Ashton Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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The Ashton surname comes from the Ashton place-name, derived from the Old English aesc meaning “ash” and tun “settlement” found in various places around England – for example in Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Devon and Wiltshire.

However, it was only in Lancashire that the place-name became a surname. There were two Ashtons in Lancashire, Ashton-under-Lyne near present-day Manchester and Ashton-in-Makersfield near Bolton. Ashton-under-Lyne provided the first by the name of Ashton.

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England. The English Ashton history divides into early Ashton history and later Ashton history.

Early History. It is difficult to say whether a Norman lord Assheton gave his name to the place-name Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire or vice-versa. In any case the names appear to have been used interchangeably until the 16th century and the Asshetons had been in place at Ashton from the early 1100’s.

The Asshetons distinguished themselves in the wars against Scotland and France in the 14th and 15th centuries. Sir John Assheton attended the grand coronation of Henry IV in 1399. Sir Ralph Ashton rose to high position as a supporter of the Yorkist cause during the Wars of the Roses. He died after their defeat in 1485 in suspicious  circumstances.

“The date of his death is unknown. But he is traditionally said to have been shot at Ashton-under-Lyne. The yearly ceremony known as the ‘Riding of the Black Lad’ is regarded as a commemoration of that event.”


Sir Ralph’s half-brother Thomas experimented in alchemy. 
There were two notable subsidiary Ashton families during this period:

  • Thomas Ashton married the heiress of Croston manor near Chorley around the year 1420. These Ashtons remained Catholic during Tudor times. Roger Ashton died as a Catholic martyr at Tyburn in 1592.
  • Edmund Ashton meanwhile married the heiress of Chadderton Hall near Oldham around the year 1460. The Ashtons held the estate until 1695 when a later Edmund Ashton was killed in a duel and the estate was sold by his brother William, the rector at Carlton-in-Lindrick.

Later History. The Ashton name did not spread that far in Lancashire, The Ashtons in Lancashire in the 1881 census were generally not too far from where they had originally come.

One Ashton family was a family of yeoman farmers that had been long-established at Ashton-in-Makerfield.In the early 18th century John Ashton moved from Ashton to Liverpool and, having accumulated some capital, acquired the Dungeon salt works near Hale. This was to form the basis of his family’s wealth. His son Nicholas expanded into coal mining and grew even more wealthy. He bought Woolton Hall, midway between Liverpool and the saltworks, in 1772 and commissioned Robert Adam to remodel the house.

Another Ashton family was a family of yeoman farmers at Hyde near Stockport in the 16th century. They moved into cotton weaving in the 18th century and then went into business in a larger-scale factory-based cotton-spinning business:

  • by the 1820’s Samuel Ashton had established himself at Apethorn mill and soon afterwards built Woodley mill. He and his five brothers grew rich on the proceeds of the cotton trade and all were able to buy or build gentlemen’s houses.
  • however, tragedy struck in 1831 when Samuel’s eldest son Thomas Ashton was murdered on his way to Apethorn mill.
  • Samuel’s brother Thomas seems to have been the most philanthropic of the Ashton brothers. He built housing and a library for his workers and a school for their children. His grandson Thomas was created Baron Ashton of Hyde in 1911.

There was another Baron Ashton in Lancashire, this one created in 1895 for the linoleum king of Lancaster, James Williamson. His legacy in Lancaster is the Ashton Memorial.


America. Captain John Ashton came to Westmoreland county, Virginia around 1650. Tradition has it that he was from the Ashtons
of Chadderton. John was a well-to-do landowner in Virginia. His wife may have been the daughter of an Indian chief. There were other Ashtons – Peter, James and Charles – in Virginia then or slightly later and they appear to have been related.

Another early Ashton family was at Marblehead in Massachusetts. The forebear here seems to have been John Ashton, possibly from Devon, who arrived there in the 1660’s. His grandson Philip Ashton was a captain of a fishing vessel in
1722 when he was captured by pirates and held captive or marooned for more than two years. His story made sensational reading.

