Foster/Forster Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Foster Surname Meaning

There have been a number of explanations as to how the name “Foster” originated in England.

The main line is that Foster is a contracted spelling of Forester, a term which described an official in charge of a forest.  After Forester, Forster became the more usual spelling and then Foster established itself as the most widely used.  We do find evidence of the Foster name by the 13th century if the children’s nursery rhyme  Doctor Foster is anything to go by.

Foster may also derive from a shortened spelling of the olde English pre-7th century compound cild-fostre and as such is an occupational nickname for a foster parent or possibly a foster child.

Forster (with an umlaut) or Foerster is also a Germanic surname.  As in England, the name means forester or forest ranger.  For immigrants into America, the name has often been anglicized to Foster.

Foster Surname Resources on The Internet

Foster and Forster Surname Ancestry

  • from England and from Ireland (Galway)
  • to America, Caribs (Jamaica), Canada and Australia

England.  One family lineage of Fosters/Forsters has been carefully traced to pre-1066 times.  It dates back, according to the family research, to an early period in Flanders. The recorded history of the family begins with Anarcher, the Great Forester of Flanders, who died in the year 837.  The family name was at first Forester.

Forster.  In 1191 Sir John Forster, who accompanied Richard I during the Crusades, was granted Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. There the family resided for over five hundred years.

Border skirmishes, and at times real warfare, shaped these Forsters’ lives.  Most were warriors, earning their knighthoods from the battlefield.  Sir John Forster was the most eye-catching of these Forsters and Tom and Dorothy Forster the last of the dynasty, Tom having backed the doomed 1715 Jacobite revolt.

Many Forsters left the borders.  Roger Forster, who had fled south in the 1530’s after a border skirmish with the Kerrs, ended up in Hertfordshire. His family prospered there. His son Sir Thomas Foster, entombed in St. Mary’s church in Hunsdon, became a Chief Justice in London; as did subsequent Fosters from his line.  Forsters in Tynemouth date from the early 1600’s. After the Jacobite debacle, more Forsters settled there or in that Geordie town, Newcastle, or went west into Cumberland

Foster in Yorkshire.  The largest concentration of Fosters has been in Yorkshire.

The earliest sightings – in the mid-16th century – seem to have been in Ribblesdale (Brackenbottom) in the Yorkshire dales.  In the 1620’s, William Foster set up horse mills at Langcliffe near Settle to ground corn for malt for his own inn there and to sell to neighboring innkeepers. There were also Fosters in Wensleydale who later moved south to Slack near Hebden Bridge; and at Holme upon Spalding Moor in the East Ridings and later at Atwick on the coast.

But the Foster presence in Yorkshire really became much more noticeable in the 19th century, mainly as mill owners:

  • Joseph Foster’s mill at Horbury near Wakefield was the scene of a Luddite attack in 1812 by impoverished craft workers.
  • John Foster married well and built up his Black Dyke Mills at Queensbury, a hilltop village between Bradford and Halifax.  He prospered and bought a castle in Lancashire.
  • William Forster from Quaker roots in London set up his stall in Bradford.  Forster Square in the center of Bradford was named after him.
  • while Foster’s mill near Hebden Bridge was the place where one of the most prolonged strikes in the cotton industry occurred. It started in July 1906 and lasted for almost two and a half years.

Foster Elsewhere.  There were an early presence of the Foster name in Berkshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and Suffolk.  And Lady Elizabeth Foster has been a famous later presence.

In Worcesterhire, Henry Foster had moved to Stourbridge from Nantwich in Cheshire in the 1740’s.  His son, James Foster, was an early ironmaster there and the company that he built, John Bradley & Co, became one of the largest iron manufacturers in the Midlands.  The firm stayed under the family’s control until 1913.

At that time Worcestershire was sometimes jocularly known as Fostershire, but for a different reason.  The name came from the fact that no fewer than seven brothers from a Foster family in Malvern played for the Worcestershire county cricket club, three of whom captained the club at some point.

