Fish Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Fish Surname Meaning

Some have the surname Fish derived from the Old English fisc or fische which does mean “fish.” It could signify either a fisherman or a fish seller. That would have been the case with Robert le Fissh recorded in Somerset in 1327.

Others see the Fish root possibly in the old Saxon Fytche name, of uncertain meaning, which came out in the 15th century as Fyche or Fiche.  In America Fish could be the Americanized version of the German or Jewish Fisch or the Scandinavian Fisk, meaning in each case “fish.”

The Fish family here includes Fish Fish of Darwen, Lancashire and Preserved Fish of Rhode Island and New York.

Fish Surname Resources on The Internet

Fish Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lancashire) and from Sweden (Fisk)
  • to America, Australia and New Zealand

England.  The Fish surname may have had its origin in an old Saxon family prior to the Norman Conquest, but there is nothing written to that effect. In medieval times the spelling did change from Fyche to Fysshe and Fyshe and to Fish which probably came about in the 16th century.

Simon Fish, the radical Protestant reformer who died of the plague in 1531, was an early example of the Fish name. Unfortunately there are no records of where he came from.

Yorkshire provided some Fish in the 1600’s. Thomas Fishe, born in 1634, was a yeoman farmer at Kirby Malham near Skipton; while Thomas Fysh, born in Yorkshire around the year 1650, became the rector of St. Margaret’s, Kings Lynn in Norfolk.  Probably because of him, there were a number of Fysh families in the Kings Lynn area during the 18th century.  Fyshes from this family later moved to London and then to Australia.

Then there was the Fish line from Market Harborough of Great Bowden parish in Leicestershire, starting with Edward Fysh around the year 1508. This line is significant because it seems to have supplied nearly all the early Fish who emigrated to New England. As one American descendant put it:

“Scattered throughout all quarters of our broad land are thousands of individuals whose lives can be traced back to John and Margaret Fish of Great Bowden. As a rule they are diligent and conscientious citizens, content to fill the duty lying before them.

Lancashire.  However, the largest Fish numbers, according to the 1881 census, were in Lancashire.  

An early Fish sighting was at Over Darwen. Michael Fisshe was recorded as living there in 1404. The Fish family were yeoman farmers in what is now the market town of Darwen and part of Blackburn. Thomas and Anne Fish were smallholders in 1662. One Fish family lived at Barrons Fold in the Blacksnape section of Old Darwen. William Fish left for America in 1841. Graham Fish and Nathaniel Fish operated cotton mills in Darwen in 1891.

America. One of the early Fish came from Sweden. Johan Fisk (meaning “Fish” in Swedish) arrived at the New Sweden colony in Delaware on the Swan in 1648. His line continued through his son Caspar, born in the colony in 1651, and later became Fish.

New England.  The early Fish arrivals seem to have been all related. There were the three brothers – Jonathan, John and Nathaniel – who came to Sandwich on Cape Cod in 1637; plus two of their cousins, Thomas who was in Portsmouth, Rhode Island by 1643 and John who was in Connecticut by 1651 and later settled in Stonington. Lester Fish Wing’s 1948 book The Fish Family in England and America covered these lines.

The main lines went as follows:

  • from Cape Cod. Many Fish remained there. Samuel Fish and his son Thomas fought in the Revolutionary War. Eliel Fish was a captain of whaling ships in he 1850’s.
  • from John in Connecticut came Asa Fish and the Fish active in shipping and shipbuilding in Mystic, Connecticut during the 19th century. The Asa Fish House, built in 1824, is still standing.
  • from Thomas in Rhode Island came three Preserved Fish, the first a blacksmith and the third a successful shipping entrepreneur in the whale oil market in New York City in the early 1800’s. There was also a Fish line that had moved south to Edgecombe county, North Carolina in the 1730’s.

Jonathan Fish had left Cape Cod for Long Island in the 1650’s. From this Jonathan came the illustrious Hamilton Fish line, the first Hamilton being US Secretary of State from 1869 to 1877 and three latter Hamilton Fish all serving as US Congressmen. When Hamilton Fish III celebrated his 102nd birthday in 1990, he was the oldest living American who had served in Congress.

Another Fish line in New England began with Captain George Fish who arrived in Nantucket from England sometime in the 1750’s. He eventually settled in what became Kennebec county in Maine, but then died at sea. His only son Bolton died during the War of 1812. Bolton left twelve children.

One of Bolton’s sons Randall, born in 1795, was in later life a riverboat captain on the Potomac. His fourth son was named Hamilton Fish (after the politician) and was born when Randall was 75. When Randall died five years later he ended up in an orphanage. Known as Albert Fish, he would become a notorious child serial killer who was eventually caught and executed in 1936.

