Browning Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Browning Surname Meaning

Browning started out as the Anglo-Saxon first name Bruning, probably a nickname, from the Old English brun meaning “brown.”  As Norman names were introduced, the use of Bruning as a first name gradually faded out.  Still, Bruning de Cestretona was recorded in Cambridgeshire in 1086 and Brunyng Dypres in Sussex in 1296.  

Early examples of Browning as a surname were Hugo Bruning in Norfolk in 1198 and William Brouning in Cambridgeshire in 1291.

Browning Surname Resources on The Internet

Browning Surname Ancestry

  • from Western England and Scotland
  • to America and Australia

England.  Browning’s origin as a surname looks to be clearly in the west country; although the Browning numbers in the southeast, in particular in Kent, now rival or surpass those there.

West Country.  The Browning family of Gloucestershire dates from about 1300, and maybe earlier.  John Browning of Leigh was active in local politics and was elected MP for Gloucestershire three times in the late 1300’s.  His direct line seems to have ended about 1460.

Still, the Browning name did continue at Cam and Cowley in Gloucestershire in the next two centuries.  It also extended into neighboring Somerset, appearing at East Quantoxhead and Watchet in the 1600’s.

The earliest recorded Browning in Dorset was John Browninge at Bere Regis in 1550.  Robert Browning died at Pentridge in 1746. He was the first known ancestor of Robert Browning the poet.  The line went to:

  • Thomas Browning who held the lease of the Woodyates Inn and was for many years the churchwarden at Pentridge
  • Robert Browning, the poet’s grandfather, who in 1769 left Dorset for London where he worked at the Bank of England for over fifty years. He married into the Tittle plantation family of St. Kitts in the West Indies.
  • Robert’s younger brother William meanwhile had been drowned in the West Indies in 1781 while serving with HMS Sybil at the naval anchorage in Antigua.
  • and Robert Browning, the poet’s father, who renounced the family’s slaveholding and worked for the Bank of England in London.

Margaret Tittle was said to have had a mixed race ancestry.  Both her son Robert Sr. and Robert the poet were dark-complexioned, which raised eyebrows. According to one account, Robert Sr. – on visiting the family plantation in St. Kitts – was made by the church beadle to sit with the “colored” people rather than with the white.  The two poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were married in secret in 1846.  

Kent.  Kent has many Brownings as well, although there is a lack of evidence of any early presence there. One family line has been traced back to the marriage of Matthew Browning and Susannah Smith at Whitstable in 1737.

The Browning instrument makers were thought to have come from Kent.  They included the brothers John and Samuel Browning, the latter who went into partnership to form the nautical instrument makers Spencer & Browning in 1778. However, it was John’s great grandson John Browning who became the best-known of these Brownings.  His speciality was spectroscopes and his were considered by the 1870’s to be the best in England.  He later produced optical instruments.  

Scotland.  There was a small enclave of Brownings in Lanarkshire, centered around Avondale.  Gavin and Ann Browning left there in the early 1840’s for Canada.  They settled in Lambton county, Ontario.  Their son Robert later moved south to Nebraska.

America.  Brownings were prominent at an early stage in America’s history.  Three books covering these Brownings were:

  • Edward F. Browning’s 1908 book Genealogy of the Brownings in America
  • Clint Joyce and Cecil Houk’s 2000 book Browning Family History
  • and Dr. Jess Browning’s 2015 book Captain John Browning: A Family History.

Captain John Browning was a prominent early settler and tobacco grower at Jamestown.  He had arrived there with his family on the Abigail in 1621 and was recorded in the Muster of Inhabitants in Virginia in 1624.  Thomas Browning, also from Gloucestershire, meanwhile had arrived in Old Rappannock county with his wife Hester around the year 1656.  Their son John later made his home in Cecil county, Maryland.  This was the other significant Browning southern line.

One line via Captain John’s son William led to Francis and Elizabeth Browning of Culpepper county, Virginia in the 1730’s.  Some of their descendants were later to be found in Greene county, Georgia and then in Arkansas.

There was the line as well via George Francis Browning in Kentucky in the early 1800’s and found in Louisville.  This line led to:

  • Pete Browning, known as the Louisville Slugger, who was a baseball star in the 1880’s
  • and his nephew Tod Browning, a film director who pioneered horror movies in Hollywood in the early 1930’s.

Edmund Browning also came out of Culpepper county.  His son Jonathan, born in Tennessee in 1805, was the forebear of the famous Browning gun-makers.  Jonathan, the inventor of the repeating rifle, first set up his gun-shop in Quincy, Illinois. There he converted to the Mormon faith and in 1852 made the long trek to Salt Lake valley.  His son John Moses Browning, born in Utah, worked with his father there and later founded the Browning Arms Company.  Credited with over 120 patents for firearms, John Moses made the name Browning synonymous with guns.

Australia.  William Browning was a soldier with the First Fleet that arrived in Botany Bay in 1788. He stayed in Australia, first working for the NSW Corps and then farming in the Seven Hills area. 