Ireland.  Forsters in Ireland date from an early time, being found on the west coast at Galway from the 15th century.  A number held the office of mayor or sheriff of Galway.  Galway today has a Forster Street and a Forster Court Hotel.  Inter-marriage with the Blakes, one of the so-called “original tribes of Galway,” created the Blake-Forsters who were prominent in the social life of Galway in the 19th century.

Forsters in Dublin also date from an early time. The name Robert Forster appeared in a 1489 document relating to the merchant’s quay on the river Liffey. These Forsters became over time one of the well-connected and well-to-do families in Dublin. Their numbers included Sir John Foster, the last Speaker of the Irish Parliament before its dissolution in 1800. Forster by then had become Foster.

Fosters as Fosters were to be found in Louth to the south of Dublin from the time Samuel Foster arrived in the 1660’s, supposedly as a “mower of hay.” He became a tenant farmer at Dunleer.

His grandson, Anthony Foster, prospered in the legal profession and established himself and his family in Collon. And his son, John Foster, became Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early 19th century. The Fosters briefly owned Cabra Castle which has recently been renovated as a country house hotel.

America.  New England and Virginia were first points of immigration for Fosters in America.

New England.  Early arrivals were:

  • Thomas and William Foster on the Hercules from Suffolk in 1634.
  • Reginald Foster and his family from Exeter who came in 1636.  He himself lived onto the ripe old age of eighty-nine and was described by his descendants as “the venerable patriarch of the family in America.”
  • while Ann Foster who had arrived from Essex with her husband on the Abigail in 1635, got caught up in the Salem witch trials.  She was in fact convicted and died in prison in 1693 before the trials were discredited.

Two brothers from Surrey, Christopher and Thomas Foster,  arrived in New England in 1635, but soon moved to New York.  They first purchased land on the south shore of Long Island, “Foster’s Meadow” (now the site of the Belmont horseracing track).  Christopher then settled in Southampton, Thomas in what is now Little Neck.

New England Fosters became renowned Cape Cod sea captains in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Chillingsworth Foster was one of the first settlers at Brewster on Cape Cod.   Brewster town records document no fewer than thirteen Foster sea captains after him, including Freeman Foster.  The Chillingsworth Foster homestead stayed with their family for almost three hundred years and has been converted in recent times into a premier restaurant.

Virginia.  Several Richard Fosters came to Virginia in the 1630’s (including one with a Northumbrian pedigree).  But it is not clear which of these was the forebear of the Robert Foster who married Elizabeth Garnett and set up a plantation in Essex County in 1692.

Many Fosters in the South trace their ancestry from this Robert Foster.  These Fosters settled in Wilkes county, North Carolina and in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Others went to Tennessee and later to Texas.  Another Foster family moved to Mississippi and Louisiana where they were sugar planters and later established a political dynasty.

Heading West.  Philip Foster from Maine was one of Oregon’s earliest settlers, arriving there by ship via Cape Horn and Hawaii in 1843.  The frame house that he built at Eagle Creek has been preserved as a tourist attraction.  Then it was the first welcome sign of habitation for strugglers along the Oregon trail.  Four Foster families were on those first wagon trains in 1847.  Not all of them made it.

“Foster’s wagon broke a wheel on rock and tipped over.  Their youngest boy was trapped and hurt very bad.  Molly Foster cried when she heard the wolves.  How can we protect his body from this vermin if he dies tonight?”

The next day they would bury the young Foster boy in the hard rocky ground and then run their wagons over and over the grave in an attempt to hide it from the wolves.

Two years later, the Rev. Isaac Foster endured an even more arduous journey lasting eighteen months, from Illinois to Sacramento in California.   His journal, Lost in a Mountain Fastness, recounted a story of hunger and extreme hardship along the way.

Caribbean.  Colonel John Foster from Surrey arrived in Jamaica in 1655 with the Venables and Penn expedition which took Jamaica from the Spanish.  He was granted estates in St. Elizabeth parish which his descendants held until the 1880’s.

Fosters also were early sugar planters in Jamaica, arriving there from Bedfordshire around the same time.  These plantation days are long gone.  But Foster descendants and the Foster name remain in Jamaica.

