Bryant Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Bryant Meaning
and Bryant are English and
American surnames derived from the old Celtic personal name Brian which
thought to combine the elements bre
meaning “hill” and brigh
“strong.”  Bryan may alternatively have
derived from the place-name Brionne (pronounced Brionny) in northern
France.  The names were probably first
brought over to England with Breton and Norman bearers of the name who
had arrived
at or after the time of the Norman Conquest.
Brian Boru rose to the high kingship
of Ireland in 1002 and later defeated the invading Vikings.  His descendants became the O’Brien sept.  The O’Brien name in its travels abroad,
particularly in America, often got mixed up with the Bryan name.  Bryants outnumber Bryans
by about two to one
today.  The Bryant name is particularly
numerous in America.

Bryant Resources on

Bryant Ancestry

England.  Guy de Brienne was
12th century scion of a Norman family which based itself at Walwyn’s
Castle in
Pembrokeshire and began six generations of knights that were all named
Guy.  Whether there was a descent from here
Thomas Bryan of Cheddington in Buckinghamshire is doubtful, although
one was

This Thomas Bryan rose from humble origins to become Chief Justice of
the Common Pleas in 1475.  His son and
grandson were courtiers to Henry VIII, most famously his grandson Sir
Francis Bryan
the rake who was known as the “Vicar of

Most Bryants
came from the west country, principally Somerset and Gloucestershire in
19th century.

.  Breton origins may have been the base of the
Bryan family in Somerset which took its name from Brean manor sometime
in the
14th century.  However, the spelling in
Somerset became more Briant and Bryant.
Alexander Briant was the Jesuit priest from Somerset who was
for his faith in 1581.  There was a later
Briant family from Yatterdon which emigrated.
There were as well notable Bryant families in the villages of
Withiel-Flory and Thurlbear.

Gloucestershire.  This county had the
largest number of Bryants
in England in the 1891 census.  The small
village of Frampton Cotterell near Chipping Sodbury has had a
number of Bryants dating back to the 1600’s.
A Bryan family of masons
flourished in Painswick from the early 1700’s.  

Cornwall.  The Bryant name appeared in
villages such as
St. Hilary and St. Uny near Lelant in the 18th century.
The latter was the birthplace of William
Bryant, the convict transported on the First Fleet to Australia in 1788
made a famous escape by ship to the Dutch East Indies three years later.  William died soon afterwards.
His wife Mary was captured and brought back
to London, but subsequently pardoned.

Devon.  Thomas Bryant was recorded at
Bampton in 1634
and descendants were subsequently to be found at Tiverton where James
was a starch-maker in the late 1700’s.
His son William Bryant, who became a Quaker, entered into a
with a fellow Quaker in 1843 to form what was to be the Bryant & May match company.
William’s son Wilberforce took over the company after William’s
death in
1874.  By 1900 the company had become,
through expansion and merger, the largest match-making company in

Ireland.  The
Bryans of Kilkenny were not thought to have originated from the Irish
but from the Anglo-Norman de Brienne family in Pembrokeshire in Wales.  Sir William Bryan of this line may have come
to Kilkenny sometime in the late 14th century, although details here

was a John Bryan who around the year 1640 owned well over
5,000 acres of the civil parish of Erke in the northwestern tip of
Kilkenny in the barony of Galmoy.”

These Bryans were Catholic at the time of
Cromwell and lost much of their land.
However, Pierse Bryan and his descendants remained sizeable
at Jenkinstown in Kilkenny during the 18th and 19th centuries.  

The principal early Bryant
lines were to be found in New England.

New England.  Anne Bryant, a widow, was
an early arrival in
New England, coming to Plymouth on the Handmaid
with her three young Bryant sons
from Kent in 1630.  The main descending
line came from her second
son Stephen.

The line via Ichabod, Philip, and the literary physician Peter led
to the 19th century poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant.  The chef Julia Child might have been a
descendant too.  Another line via Ichabod went to Edwin
Bryant, a Kentucky
newspaper editor who wrote a popular book in 1848 entitled
I Saw in California

about his overland journey to San Francisco.