William and Nancy Browning were bounty immigrants from Devon who came to Sydney in 1840. William was a shepherd and found work in the Lismore area where they were said to have been the first white settlers.

Browning Surname Miscellany

The Browning Family of Gloucestershire.  The Browning family in Gloucestershire was thought to have had Norman origins.  The early spellings of the name were Burnwyn (the suffix wyn being a term of endearment), Bruning and Brune. It then became Brounyng and later Browning.

Richard and John were common first names in the family.  It was said that the Browning men were split into two groups, the Richards and the Johns, in honor of the two Plantagenet Kings Richard the Lion-Hearted and John who were brothers.

The earliest Browning in Gloucestershire dates from about 1300.  The family became wealthy when John Browning married the heiress Alice Maltravers sometimes in the mid-1300’s and made his home at Leigh.  It was their son John who benefited most from her inheritance.  He was active in local politics and was elected MP for Gloucestershire three times.  John died in 1415 and his line seemed to end about 1460.

Robert Browning at Pentridge in Dorset.  The following tablet is to be found at the St. Rumbold parish church of Pentridge in Dorset:

“To the memory of Robert Browning of Woodyates in this parish who died on November 15, 1746 and is the earliest known forefather of Robert Browning the poet. He was formerly foreman and butler to the Bankes family.

The tablet was erected by some of the poet’s friends and admirers, 1902.”

Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Elizabeth Barrett was already a respected poet who had published literary criticism and Greek translations in addition to her poetry. Born in 1806 near Durham at her father’s 20-bedroom mansion, she enjoyed wealth and position.

Meanwhile, Robert Browning, the son of a bank clerk, had studied at the University of London and continued his education at his parents’ home, reading extensively and writing poetry. His early work was harshly criticized. While most critics rejected the work, Elizabeth Barrett defended it. Browning wrote to thank her for her praise and asked to meet her.

She hesitated at first but finally relented and the couple quickly fell in love. Barrett’s strict father disliked Browning whom he viewed as an unreliable fortune hunter.  Therefore most of the courtship was conducted in secret.

On September 12, 1846, while her family was away, Barrett sneaked out of the house and met Browning at St. Marylebone Parish Church where they married. She returned home for a week, keeping the marriage a secret, then fled with Browning to Italy. She never saw her father again.

The Brownings lived happily in Italy for fifteen years until Elizabeth’s death in her husband’s arms in 1861.

Captain John Browning.  Not that much is known about Captain John Browning, the early settler in Jamestown. It was said that he came from a family of merchant clothiers in Gloucestershire. The New World would turn him into a merchant farmer.

Born in Cowley in 1588, he married Elizabeth Demaron in 1614, following the marriage of his sister Margaret to John Smyth of Nibley five years earlier.  John Smyth was to play an important role in his life.  He had grown rich by managing the affairs of the powerful Berkeley family in Gloucestershire.  While England was in the midst of a “great depression” in 1621, it appears that it was these Berkeleys that steered Browning towards the Merchant Adventurers of Virginia and a new life for him and his family in the New World.

John sailed to America from Gravesend aboard the Abigail in 1621 with his wife Elizabeth and young son George.  Another son William arrived on the Bona Nuova three years later.  The family prospered.  John’s tobacco plantation at Browning Manor lay some two miles outside of Jamestown. He died in 1662.

Pete Browning the Louisville Slugger.  Pete Browning was the youngest of eight children born in 1861 to Louisville merchant Samuel Browning and his wife Mary Jane. A prosperous merchant, Samuel had run for years a grocery store at the corner of 15th and Jefferson Streets on the city’s west side, not too far from the family’s residence. However, in 1874, when Pete was 13, Samuel died at the age of 59 from injuries sustained during a cyclone.

His mother proved much more resilient and lived onto the age of 84 before her death in 1911.  Young Pete, who never married, remained with her, ultimately living in the house where he had grown up until the day he died six years before her.

A skilled marbles player and figure skater, Browning was a talented baseball player from the very start.  An instant major league star, he had at the beginning a big drinking problem. Deaf and illiterate, he also had his eccentricities. He refused to slide; played defense standing on one leg to prevent anyone running into him; stared into the sun to improve his “lamps” (eyes); and treasured his “active” bats because of the hits they still contained.

Yet he became one of the sport’s most accomplished batters of the 1880’s, playing primarily for his home-town Louisville Colonels.  His .341 lifetime batting average remains amongst the highest in major league history.

After he left baseball, Pete Browning worked as a cigar salesman and ran a bar for a while.  When that venture failed, he turned to caring for his mother.  However, in June 1905 he was taken to the criminal division of Jefferson County Circuit Court in Louisville where he was declared a lunatic. He died three months later after undergoing surgery for a tumor.

Browning Names

  • John Browning was three times MP for Gloucestershire in the late 1300’s. 
  • Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning were widely-read Victorian poets. 
  • John Moses Browning was the late 19th century firearms developer who founded the Browning Arms Company in Utah. 
  • Tod Browning was a Hollywood pioneer of horror movies in the 1930’s.
  • Kurt Browning was a Canadian figure skater, four times world champion in the early 1990’s.

Browning Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 16,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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