Chamberlain Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Chamberlain Surname Meaning

Chamberlain is an occupational surname describing an official who was in charge of the private chambers of his master.  It evolved into a title of high rank.  There have been Lord Chamberlains of the Royal Household since 1399.  The root is the Old French word cambrelane or chambrelain brought to England by the Normans.  The Chamberland spelling cropped up in Normandy.

Chamberlayne was an early surname spelling in England.  Martin le Chamberleyn was recorded in Cambridgeshire of 1232.  Chamberlain and its variant Chamberlin are found today.  The surname Chambers also exists; although this might have denoted a lower-ranking person.

Chamberlain Surname Resources on The Internet

Chamberlain and Chamberlin Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England and from France (Huguenot)
  • to America, Canada, and New Zealand

England.  Early Chamberlaynes were said to have sprung from the Tankarvilles who had come to England from Normandy at the time of William the Conqueror.  The first of that name, William Chamberlayne, was chamberlain to King Henry II in the mid-12th century.  His descendants were to be found at Stoke-near-Nayland in Suffolk.

There was also an early Chamberlain line at Wickenby in Lincolnshire, reputedly descended from Herbert, the chamberlain of Scotland in 1130.  Descendants here held Pletsoe manor in Buckinghamshire.

Both the Chamberlain and Chamberlayne names featured in Oxfordshire:

  • Sir Edward Chamberlain of Shirburn was Sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire in 1505.  His son Leonard guarded Princess Elizabeth during her imprisonment at Woodstock in the reign of Queen Mary.  He was from a Catholic-sympathizing family.
  • meanwhile the Chamberlaynes of Wickham were descended from William Chamberlayne who had ventured to Ireland and from his son Sir Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice of Chester in 1616. Thomas of the next generation became a baronet in 1643 because of his Royalist support during the Civil War.

The Chamberlain name had become more predominant at this time, although the Chamberlayne name did persist into the 20th century – notably at Weston on the outskirts of Southampton where they were gentry and local MP’s.

Henry Orland Chamberlain of uncertain origins was an English diplomat in Portugal made a baronet in 1828.  He married twice:

  • his first marriage produced Henry, the second baronet, who became a British army officer and an artist of some repute.
  • his second marriage produced British army and naval officers as well.  The line from William, his eldest son here and a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy, led to three notable sons – Henry, another naval officer; Basil, a leading Japanologist of his time; and Houston, who would be considered racist for his writings today.
  • two other sons – Crawford and Charles – were officers in the Indian army.  Charles’s son Francis is credited with having invented the game of snooker while stationed in India in 1875.

The line of Joseph Chamberlain, the British politician and statesman of the late Victorian era, began in Wiltshire with Daniel Chamberlain, born in 1688, who was a maltster in Lacock.  His son William came to London in the 1730’s to pursue a trade as a cordwainer (shoemaker). Three Joseph Chamberlains followed, the last of whom settled in Birmingham.  

“Joseph Chamberlain made his career in Birmingham, first as a manufacturer of screws and then as a notable mayor of the city. As a self-made businessman, he had never attended university and had contempt for the aristocracy.”  

He was the father by different marriages of the politician Sir Austen Chamberlain and of the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Huguenot.  Chamberlain was a Huguenot name, brought to London from Paris in 1569.

Peter Chamberlen and his sons were “barber surgeons,” practitioners in midwifery.  They attended the royalty of the time.  Either Peter or one of his sons was the inventor of obstetric forceps, something that they kept as a closely guarded secret for over a hundred years.  Their instruments, rediscovered in 1813, were given to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.

Chamberlin.  Chamberlin has been a variant spelling.  It seems to have first cropped up in the Barnstaple area of Devon in the early 1500’s.

But the largest numbers have been in Norfolk.  Henry Chamberlin from Hingham in Norfolk emigrated to America in 1638. A much later Henry Chamberlin started a department store in Norwich in 1815 that lasted until the 1950’s. George Chamberlin was three times Mayor of Norwich between 1891 and 1918.

America.  There were some notable Chamberlain lines coming to Massachusetts and to Pennsylvania.

Massachusetts.   Two Henry Chamberlins apparently arriving in Hingham, Massachusetts in the 1630’s. One returned to England, the other – a blacksmith – stayed.  A descendant line has been traced through thirteen generations to Richard Chamberlin in Georgia, a recent member of the House of Representatives there.

Three Chamberlain brothers from Norfolk made their home in Billerica, Massachusetts in 1654, although only William remained there. His wife Rebecca was caught up in the Salem witchcraft trials and died in prison in 1692.  William lived onto 1706.

Some of his descendants migrated to New Hampshire and then to Maine.  Joshua Chamberlain, born there in 1828, served with distinction at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War and afterwards was elected the Governor of Maine.  Another descendant line was to be found in Alton, Illinois.