Canada.  Thomas Foster was a property developer in Toronto in the early 1900’s who later served as mayor of the city; while a late 19th and early 20th century portraitist in Toronto was John Forster.  Today Victoria on Vancouver Island is the home of David Foster, the record producer, and Gipp Forster, the radio broadcaster.

Australia.  In Australia, the word Fosters means beer, the famous lager which is sold there and all over the world.  But there was no great Foster beer family.  Two American brothers, William and Ralph Foster, arrived in Australia and started their Fosters beer plant in Melbourne in 1888.  However, they soon sold out their interest, returned back to New York, and nothing was heard from them again.

Foster Family History in Sussex

My own Foster family line is in Sussex on the south coast of England.  It started in misery and poverty in the industrial north, first in Bolton and then near Leeds.  But Joseph Foster escaped this desperation in the 1870’s when he joined the army and became in time a sergeant major.

It was at the military barracks at Shoebury in Essex that he was best man to his friend’s wedding.  Amazingly his friend died of pneumonia just nine days later and, soon afterwards, she became Joseph’s wife.  They moved to Brighton in the 1890’s.

Just click below if you want to read more about this:

Foster and Forster Surname Miscellany

The Doctor Foster Nursery Rhyme.  The origins of Doctor Foster reputedly lie in English history dating back to the Plantagenet  monarchy of the 13th century when King Edward I (“Doctor Foster”) was thought to have visited Gloucester and fell from his horse into a large muddy puddle!

  • “Doctor Foster
  • Went to Gloucester
  • In a shower of rain.
  • He stepped in a puddle
  • Right up to his middle
  • And never went there again!”

King Edward 1 was a powerful man – over six foot tall – hence his nickname of Longshanks.  He is said to have been so humiliated by this experience that he refused to ever visit Gloucester again!

However, some have said that the Doctor Foster rhyme did not come until later.  Royalist forces were besieging Gloucester in 1642 during the Civil War.  But because of the bad weather they failed in their attempt and had to retreat.

Sir John Forster.  Sir John Forster was the most fearsome of the Border warriors.  He was still fighting in his seventies.  Sir Walter Scott described him in full charge as follows:

  • “We looked down the other side
  • And saw some breasting ower the brae
  • Wi’ Sir John Forster for their Guyde
  • Full fifteen hundred and mae.”

Sir John sired many children, both legitimate and illegitimate.  On his death at the grand old age of 85, he blew one third of his estate on a pre-arranged funeral feast.

Tom and Dorothy Forster.  Tom and Dorothy Forster were the last in the line of Northumberland Forsters.  Tom had been one of the ringleaders of the 1715 Jacobite Revolt.  For this he had almost paid with his life.  He escaped to France where he died in 1738.  Dorothy married a local blacksmith.  She died in 1767 and was buried besides those of her earlier kin in the Forster crypt under St. Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh.

The portrait of Dorothy Forster hangs in a tower of the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland.  This used to be the Forsters’ manor house and was later the home of Dorothy’s aunt and uncle, Lady Dorothy and Lord Nathaniel Crewe.

Dorothy’s spirit is still believed to haunt one wing of the Lord Crewe Arms.  There have been many claims of ghostly sightings, particularly in what is referred to as “Dorothy Forster’s Sitting Room.”  The ghost is described by those who have seen it is that of a russet or auburn red-haired beautiful young woman or teenage girl who seems to be sadly searching for something or someone.  Some say that the object of her search is a new-born baby which appears to have been born out of wedlock and was taken away by her family to avoid a scandal.

The russet-hair coloring is worthy of comment, insofar as red-brown hair, although not so powerful today as it once was, is a genetic trait of the Forster clan.

Foster Mill Owner Buys Castle.  One of the best known and biggest worsted mills in Yorkshire was that of John Foster & Son Ltd.  Their Black Dyke Mills lay on a hilltop village midway between Bradford and Halifax.  Its founder John Foster came from nearby Clayton.

He began by putting yarn out to be woven, collecting the finished pieces and selling them in Halifax.  Later he built a warehouse in Queensbury.  The warehouse became a mill, the mill expanded, and John Foster prospered so much so that he bought Hornby Castle in the 1850’s as his family home.

