Fleming Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Fleming Surname Meaning

Fleming is a surname in English-speaking countries. It usually points to an ancestral origin in and emigration from Flanders.  Flemings came to England at an early time. There were extensive ties between Flanders and the British Isles later in the Middle Ages, with numerous Flemings arriving as merchants or weavers.

At this time Flanders was the hub of the European textile trade and many Flemings were offered incentives to set up their trade here, particularly in Scotland. Some of this emigration happened so long ago that the name has been retained while the ethnic connection has been lost. An alternative spelling of the surname is Flemming.

The Irish Gaelic name is Pleimeann. German variants include Flaming, Flahming, and Flehmig; Dutch variants Vlaming and Vlaaderen. The Flemings of Louhisaari were a Swedish noble family whose forebears had migrated to Swedish-ruled Finland.The one place where there are few Flemings is Flanders. There are only 125 in Belgium and 100 in Holland.

Fleming Surname Resources on The Internet

Fleming Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland, Northern England, Wales and Ireland
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Scotland. The Flemish influx into Scotland began when they were driven out of England as alien traders by Henry II in the 12th century. They set themselves up in the wool trade on the Scottish borders, first at Berwick and later at Dumfries.

Other Flemings were influential in Lanarkshire:.

  • Robert Fleming was a supporter of Robert the Bruce and his son Malcolm was made the Earl of Wigton.  Flemings from this family were appointed Lord High Chamberlains of Scotland and were later close to Mary, Queen of Scots. This line died out in Scotland in the 18th century.
  • another Fleming family from Stonehouse in Lanarkshire has descendants today in Canada and New Zealand.

The Fleming surname has cropped up in various other places in Scotland. There was the Laird Cragganfearn Fleming in Perthshire. David Fleming was an 18th century Glasgow merchant whose descendants were graziers in Australia.

Migrants to London.  Robert Fleming married Girsal Buttar in Perthshire around 1805.  His descendant Robert Fleming was a jute baron in Dundee in the 1880’s and then set up his own international merchant bank in London. His grandson was Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books. Roddie Fleming sold the family business in 2000 to Chase Manhattan Bank.

Another Scot who migrated to London was Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin in 1929 at St. Mary’s hospital in Paddington.

England. Two weavers Constancius and Reginaldus Flemmyng – names which suggested they were recent arrivals from Flanders – were recorded in the 1379 poll tax records of Redenhall in Norfolk.

In England, however, the Fleming name was generally to be found in the north of the country, in particular in what is now Cumbria. These may also have been early Flemish settlers. A Michael le Fleming was recorded at Aldingham in the Lake District in 1150. The le Fleming seat there for many centuries was Rydal Hall (this family history is recounted in Ann Galbraith’s The Fleming Family of Rydal Hall).  The family emigrated to New Zealand in the 1850’s.

A Fleming family from Wath near Rotherham in the West Riding of Yorkshire dates from Reiner Fleming in the 12th century. This family produced Richard Fleming, the Bishop of Lincoln in 1419. They too have long departed the scene. Flemings in Lancashire are more likely to be of Irish origin.

Fleming has been less in evidence in the south of England. The Flemings of Stoneham in Hampshire descended from Sir Thomas Fleming, the Lord Chief Justice in James I’s time. This Fleming estate had become very extensive by the end of the 19th century. But the ancestral home at Stoneham Park has since been demolished and the estate broken up.

Wales. There was a Flemish enclave left at Llangwm after their initial settlement in Pembrokeshire in the 12th century.  Flemish craftsmen built its Church of St. Jerome around 1185. However, Fleming as a surname has hardly figured there.

Ireland. A Fleming family, starting from John Fleming in the 15th century and possibly much earlier, were lords of Slane in county Meath. Many Flemings were prominent in the church at that time. Flemings became landowners in Sligo in the 1650’s.  However, the Meath Flemings lost their holdings in 1690 when the Jacobites were defeated.

