Cole Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Cole Surname Meaning

Cole in the old English nursery rhyme Old King Cole has ancient origins.  It is thought to refer to a king known as Coel the Old at a time soon after the Roman occupation of Britain.   The first verse runs as follows:

  • “Old King Cole was a merry old soul
  • And a merry old soul was he;
  • He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl
  • And he called for his fiddlers three.”

The song was first recorded in the early 18th century.

However, Cole as a surname has different origins.  One root is the Old English cola, meaning “coal,” and was probably originally a nickname for someone who was dark-complexioned or “coal-black.”  In some cases Cole may have been a pet name for Nicholas.

Both Cola and Cole were recorded as personal names in the Domesday Book.   Its first appearance as a surname was a Randolpihi Cole in the Hampshire Winton rolls of 1148.  The patronymic variant Coles, or “son of Cole,” was not seen until the 16th century.

Some German Kohls became Coles in America, although kohl here means cabbage or cabbage-seller rather than coal.  As did some Scots and Irish McCools.

Cole Surname Resources on The Internet

Cole Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  Cole began as a west country name.

SW England.  Several ancient places of Cole can be found in the counties of Wiltshire and Somerset.  The earliest incidence of the Cole surname appears to have been in Cornwall, at Travenna near Liskeard.  The Rev. Thomas Cole, minister at Landewednack, was said to have been 120 years of age on his death in 1683.

The Coles in fact were one of the largest landowners in the southwest – Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset – until the early 1600’s.  The first of this line appears to have been William Cole of Hollisleigh in 1243.  The Coles of Slade date from the early 1400’s.  Sir John Cole of Devon fought with Henry V at Agincourt. Margaret Cole was Sir Francis Drake’s grandmother; and her father John was grandfather to Sir Walter Raleigh.

The leading counties in terms of Cole numbers by the 19th century were Devon, Gloucestershire and Hampshire (the Coles spelling was more popular in Somerset). James Edwin-Cole’s 1867 book The Genealogy of the Family of Cole covered the Coles of Devon and their later spread across England and into Ireland.

London.  There were also Coles in and around London.  A Cole family was seated at Twickenham in Middlesex for several generations, dating back in parish records to 1584.  A monument was erected to them in Petersham church in 1624.

Ireland.  William Cole, a professional soldier, came to Ireland in 1601 in search of his fortune.  He was appointed Governor of Enniskillen and was mainly responsible for the building of the town.  His descendants, ennobled as the Earls of Enniskillen, were to remain at Florence Court there until the early 1900’s.  Many were then among the early English settlers in Kenya.

There was a Cole family, first recorded when John Cole married Elizabeth Bell in 1780, who were living at Clontivern House in county Fermanagh.

America.  Early Coles came from England to New England.

New England.  Eunice Cole, better known as “Goody Cole,” was the only woman convicted of  witchcraft in New Hampshire.  She was whipped and spent much of her time in prison between 1656 and 1671.  On her death in 1680 it was said that a stake was driven into her body “in order to exorcise the baleful influence she was supposed to have possessed.”

Robert Cole from Suffolk came to Massachusetts with Winthrop’s fleet in 1630 and later moved onto Rhode Island.  His son Nathaniel migrated to Oyster Bay on Long Island in 1665.  These Coles intermarried with the family of another early settler, Thomas Townsend.  Hewlett Townsend Coles and his son Alexander were sea captains in the early 1800’s.  Their correspondence has been preserved in The Coles Family Papers.

Daniel Cole from Northamptonshire arrived at the Plymouth colony on the Mary and James with his brothers Job and John in 1633.  He was just nineteen at the time and lived to be eighty, dying on Cape Cod.  Later Coles settled in New York.  His line was covered in David Cole’s 2008 book A Cole Family in America.

Another Cole account is Joseph Curtis’s 1909 book The Descendants of Elisha Cole. Elisha had been born on Cape Cod in 1719.  He moved with his wife to upstate New York in his twenties and built a log cabin and grist mill in what was to become Putnam county.  The Cole family maintained this mill for the next hundred and fifty years.

Virginia.  The prominent Coles family of Albemarle county, Virginia came originally from Wexford in Ireland in the early 1700’s.   The following was a description of Colonel John Coles of this family:

“Colonel Coles was a genial, horse-loving, hospitable Virginia gentleman of the old school.  In recounting his blessings he would speak with pride of the ability of his sons, adding – like the French poet Martial – that he was glad his daughters were not too learned.”

