Conway Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Conway Surname Meaning

Conway as a name appears to have had three origins – in England (as well as in Wales), in Scotland, and in Ireland.  

English and Welsh.  The Anglo-Norman name Conyers or Coniers, of uncertain origin or meaning, became Conway over time.  Conway here seems to have come from the Old English word cam yea meaning “crooked river” found in Wales and also in the west of England. 

The first recorded spelling of the name was John de Conweye at Glastonbury in Somerset in 1268.  In later times Conway became a name mainly found in Lancashire and elsewhere in northern England.  This may have been due in part to Irish immigration.

Scottish.  Here the origin was the place-name Coneway or Convathe, first recorded in the Beauly parish in Inverness-shire in the 13th century.  It is thought that this name was an anglicization of the Gaelic word coinmheadh meaning “free billet” for troops that were stationed there.

Conway later appeared on the east coast of Scotland, particularly in Dundee, but also in larger numbers around Glasgow in the Scottish Lowlands where again many might have come from Ireland.

Irish.  Here Conway was also an anglicization of the Gaelic, but from different Gaelic words depending on the location.  Thus Connmhaigh, coming from the old Irish condmach meaning “head-smashing,” was to be found in Munster; while Conbhuidhe, probably from cu buidhe meaning “yellow hound,” started off in Sligo. The resulting Conway name has therefore become fairly numerous across Ireland.

Conway Surname Resources on The Internet

Conway Surname Ancestry

  • from Wales, England, and Ireland
  • to America, Canada and New Zealand

WalesSir Henry Conway, a professional soldier in England, had arrived in north Wales around 1390 and came into possession of the Botryddan estate in Flintshire, close by Rhuddian castleConways were to remain at Bodryddan for generations.  Sir Henry Conway and his son Sir John were MP’s for Flintshire until the latter’s death in 1721.

The Conway name was also to be found near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire.  George Conway established a tinplate works at Pontrhydyrun in 1802. Deeply religious, he founded a Baptist chapel there in 1816.

“The entrance to the churchyard was enhanced by a huge cedar tree. This tree started life in Lebanon and was brought back to Wales by the Conways after a visit to the Holy Land.”  

England.  The early version of the Conway name appears to have been Conyers.  These Conyers, who later changed their name to Conway, were to be found at Sockburn in Durham and Hornby in north Yorkshire.  The Conways in north Wales probably came from this stock. 

Sometime in the 1470’s Hugh Conway left his Botryddan home in north Wales to return to England.  An early supporter of Henry Tudor who became the English King in 1485, he subsequently was entrusted with a number of posts, including the treasureships of Ireland and of Calais.

During Elizabethan times a later Conway from Wales, Sir John, married the heiress to Arrow at Alcester in Warwickshire.  He then bought nearby Ragley Hall and its lands and this was to be the Conway’s English home.

His line continued through Edward who was made Viscount Conway in 1627 and a later Edward who became the Earl of Conway in 1679. When he died four years later without issue, the line at Ragley Hall continued through his cousin Francis Seymour who assumed the name of Seymour-Conway.  From his line came:

  • a later Francis Seymour-Conway who served as Viceroy of Ireland and was made the Marquess of Hertford in 1793.
  • and his brother Henry Seymour-Conway who had a lengthy military and political career, culminating in Cabinet positions and his promotion to Field Marshal in 1793.

There were Conways elsewhere.

Conways were recorded at Powerstock in Dorset from the 1600’s onwards.  Henry Conway left there for London where he married in 1696.  He and his descendants made their home in Southwark.

The Conway name was also at Stoke Newington near London from the 1750’s.  Samuel Conway, a Congregational minister who lived there in the 1850’s, was the father of Robert, a Classical scholar and Professor of Latin literature, and Katharine, a writer and early member of the Independent Labor Party.

Jewish.  London has also had Jewish Conways.  One such was Frank Cohen, born to Jewish immigrants in the East End of London in 1919.  He changed his name to Conway by deed poll in 1943.  After the war he married and ran a vending machine business for bubble gum and football cards off Petticoat Lane.  Other more professional Jewish Conways have been academics, writers, rabbis and community leaders.