Other Flemings were Scots settlers in Ulster from the 17th century. These included the Flemings from Tyrone in Cookstown and Dromore and the Flemings from Derry in Kenoght.

America. The Flemings who came to America tended to be either Scottish or Scots Irish.

Scottish.  Alexander Fleming came to Virginia in 1649 with other adherents of Charles I and purchased land in Lancaster county. He was, according to family tradition (although not confirmed), from the Scots Wigton Flemings. These Flemings subsequently lived at Rock Castle in Goochland county. Captain John Fleming fought and died in the Revolutionary War.

William Fleming from Scotland was an early settler in Chester county, Pennsylvania in 1714. Another William Fleming, also from Scotland, arrived in Kent, Delaware in 1740.  The Flemings in Pitt, North Carolina, where David Fleming was born in 1755, may also have come from Delaware. Benjamin Fleming, an African American, did come from that state.

Scots Irish.  Samuel Fleming, Scots-Irish from county Antrim, arrived in Savannah, Georgia with his family in 1768. Another Scots-Irish Samuel Fleming, this time from county Tyrone, had come to New Jersey around 1740 and was the founder of the township now called Flemington.

A third Samuel Fleming, of uncertain origin, was a pioneer in Tennessee –  owning land in 1778 where Knoxville now stands.  His son David came to the Mud River area of Muhlenberg county, Kentucky around 1815.  He was married twice.  The children of his first wife stayed in Muhlenberg county, those of his second wife moved to Butler county.  Bobby Anderson’s 1991 book The Fleming Family covered these lines.

Another Scots-Irish immigrant, George Fleming, came to St. Augustine in Florida in the late 1700’s and received a land grant from the Spanish authorities. Fleming Island was named after him in 1790 and his Hibernia plantation was located near Jacksonville. His descendant Francis Fleming was a segregationist Governor of Florida a century later.  Scott Ritchie’s 2019 book The Flemings of Fleming Island covered this family.

Canada. John Fleming emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1803 and became one of Montreal’s leading merchants. During his lifetime he amassed the largest library of books in Canada. However, he died early, at the age of forty six.

Sandford Fleming came with his brother David to Ontario in 1845. Two years later he established the Royal Canadian Institute and designed the first Canadian postage stamp.  He was subsequently known as a railway surveyor and the proponent of worldwide standard time zones.

Flemings from Ireland came to Newfoundland, most notably Michael Fleming, the Catholic bishop who arrived there in 1823. For the next twenty five years he expanded the position of the Catholic church in the colony and looked after the incoming Irish immigrants.  Legend has it that he devised the tricolor flag of Newfoundland.

Australia. Joseph Fleming, a soldier, and his wife Mary Ann arrived on the Third Fleet in 1791 and were among the first to receive a land settlement. A later generation was involved in incidents of Aborigine killings, John in the Myall Creek massacre and brother Joe in further massacres in SW Queensland. Joe started up one of Queensland’s first sawmills, Bremer Mills, in the early 1850’s.

William and Isabella Fleming came to Sydney from county Tyrone in Ireland in 1835 on the Clyde.  John Fleming arrived there in 1855 on the epidemic-stricken Constitution which was immediately put into quarantine.

Jim Fleming was a pioneer of Sydney discount supermarkets in the 1930’s, which his son carried on. When their Fleming and Jewel chains were eventually sold, Jim junior became one of the wealthiest men in Australia. Like his father, he had a love for the horses.

Fleming Surname Miscellany

Flemings in Scotland.  In England in 1154, when Henry II expelled all aliens as encroachers on English trade, many Flemings were compelled to seek fortune and refuge in Scotland.

At that time the Border counties obtained most of their revenue from wool.  The arrival of these banished Flemings was remarkably opportune for they were favored in the knowledge of weaving all manner of articles from wool.  Trade opened up, through them, with the rich wool merchants of Flanders.

