Dickens Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Dickens Surname Meaning

Dick is an abbreviation of Richard (it is said that some of the native English could not get their mouth around the Norman “R” and “R” became “D” or “H” instead); and Dickens is a pet form of Dick, the -“kens” suffix denoting “the little one.” Alternative spellings have been Dickin and Dicken.

No one quite knows how the expression “what the dickens,” a mild expletive (dickens instead of devil), emerged. It seems to have been around since the 1600’s.

Dickens Surname Resources on The Internet

Dickens Surname Ancestry

  • from England (West Midlands)
  • to America and Canada

England.  Dickens seems to have been originally a term and a name localized to the west Midlands of England. Exactly where is impossible to say, possibly Staffordshire, Shropshire or Derbyshire based on early sightings.

Dyckins in Staffordshire date from the 1400’s. This family held the manor of Preen from 1560 to 1749 when John Dickins, imprisoned for debt, could not pay the mortgage. Later Dickins in Staffordshire were to be found at Woodford Grange.

The Dickin name was to be found in the village of Wem in north Shropshire in the 17th century and perhaps earlier. Thomas Dickin was a master at Wem school who met an unhappy end.

“Thomas Dickin was elected in 1650 and taught until the great fire and sometime after. But then abandoning himself to drunkenness he was dismissed from the school and died very poor in 1687.”

Dickin did become local gentry in Wem. The village has in fact a pub called The Dickin Arms, whose building dates back to 1665 (making it one of the oldest pubs in the country). And many Dickins were also to be found in the nearby village of Prees.

Meanwhile there was a Thomas Dickin in the 1670’s who involved himself with his cousin William Cotton in an early iron forge and furnace venture in south Yorkshire. 

Charles Dickens’ line seems to have started out in Hazelwood in Derbyshire in the 16th century. They were later in London and Charles’s grandfather William was born there in 1716. He had been a steward to Lord Crewe at his country seat in Cheshire where he had met Elizabeth, his second wife, who was a housemaid there. William had two sons by Elizabeth, William and John (Charles’s father).

It was Elizabeth’s legacy after her death in 1824 that released John from the debtors’ prison and Charles from the blacking factory.

“Having left school at the age of fifteen, Charles Dickens began his career by working in a solicitor’s office and then became a political reporter. This period was of the greatest importance to Dickens’s development as an author. His interests widened, he mastered the art of rapid, fluent, popular writing, and he acquired a stock of experience that was to give his novels their tremendous immediacy and impact.”

The author Charles Dickens and his wife had ten children and they were to have many descendants, some achieving success in their own right.

Dickens lines elsewhere have been:

  • a Dicken family (sometimes spelt Dickin) has been traced to the south Derbyshire village of Newton Solney. Five Dickins were recorded in 1662 Hearth Tax assessments and the Dicken name was still very visible there in the 19th century.
  • Samuel Dickens was the vicar of St. Margaret’s in Hemingford Abbotts in Huntingdonshire in the early 1700’s. The church has stained glass insets with armorial bearings to the Dickens family. His descendants were later to be found in East Dereham, Norfolk.
  • one Dickens family account began with the birth of James Deacins in Cranleigh, Surrey in 1753 to parents described as “travellers.” These Dickens subsequently had army and navy careers.
  • and Dickens from Stewkley in Buckinghamshire, from Riseley in Bedfordshire, and from Brixworth in Northamptonshire date back to about 1800.

America. The first Dickens in America may well have been Thomas Dickens who died in Surry county, Virginia in 1717.

From his line came Ephraim and Thomas Dickens, brothers in Raleigh county, West Virginia (lines followed in Kirk Dickens’ 1985 book The Descendants of Ephraim Dickens and Thomas Dickens). Another family account of this line began with Thomas Dickens who married Rhody Pennington in Virginia in 1812.

From the Hazelwood, Derbyshire line in England came two brothers, Joseph and William Dickens (sometime called Dicken in America), who set out for Halifax county, North Carolina in the 1750’s. The Rev. John Dickens was also to be found in Halifax county by 1780.

Meanwhile Thomas Dickens of Northampton county, North Carolina was the forebear of the Dickens who migrated to Arkansas. Another Dickens family from North Carolina moved to the Hurricane Creek area of Tennessee in the early 1800’s.

One later Dickens line in North Carolina stemmed in the 1860’s from the union of the white Kelly Dickens, a doctor, and the black Milly, his housekeeper. Kelly and Milly would not have been allowed to marry in the antebellum North Carolina.

Today the Dickens population in America is very much to be found still in North Carolina and Tennessee. Best known Dickens today are Little Jimmy Dickens, the country singer, and Hazel Dickens, who sings bluegrass. Both were born in West Virginia.

Canada.  Francis Dickens was the third son of novelist Charles Dickens who had a somewhat unfavorable opinion of him.  

“On being asked by his son for three hundred pounds, a horse and a gun to set himself up as a gentleman farmer in the colonies, Charles Dickens wrote that the consequence of the first is that he would be robbed of it, the second, that it would throw him, and the third, that he would shoot his own head off.”  

After his father’s death in 1870, Francis soon wasted his small inheritance but managed to get a post with the NW Mounted Police in Canada. He served there for twelve years before his premature death from a heart attack. He left behind a rather tattered reputation.

Dickens Surname Miscellany

Dickens and “-Kins” Type Surnames.  Dickens is one of the surnames with suffixes “-kens” or “-kins,” meaning “the little one.”  The table below shows other “-kins” surnames and their numbers in the 1891 census.

Surname Pet form of: Numbers (000’s) Most found in:
Atkins Adam    10 spread
Dawkins David     2 Southwest
Dickens Dick     3 West
Hopkins Hobb (from Robert)    19 spread
Jenkins John    35 Wales
Perkins Peter    14 spread
Watkins Walter    16 Wales
Wilkins William    13 West Midlands

The origin of these diminutive-type names would seem either to be the West Midlands or Wales.