Peter and Mary Ashton were English Quakers who had settled in county Laios in Ireland before coming to Springfield township in Bucks county, Pennsylvania in 1732. Their son Thomas moved to upstate New York around 1800.

Australia. Ashton’s Circus has been one of the longest running circuses in the Western world. It has toured Australia for over 150 years and featured seven generations of Ashtons.

The first of these was Golding Ashton from Colchester in England, a clog dancer, who had arrived in Australia sometime in the 1840’s. Some suspect that his real name was not Ashton but Wild:

“In 1849 Golding Ashton and his troupe sailed from Tasmania to Melbourne to perform in a circus there. However, the authorities there refused them permission to perform and Ashton and the troupe headed northwards, making their way through the bush and the scrub, to the
outskirts of Sydney. Here they gave equestrian exhibitions in a makeshift ring near the present-day Central Station.”


The Ashton family story was told in Natalie Fernandez’s 1971 book Circus Saga – Ashtons.

Born in 1864 to a Geelong coffee roaster, James Ashton left school at the age of ten and followed a diverse and successful career in journalism, commerce and politics. He acquired the Tueila estate on the Sydney waterfront in 1903. This stayed with the family until 1987. His four sons – James, Bob, Geoff, and Phil – became famous when they sailed to England with 25 polo ponies in 1930 and captured the imagination of the sporting world there.

 


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Sir Ralph Ashton and His Ashton Tenants.  At the time of Sir Ralph Ashton in the 15th century, corn marigold was said to grow so extensively in the low wet land about Ashton as to be inimical to the crops.  The lord of the manor would have an annual inspection and levied fines on those tenants on whose lands it was seen.

This power, delegated to Sir Ralph and his brother Robert, is said to have been made the pretext of such tyrannical exactions that on one of these visitations the tenants rose in desperation and the “Black Knight” was slain.  Others hold that it was whilst exercising in the northern parts his despotic powers as vice-constable that he excited the terror expressed in the legendary rhyme:

“Sweet Jesu, for thy mercy’s sake
And for thy bitter passion,
Save us from the axe of the Tower,
And from Sir Ralph of Ashton.”

The effigy of the Black Knight is still paraded through the town of Ashton on Easter Monday.

Ashtons in Lancashire.  There were six towns and villages in Lancashire with Ashton populations over 200 in the 1881 census, including Ashton under Lyne where the Ashton name originated.   All of them are in reasonable proximity to Ashton under Lyne.

Town/village Ashton numbers Distance from Ashton
Ashton under Lyne    375
Oldham    454    6 miles
Chadderton (nr.
Oldham)
   204    6 miles
Heap (nr. Bury) 227    15 miles
Blackburn    262    30 miles
Preston    235    40 miles

The Murder of Thomas Ashton.  On the evening of January 3, 1831 Thomas Ashton was shot dead as he made his way from his home at Pole Bank to Apethorn Mill. He was heading there to superintend for his younger brother James who had just left home to spend the evening with a family near Stockport.

Apparently the assassins had awaited his approach, sitting behind a hedge bank on the road side, which situation gave them the best opportunity of seeing or hearing the approach of their victim.

A reward of £500 was offered by his father, Samuel Ashton, together with £500 by other relatives of the deceased, £500 by the Master Spinners of the district, and ‘a promise of a pardon from the King, to any one of the three suspected persons who would give evidence; unless such person was the one who actually fired the shot.’

Despite a confession from ‘a mad Scotsman’ and a statement of complicity from another ‘foolish individual,’ the mystery continued to defy solution until in April 1834 a man in Derby jail made statements that could throw light on the matter.  These statements led to the arrest of two men in Marple and on May 5, 1834 three men – James Garside, Joseph Mosley and William Mosley – were committed for trial.  Before the day of the trial arrived it became known that William Mosley had turned King’s evidence.

