Bligh/Bly Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bligh Surname Meaning

The first sighting of Bligh as a surname was in SW England in the 15th century.  The origin of these Blighs was apparently the Breton de Bloins, John Bloye or Blyghe being granted lands at Botadon near South Petherwin in Cornwall at that time.  Bligh usually became Bly in America.

Bligh and Bly Surname Resources on The Internet

Bligh and Bly Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England and from Germany
  • to America and Australia

England.  The Bligh family originated on the Cornwall/Devon border in SW England.  The first traceable ancestor was Robert Bligh of Lanrake in Cornwall, who died in 1554.  It was a family of lesser gentry, owners of modest estates.

There were also other Bligh lines in Devon at that time.  Benjamin Bligh was born in Holsworthy around 1590.  His descendants were still in Devon in the early 19th century, although a number – as Blights – subsequently emigrated to Canada.

From the Robert Bligh line came William Bligh, a Plymouth merchant, and John Bligh who moved to London and, after acting as an agent for English interests after the failed Irish rebellion in 1641, acquired Irish estates himself.   John Bligh of this family married the heiress Theodosia Hyde in 1713. Through her he came into possession of Cobham Hall in Kent.  He was made the Earl of Darnley in 1725.

The naval Blighs were also from this line:

  • Admiral Richard Rodney Bligh, born in the west country in 1737, who descended from the 16th century Richard Blighe and his first wife Susan.   Richard’s son George also served in the Navy and was present on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
  • and Admiral William Bligh of mutiny on the Bounty fame, born in St. Tudy parish in Cornwall in 1754, who descended from the same Richard Blighe, although from his second wife Elizabeth.  William had no male descendants.   But many descended through his father’s brothers.

By the time of the 1881 census, Blighs were few left in Cornwall and Devon and most were to be found in Kent and the southeast.

Kent.  The Earl of Darnley’s home was at Cobham Hall near Gravesend in Kent.Ivo Bligh, who was to become the 8th Earl of Darnley, led an English cricket team to Australia in 1882 to recapture the mythical Ashes.  The Bligh family was to remain at Cobham Hall until 1957.  Jasmine Bligh, a niece of the 9th Earl of Darnley, was one of the first TV presenters on the BBC in the late 1930’s.  She stayed on the air until the 1970’s.

The Rev. Michael Bligh was pastor of the Baptist church in Sevenoaks from 1764 to 1798.  The Bligh name continued in the town with Samuel Bligh, a hop grower, and his son John who ran a farmhouse and hotel.  The site of his farmhouse is now known as Bligh’s Meadow, a small shopping precinct in Sevenoaks.

Blys.  There have been some Blys in England.  One Bly family were porcelain workers in Lowestoft, Suffolk in the 1770’s.  Another have been antiques dealers in Tring, Hertfordshire since 1831.   A descendant, John Bly, is a presenter on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.

Ireland.  John Bligh purchased estates in county Meath from Cromwell’s government in 1654.  The size of his landholding was substantial, around 25,000 acres, and was later expanded upon.  The family seat was at Rathmore.  Although these Blighs were very much focused on English affairs, there were Bligh descendants as well in Ireland.

America.  Bligh tended to become Bly in America.  The first was probably John Bly, the Salem brickmaker in Massachusetts who got caught up in the Salem witch trials.  There were also Blys from Rhode Island who migrated to Connecticut and upstate New York and, in some cases, west to Michigan.  The Blys of Massachusetts and Rhode island were probably both connected to John Bly the brickmaker.

Blys in America could also be of German or Scandinavian origin.  Philip Bley came from Germany in 1749 and settled with his American Bly family in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia.  Daniel Bly’s 1992 book A History of the Bly Family recounted the family history.  The poet Robert Bly was born in Minnesota in 1926 to parents of Scandinavian stock.  His forebear in America was Jacob Bleje who came from Norway in 1855.

Nelly Bly was a minstrel song about a kitchen girl, written by Stephen Foster in 1850.  Bly did feature as an African American name in Virginia and Tennessee.

Australia.  Francis Bligh, a nephew of Admiral William Bligh, came to Melbourne in 1854.  His son Francis established a position for himself in the wine and spirits business. 

Anna Bligh, the Premier of Queensland from 2007 to 2012, has sought to separate herself from this Bligh name – not because of her long-distant links with the Admiral who was Governor of Australia at the time of the Rum Rebellion, but because of her estrangement from her alcoholic father.

Bligh and Bly Surname Miscellany

Bligh Origins.  The de Bloihons or de Bloins came from Brittany and had various spellings in England.  Blohin held land in Cornwall in 1086 at the time of the Domesday Book; and Ralph de Bloihon was recorded, having a writ of military summons, in Cornwall in 1350.

From a collateral branch came John Bloye or Blygh who granted his son lands in Cornwall in 1410.  They were said to be in Truro and Bodmin.  His wife inherited lands at Botadon on the border with Devon which stayed with the family into the 16th century.  Leonard Bligh of this family, recorded in the 1620 Visitation of Cornwall, died there in 1583.  As he had no heirs, the estate then passed onto his younger brother William.