Edward Coles, cousin to Dolly Madison, was private secretary to Presidents Jefferson and Madison. Surprisingly for a Virginia plantation owner, he released his slaves and removed himself to Illinois where he was elected Governor on an anti-slavery platform.

William Cole, born in Virginia in 1638, was a government lawyer who was thrice married, once to the daughter of the Governor.  A descendant Samuel Cole moved to Alabama in the early 1800’s; while his son, Captain A.B. Cole, fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War and afterwards settled in Texas.

Canada.  The story of George Coles was one of the tragedies of the Confederation era.  Coles, born on Prince Edward Island in 1810, was poor for much of his life.  Eventually, by dint of hard work, he managed to build up a business as a brewer and distiller. Then a great fire swept through Charlottetown, burning down Coles’ properties. The fear that further calamity might come gripped Coles’ mind to such an extent that he abandoned public life and went into seclusion, eventually going insane.  

Australia.  The Coles retail dynasty began when the first George Coles arrived in Victoria in 1854 to work in the goldfields.  His son George started a butcher’s shop and went on to open a number of country stores in rural Victoria.

The next George bought and sold various businesses from his father before opening his first store in Melbourne in 1914.  Expansion to more stores occurred after World War One and Coles grew to be one of Australia’s largest supermarket chains.

Cole Surname Miscellany

Old King Cole.  Old King Cole does appear to have some basis in history.  Coel Hen was an early ruler in the post-Roman world of the 5th century.  His territory, that of the Kingdom of the Rock in the western lowlands of Scotland, lasted for several centuries before its disappearance under the waves of invasion from the Celts, Picts, Vikings, and others.

Not much is known about Coel Hen’s life.  He apparently spent much of his time campaigning in Aeron (present-day Ayrshire).  The end of his life was not so merry.  He was said to have drowned in a bog at Tarbolton in Aeron.

The Genealogy of the Family of Cole.  This book, written by James Edwin-Cole and published in 1867, had the following introductory preface:

“The prolific Cole family is reputed to have been one of the larger land-holders in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, according to parliamentary records, until the early 1600’s.  Most of their lands were obtained through marriage settlements.

Members of the Cole family through the centuries have married into some of the most distinguished families in the West Country, for example, the Courteneys, Arundells, Edgcumbes, Tremaines, Grenvilles, as well as Raleigh, Drake, Gilbert, Hele, Durnford and the Moresheads, to list a few. Sir Francis Drake’s grandmother was Margaret Cole, her father John was also the grandfather of Sir Walter Raleigh.

The book was dedicated to the Rt. Hon. William Willoughby Cole, Earl of Enniskillen.”

The Coles of Slade in Devon.  The following is the main line of these Coles, starting with Simon Cole in the early 1400’s:

  • Simon Cole (1437-1497), married Alice Larise
  • John Cole (1463-1543), married Thomazine Walcott
  • Thomas Cole (1489-1541), married Jane Hill
  • William Cole (1518-1547), married Elizabeth Champerson
  • Phillipp Cole (1538-1590), married Joan Williams

Other Coles from the family settled nearby in Buckland.  The main Cole line in Slade ended with Richard Cole in the 1630’s.  It then passed to a Cole family in London.

William Cole in Ireland.  The first Cole to come to Ireland was William Cole, a professional soldier born in London but from the Cole family in Slade in Devon.  He in fact claimed – as can be seen from his magnificently emblazoned pedigree – that he was descended from an ancient Conquest family.  Having first served in the Low Countries, Cole arrived in Ireland in 1601 to seek his fortune.

Six years later he was appointed Captain of the longboats and barges at Ballyshannon and Lough Erne.  His future prospects were uncertain for a while.  But then came the Flight of the Earls and in particular the flight of Cuchonmacht Maguire of Enniskillen.  His departure gave Cole his opportunity.  In 1609 he was made constable or governor of Enniskillen and moved into the castle there.

Cole became one of the principal promoters and implementers of the Protestant plantation in Fermanagh, receiving extensive grants of land in and around Enniskillen and acquiring others by purchase.  The building of the town was largely a Cole initiative (there were only some 180 inhabitants there in 1630). Soon Enniskillen became what a parliamentary reformer of 1790 called: “the private property of the Earl of Enniskillen; the provost and the twelve burgesses were the confidential trustees of his appointment.”