Channel IslandsThe Conway name appeared at Jersey in the Channel Islands in the late 1700’s.  These Conways apparently come from Ireland.  Morrice Conway was recorded as marrying Marthe Soudell at St. Helier in 1774. A separate line began with William Conway (who was married four times) in the 1850’s.

Ireland.The Irish origins of Conway have been various.  It was an anglicized version of at least four different Gaelic names.  MacConway was a sept of importance in ancient Thomond (Clare and Limerick) up to the end of the 14th century.

The name spread across Ireland.  By the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the mid-19th century, Tyrone and Mayo had emerged as the counties with the largest numbers of Conways.  Later on, Mayo accounted for about twenty-five per cent of all the Conway births registered in Ireland.

Some Conways in Ireland were from across the Irish Sea.

First, Captain Jenkin Conway arrived from north Wales in 1587 and was granted Killorglin castle in county Kerry by the English government.  From his line came Thomas Conway, born at  Cloghane in 1735, who left Kerry for France and rose to high military rank, first with the French and then with the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Then the English Conways from Warwickshire established themselves at Lisburn in county Antrim in the early 1600’s.  Three members of the Conway family represented Antrim in Parliament over a period of forty-two years, from 1741 to 1783.

America.  English and Irish Conways came to America.   

Virginia.  Edward Viscount Conway was an incorporator of the third Virginia charter in 1611 and later Conways of his family went to Virginia.

Edwin Conway arrived there around 1640 and, twelve years later, settled in Lancaster county where he had been granted land.  His son Edwin, born there and known as Gentleman Edwin Conway, was the head of one of the First Families of Virginia, connected by marriage to other leading Virginia families.  This Conway line was covered in W. Conway Price’s 2013 book Descendants of Edwin Conway.

Conways from this line were in Stafford county by the mid/late 1700’s.  Walter Peyton Conway was a wealthy slave-holding gentleman farmer there in the early 1800’s.  His home, known as Conway House, is still standing along the Rappahannock river.

However, Walter’s son Moncure became an outspoken abolitionist in the years leading up to the Civil War.   “Moncure Conway located several dozen of his father’s slaves who had fled from Virginia and secured train tickets and safe-conduct passes for them.”  

Ostracized by his family in Virginia, he spent much of the rest of his life in London.  Conway Hall there was named in his honor. 

Thomas Conway meanwhile had come to Northumberland county sometime in the 1650’s.  Later descendants of this line were to be found in Tennessee and Arkansas.  Henry Conway departed Tennessee for Arkansas, but was killed in a duel in 1827.  However, after his death, the Conways led a political dynasty in Arkansas, known as “The Family,” which lasted until the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Irish.  The Irish have probably outnumbered the English Conways coming to America.

The first was probably Thomas Conway from Lisburn in Antrim who arrived with his wife Mary at New Castle, Delaware shortly after their marriage in 1682. They were Quakers.  Their marriage produced two daughters, but no sons.

John Conway came to Virginia, it is thought from Dublin, around the year 1728 in an immigration that was commonly known as “the Irish schoolmasters.”   His son Samuel was said to have manufactured gunpowder in 1774 for the Virginia troops that were fighting against the Indians.  The family moved in 1780 to what is now Bourbon county in Kentucky.

The main Conway influx came around the time of the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840’s.  Among those who arrived then were: 

  • James Conway from Roscommon who came to Baltimore in 1843 and moved with his family to Iowa in 1850.  His son O.T. Conway was a farmer in Allamakee county.
  • Thomas Conway who departed Kerry for Montreal in 1847, with his family following him later.  His son James settled in Iowa in 1860.  
  • and James and Johanna Conway from Limerick who came to New York in 1847 and later headed westward to Indiana.  Their son Patrick was one of the most respected physicians of Carroll county.  

Conways also stayed East, in New York and Boston and elsewhere.   

Canada. Douglas was an Irish enclave in Renfrew county, Ontario and a Conway family from Limerick had arrived there, along with other Limerick families, in the 1840’s.  Tragedy hit the family in 1885 when Michael Conway, later commemorated in the ballad Young Conway, was murdered in a sectarian fight.  His father Thomas died from a stroke two months later, probably as a result of the stress. 