After the purchase he wandered into an inn on his new estate.  John Foster was famous for affecting the dress and manner of an ordinary working man.  The landlord, who was engaged in conversation with some of his customers of the “better class,” ordered Foster into the taproom.  He joined him later and condescended to share his woes with him.

“The estate’s been bought by one of them Yorkshire mill owners,” he said.  “I’ve a new landlord.”

“Aye, that’s right,” John Foster replied.  “It’s me.”

Reader Feedback.  Forster in Kent (Isle of Sheppey).  My ancestor was Thomas Forster a tin plate worker who was born about 1800. He married Hannah Seymour in 1830 in Minster on the Isle of Sheppey. The 1841 census states that he was born outside of Kent.  Unfortunately he appears to have died prior to the 1851 census.

My guess is that he came from the North down to the steel mills on the island, but he has been impossible to trace. Our interest is also because recent updates in DNA testing suggests that I have a Scottish background although there is no history of this in my family. One of the few branches I haven’t been able to explore is Forster and I wonder if there could be a Scottish connection.

Kind Regards,  Dorothy Baker (

Lady Elizabeth Foster and Her Offspring.  This account cannot really be complete without narrating the extraordinary story of Lady Elizabeth Foster and her offspring.  She was not born a Foster; but married one.  After they had separated, she became one of the most notorious courtesans of the Regency age.

Her legitimate son Sir Augustus was – under the patronage of the Duke of Devonshire – a diplomat in Washington in the early days of the new republic.  This assignment ended with the War of 1812 and, later in his life, he became depressed and killed himself on Brownsea island in Dorset.

His son Vere Foster, born into wealth and privilege. saw at first hand the effects of the potato famine in Ireland and then devoted the rest of his life to the problems of the Irish poor.  He gave most of his money away and died almost penniless.

Reader Feedback – George Foster’s Past Life in Clogher, Tyrone.  I’ve been searching for info on my grandpa George Foster who was born in Clogher in Tyrone, Ireland in 1883.  He always said that he was a foundling born in the workhouse there.

But the evidence has showed something different.  A census taken in 1900 showed him at the age of 17 as a farm servant living at James Trimble’s home at Balagh House near Clogher and a woman named Elizabeth Foster, aged 52, who was the housekeeper there.  This is all I know as he left Ireland around that time to come to Glasgow with my gran Maggie Maguire from nearby Fivemiletown.

But today I came across a story from 1904 in the British newspapers about James Trimble being killed or murdered by Samuel Foster, the son of Elizabeth Foster, at that address. He was with two other men at the time.  Mr. Trimble had been wakened from a sleep in his room and had gone to the men with a pitchfork, but was kicked by Foster and fell and banged his head – or so they claimed.  The men were tried and sent to Armagh prison.

I don’t know any more or if Samuel was my grandfather’s brother, uncle or whatever. I’d love to find out more though.  The woman in the house might have been my great gran who went by the shortened name of Bessie Foster.

Irene Robertson in Glasgow (

Freeman Foster of Brewster.  Brewster was a seafaring town on Cape Cod and Freeman Foster was one of its most prominent sea captains.  He was described as follows:

“Freeman Foster began seafaring at the age of ten on fishing trips with his father David Foster who had been a whaler.  As far as is known, he captained the Ten Brothers, made several voyages on the Rice Plant, and superintended the building of the Choctaw in Bristol, Maine.

His line of work was between Boston and the West Indies, New Orleans, and the Russian ports of Archangel and Kronstadt.  Captain Foster was of commanding presence, standing over six feet in height, and stout in proportion.”

Fosters in Mississippi and Louisiana.  One Foster branch from South Carolina crossed the Appalachians to Mississippi while it was still Spanish territory.   The 1792 Spanish register for Natchez in the Mississippi valley lists them as Marta Foster (Mary the mother) and her four sons, Juan, Jaime, Guillermo and Tomas.  They were tobacco and cotton farmers.