What the Dickens!   The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “the dickens!” is an interjectional exclamation expressing astonishment, impatience, or irritation, usually with interrogative words such as what, where, how, why, etc.”  The OED labels it as a slang or colloquial term meaning “the deuce, the devil.”  It says the exclamation is “apparently substituted for ‘devil,’ as having the same initial sound.”

The OED notes that “Dickin” or “Dickon,” a diminutive of Dick, “was in use long before the earliest known instance of this and  Dickens as a surname was probably also already in existence.”

So who was the first person to use a “dickens” expression in print?

The earliest citation in the OED is from Thomas Heywood’s play King Edward IV (1st Part), published in 1599: “What the dickens is it loue that makes ye prate to me so fondly.”

Shakespeare used the expression in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.”  This play was written sometime before Shakespeare died in 1616. Nevertheless, some scholars think it was written in the late 1590s, so perhaps “dickens” is another “first” for Shakespeare.

Dickins of Wem in Shropshire.  The beginnings of the Dickin family of Loppington and Wem in Shropshire were summarized in Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary as follows:

“Nicholas Dickin of Loppington in Shropshire, Gentleman, died in 1685, leaving a son, John Dickin, born in 1659 who was interred at Loppington in 1698, and a son, Thomas Dickin of Loppington, Gentleman, who died in 1729, leaving Sarah his wife and two sons.”

Dickins became local gentry in Wem, residing first at Aston Hall and then at Loppington Hall (a brick house built in the early 1700’s and recently restored).  Thomas Dickin was High Sheriff of Shropshire in 1799. Thomas Dickin and Lieutenant Colonel John Lloyd Dickin, who served out in India, were 19th century Justices of the Peace in Shropshire.

Charles Dickens’ Descendants.  Charles Dickens married Catharine Hogarth and they were to have ten children.  Through their sixth son Henry, a King’s Counsel and barrister, came:

  • Gerald Dickens, grandson of Charles Dickens, an Admiral in the British Navy during World War Two
  • Cedric Dickens, great grandson, the steward of his literary legacy (he lived until 2006)
  • Monica Dickens, great granddaughter, an accomplished author in her own right
  • Gerald Dickens, great great grandson, an actor known for his own-man shows based on the novels of Charles Dickens
  • and Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, great great great  granddaughter, a biographer and writer.

His other sons had varied lives, serving with the Royal Navy, the British Indian Army, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Two – Alfred and Edward – emigrated to Australia in the 1860’s.

Charles Dickens himself had five other brothers and sisters. All remained in England – with the exception for his youngest brother Augustus who left his wife and family and took off for Chicago in the 1850’s.

George Dickens of Feltham in Middlesex.  His father Robert ran an ironmongery business in Feltham.  But George at seventeen decided to enlist in the Royal Navy, signing on for a period of ten years.

After many exploits on various ships, George’s last posting was to a new, state-of-the-art battleship Bellerophon which cruised in ceremonial fashion between Portsmouth, Spithead, Portland and Plymouth.  It was from this ship that he purchased his  discharge in 1868.

On his return to Feltham, he lost no time in picking up his  former trade of tinsmith and plumber and took over his father’s business in 1872.  He had married a Feltham girl, Isabel Gardner, on Christmas Day 1869 and they proceeded to have eleven children.

In Ken Baldwin’s Memoirs of Old Feltham which came out around 1900, it was written of George Dickens:

“What a character, an old sailor; was to be seen most days touring the district with his pony and trap, his bowler hat at a jaunty angle plying his trade, scissors to grind, kettles to mend, knives to sharpen and anything else within reason.  He was also a member of the Minstrel Troupe and noted for his stump speeches that he used to give.”

Clearly George was something of a local celebrity and a ‘card.’

Rev. John Dickens, Methodist Preacher.  The Rev. John Dickens is considered one of the founding fathers of the Methodist movement in America.  Born in London, he came to America in the early 1770’s and was a travelling preacher in Virginia and North Carolina while the Revolutionary War was raging.

He was stationed later in New York and Philadelphia and also made the journey to preach in the new Cumberland settlements in Tennessee.

He made his home near Eden church in Halifax county, North Carolina. That was where he had met and married his wife Elizabeth Yancey and where, in 1780, plans had been drawn up for the first Methodist school in America.

His likeness can be seen in a 1961 painting by Charles Hargens based on an 18th century engraving.

Little Jimmy Dickens Turned Ninety in 2010.  Little Jimmy Dickens stands under five feet in physical form, but he takes on legendary proportions when he takes center stage at the Grand Ole Opry.  He has been a member and a performer there for more than sixty years.

It was Roy Acuff who first brought Dickens to the Opry in 1948.  Two years later he became the first country performer to wear a suit with rhinestones.  By the 1960’s he became the first to “circle the globe” on a world tour that included stops in Tokyo, Okinawa, Taipei, Bangkok, Saigon, Turkey, Denmark, Germany and Montreal.  Needless to say these tour dates have never ended.

Little Jimmy Dickens, born in West Virginia, is said to have been distantly related to the English writer Charles Dickens.  But there is no real evidence supporting this conjecture.

Dickens Names

  • Charles Dickens was the very popular and prolific Victorian novelist whose works have endured.
  • Monica Dickens, a granddaughter of Charles Dickens, was a 20th century English writer.
  • Little Jimmy Dickens is an American country singer from West Virginia.

Dickens Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in Nottinghamshire)
  • 5,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Dickens and Like Surnames

These are the names of some literary giants.  If you are interested in the name behind the literary figure, please click on the surname below.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *