today because of her writings. She was designated a National Historic Person in 2010. 

Australia.  Francis Allison, a master mariner from Yorkshire who had served in the British navy in various wars, emigrated to Tasmania in 1822. He was granted land near Hobart which he named Streanshalh.  However, he had a running battle with his neighbors the Gatenbys which continued after his death in 1857 (the Gatenbys eventually took over Streanshalh).

One of Francis’s sons Henry was declared bankrupt, abandoned his family, and fled to America. Another son Nathaniel committed suicide. The eldest son William did endure as a politician in Tasmania for twenty years, although he died early, at the age of fifty-two, in 1865.

New Zealand.  James Allison was a newly graduated doctor from Glasgow who emigrated to New Zealand in 1842, settling in Wanganui. He married in the first ever European wedding there and settled down to a life of sheep-farming. In 1867 he was returning to Scotland for a visit but died on the voyage across. However, his son Alexander kept his Wanganui farm going and, two generations later, Alex and Alan Allison are to be found there today.

Allison Surname Miscellany

Early Allisons in Scotland.  Leonard A. Morrison in his The History of the Alison or Allison family in Europe and America published in 1893 said the following:

“It is a fact beyond doubt that Alison comes from Alister or Alexander, and, further, that the Alisons are offshoots of the famous clan of MacAlister and that the origin of the name is due to two sons of Alexander MacAlister of Loupe who, with some of their followers, escaped to the parish of Avondale, Lanarkshire during the war of Independence.

There later their name was changed from MacAlister to Alison. The names Alison, Allison, Alinson, Allinson, and of Elison, Ellison, Elissen, Ellysen, are found thus spelled in the early history of some branches of the present Allison family.  They are interchangeably mixed.  The name was often spelled Ellison and Allison when referring to the same individual.”

However, George Fraser Black in his 1946 book The Surnames of Scotland thought that this claim was too sweeping.  He noted that Patrick Alissone of Berwickshire was cited in the Ragman Rolls of 1296; that Peter Alesoun was a witness in Brechin in 1490; that Thomas Alesoun appeared in Lochtoun, Scone in 1586; and that Gabriel Alason was baillie of the burgh of Dumfries in 1693. 

The Allisons at Magilligan in Derry.  The forebear of this family was John Allison who was born in 1652 (probably in Scotland) and lived in Limavady.  He was a prominent citizen there and lived for more than eighty years.  He was buried in the Allison family burial ground at Magilligan in the scenic Roe Valley at the mouth of Lough Foyle.

Some generations later came Joseph Allison.  He grew incensed when he was told by his rent agent that his rent was going to be increased for the following year.  Wanting to impress the man, Joseph had set out his table with their one valuable possession – silver spoons.  After entertaining him, Joseph was informed that if he could afford silver spoons, then he could certainly afford to pay more rent.  Joseph promptly tore up the rent papers and declared that he would sooner go and live in America than pay the extra rent.

He was as good as his word and he and his family duly packed their things and in 1769 set sail for Philadelphia.  As things turned out though, their ship was wrecked near Sable Island, south of Halifax, an area renowned for shipwrecks.  So instead of arriving in Philadelphia, the Allison family found themselves in Nova Scotia, where they settled and began their new life.

Allisons did remain at Magilligan at their old farmhouse known as Drumnaha.  There have been ten generations at the farmhouse since the first John Allison. 

James Allison of Monkwearmouth.  James Allison, born in 1796, started out at the age of twenty-two as a shipbuilder at Monkwearmouth in Sunderland. When the lease on his shipyard ran out in 1833, he turned to brewing instead, taking over the North Quay brewery.

The profits of this business allowed him to build in the 1850’s a small country house called Undercliff that was set in ten acres of grounds at Cleadon, a few miles north of Sunderland.  This house was described as follows:

“Undercliff is a puzzling but attractive two-storey classical house of brick with stone dressings.  The designer is unknown but could well have been an amateur.  For example, the Tuscan pilasters on the main south front are irregularly spaced, as the front consists of three narrow bays and two broader ones with bay windows.”

James Allison was mayor of Sunderland in 1844 and again in 1864, the year before his death.  On his death his son William succeeded him both at Undercliff and in the brewing business before selling out to Newcastle Breweries in 1890.  The Undercliff house was sold in 1922.