The sons did well.  John Foster was active in local politics and later became one of the pioneer settlers in Texas.  James Foster stayed in Natchez (his descendants are still to be found along Foster’s Mound Road); as did Thomas Foster, the youngest, who prospered as a farmer.

Thomas had three sons, Levi, Thomas, and James, who lived and played hard.  Levi benefited from his wife’s inheritance money; Thomas had a reputation for drinking; but James was perhaps the most erratic of the three.  Matters came to a head in Natchez in 1834 when he abused and killed his wife. In those lawless times, he was able to get acquitted.

Thomas Foster Jr. built the Oaklawn Manor sugar plantation in Franklin, Louisiana in 1837.  It ran with sixty slaves in the years before emancipation.  And this family spawned a political dynasty in the state.  Murphy Foster was Governor of Louisiana from 1892 to 1900 and Mike Foster Jr. from 1996 to 2004.

Reader Feedback – African Americans at Foster Natchez Plantation?  I’ve been tracing my families’ genealogy, along with my mother.  We are African American, so it’s been a little tougher, but we’ve made some great progress.

On my father’s side, we’ve traced back to a Louisa Foster, born in 1856 in Mississippi.  She is my great-great-great-grandmother.  I’ve been digging into the Foster name and all I can really seem to find in Mississippi is the famous Thomas Foster name and plantation in Natchez.  Would you happen to have the slave records of any of the brothers/sisters etc. for the Fosters during this time period?

Archie Jones (

Reader Feedback – William Foster of Columbus, Ohio.  I’m having a hard time finding information on the family of my grandmother.  She was Dorothy Foster and she was the daughter of William Foster of Columbus, Ohio.

Donald Brantley (

Reader Feedback – A German Foster Line in Ohio.  I’m trying to find the roots of my branch of the Foster tree. I’ve traced it to Rev. Willhelm Georg Foster who was a Lutheran Minister and landowner in Ohio. He and his wife Magdalene Foster nee Daniel had a large family which included my four times great grandfather Henry (1785-1863).

I believe Wilhelm came from Germany, but I’ve lost the trail. Any help would be appreciated.

Douglas Foster (

Fosters in Jamaica.  Fosters were early sugar planters in Jamaica, arriving there from Bedfordshire in the 1650’s.  Their Jamaican Bogue plantation lay on the Black river in St. Elizabeth parish.  This family was pro-slavery in the early 19th century.  Their slave labor was pushed hard, as the following contemporary account reveals:

“Every morning from the first dawn of day, the shell was blown to call the slaves to work.  Each gang walked off to the fields under the direction of a driver armed with a long whip.  The gangs went to work and toiled all day in the sun, their only covering being a cloth around their loins.  Later in the evening, the work was examined by the overseer.  Those with whom he was dissatisfied, whether man or woman, were ordered to be flogged.”

These plantation days are long gone.  Stanley and Amy Foster opened Chatham Cottages in Montego Bay in 1934.  With their seven children, they hung on through the depression and World War 2 until Montego Bay blossomed as a resort in the 1950’s.

Foster and  Forster Names

  • Doctor Foster, the subject of a children’s nursery rhyme, is said to be based on King Edward I.
  • Sir John Forster of Bamburgh was Warden of the  Middle Marches of the Border during Elizabethan times.
  • Tom Forster was the last of the Bamburgh dynasty.  His backing of the 1715 Jacobite Revolt proved very costly.
  • Lady Elizabeth Foster was a notorious courtesan of the Regency age.  She is most remembered for her “menage a trois” with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
  • Stephen Foster from Pittsburgh was a popular American songwriter of the 1840’s and 1850’s.  His songs such as Oh! Susanna, Beautiful Dreamer, and Swanee River continue to be popular.
  • E.M. Forster, the English author of novels such as Howard’s End and A Passage To India, was born in London in 1879.
  • Sir Norman (now Baron) Foster, born to a working class family in Manchester, emerged in the 1960’s as one of England’s leading architects.

Foster and Forster Numbers Today

  • 68,000 in the UK (most numerous in West Midlands)
  • 84,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 51,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *