Barrett Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Barrett Surname Meaning

Barrett origins are unclear. One line of thinking is that the word was derived from the Old French barat and barater meaning “commerce” or “dealings” and described a market trader; or possibly it could have been a nickname for someone quarrelsome. Alternative suggestions have been the French barrette meaning “cap” or a Norman personal name of similar sound.

The name was brought to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman invasion. The Gaelic rendering was Baroid in the south (in county Cork) and Baireid in Connacht (Mayo and Galway). The similarity of these two names may have been coincidental.

The Barretts of Cork were said to have derived their name from the Norman-French Barat or Barratt; while the Barretts of Mayo and Galway picked up the Gaelic name Bairéad which meant “quarrelsome” or “warlike.”

Barrett Surname Resources on The Internet

Barrett Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Cork and Connacht) and from Southern England
  • to America, Caribs (Jamaica), Canada, and New Zealand

Ireland. The two Barrett branches in Ireland may nor may not have been related. Both came with the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1170 and both originated from the Pendyne region of Carmarthenshire in Wales.

County Cork. One branch claimed Norman origins, from a knight named Baret who had come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. These Barretts, initially called Barratt, settled in county Cork where their name was rendered as Baroid. They became influential in the part of central Cork which became known as Barrett’s Country and they were large landowners there until 1691.

Their castle at Castlemore had been damaged by Cromwell’s forces in 1645, but not pulled down, and they managed to retain their lands at that time. In 1691, however, the then head of their family, Colonel John Barrett, had Castlemore destroyed and had 12,000 acres of his land taken away for having raised a regiment of infantry for King James’s Irish army.

Mayo/Galway. The second line of Barretts established themselves in the Connacht counties of Mayo and Galway, where their name was Gaelicized as Bareid. Although the pedigree produced in 1588 claimed a noble lineage, the alternative version was that they had just been hired mercenaries at the time of the invasion. They were consequently known as “the Welshmen of Tirawley,” having originally settled in the barony of Tirawley in the mountainous part of Mayo/Galway.

These Barretts came to form a clan in the Gaelic fashion, the head of which was known as Mac Bhaitin Baireid (Mac Watten Barrett), and over time they assimilated fully into Irish culture.

England. Baret was an early spelling of the name in England. Baret was recorded as owning lands in Yorkshire at the time of Edward the Confessor; while a Baret may have arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066. Barets and later Barrets and Barretts were later to be found primarily in SW and SE England.

SW England.  Barets were cloth manufacturers in Gloucester in the mid/late 1300’s. Richard Baret often traded these cloths to Wales.

“In 1394 a certain band of ruffians, planning to murder one Robert Sage on the road through Monmouth and Usk, by mistake assaulted Baret instead, leaving him for dead. He did, however, survive to represent Gloucester in three more Parliaments.”  

There were also Barretts at Penquite in Cornwall. They were Royalist and had their lands confiscated by Cromwell in 1651. But Hearcey (Hercie) Barrett, said to have been of this family, was part of Cromwell’s invasion force in Jamaica, remained there, and was the forebear of the Barretts of Jamaica.

SE England.  There was a Barret line in Kent where Valentine Barret was sheriff of Kent in the early 1400’s. His brother John established the family at Aveley Belhus in Essex where they were to remain for the next 250 years. According to family tradition Queen Elizabeth stayed at Belhus on her way to review the troops at Tilbury Fort in 1588. These Barretts later became the Barrett-Lennard baronets.  

Other Barets/Barretts were to be found in Norfolk.

One line began with Simon Barret who was married in Hardwick in 1385. Another started in the village of Blythborough, just across the border in Suffolk, in the next century. It included Christopher Barrett, mayor of Norwich in 1634. From a Barret family in King’s Lynn came the clergyman John Barret. He switched from Papacy to Protestantism very rapidly after the death of Queen Mary in 1558.

Elsewhere. The Barrett spelling had become predominant by 1600, although older spellings did persist. George Barret, father and son, were 18th century landscape painters and early members of the Royal Academy. Barratt continues to be found in the Midlands and the north:

  • William Barratt founded the Barratt shoe company in Northampton in 1903. It has lasted as a High Street store until recently.
  • while Lawrie Barratt from Newcastle began Barratt Developments, one of the UK’s largest homebuilders, in the early 1960’s.