New Zealand.  John Conway from Jersey in the Channel Islands came to Auckland in 1855 and settled fifteen years later at Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty area. He was a builder by trade, as was his son John.

Conway Surname Miscellany

Conway Origin in Wales.  According to the book An Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names, the following described the river:

“The river issues from a lake in Merionethshire and flows through a fertile vale of the same name and enters the Irish Sea at Aberconway.”

The Conways of Botryddan in Flintshire.  The Conways were of English origin, supposedly descended from Sir William Conyers, the ‘Knight of War’ who had been high constable of England under William the Conqueror.

Sir Henry Conway, a professional soldier who had served the English King, had come to north Wales around 1390 and married Ellen (or Angharad), the daughter of Sir Hugh Crevecoer, the English lord at Prestatyn in Flintshire.  His son Richard succeeded as the lord of Prestatyn.

Richard’s grandson Jenkyn, who died in 1432, established himself at Botryddan.  He married a Welshwoman, Marsli the daughter of Maredudd ap Hywel ap Dafydd of Cefn-y-fan.  By the time of Queen Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 the Conway family had become firmly established as an integral part of Flintshire society.

John Conway who died in 1578 was the great great grandson of John ‘Aer Conwy Hen’ who had died almost a century earlier.  He sat for the borough of Flint from 1562 to 1567.

Ragley Hall in Warwickshire.  In the reign of Queen Elizabeth Sir John Conway came from Wales to marry the heiress to Arrow in Alceston.  He then bought Ragley and its lands.  It was Sir John’s grandson, the first Earl of Conway, who engaged Robert Hooke to design the Palladian House that can be seen today.

The building was not completed until the middle of the 18th century.  James Gibbs designed the baroque plasterwork in the Great Hall in 1750 and Wyatt added the portico, as well as decorating the Red Saloon and Mauve Room.

When Edward Conway the 1st Lord Conway died in 1679, ownership of Ragley Hall passed to his cousin Francis Seymour who became Francis Seymour-Conway. A later Francis was given the title of Marquess of Hertford in 1793 for his services to his country in governing Ireland.

A descendant who made a notable contribution to the art world was Richard Seymour-Conway, the 4th Marquess. He never visited Ragley and lived his entire life in Paris.  Both he and his father were avid art collectors and he devoted his life and income to buying pictures to add to his collection.  The 4th Marquess was by all accounts an extremely bad landlord and left Ragley sadly neglected.

Ragley faced mixed fortunes until the 1950’s when the 8th Marquess worked to restore the Hall and to open it to the public.  Ragley had not been fully occupied since 1912 and was used as a hospital during the Second World War.

Irish Origins of Conway.  The Irish origins of Conway are various.  It is the anglicised version of at least four separate Gaelic names:

  • O’Conbhuidhe meaning “yellow hound” first found in the parish of Easky in Sligo.
  • O’Connmhachain in Mayo.
  • MacConnmhaigh from condmhach meaning
    “head-smashing” in Munster (or more specifically Thomond which covered mainly Clare and Limerick).
  • and MacConmidhe meaning “hound of Meath” in Tyrone and Derry.

The MacConways were a sept of importance in Thomond up to the end of the 14th century. They were among the septs which rallied to O’Brien’s standard in 1317.  The death of Gillananaev O’Connmhaigh, described as a professor of music in Thomond, was recorded in The Annals of the Four Masters in 1360.

Two O’Conways were Bishops of Kilmacduagh in Galway in the early 15th century.  And Father Richard Conway was one of the intrepid Jesuits who did so much to promote the counter-reformation in Ireland in the early 17th century.

Conways from Kerry to America During the Famine Years.  Thomas Conway left Kerry in his native Ireland amid the horrors of the famine of 1847-48 and came to America to earn money to support his family (he did not have enough money to take his family with him).   Through unbelievable frugality he sent home sufficient money to support his family for the following three or four years.  They also saved enough to buy passage to America.