Other Fish. Two later Fish families that departed from Lancashire were:

  • from Darwen, William Fish a mason and his wife Jane in 1841 on the Astracan. Jane died at sea only a few days before the ship arrived in New York.
  • and from Accrington, another William Fish a stone cutter and his wife Winifred in 1849. They made their home in Gambier, Ohio where William owned a quarry and helped build Christ Church at the Quarry in 1862.

Australia.  Fyshes from two different but related London families came to Tasmania and made their mark there:

  • Phlip Fysh came in 1859 and was a leading merchant in Hobart.  He was subsequently twice Premier of Tasmania, once in the late 1870’s and second in the late 1880’s.
  • while Frederick Fysh arrived three years later and made his home in Launceston.  His grandson Hudson Fysh was an early aviator who co-founded the Australian airline Qantas in 1920.

New Zealand.  H.S. Fish & Son was a painting and glazing company that Henry Fish from London had established with his son when they moved to Dunedin, SI in 1863. Henry Fish jr. had a long and tempestuous career in politics in Dunedin over a period of thirty years.

Fish Surname Miscellany

The Fish Family at Blacksnape in Darwen.  The Blackburn Weekly Telegraph ran the following story on February 14 1914 on the Fish family in the Blacksnape district of Old Darwen.

“Blacksnape, part of Old Darwen, has undergone change during the past century. There are few men living today who personally know the Blacksnape of other days.  But one of them is William Fish and he told me its story.

The Fish family of Barrons Fold are of ancient Blacksnape stock.  John Fish and William Fish, the sons of Fish Fish, were born in the house where William Fish, the latter’s son, now 83 years of age, was also born and still lives.  A part of the house, regarded as the “new part,” was added to the old part in 1776 and the date-plate of the porch records its erection in 1792.

‘Blacksnape has changed a lot since I was a lad,’ Mr. Fish said.  ‘Four houses stood out on the road and a hawthorn hedge round them, but they have gone. We don’t hear the click of the handloom as we did in the days when it was said it could be heard all the way from Blackburn to Bolton.  There is no handloom weaving now in Blacksnape.  My father was, like the rest, a handloom weaver and he also made handlooms.

John Fish o’ Baron’s was the Blacksnape politician and was known as Jack o’ Billy’s.  He was one who got a newspaper and therefore a man of importance. The carriers had to bring the newspaper once a week when they bought wares.  Sometimes they forgot and someone had to be sent on foot all the way to Blackburn with 7d to get a copy.  When it came to Blacksnape word went around.  The folks would gather together, a farthing candle would be lit, and by its light the news of the week would be read out.’”

Fish Fish, recorded above, was born in 1771, the son of William Fish.

Reader Feedback – Stephen Fish UK Antecedents.  As noted in the Fish DNA project linked on your page, the Stephen Fish line in the USA (my line) is not related to the Great Bowden Fish families.  We are still looking for our antecedents in England.

Do you know of any Fish-centric genealogists who could help track down Fish families in the Blackpool and Blackburn areas of Lancashire?  Would love to correspond and get some of them to do the YDNA test at Family Tree DNA to find the family of origin of Stephen Fish.

Jerry Fish (

Bad Fish.  Seven-year-old Emily Holland had a new “friend.”  Excitedly she told the other kids in Birley Street, Blackburn, where she lived, about the nice man.  She had met him in the street and now she was going off to run an errand for him.

Emily was never seen again after that.  At the end of a two-day search police found her legs and her torso, minus the head and arms, in a field.  The torso revealed she had been violently raped, her throat had been cut and she had been dismembered.  The body parts were wrapped in old copies of the Preston Herald.  Two weeks later Robert Taylor, a tramp, was arrested after local children said he had been talking to them.

But local suspicion centered on a Blackburn shopkeeper named William Fish who traded in Moss Street near Birley Street.  Police investigated and found copies of the Preston Herald in a corner of his shop which had issues missing corresponding exactly with those found wrapped round Emily’s body parts.

A local man offered the use of his bloodhound to help find the child’s head and arms and some of her clothing.  The dog was taken to Fish’s shop where it began barking determinedly at the fireplace.  Police looked up the chimney and found bloody copies of the Manchester Courier wrapped around the rest of Emily’s body parts.

A lynch party had gathered outside the shop and Fish had to be smuggled out the back way to the police station. The tramp was released and Fish was hanged on August 14th, 1876 at Kirkdale Prison in Liverpool.

Preserved Fish.  To have a name such as Preserved Fish may seem utterly strange today, but was perhaps less strange among Quakers of the 17th and 18th centuries when names with a religious connotation were commonplace.  Indeed this name could not have been considered strange at all as it had been handed down from father to son to grandson.

Preserved was in fact pronounced in three syllables as “pre-ser-ved.” It is thought to have been a shortening of the expression “Preserved in Grace” or “Preserved from Sin.”