Caribbean.  R.A. Barrett began his 2000 book The Barretts of Jamaica with the following sentence:

“On 8th May 1655, the English fleet dropped anchor at Port Royal, Jamaica. On board was a young lieutenant, Hercie Barrett, and his wife and child.”  

In the years that followed, his family acquired substantial wealth and influence in Jamaica. They controlled much of the island’s mining and agriculture, becoming as well one of its leading plantation owners.

Among the more prominent members of the family was Richard Barrett who was elected three times as Speaker of the House of Assembly in Spanish Town. He was cousin to the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning who married Robert Browning in 1846.  Richard built Greenwood as his home outside of Montego Bay, a mansion which still stands.

These Barretts have long since left Jamaica. But the Barrett name remains in Jamaica, notably with the musicians Carly and Aston Barrett who played with Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 1970’s.

America.  Two early Barretts to New England were Thomas and Humphrey Barrett.

New England.  Thomas Barrett and his wife Margaret who came in the late 1630’s from Suffolk to Braintree, Massachusetts. The family moved in 1663 to Chelmsford (where their home, the Barrett-Byram Homestead, still stands). Martha Barrett Sparks was accused of witchcraft in 1691 but later released. Oliver Barrett was a minute-man at the time of the Revolutionary War.

Humphrey Barrett came from Kent to Concord, Massachusetts in 1639. His descendants remained there. Colonel James Barrett was a well-known Revolutionary leader in the town in the 1770’s. After the war Samuel Barrett had a gristmill there, hence the present-day Barretts Mill Road.

Virginia.  There were early Barretts also in Virginia. Thomas Barrett arrived in Jamestown on the Abigail in 1620. Later Barretts operated a ferry along the Chickahominy river which was still functioning by the time of the Revolutionary War. Many Barretts descend from the Rev. Robert Barrett who came as a missionary to the Norfolk area in 1737.

John Barret was a merchant in Richmond, Virginia and its mayor three times in the 1790’s. His son William was a tobacco manufacturer whose home, Barret House, has been preserved.  “One of the wealthiest men in Richmond, he died when he set his dressing gown on fire while lighting his pipe.”  

Barrets have continued to live in Richmond.

Irish.  Over time, more Barretts have come to America from Ireland than from England. Many arrived poor at the time of the Great Famine.

Patrick Barrett brought his entire family from Mayo to Cork and thence to America in 1847. They made it to New Orleans and then worked a passage up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Finally, after fleeing fire and cholera there, they were able to make a home for themselves in the village of Catawissa in Missouri.  

Canada. William Barrett, a poor subsistence farmer from Ballygally in Cork, joined Peter Robinson’s emigration scheme to Canada in 1825. He settled with his family in Peterborough in eastern Ontario. The family history was recounted in Anthony Barrett’s 2014 book The Tribe Within.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Hugh Massey Barrett from county Down, a descendant of the Cork Barretts, brought his family to Quebec on the Bolivar in 1830. His son T.B. Barrett migrated to Port Dover on Lake Erie ten years later. Three Barretts of his family, Harry and his son and niece Alice, moved west to British Columbia in the 1880’s. Alice kept diaries of her time in Port Dover and British Columbia which were published in 2002.

A Jewish immigrant to British Columbia in the 1920’s, a fruit and vegetable peddler in Vancouver, adopted the name of Barrett. His youngest son Dave, a former social worker, rose to become Premier of British Columbia in the 1970’s.

Australia. Some early Barretts came as convicts. Thomas Barrett had been a First Fleeter. In Australia he was accused of stealing food from the Government storehouse and in February 1788 became the first man to be hanged in the colony.

Edward Barrett-Lennard from Essex arrived in style in Western Australia in 1829, being one of its first settlers. He brought with him on the Marquis of Anglesea six servants and some farm animals and equipment so that he could start farming on the large acreage that he had secured on the banks of the Swan river. Grandson George died on the family property in 1917, following the death of his son Forrest by accidental drowning and his son Douglas who fell at Gallipoli.

