Foster/Forster Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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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.  Forster may also have been an inhabitant of Forst, a town in the Rheinpfalz.  For immigrants into America, the name has often been anglicized to Foster.

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England.  One family lineage of Fosters 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.

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.  Tom and Dorothy Forster were the last of this Forster dynasty, Tom having backed the doomed 1715 Jacobite revolt.

The next largest concentration of English Fosters was in Yorkshire.  The earliest sightings were in the Yorkshire dales.  Fosters there rose to prominence in the 19th century as mill owners, such as John Foster from Halifax.

Ireland.  Forsters in Ireland date from an early time.  Forsters were to be 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.  Forsters in Dublin date from 1489.  As Fosters they became by the 18th century one of the well-connected and well-to-do families there.

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

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.

Many Fosters in the South trace their ancestry from Robert Foster who set up a plantation in Essex County, Virginia in 1692.  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.   Fosters were also sugar planters in Barbados and Jamaica.

Caribbean.  Fosters were early sugar planters in Jamaica, arriving there from Bedfordshire in the 1650’s.  These plantation days are long gone.  But Foster descendants remain in Jamaica.

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.


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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 1 (“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. 

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 (

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.”

The Chillingsworth Foster homestead stayed with their family for almost three hundred years and has been converted in recent times into a premier restaurant.

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.

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.



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