The three recorded Preserved Fish – all born in Portsmouth, Rhode Island  were:

  • Preserved Fish (1679-1745)
  • Preserved Fish (1713-1813)
  • Preserved Fish (1766-1846)

As a youth the last-named Preserved Fish had shipped to the Pacific on a whaler, becoming its captain at the age of 21. He soon realized that his fortune lay in selling whale oil, not in getting it.

In 1810 he went into the whale oil business in New York with his cousin Cornelius Grinnell and they later later founded the shipping firm of Fish & Grinnell.  Within a few years, owing to Preserved’s keen business acumen, the company had become one of New York’s most influential firms.

Preserved was married three times, but he never had any biological children (although he did adopt one son).  So the Preserved name in his family ended with him.

But the Preserved Fish name did continue with another line of the family that had moved to Vermont.  The last named here, Preserved Offensend Fish, died in Wyoming in 1935.

Reader Feedback – Nathaniel Fish of Cape Cod.  I am a descendant of Nathaniel Fish from Leicestershire, later moving to Sandwich, Cape Cod.  I would like to find out more about my relatives.

Joseph Fish (

Captain George Fish.  Some accounts have him originating from Somerset.  He showed up in Nantucket off Massachusetts in the 1750’s. He married Jerusha Clark there and traveled up and down the New England coastline with his Clark in-laws in search of a suitable homestead.

They tried Nova Scotia first.  However, it was said that they got tired of eating nothing but fish and potatoes.  They then sailed along the Maine coast until they found the mouth of the Kennebec river.  They followed the Kennebec up to Jones Plantation and decided that this was the place.

George farmed and ran a sawmill with his brother-in-law Ephraim Clark.  But his real love was for the sea.  At some point he sailed to England and on the return trip was lost at sea.

The Hamilton Fish Line.  Nicholas Fish (1758-1833), a colonel in the Continental Army and prominent Federalist politician, married to Elizabeth Stuyvesant.  They lived in the Stuyvesant-Fish House (still standing) in Greenwich village.

  • Hamilton Fish (1808-1893), New York Governor and Senator and US Secretary of State from 1869 to 1877, married to Julia Kean.  He was named after Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and a friend of his parents.
  • — Nicholas Fish II (1846-1902), the US Minister to Belgium from 1882 to 1887, married to Clemence Bryce.
  • — Hamilton Fish (1873-1898), one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, killed during the Spanish-American War.
  • — Hamilton Fish II (1849-1936), US Congressman, married to Emily Mann.
  • — Hamilton Fish III (1888-1991), US Congressman, married to Grace Chapin.
  • —- Hamilton Fish IV (1926-1996), US Congressman, married to Julia MacKenzie.
  • —– Hamilton Fish V (born 1952), owner of The Nation political magazine, married to Sandra Harper. 
  • — Stuyvesant Fish (1851-1923), President of Illinois Central Railroad, married to Mamie Althon.  They were leaders in New York and Newport society.

Because of the marriage between Hamilton Fish and Julia Kean, there was a close relationship between the Fish family and the Keans, another family of politics.   Hamilton F. Kean was a grand-nephew of Hamilton Fish and served as US Senator for New Jersey from 1929 to 1935.  His grandson Thomas H. Kean was the Governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990. 

The Abuse of Henry Fish.  Henry Fish entered politics in New Zealand in 1868 at the age of thirty with his election as a Dunedin city counsellor.  However, his early attempts to attract public attention were met with scathing ridicule.  Throughout his career he received some of the harshest criticism directed at any of the city’s politicians.

He was reviled by the press as conceited, unmannered and untrustworthy.  Constant puns were made on his name; he was, for instance, called ‘the Talking Fish’ and was said to resemble a member of the cuttle species because of the amount of ink he threw when attacked.

Easily antagonized, his speeches were often abusive and he participated in some disgraceful brawls. It was a joke around Parliament that ‘in England we used to go to Billingsgate for our fish; here we go to Fish for our Billingsgate.’  His vanity was notorious: ‘His very walk about the legislative buildings, as also his manner, indicated a feeling on his part that he alone was fit to be Governor, Premier and dictator.’

Fish Names

  • Simon Fish was a 16th century Protestant reformer and propagandist, best known for spreading Tyndale’s New Testament and for authoring vehement anti-clerical pamphlets.
  • Preserved Fish was a prominent New York shipping merchant of the early 19th century.
  • Hamilton Fish was a 19th century American politician and statesman who served as US Secretary of State from 1869 to 1877. 
  • Hudson Fysh was one of the founders of the Australian airline Qantas in 1920. 
  • Michael Fish was the BBC weatherman who infamously dismissed advanced warnings of the Great Storm in England in 1987.

Fish Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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