Captain John Bryant, born in Boston in 1742, may have been of this
but there is no proof.  He was Deputy
Commissary of Military Stores at the Springfield Armory during the
Revolutionary War.  His son John was a
prominent Boston merchant of the firm of Bryant & Sturgis in the

Another early Bryant line started
with John Bryant, also from Kent, a carpenter who was first recorded at
Scituate near Plymouth in 1639.  He was
married three times and was the father of 19 children:

  • from
    one line came Gridley
    Bryant who was born in Scituate in 1789.   He
    was a construction engineer who built the first
    commercial railroad
    in the United States in 1826.  His son
    G.J.F. Bryant was a well-known Boston architect and builder.
  • from
    another came
    the Bryants who moved to Maine in the 1760’s.  Later
    Bryants here were blacksmiths in Knox, Maine.

.  Irish O’Briens frequently
became Bryans in America.  One early
example was William Smith Bryan
who was transported as a rebellious subject to Virginia in 1650.  A grandson, also named William, made his home
along the Roanoke river.  He lived to be
104, being able to die after having seen the defeat of the British in
America in 1783.  A descendant of these
Bryans is thought to
have been the politician and three-time Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan.

Other O’Brien/Bryan examples were the five Bryan brothers, including Edward
and Hardy, who came to New Berne, North Carolina from Munster around the year 1700.

African American Bryants.  Bryant has been a prominent African American name even prior to emancipation.

Sherrod Bryant had been born into slavery in North Carolina in
1781.  He became a free black, moved to
Tennessee, and his plantation at Bryant Grove in the pre-Civil War South was
large in size and undoubtedly employed slaves.
He died there in 1854.  Abraham
Bryant meanwhile was a freed slave from Tennessee who had moved to
Hamilton in
Canada by the 1840’s.

Eliza Bryant, the daughter of a freed slave, grew up in
North Carolina but moved to Cleveland in 1858.
There she worked tirelessly for the cause of black people.   In 1895 she founded what became known as
the Eliza Bryant Home for elderly citizens.
Other noted African American Bryants, who have been traced back to the
1830’s, were to be found in Jefferson and Franklin counties, Missouri.

John D. O’Bryant, who was born in Boston in 1931, sounds Irish but was in fact an
African American who became President of Northwestern University in 1981.

Australia and New Zealand.  James and Mary Bryant were among the early
arrivals in New Zealand.  In 1840 they
came from Cornwall on the Duke of
to Petone beach near Wellington where their first son John
born.  James purchased the Hula farm in the
Ohariu valley in 1857.  The family story
was told in Shirley Arabins’s 1990 book The
Bryants of Ohariu.
  Meanwhile Lewis
from Bristol emigrated with his family on the Queen Margaret in 1855 and made his home in Brightwater
near Nelson.

The mining slump in
Cornwall prompted the emigration of the Bryants from St. Teath in the
1860’s.  Three brothers and five sisters
to Australia.  They headed for the
town of Ballarat in Victoria.


Select Bryant Miscellany

Bryans and Bryants Today.  The following are estimates of the number of Bryans and Bryants today.

Numbers (000’s) Bryan Bryant Total
UK    17    23    40
America    17    50    67
Elsewhere     9    17    26

Sir Francis Bryan, the Vicar of Hell.  Sir Francis Bryan
was an English courtier and diplomat during the
reign of Henry VIII.  He was known for his skills at jousting and
hunting and he became
the King’s master of the foils in 1518, a position he held for the rest of the
King’s reign.   He lost an eye
in 1526 and joked about it, writing of the one-eyed Robert Aske: “I know him
not, nor he me, yet we have but two eyes between us.”

His lack of
principle at the time of his cousin Anne Boleyn’s downfall and
beheading led to
his earning the nickname “the Vicar of Hell.”   Thomas Cromwell
first referred to Bryan by
that nomenclature and he was followed by the King himself.
The following exchange was reported:

“This man
was once asked by the king to tell him what sort of a sin it was to
ruin the
mother and then the child.  Bryan replied
that it was a sin like that of eating a hen first and its chicken
The king burst forth into loud laughter, and said to Bryan, ‘Well, you
certainly are my vicar of hell.’  The man
had been long ago called the vicar of hell on account of his notorious
impiety.  Henceforth he was called also
the king’s vicar of hell.”

He was a suspected accomplice to the king’s extramarital
affairs and was one of the few men who dared speak his mind to the king.