Pennsylvania.  There were two Chamberlain lines in Chester county, Pennsylvania – one through Robert originating from England and coming in 1692 and the other through Jonas from Ireland in 1731.  The line from Robert Chamberlain extended to:

  • Dr. Joseph Chamberlain of Newark, Delaware in the early 1800’s
  • his son Charles, also a doctor, who moved south to Natchez, Mississippi in 1837
  • and his son George who migrated to Oregon and became its Governor in 1902 and Senator in 1908.

There were Irish Chamberlains headed by Jeremiah Chamberlain in York county, Pennsylvania by the 1740’s. A later Jeremiah Chamberlain of this family also headed south to Mississippi, in his case in 1830, where he founded Rodney Presbyterian church and Oakland college. However, he was foully murdered on the college campus in 1851.

The Chamberlain family association of America was founded in 1897 by Joshua Chamberlain of Maine.  It has continued on and off until today.

Canada.  The Chamberland name had appeared in Normandy as early as the 12th century.  Simon Chamberland departed France for Quebec in 1663 where he married Marie Boileau.  His main line of descendants remained in Quebec.  But some crossed the border into America, changing their name in the process to Chamberlain or Chamberlin.

David and Polly Chamberlin departed Connecticut for Hatley, Quebec in 1794; while John and Jane Chamberlain came from Lincolnshire in England in 1837 and were early settlers in Nobleton, Ontario.  Many of their descendants remain there.

New Zealand.  John Chamberlain, a farm laborer from Hampshire, and his family were early arrivals in New Zealand, coming on the Sir Charles Forbes in 1842.  They settled in the Tasman district, SI.

Charles Chamberlin came in 1854 and purchased an island east of Auckland, now known as Ponui Island, for his family to farm.  They are still there. Brian Chamberlin’s 2006 book was entitled Ponui and Beyond: 150 Years of Chamberlins.

Chamberlain Surname Miscellany

The Lord Chamberlain.  The Lord Chamberlain is the senior official of the Royal Household and oversees its business – including liaising with the other senior officers of the Household, chairing Heads of Department meetings, and advising in the appointment of senior Household officials.  The Lord Chamberlain also undertakes ceremonial duties and serves as the channel of communication between the Sovereign and the House of Lords.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Office is a department of the Royal Household and is responsible for organising ceremonial activities including state visits, investitures, garden parties, the State Opening of Parliament, weddings and funerals.  The Lord Chamberlain also regulates the design and the wearing of court uniform and dress and how insignia are worn.

The Licensing Act of 1737  gave the Lord Chamberlain the authority to veto the performance of any new plays for whatever reason.  Theatre owners could be prosecuted for staging a play that had not received prior approval.

This veto power continued in limited form until 1968 when the veto was finally abolished. The first London performance of the musical Hair had been delayed until the 1968 act was passed after its initial licence had been refused.

Who Was Henry Orland Chamberlain?  Henry Fane was from a noble family.  He was almost forty when he married Anne Batson, a banker’s daughter, in 1778.  By her he had fourteen children and they lived at Fulbeck Hall.

Henry Chamberlain, born in 1773, was brought up there with the rest of Fane’s children as a supposed distant relative.  But when Chamberlain expressed an interest in one of Fane’s daughters, he was informed of his true parentage and dispatched to Portugal, sailing there on the HMS Briton.

Was he a bastard son?  Henry Fane’s correspondence makes reference to a John Chamberlain and Hannah, his daughter perhaps.  Was she the mother? Another source has the Chamberlain name as fictitious, given to him by his father after an illicit love affair with a young girl. The identity of this girl, or even her name, is unknown.

In any event, Henry Chamberlain did well as a consul general in Portugal and later as charge d’affaires in Brazil.  He was made a baronet in 1828.

Francis Chamberlain and the Invention of Snooker.  While serving at Jubbulpore in 1875 Francis Chamberlain developed a new variation of black pool by introducing coloured balls into the game.

It was dubbed snooker – a derogatory nickname given to first-year cadets studying at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich that Chamberlain had heard about from a young Royal Artillery subaltern visiting the mess.

Chamberlain later retorted to a fellow player who had failed to pot a colored ball:

‘Why, you’re a regular snooker.’

While explaining the term to his fellow officers Chamberlain – to mollify the officer concerned – remarked that they were all ‘snookers at the game’ and the name snooker or snooker’s pool immediately stuck. 

The Chamberlaynes of Weston near Southampton.  The Chamberlayne name in Weston may have dated from the early 15th century.

In 1781 William Chamberlayne inherited what was then the Weston Park estate.  His son William, later to become MP for Southampton, inherited the estate on the death of his father and built the Weston Grove estate, a marine villa on Southampton Water, in 1802.

His most prominent act of munificence was a gift of iron lamp-posts for Southampton, first lit by gas in 1821.  His generosity was commemorated the following year by the erection of Chamberlayne’s Column, an iron obelisk of some 50 feet which, after its removal to the quay in 1829, served as a landmark for shipping.