His wife Mary, his son James and three little sisters sailed from Tralee to Montreal.   Conditions were very bad aboard that ship (not for nothing were these vessels called coffin ships).  About the time the boat was entering the St. Lawrence River Mary became ill. Some nuns on board cared for the three little girls but Mary died before the boat docked. It is said that she was buried in a cemetery in Montreal.

Thomas’s hopes and dreams were shattered.  As for his son James, his dreams were shattered also. One of his dreams of America was to be able to attend school, a privilege denied him under the English rulers in Ireland at that time.  However, there must be someone to care for the three little girls and the 11-year-old boy was the only one to do it while his father worked 12-15 hour days. James later moved to Iowa in 1860 and married. 

Young Conway, A North American Ballad.  Young Conway, a native North American ballad, originated in the Renfrew county region of Ontario in Canada.

It concerned a young Irishman, Michael Conway, who for some unknown reason was attending a Polish social gathering. Feelings of national heritage began to run high at this function, together with a misunderstanding from a joke, and a fight broke out.  Knives were drawn and as a result of a direct hit on the head from a hatchet, this young man died.

The following lines from Young Conway described the fight and his death.

  • “Our hero he was sitting there a’crying out for peace.
  • He sprang upon those cowardly dogs his comrades to release.
  • These cowardly dogs were angry, blood was their delight;
  • They all powered onto Conway, it was a dreadful fight.
  • Now seven to one it was not fair; they fought him to his knees.
  • But Conway young and manfully he fought them to displease.
  • The second time they caught him they stabbed him o’er and o’er,
  • And then a blow from a tomahawk laid Conway on the floor.
  • From nine o’clock that evening till six o’clock next day
  • His body lay upon the floor; it was as cold as clay.
  • They carried him to St. Michael’s church, they laid him in the ground,
  • And of the friends who were gathered there not a dry eye could be found.”

Michael Conway died on December 17, 1885 and he was buried in his home town of Douglas. There is a family plot which shows Michael Conway dying on this date at the age of twenty-seven.

Conways and “The Family” in Arkansas.  “The Family” was the name given to a powerful group of Democrats who dominated Arkansas politics in the years between statehood in 1836 and the start of the Civil War in 1861.

The roots of The Family stretched back into the territorial period, when it coalesced around territorial delegate Henry Conway, the scion of a wealthy Tennessee family.  In 1827 Conway was mortally wounded in a duel with Territorial Secretary Robert Crittenden, his former patron and the most powerful political figure in Arkansas at that time.

The killing of Conway exacerbated the schism in Arkansas politics between Crittenden and his supporters, who became the basis for the Whig Party in Arkansas, and the followers of the slain Conway, staunch Democrats and supporters of Andrew Jackson who portrayed themselves as champions of the common man.

Among the latter group were Conway’s younger brother James; his cousins, Elias and Wharton Rector; and another cousin, Ambrose Sevier.  Sevier was elected to the remainder of Henry Conway’s term and served in that capacity until Arkansas became a state in 1836.

The political alliance of Conways, Rectors, Sevier, and Johnson soon came to be referred to as “The Family.”  The results of the first state elections in 1836 confirmed The Family’s dominance in Arkansas politics.

James Conway was elected the state’s first governor, Ambrose Sevier was chosen by the state legislature to be one of the state’s first U.S. senators, and Benjamin Johnson was appointed by President Andrew Jackson to be the state’s first federal district judge. That same year, Benjamin Johnson’s brother, Richard M. Johnson, was elected vice president of the United States on a ticket with Martin Van Buren. Elias Conway, the youngest brother of Henry and James, served two terms as Governor between 1852 and 1860.

Conway Names

  • Thomas Conway was an Irish exile who rose to high military rank in France and America in the mid/late 1700’s. 
  • Henry Seymour-Conway had a lengthy British military and political career in the mid/late 1700’s, culminating in Cabinet positions and his promotion to Field Marshal in 1793.   
  • Moncure Conway, the son of a Virginia slave-owner, was an outspoken abolitionist prior to the Civil War. 
  • Russ Conway, born Trevor Stanford, was a popular pianist on British TV variety shows in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Conway Numbers Today

  • 20,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 20,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 15,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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