New Zealand.  Dicky Barrett, possibly from Durham, left London at the age of sixteen in 1823 onboard a trading ship bound for the Pacific.  Five years later he had arrived at Taranaki on the west coast of New Zealand and began trading with the Maoris.  He died there in 1847, the father of two daughters and an adopted son.  He is remembered among early settlers in the names of Barrett Reef and Barrett’s Hotel.

But the Barrett name in Taranaki today is a rugby one (three Barretts in the New Zealand All Blacks team), first brought there by an Irish immigrant family in the late 1800’s.

Beauden Barrett’s Family Ancestry

Beauden Barrett has become one of the greats of New Zealand rugby.  He comes from a rugby-mad family in Taranaki on New Zealand’s west coast and, further back, to Irish immigrants there in the 1880’s.  Just click below if you want to read more about this story:

Barrett Surname Miscellany

The Two Barrett Clans of Ireland.  There were two Barrett clans in Ireland, the first branch of the clan were the Munster Barretts of county Cork and the other branch the Barrett clan of Connacht, most numerous in the Mayo-Galway mountainous areas.

The two clans were believed to have been unrelated But recent research has suggested otherwise. The English pipe rolls of the 13th century have indicated that the overlords of both the Cork and the Mayo Barretts were the same people.  The records further showed that both families came from Wales.

Hercie Barrett and His Descendants in Jamaica.  Hercie or Hersey Barrett was said to have been from an old landed family in Cornwall.  He was a Lieutenant in Cromwell’s army under Penn and Venables in the West Indies which landed in Jamaica in 1655.

He had two sons – Hersey born in 1650 in England, and Samuel born in Jamaica in 1662. He also had a property in Vere between Carlisle Bay and Milk River called Withywood.  

Hersey the pioneer died in 1685, his son Hersey in 1726.  The latter was buried in the cathedral in Spanish Town and his tombstone can still be seen there.  The other son Samuel Barrett had died in the French invasion at Carlisle Bay at the age of 32.  But he did leave three children, Richard, Samuel and Anne.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Jamaican Heritage.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born at Coxhoe Hall in Durham in 1806, the first of twelve children to Edward Moulton Barrett, a Jamaican plantation owner, and his wife Mary.

Edward was really a Moulton rather than a Barrett.  His parents were Charles and Elizabeth Moulton who had married in Jamaica.  But his fortune had not come from his father, who soon separated from his wife, but from his maternal grandfather, Edward Barrett, the owner of the Barrett family estates in Jamaica.

By 1798 all three of Edward Barrett’s sons had predeceased him, thereby making his grandsons by Elizabeth Moulton, Edward and Samuel, his principal heirs.  A clause in the will of his son George Barrett had made legacies for the Moulton sons conditional on their taking and bearing ‘the surname of Barrett’ on turning twenty-one.  This they duly died.

George Barrett who died in 1794 had never had a white wife, but had fathered six children by Eliza Peters, a mulatto slave in one of the Barrett properties. These children were brought to England by their grandfather in 1795 but there were not given the Barrett name and there was no likelihood that they might inherit the Barrett estates.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself believed she had African blood through her grandfather Charles Moulton. After abandoning his wife and children, Moulton – a rather shadowy figure – is thought to have become a slave trader in New York.  Certainly he had a string of mistresses and illegitimate children including his last, a Jamaican woman who bore him a son.

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.  The Barrett family had come to London in 1835 from Sidmouth in Devon when Elizabeth was 29.  They moved to Wimpole street three years later.

It was at Wimpole Street in May 1845 that she met the poet Robert Browning.  Elizabeth was initially reluctant to meet, writing to him that she was ‘nothing but a root, fit for the ground & the dark.’  But Browning was not discouraged. According to his own detailed records, he visited Elizabeth ninety-one times until her father’s resolute refusal to sanction the couple’s engagement compelled the lovers to elope.

They were married in St. Marylebone Church in September 1846.  Elizabeth was never reconciled with her father, who returned all her letters unopened, and she spent the rest of her life largely in Italy.