Thus he managed to retain the king’s favor
throughout his
life, despite his own personal faults.
In 1537 he was sent to Paris to secretly arrange the kidnapping
or assassination of Cardinal Pole but it was suspected that he actually tipped
Pole off.  The next year he acted as
ambassador to Francis I in Nice but was recalled due to his reckless
drunkenness and all-round bad behavior.

He ended up being appointed Lord Justice of Ireland.

The Bryan Family of Masons.  The Bryans
were a family of masons and carvers who had quarries at Painswick in the
Cotswolds.  The forebear of this family
was Joseph Bryan of Painswick who lived between 1682 and 1730.   His two sons, John and Joseph, carried on
the business.

John stayed in Painswick.
But Joseph had moved to Gloucester by 1760 as the following
advertisement in the Gloucester Journal suggests:

“Wanted.  A sober mason that can
work moldings etc. in freestone.  Apply
Joseph Bryan in the city of Gloucestershire or to John Bryan in

Masonry work executed by the firm included the tower of Great Whitcombe church
in 1749, the rebuilding of the spire of Painswick church after it was destroyed
by lightning in 1763, and the spire of St Nicholas, Gloucester in 1784.  Their tablets and churchyard memorials have
charming and well-carved details, while a delightful and intelligent use is
made of colored marbles.

John died in Painswick in 1787.   He
was described as “late of this town,
carver” on his large pyramidal monument at Painswick.
Joseph’s son John took over the business and
entered into a partnership with George Wood of Gloucester around the
year 1795.

The Three Bryant Sons in the New World.  Anne Bryant, a widow, came to Plymouth on the Handmaid with
her three young sons from
Kent in 1630.  These sons came under the
care and protection of their step-father John Doane.  

Thomas Bryant

the eldest, was
bound out as a servant to a family friend named Samuel Eddy.  In the Plymouth court records of January 1632
he appeared as follows:

“Thomas Bryant, the servant of Samuel
Eddy, was brought before the
Governor and his assistants because he had run away and absented
himself five
days from his master’s service and, being lost in the woods and found
by an
Indian, was forced to return.  For his
offense he was privately whipped before the Governor and council.”

Nothing was heard about Thomas again.

John Bryant

the youngest, also had his problems as a young man with the law.  It was said that he was cantankerous in mood.  He made his court debut as a teenager in
1638, charged with drinking inordinately at John
Emerson’s house. He was released with admonition, but James Till was whipped “for
alluring” John to drink.  Three
years later in 1641, he was in court “for drinking tobacco upon the

John became
the head of the line now known as the John Bryant
line of Scituate,

Samuel Bryant

The middle son was Samuel who, like Thomas, was bound out on arrival – in
this case
to John Shaw.  He in fact married Shaw’s
daughter Abigail in 1643.  Samuel held
various public offices in Plymouth including constable in 1663.  He and his wife Abigail raised eight

Of their six daughters, the eldest – Abigail
– married Lieut. John
Bryant of Plymouth and a Bryant line continued there.  This Bryant-Bryant marriage was not so
unusual at this time and was a practice which continued for several
generations.  The two sons of Stephen and
Abigail were named John and Samuel.

William Smith Bryan and His Descendants.  William Smith Bryan, who was called “Prince William of Ireland” by his followers, was
deported from Ireland by the British Government as a rebellious
subject at the
time of the Kilkenny uprising.  He was
thought then to have beena lineal descendant of Bryan Boru, the King of
in the 11th century.  Alternatively he
might have been descended from the Englishman Sir Francis Bryan. The
is extremely murky.  When the British
invaded Ireland in 1650, he was a landholder in county Clare.

The Government shipped him with his family,
goods and chattels (consisting of a shipload) and dropped them off on
Gloucester beach in Virginia.  He settled
there in Gloucester county where he died in 1667.

He and his wife Catherine were
said to have had eleven sons.  The
eldest, Francis, returned to Ireland in 1677 in an endeavor to recover his
hereditary titles and estates.  He was so
harassed by the English Government there that he eventually sought refuge in Denmark.

One of Francis’s sons Morgan returned to America in 1695.
Two of Morgan’s sons joined Daniel Boone in
his expeditions to Kentucky and one of their daughters Rebecca married
Daniel.  The Bryans built a stockade in
Kentucky which
became known as Bryan’s Station.