Garside tried to throw the blame onto Joseph Mosley and Joseph Mosley denied any knowledge of the crime. However, they were both found guilty and were sentenced to hang.  The execution took place on November 25, 1834 at Horsemonger Lane jail in London.

What was their motive?  As to the reason for the shooting The History of Hyde stated:  “The crime was rightly regarded as an attempt, on the part of the extremists in the trade union movement, to terrorize the employers.”  In his evidence William
Mosley said that when they met up again he asked Garside which of the Ashtons he had shot and was told: “It didn’t matter which it was.  It was one of them.”

Philip Ashton’s Sensational Capture and Escape.  There appeared in 1725 from a Boston publishing house the following sensational account – a history of the strange adventures and signal deliverances of Philip Ashton who, after having made his escape from pirates, lived alone on a desolate island for sixteen months.

On July 15, 1722 Philip Ashton’s fishing boat was captured off Nova Scotia by pirates.  He was kept in the hold of the vessel for nine months while the pirates voyaged to Newfoundland, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and ending up near Roatan Harbor in the Caribbean.  There he was able to make his escape.

“I went into the boat with only an Onasburg frock and trousers on and a milled cap upon my head, having neither shirt, shoes, stockings nor anything else about me.”

He came to an island where there was plenty of water, fruit trees, and tortoise eggs to drink and eat.  But he remained there alone and ailing for nine months.  Then an elderly Scotsman, fleeing from the Spaniards, arrived with a canoe.  He left Philip with some pork, a knife, a bottle of powder, tobacco, tongs and flint so that Philip could make fire.  But the Scotsman had disappeared.

In June 1724 Philip finally had some new company on the island. They nursed him back to health.  They then met up with a fleet of vessels heading to Jamaica for trade.  One of these vessels was from Massachusetts and offered him a passage home.

“Two years, ten months and fifteen days after I was first taken by the pirate Lowe and two years and near two months after I made my escape from him upon Roatan Island, I went the same evening to my father’s house where I was received, as one coming to them from the dead, with all imaginable surprise of joy.”

Ashton’s Circus.  In 1854 James Ashton formed Ashton’s Royal Olympic Circus and for the next thirty five years toured eastern Australia with his grandly titled circus.  His name became a household word in the country areas of New South Wales and in Queensland as far north as Rockhampton. He acquired a reputation for developing Australian talent.  The Wirth family joined his troupe for a while.  He often featured Aboriginal performers such as the acrobatic rider Mungo Mungo.

After World War One Frederick Ashton, known as “Flash Fred,” became the sole proprietor.  He was a fine circus bandsman, small and dark and was an immaculate dresser.   He continued to take the circus into the outback until his death in 1941.

Ashton’s Circus has now featured seven generations.  In recent years Phyllis Ashton at eighty has been the driving force of the circus.  It is said that Doug Ashton at seventy nine knows Australia like the back of his hand.  He has been finding towns to play every night for the past sixty years.

Ashton and Like Surnames.  The Anglo-Saxon word tun meaning “settlement” gave rise to many place-names with the suffix “-ton.”  And the place-name could become a surname describing someone who came from that place.  Sometimes the name was specific to just one location; but often the place-name could be found in various places and the surname would also crop up in a number of locations.  Other such “ton” surnames covered here are Alston, Clayton. Eaton. Horton, Middleton, Newton, Norton, Shelton, Sutton and Walton.

 

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Sir John Assheton of Ashton was an MP and military commander under Henry IV and Henry V in the early 1400’s.
Thomas Ashton was a Lancastrian mill-owner who in Victorian times built housing and a library for his workers as well as a school for their children.
James Henry Ashton was the founder of Ashton’s Circus in Australia which has now lasted through five succeeding generations for over 150 years.
T.S. Ashton was an English economic historian whose best-known work was the 1948 textbook The Industrial Revolution.


Select Ashton Numbers Today

  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous in West Dumbarton)
  • 30,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

 

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