Allisons in the 1881 Census

County Numbers (000’s) Percent
Yorkshire    1.6    19
Durham    1.1    13
Lancashire    0.5     6
London    0.5     6
Lincolnshire    0.4     5
Elsewhere    1.8    20
Sub-Total    5.9    69
Lanarkshire    0.9    11
Renfrewshire    0.5     6
Elsewhere    1.2    14
Sub-Total    2.6    31
   8.5 100

Francis Alison’s Untimely Death in Tennessee.  Francis Alison met a very untimely death.  According to family tradition, the order of succession of events in connection with his death were as follows.

Early on the morning of July 9, 1845, he left his Reedy Creek home on horseback with Kingsport as his destination.  His mission, on the particular occasion, was the collection of a sum of money due and payable that same day.

The two interested parties met, according to prearranged time and place, and the entire indebtedness, approximately $1,000 was satisfied, payment being made in cash. The place of meeting was a public boarding house in Old Kingsport.  It was reported a number of strangers witnessed the entire transaction, including that of counting the money and Francis Alison placing the money in his billfold.

On his return home it was necessary that he ford Reedy Creek. This was out of banks that particular day due to a heavy rainfall that afternoon.  Soon after sunset Francis’s horse showed up at the stable rider-less.  The neighbors were summoned.  After a hasty discussion as to what could have happened, it was decided that Francis could possibly have encountered trouble at the ford of Reedy Creek.  A well-organized search was started in this vicinity.

Nothing developed that evening.  But the next morning, early, after the waters had subsided, the body was found five miles below the ford in Lessley’s bottom, drowned.  The purse, in which the strangers saw Mr. Alison place the money collected at Kingsport, was on his person but the contents were missing.

It was an established fact Francis Alison was an excellent swimmer. This, and the fact the contents of the purse were missing, was sufficient evidence to convince everyone Francis had met foul play. However, a thorough investigation failed to produce convincing evidence that such was the case. 

The Allisons on the Titanic.  Among the passengers of the Titanic which struck an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912 were the Allison family who were returning home to Montreal.  Their party, traveling 1st class, included wealthy Montreal stockbroker Hudson Allison and his wife Bess, their two children Loraine and Trevor, plus four servants including Alice the nurse who were accompanying them.

After the ship struck the iceberg, Hudson left to find out what was going on.  On his return he found Alice the nurse and his young son Trevor missing.  He then delivered his wife Bess and daughter Loraine into Lifeboat #6.  He apparently left before it was launched.

They could have gotten away in perfect safety.   But someone told Bess that her husband was in a boat being lowered on the opposite side of the deck and with her little daughter she rushed away from the boat.  But when she reached the other side her husband was not there.  Hudson, Bess and Loraine all went down with the Titanic.  Only Hudson’s body was recovered.

“He was wearing a blue suit, leather coat and a grey silk muffler.

His effects were keys, letters, photo’s, stock book, three pocket diaries, one C.P. Railway ticket book, two pocket books, card case, $143 in notes, chain with insurance medals, £15 in gold, $100 Thomas Cook & Sons travellers’ cheque, £35 in notes, gold cuff links, a diamond solitaire ring, gold stud, knife, silver tie clip, $4.40 in odd coins, and a traveller’s ticket.”

Alice and Trevor did make it safely into Lifeboat #11 and survived.  Varying stories claimed that Alice had panicked and grabbed Trevor, without informing Bess that she was leaving and that Bess refused to leave the ship without him.  However, it was possible that the entire group went up on deck together and that Alice and Trevor were simply lost in the crowd.

Years later, in 1940, a woman called Helen Kramer claimed to be the missing child Loraine who drowned.  She told a radio show that she had been saved at the last moment when her father placed her in a lifeboat with a man whom she had always thought was her father. However, it was not until seventy years later, with the advances that had been made in DNA testing, that her claim was found to be false.

Allison Names

  • Archibald Alison was a Scottish lawyer and historian, best known for his work History of Europe completed in 1843.
  • Charles Allison was the Canadian merchant who founded Mount Allison University in New Brunswick in 1843. 
  • William B. Allison was one of the most powerful US Senators of the late 19th century. He was chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee for more than twenty-five years. 
  • George Allison was the very successful manager of Arsenal football club in London from 1934 to 1947. 
  • Bobby Allison is considered one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, winning the Daytona 500 three times – in 1978, 1982, and 1988.

Allison Numbers Today

  • 18,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 20,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Allison and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “son” suffix is more common in northern England than in the south and in lowland Scotland.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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