The Weston Grove estate was subsequently inherited by Thomas Chamberlayne, his cousin, in 1831. Thomas’s son Denzil took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War and survived.  In 1876 Tankerville Chamberlayne assumed the estate.  He too was to become MP for Southampton.  He died in 1924 leaving a daughter, Penelope, who married and they changed their surname to Chamberlayne-Macdonald.

The Murder of Jeremiah Chamberlain.  On the night of September 5, 1851, Jeremiah Chamberlain was stabbed to death in front of his home on the Oakland College campus in Mississippi.

The assailant was a local man named George Briscoe.  Witnesses observed that Briscoe had stopped at the gate of the house and that Chamberlain had gone out to meet him.  After a heated exchange Briscoe stabbed Chamberlain in the chest. Staggering back to the house, the victim died in the arms of his wife Catherine.

The murderer rode away and hid for several days after the killing, but was himself found dead a week later having poisoned himself.  While a motive was never clearly established, many attributed the murder to the inflamed politics of the time.

The newspaper accounts detailing the murder were filled with shock and remorse over the senseless killing.  The local Port Gibson Herald and Correspondent labeled it “a horrid tragedy” and closed its account by writing: “President Chamberlain has gone, but will never be forgotten.” Even the New York Times had a mention.

As for Jeremiah Chamberlain, his grave remains on the campus of Oakland College, now Alcorn State University.

Incorrect Reports of the Death of Joshua Chamberlain.  In April 1864 Joshua Chamberlain was promoted to Brigade Commander in the Union army and given command of the 1st Brigade, V Corps.

In a major action two months later at the Battle of Petersburg, he was shot through the right hip and groin, the bullet exiting his left hip.  Despite the injury Chamberlain withdrew his sword and stuck it into the ground in order to keep himself upright to dissuade the growing resolve for retreat.  He stood upright for several minutes until he collapsed and lay unconscious from the loss of blood. The wound was considered mortal by the division’s surgeon who predicted that he would perish.

Chamberlain’s incorrectly recorded death in battle was reported by the Maine newspapers and by General Ulysses S. Grant who gave him a supposedly posthumous battlefield promotion to the rank of Brigadier General.

Not expected to live, Chamberlain displayed surprising will and courage and, with the support of his brother Tom, was back in command by November.  Although many, including his wife Fanny, urged Chamberlain to resign, he was determined to serve through the end of the war.

The courage that he displayed throughout the course of the Civil War made him a hugely popular figure in his home state of Maine.  After the war was over, Joshua Chamberlain served as Governor of Maine from 1866 to 1970 and later served as President of Bowdoin College.  He died in 1914 at the good old age of 86, due – it was said – to complications from the wound he had received at Petersburg.

Chamberlain Associations of America.  The first Chamberlain Association of America was founded in 1897 by Joshua Chamberlain who served as its first President. They published some thirteen annual reports of their meetings held in Boston, Massachusetts.  The Association became inactive from the 1920’s to the 1940’s.

The Chamberlain Association of America, sometimes referred to as the New Chamberlain Association of America, was organized in 1980 in New York by Alison Chamberlain Ogilvie Ainsworth. They published the Chamberlain Association News three times per year from 1981 to 1993, but became inactive shortly afterwards.

Many of the first Association’s collection was re-published by the World Chamberlain Genealogical Society.  This was established in 1996 to carry on the tradition of the original Chamberlain Association of America.

Reader Feedback – Chamberlains in South Africa.  I have the names of the children etc, descendants of William Robinson Chamberlain and his wife Susannah who came to South Africa. Their son was Henry Chamberlain (1840-1921).  He married Anna Margaretha Meyer from South Africa.

Marlene Moelich (

Reader Feedback – Chamberlains of Old.  I remember hearing some names when small and adults spoke of the olden days.  It was nice to read those names today.

Michele Joy Chamberlain.

Chamberlain Names

  • Sir Thomas Chamberlayne was a distinguished diplomat in Elizabethan times, serving as ambassador in the Low Countries. 
  • Joseph Chamberlain was a prominent British politician and statesman of the late Victorian era.  He was first a radical Liberal and then a leading imperialist in coalition with the Conservatives. 
  • Neville Chamberlain was British Prime Minster from 1937 to 1940, most remembered for his appeasement policy towards Hitler. 
  • Edward Chamberlin was an American economist best known for his book The Theory of Monopolistic Competition published in 1933. 
  • Wilt Chamberlain was an American basketball player who still holds many NBA records in scoring and rebounding.  He is widely considered one of the greatest and most dominant players in NBA history.

Chamberlain Numbers Today

  • 17,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 17,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 15,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Chamberlain and Like Surnames

From our surname selection here, these are the names of those who have risen in British politics to become Prime Minister from the time the office was first established in the 1730’s (although missing here are noteworthies such as Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, Attlee, and Thatcher).


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Written by Colin Shelley

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