Cole had a narrow escape from a treacherous death during the 1641 uprisings.   He raised a regiment and fought at its head, despite advancing years, in the confused wars of the 1640’s.  He espoused the Parliamentarian cause and successfully defended Enniskillen against the marauding Maguires.

George Cole of Twickenham.  George Cole was a barrister and a member of the Middle Temple in London.  He lived in Petersham and married his wife Frances at St. Peter’s there in 1585.

Cole died in 1624 and he and his family are commemorated in the monument in the chancel erected at the time.  Under an arch lies his effigy habited in a black robe and a cuff.  Within the rails of the communion table are the tombs of his son and grandson.  The family vault lies under the chancel.

He had taken a lease on a manor in Petersham park in 1610.  When that property was lost after Petersham park became enclosed to form part of Charles II’s hunting grounds, the Cole family built and lived in another property nearby, Douglas House.

Cole in America.  Joseph Curtis who wrote about an early Cole family in America in his 1909 book The Descendants of Elisha Cole described the Coles as follows:

“In the annals of this country the Cole family is old.  It has been seen and participated in everything of moment from Puritan days to the present time.  In the records of great achievement it is not particularly noted, but as a race the Coles have proved themselves sturdy, courageous, self-reliant, and independent.  Theirs seem to have been the story of fair intelligence, solid respectability, innate piety and consistent mediocrity.

To be sure, they have produced good soldiers, prominent lawyers, fairly eminent divines and accomplished physicians, although the tenor of their ways has been mostly in the field of pioneer agriculture. Nevertheless they have had no criminals and very few drunkards. They have clung to the sturdy religious principles and hardworking habits of their Puritan ancestry and throughout the length and breadth of America have spread the example and gospel of the sturdier virtues which go to make a nation great.”

A Cole Family in Georgia.  Three Cole brothers – James, John and William – arrived in west Georgia from South Carolina after the Gold Lottery of 1832.  They settled in the area surrounding modern-day Dallas in Paulding county.  The Cole surname remains prevalent in that area to this day.

William Cole, the youngest, made his home in Villa Rica, then part of New Georgia.  He was a farmer who, according to family lore, did not – unlike his brother James – own slaves because it was against his moral principles.  His wife Margaret is thought to have gone by the name of Peg.  There is a Peg Cole Road in the area where the Cole farm once existed.  William Cole was listed as the head of household in the census records for 1840, 1850, and 1860.

Late Coles of the family migrated to Atlanta.  George Cole, for example, moved to Atlanta in the early 1900’s and became a police officer there.

George Coles in Australia.  George Coles, the son of a commercial traveller in London, arrived in Australia in 1854.  He and his family went out to the goldfields in Victoria where he made his living as an engineer working on the gold crushing machines.  In 1858 George, the first of his six children, was born.

George junior, owing to family illness and the early death of his father, became responsible for providing for his family.  He started work as a butcher on horseback and, after a couple of years, obtained a shop in the local town.

By the 1880’s George was well established as a country merchant and was running a store at Jung.  He bought the North Eastern store at St. James in northern Victoria in 1892.  Although the population there was only 150, the business proved to be very successful.   The North Eastern store sold everything from farming to household stores.

However, ten years later with his health failing, George sold his St. James store to his eldest son George for the sum of £4,500.  Young George was just twenty four at the time.

By 1913 young George had paid off his father in full and also made £2,000, which was at that time quite an achievement.  He sold the store and took a trip around the world to find out for himself the best kind of business to operate.  In America George was fascinated by the nickel and dime stores he saw there.

In January 1914 he arrived back in Melbourne and with his brothers Jim and Arthur made plans to open the first 3d, 6d and shilling stores in Australia.  They successfully tendered for some insolvent business premises in Smith Street, Collingwood and opened that year on the Thursday before Easter.  They had distributed 10,000 fliers around the neighborhood, the principal attraction being “nothing over a shilling.”  Thus began a business which revolutionized retailing in Australia.

Cole Names

  • Sir William Cole was the forebear of the Coles of Enniskillen in Ireland.
  • George Coles founded in the 1920’s with his brothers what was to become the Coles Group shopping empire, the largest chain store group in Australia.
  • Nat King Cole was a popular American singer of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Cole Numbers Today

  • 60,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 69,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 30,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Cole and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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