During excavations in 1927 of a new theater at Hide Hill in Berwick, a quantity of human bones was discovered, recalling the dramatic circumstances of Flemish settlement there.  They are believed to be the bones of Flemings who had traded in wools and hides there.  When the King of England captured Berwick in 1296, Red Hall was set on fire and the Flemings were buried in its ruins.

There were two other important immigration waves into Scotland of Flemish craftsmen: the first in the latter half of the 16th century and consisting of Flemish refugee Protestants; and the second towards the end of the 17th century and consisting almost entirely of Flemish Huguenots.  Every Scottish town of note seems to have encouraged Flemish immigration at some period in its history and had Flemish traders and craftsmen. As one commentator described it:

“Flemish enterprise deserves consideration because it had a broadening and deepening effect on the life and character of the people they settled amongst.  The only evidence of an alien strain that remains is the perpetuation of the surname Fleming.”

Flemings in Ireland.  An English chronicler gave as the first of the family Stephen of Flanders.  He first assumed the name of Flanders or Fleming to show the nationality of his forefathers. The Irish descendents of Stephen said that Stephan’s father, Archembald, a nobleman of Flanders, came from the continent with William the Conqueror and acquired the lordshoip of Bratton in Devon.

Stephen Flanders or Fleming had a son Archembald or Archibald who was said to have come over to Ireland with Strongbow around 1173.  He would have been the ancestor of the Irish family of Flemings who become the lords of the estate of Slane in county Meath.  There were twenty-three recorded generations of Barons Slane.  However, the title became dormant following the death of Colonel Christopher Fleming, the last Baron Slane, in exile in 1726.

Captain John Fleming in the Revolutionary War.  John Fleming was a captain in the First Virginia Regiment of the Continental Line.  Towards the end of the year 1776 his regiment marched northward and joined the American forces about Philadelphia under Washington.  He commanded his regiment at the battle on Princeton on January 3, 1777.

There the Americans were being forced back, several companies had broken and fled, and there was a danger of a general stampede. Washington was alarmed and rode forward at great peril to attempt to stem the retreat.  He rode his horse between his men and the British, only thirty yards apart, and became the target of the enemy’s fire, but was providentially preserved.

“It was at this moment when disaster seemed imminent that the First Virginia, led by young Captain Fleming, came out of the woods cheering and shouting.”  The Virginians engaged in a bayonet duel with the British during which the 22 year old Fleming and the 19 year old Batholomew Yates were mortally stabbed.

On January 24, 1777, the following notice appeared in the Virginia Gazette:

“By accounts from the northward, we have the melancholy news of the death of Captain John Fleming of the First Virginia Regiment, who proved himself to be a gallant officer and nobly fell on the third instant, near Trenton, at the head of his company in defense of American freedom.  He was universally esteemed by those who were acquainted with him and his loss is much regretted.”

Benjamin Fleming, an African American Story.  Benjamin Fleming was born in Lewistown, Delaware in 1782.  He was of African Scotch descent and was considered a “mulatto” (one of mixed black and white ancestry) in the language of the time.  In his early years he was a seaman on Delaware coasting and pilot boats.

When war was declared against Britain in 1812, he was among the sailors to volunteer for service on the Great Lakes.   He served with Lieutenant Elliot in a daring raid when they captured the British ships Detroit and Caledonia that were anchored in the Niagara river.

In the spring of 1814, Fleming was discharged from the Navy when his term of service expired.  He remained in Erie after his discharge, possibly because of a Delaware law the prevented freed blacks from returning to that state.  Instead, he took over his father-in-law’s fishing business and expanded it by selling the fish door-to-door for a nickel.  It was this occupation which earned him the nickname “Bass” Fleming.

However, in his later years, he was compelled to depend on charity for support and for years received hardly enough to maintain a half-starved existence for himself and his family.  After he had died, his 77 year old widow, Catherine, applied in vain for a War of 1812 widow’s pension.  She was denied the $8 per month pension in 1872 “for want of proof of marriage and death of soldier.”