The 1934 film The Barretts of Wimpole Street starring Charles Laughton and Norma Shearer recounted this story.

The Barrett-Byram Homestead in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.  In 1663 Thomas Barrett and his son, Thomas came to Chelmsford from Braintree, Massachusetts, buying a house and fifty-two acres of land there.

Built around a great central chimney, the house boasted a fireplace in every room.  The ceilings were low for the purpose of conserving heat. The original fireplace structure was probably taken down to the top of its foundation around 1800 to modernize the heating system.

The fireplace in the Keeping Room was the place where the cooking was done.  It may be seen today with its iron crane supporting heavy iron kettles hung on “S” hooks over the fire, iron “spiders” and boiling racks, heavy tin roasting oven, reflector oven, and flip toaster.

The Historical Society’s collection of earthenware, woodenware and tin is also displayed in this room.  To the left of the fireplace, is the “beehive oven” where much of the baking was done. It would originally have been located inside a larger walk-in fireplace and far more dangerous for women in their long skirts to use.

In the early days of the old house, there was a “borning room” opening off one end of the Keeping Room where the continuous heat from the big fireplace kept the room fairly comfortable in times of illness or the birth of babies. This room was opened up and made a part of the Keeping Room by the last owners of the property.

The house was substantially put together with beams fastened securely by wooden pegs or trunnels (tree nails). Gunstocks posts are still visible.  Evidence of the long sloping room of the “saltbox” is seen in the attic where plaster marks show against the chimney.

Reader Feedback – Dominick Barrett in Anson County, North Carolina.  Dominick Barrett, born in Cork in 1773, came to Anson county, North Carolina in 1790 as a very young man. Somehow he was able to amass 2-3,000 acres in Anson county.  His brother’s name is Thomas.  How can I find out about him in Ireland?

Laura Barrett (lbarrettoliver”

Thomas Barrett, Engraver and Convict.  In 1784 Thomas Barrett appeared at the Old Bailey in London on a charge of being criminally at large. For three years he was kept in appalling conditions on a hulk in the Thames before being sent to Australia in the first batch of convicts on board the Charlotte as a part of the First Fleet.

When the fleet stopped to re-stock at Rio de Janeiro he was involved in passing some forged quarter dollars at Rio de Janeiro, ingeniously made from some pewter spoons and old buttons and buckles belonging to marines.

Dr White the surgeon on board the Charlotte asked Barrett to make a memento of the trip out and Barrett fashioned a medal out of a silver kidney dish. That medal still exists and was sold at auction to the National Maritime Museum in Australia in 2008 for a million dollars.  It is known as the Charlotte medal.

But Thomas Barrett himself had no luck in Australia.  He was accused of stealing food from the Government storehouse and in February 1788 became the first man to be hanged in the new colony.

Matthew Barrett, International Banker.  Matthew Barrett was born and raised in Kerry in Ireland, where his father struggled to make a living as a musician playing in local dance halls in the 1950’s. Since the family was relatively poor, Barrett was encouraged by his father to enter the banking business.

In 1962, at the age of 18, he became a clerk at the London headquarters of the Bank of Montreal. Shortly afterward Barrett’s father died of a heart attack and Barrett was left as the sole supporter of his mother and sister.  Barrett recalled: “It aged me overnight. I was the man of the family. It changed me from being a young man having a good time into a serious career banker.”

Over time Barrett steadily rose through the ranks at the Bank of Montreal and was appointed its CEO in 1989. Ten years later he retired but then accepted the position as CEO at Barclays Bank.

Barrett Names

  • Riocard Bairéad aka Richard Barrett was a poet and United Irishman at the time of the 1798 Uprising. 
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, born Elizabeth Barrett, was one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era.
  • Lawrie Barratt founded Barratt Developments, one of the UK’s largest homebuilders, in the early 1960’s.
  • Matthew Barrett was a Canadian-Irish banker who became CEO at the Bank of Montreal and Barclays Bank in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Barrett Numbers Today

  • 42,000 in the UK (most numerous in Essex)
  • 36,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 36,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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