Blighs and Blys.  The following are the approximate number of Blighs and Blys in the world today.

Numbers (000’s) Bligh Bly Total
UK    1.2    0.3    1.5
America    0.3    1.6    1.9
Elsewhere    1.2    0.4    1.6
Total    2.7    2.3    5.0

William Bligh’s Reputation.  In his time, William Bligh had a mixed reputation.  He was remembered, and of course forever more, for his role in the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.  His antagonist Fletcher Christian usually gets the sympathy vote.

But Bligh should also be remembered for the extraordinary seamanship which enabled him to navigate in a 23 foot boat through almost 6,000 kilometers of open sea to make landfall at the island of Timor and bring his men safely home.  Bligh was exonerated at the Court of Inquiry held in London.  .

But Bligh was known for his temper and his possibly overbearing manner.   The Bounty was not the only instance when he was to face mutiny and rebellion.  There were two further cases.

The first occurred during the Spithead mutiny of 1797.  Mutiny leaders clashed with Bligh and insisted that he be removed from command of his ship.  He was.  Then in 1805 Bligh was sent to New South Wales as its Governor.  In 1808 he attempted to end the use of rum as a form of currency in the colony.  The British soldiers mutinied in what was called the Rum Rebellion and Bligh was deposed and imprisoned for two years.  That essentially marked the end of his career.

Ivo Bligh and the Cricket Ashes.  After the English cricket team lost to the Australians at The Oval in London in 1882, the Sporting Times newspaper wrote the famous mock obituary to English cricket, noting that the body would be cremated and the ashes sent to Australia.

The following winter’s tour to Australia was billed as an attempt to reclaim the Ashes.  The captain of the English cricket team was Ivo Bligh, the 9th Earl of Darnley.  Bligh’s team was successful, winning the three-match Ashes series two-one, although a fourth game, not played for the Ashes and hence a matter of dispute, was lost.

A small terracotta urn was presented to the England captain Ivo Bligh by a group of Melbourne women after England’s victory in the Test series.  These ladies included Florence Morphy, a governess, to whom Bligh subsequently became engaged to and married.  The urn was reputed to contain the ashes of a veil, ball, and bail, symbolizing “the ashes of English cricket.”

Florence Morphy, who became the Countess of Darnley, presented the urn to the MCC, cricket’s governing body, after her husband’s death in 1927. 

Blighs in the 1881 Census

County Number Percent
Kent    132    28
London     64    14
Hertfordshire     32     6
Norfolk     40     8
Cornwall     26     6
Elsewhere    180    38
Total    474   100

The main pockets of Blighs were in Kent (Ramsgate and Sevenoaks) and in Norfolk (Ashill).  John Bligh or Bly was born in Ashill near Swaffham in 1771 and the Norfolk Blighs probably represent many of his descendants.

Reader Feedback – Massachusetts and Rhode Island Blys.  Just wanted to send you a note on the Bligh/Bly/Blythe/Blye ad nauseam variations of Bly.  I am doing my best to search out this family back to Salem, which isn’t easy as the sons of John Bly tended to change their names and hide after the witch trials.

Anyway, in that light, I believe the Rhode Island Blys were descendants of John Bly or of his brother Thomas.   Both men arrived in Boston around 1630 -35.  I have found a number of name changes on the sons, but I’m having a fair amount of success tracking them into Rhode Island.

There has been a recent movement in the genealogy of the family to discount the New England ancestry, due to the major fire in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1869.   It literally destroyed that generation of Bly vital records.   I’m attempting to get folks back in gear hunting for records in America instead of stalled and thinking our ancestor must have come from England because his birth records are missing.

Savage, Pope, Arnold, and others all reference John Bly as the prominent patriarch of the Rhode Island Blys. I have found deeds, indentureship documents and other sources that, while they haven’t put a full stamp on the connection, are making a very strong case of evidence that John and Thomas were patriarchs of the entire Massachusetts and Rhode Island clan.

Philip Bley and His Bly Family in America.  Philip Bley came from Hornbach on the Rhine and set sail with his family for America on the Phoenix in 1749.  They arrived in Philadelphia and lived for about twenty years in Lebanon, Pennsylvania where Philip had a blacksmith shop.  He sold this shop in 1768 and they moved to the Shenandoah valley of Virginia and there Philip had purchased land on Cedar Creek.  He built a gristmill and saw mill there and also maintained a blacksmith shop.

Philip Bley died in 1786.  He always maintained the German spelling of his name.  But his children changed their name to Bly.

Bligh and Bly Names

  • William Bligh became famous or infamous for his role in the mutiny of the Bounty in 1789.
  • Ivo Bligh, the 8th Earl of Darnley, was the English captain who was said to have been victorious in bringing the cricket Ashes back from Australia in 1883.
  • Robert Bly is an American poet.

Bligh and Bly Numbers Today

  • 1,500 in the UK (most numerous in Norfolk)
  • 2,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 1,500 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Bligh and Like Surnames

Many surnames originated from SW England, the principal counties there being Devon and Cornwall, Somerset and Gloucestershire.  These are some of the prominent and noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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