Sir Sandford Fleming.  In 1973 a historical plaque commemorating Sir Sandford Fleming was unveiled in the town where he was born, Kirkcaldy in Fifeshire.  It read:

“Sir Sandford Fleming, 1827-1915

Inventor of Standard Time and pioneer in world communications, Fleming was born in Kirkcaldy and trained in engineering before emigrating to Canada and settling at Peterborough, Ontario in 1845.  He soon moved to Toronto but retained a lifelong interest in his birthplace which he visited frequently.  In 1882 he was made a Burgess and Freeman of the town.

He was the builder of the Inter-colonial railway and as chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway conducted surveys of a trasns-continental route.  His proposal, presented to the Canadian Institute in 1879 outlining a worldwide uniform system for reckoning time and his advocacy of a cable route linking Canada with Australia, earned Fleming universal recognition.  He was knighted in 1897.”

Fleming’s concept of a uniform system for time gava rise to the International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884, at which the basis of today’s system of Standard Time was adopted.

The Flemings at Nettlebed.  The Fleming family involvement with the village of Nettlebed in the Chilterns began in 1903 when the merchant banker Robert Fleming purchased Joyce Grove, together with its 2,000 acres, kilns and clayworks, and many of its cottages.  The big house gave work at that time to many people, gardeners, grooms and house servants; while the kilns and potteries needed men to produce the bricks.

Many of the Fleming family were buried in Nettlebed churchyard.  This included Peter Fleming, the traveller and writer, and his wife Celia Johnson (who starred in the 1945 film Brief Encounter), but not his younger brother Ian (the James Bond author).  Current members of the Fleming family live locally, run the estate, and take an active part in village life.

Jim Fleming, Supermarkets and Horses.  Jim Fleming had left Scots College at 15 for the school of hard knocks on the shop floor in Darlinghurst.  He stayed with Woolworths for a decade from 1960 before leaving to buy the 42-store NSW grocery chain Warmans, which he relaunched as Jewel Food Stores in 1971.  Slicing prices to the bone, Fleming quickly built the chain to 96 supermarkets.

He would rise at 6 am, jog five kilometers or swim, do some physical jerks, visit the Sydney Turf Club and then go to work at Jewels.  After some deliberation, he sold the Jewel chain in 1995 to Davids Holdings, ending the family’s 60-year involvement in grocery retailing.  “I’m not going to retire,” he said. “I’d go balmy.”

He would instead devote more time to his sporting passions.  He had first gotten involved in racing as a teenager with his father, who owned Kilkee, a thoroughbred stud near Cowra.  He became a member of the Sydney Turf Club in 1967 and later its chairman.  And he was a busy breeder, with 40 broodmares at the Tyreel Stud at Richmond, NSW.  He died in 2007.

Fleming Names

  • Sir Thomas Fleming was the Lord Chief Justice who sentenced Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plotters in 1605.
  • Michael Fleming, a Catholic bishop, was regarded as the most influential Irish immigrant to have come to Newfoundland in the 19th century.
  • Sir Sandford Fleming was a Scots-born Canadian engineer and the creator of Standard Time.
  • Robert Fleming was a Scots financier from Dundee who founded the merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co.
  • Sir Alexander Fleming was the discoverer of penicillin in 1929, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1945.
  • Victor Fleming was the director of two classic American films, Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
  • Ian Fleming was the novelist and creator of James Bond.
  • Tommy Fleming from Sligo is one of Ireland’s top singers.

Fleming Numbers Today

  • 28,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lanarkshire)
  • 34,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 35,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Fleming and Like Surnames

These were names originally given to outsiders in the British Isles that became surnames.  Thus Walter the Scot became Walter Scott.  Outsiders could also have been Welsh, Irish, French or Flemish.  These are some of the “outsider” surnames which are covered here.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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