Another son of Francis, William, returned to
Ireland but left for America in 1718 after the English had harassed his
son.  From his line is thought to have
come the Democrat politician William Jennings Bryan.
He himself saw him as the descendant later on
of William and Rebecca Bryan of Culpepper county, Virginia. 

Working Conditions at Bryant and May.  Quakers William
Bryant and Frances May had established Bryant and May in 1850 to sell
matches.  At first they imported the matches from Lundstroms in Sweden.  But as demand outstripped supply,
they decided to produce their own and set up a factory in London.

At this time there
were about thirty match-making firms in London. Many of them, including Bryant
and May, employed children.  Public
concern was growing about the conditions in which the children were
working.  The Commission on the
Employment of Children in Industry investigated the London match-making firms
in 1863.   Generally they were
critical of the working conditions, but they found Bryant and May’s factory,
perhaps because of its Quaker heritage, to be “a very nicely conducted place.”

By 1872 Bryant and May had over 5,000 employees, many of whom were
piece-workers.  They would make
matchboxes at home and had to pay for the materials such as string, glue and
fuel for the fire to dry the finished boxes.

At the
factory Wilberforce Bryant invested in three hundred match-dipping
machines.  These were based on the ground floor of the factory and the
fumes from the white phosphorus they used permeated the two floors above.
This sometimes had horrible results.
Workers could contract ‘phossy jaw,’ a disfiguring affliction
caused by
inhaling these fumes.   Bryant and
May paid the workers £1 per week to stay at home whilst they recovered,
they never did.  Payment ceased after a
few months.

In 1888 the journalist Annie Besant became interested in the working
conditions of the match-girls at Bryant and May.  She got her
from talking to workers outside the factory gates.  She wrote an
in her magazine The Link entitled White
Slavery in London. 
described their ten hour day, low
wages and fines for being late or talking during working hours.

The first
reaction of the Bryant and May management was to sack the girl that they
suspected of being the ringleader in passing on the information to Besant. They
followed this up by asking the other girls to sign a document refuting the
accusations.  They refused and went on strike.

The Quaker reputation as
good employers was tarnished by this strike.
Whatever the reasons, Bryant and May had not taken the care of
their employees that people expected of Quakers.

Death of the Old Settler Lewis Bryant.  The death
of Lewis Bryant in Brightwater, New Zealand was recorded
as follows in the Colonist of October 25, 1900.

“On Saturday at Brightwater, another old
settler passed to his rest in the person of Mr. Lewis Bryant.  He was born at Bristol, England, three days after
the Battle of Waterloo, and began his business life in his father’s
establishment, a large wholesale grocer and merchant.
He relinquished this after a time in order to
accept an appointment with an English firm as a commercial traveler.

In June
1855 Mr. Bryant with his wife and young family left London in the ship Queen Margaret for Nelson, New Zealand
where they arrived in October.  Mr.
Bryant and his family resided for a short time in Nelson, thence
removing to
Appleby to take charge of the school there.
From Appleby he went to Waiwero near Ngatimoti where he had a farm which
did not prove the success anticipated and, after losing much money and ruining
his health, he removed to Brightwater about 1862.

Here he brought up a family
of eight; three sons and five daughters, all of whom are married. About two
years ago they all assembled at the celebration of the golden wedding of the deceased.

that for the past six years he had been bedridden, he
still kept in touch with a large circle of neighbors and friends, whose love
and respect he had won by his upright consistent life among them for so long a
period.  We in common with the numerous
friends above mentioned, extend to Mrs. Bryant and the family our sincere
sympathy with them in their loss.”


Select Bryan/Bryant Names

Francis Bryan
an amoral but successful courtier to Henry VIII who ended up as Lord
Chief Justice of Ireland.

Cullen Bryant
was an
American 19th century romantic poet, journalist, and long-time editor
of the New York Evening Post.
Jennings Bryan
was a dominant force in the populist wing of the US
Democratic party, standing three times as the Presidential candidate
1896 and 1908.

Sir Arthur Bryant
an English historian of the early 20th century
extremely popular in his day but less so today.
Bear Bryant
was the
longtime head coach of the Alabama college football team.
Kobe Bryant
a superstar basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA

Select Bryan/Bryant Numbers Today

  • 40,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Wiltshire)
  • 70,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)



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