Gilbert Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Gilbert Surname Meaning

The Gilbert surname is of Norman French origin – from Giselbert, a Norman personal name derived from the elements gisil, meaning “noble youth,” and berht, “bright” or “famous.”  Richard fitz Gilbert was a Norman lord who accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066. 

The Gilbert name then enjoyed considerable popularity during the Middle Ages as a result of the fame of St. Gilbert of Sempringham, the founder of the only native monastic order in England.   

There are also considerable numbers of Gilberts in France. Gilbert can be a Jewish name too. Examples today are the British historian Sir Martin Gilbert and the American tennis coach Brad Gilbert.                                

Gilbert Surname Resources on The Internet

Gilbert Surname Ancestry

  • from Western England and Channel Islands
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  The surname Gilbert has its earliest origins in the west country, in particular in Devon.

West Country. It was said that Gilbert or Jilbert possessed lands in the vicinity of Dartmoor at the time of Edward the Confessor.  The earliest recorded Gilbert was Thomas Gilbert who held Greenway near Dartmouth in the early 1300’s.

From this line in Elizabethan times came Sir John Gilbert, who remained at home, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the adventurer abroad. They were half-brothers to Sir Walter Raleigh. Compton Castle in Devon remained home to the Gilberts until 1785 (although a descendant does live in the place today). Later Gilberts of this family settled in Cornwall.

Other early Gilberts in the west country were:

  • the Gilberts of Holwell (South Milton) in Devon from sometime in the 15th century
  • the Gilberts of Bruton Abbey in Somerset from Tudor times. Tradition has it that these Gilberts were the principal founders of the abbey.
  • while Robert Gilbert, possibly the son of a local clothier, was MP for Gloucester from 1415 to 1430.

A Cornish family of Gilberts began with Nicholas Gilbert who was born in Mullion, Cornwall around the year 1600.  John Gilbart, born about 1760, was a copper mining manager at St. Erth.  He helped build the Methodist chapel there in 1783.  

Elsewhere. Later centuries saw a shift in Gilberts from the west country towards London and the southeast. William Gilberd or Gilbert, the Elizabethan physician and scientist, came from a prosperous merchant family in Colchester. Gilberts in London in the 17th century included Captain John Gilbert, granted a license to clean up the Thames in 1631, and James Gilbert, a gunmaker in the 1670’s.

Some Gilberts may have moved from west to east. The Gilberts of Goudhurst in Kent were thought to have originated from either Devon or Cornwall. Sir Jeffrey Gilbert, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer in the reign of George I, was of this family. W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, born in London in 1836, came originally from a Hampshire farming family.

William Gilbert began supplying footballs to Rugby School in Warwickshire in the 1820’s at the time that William Webb Ellis first picked up a ball and ran with it, thus inventing the game of rugby. The business that William Gilbert started remained family-owned until 1978.

Channel Islands. The name appeared as Guilbert in Guernsey. Guillemine Guilbert was rounded up as a heretic in 1556 during the bloody reign of Queen Mary and, together with two other women, burnt at the stake. George Guilbert was married at Forest in 1717. A Guilbert family later lived at Hauteville near St. Peter Port. 

America. Main arrival points for Gilberts in America were New England and Pennsylvania. 

New England.  John Gilbert from Bridgewater in Somerset, distantly related to the Elizabethan adventurer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, came to Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1630 with his third wife Winifred. His descendants in America were covered in Geoffrey Gilbert’s 1959 book Gilberts of New England. Notable among them was the architect C.P.L. Gilbert who made his name in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for his designs of townhouses and mansions.

Other early Gilbert arrivals in New England were:

  • Matthew Gilbert who in 1637 was one of the first settlers of the New Haven colony, being one of the famous “Seven Pillars” to found church and state there. He was the forebear through his son Daniel of the Gilberts of Hamden, Connecticut.
  • Thomas Gilbert who came to Braintree in 1639 and later settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut. His descendants made their home in Stamford, New York. This line was covered in Eliza Gilbert’s 1920 book The Benjamin Gilbert Branch.
  • while Humphrey Gilbert, thought to have come from Cambridge in England, was recorded as living in Ipswich, Massachusetts by 1642. His second wife Elizabeth was the mother of his only son John who became a deacon.

A line of Timothy Gilberts began with the birth of Timothy Gilbert in Easton, Massachusetts in 1748. Timothy and his brother Lemuel were piano manufacturers in Boston in the first half of the 19th century. Timothy was also a leader of his local Baptist church and an abolitionist advocate.

Pennsylvania. Quaker Gilberts began arriving into Philadelphia and its outlying areas in the 1680’s. Some have them coming from Cornwall, although there is no confirmation of this. There were three lines recorded, those of Byberry, those of Buckingham, and those of Warminster. Benjamin Gilbert and his family at Byberry experienced a terrifying ordeal of seizure and captivity by Indians in 1780. They were then exiled to Montreal as the Revolutionary War was raging and were not to return to Byberry until late 1782.

There were German Gilberts in Pennsylvania. Five male Gilberts from Hoffenheim in Baden came on the Nancy in 1750. The line of John Georg Gilbert settled in Montgomery county, that of his cousin John Andrew Gilbert in York county. Johan Conrad Gilbert moved to Orwigsburg in Schuykill county where he died in 1812.

Abijah Gilbert, said to have been a descendant of the Elizabethan physician and scientist William Gilbert, came to Philadelphia from Tamworth in Warwickshire in 1787. It was written in a family letter that when George Washington saw his son Joseph disembarking, he patted him on his head and said: “A fine rosy-cheeked English boy who will make a good American citizen.”

The Gilberts established themselves in what became Gilbertsville in Oswego county, New York. Grandson Abijah moved to New York City and, in 1865, to Florida where he served as its US Senator. The family history was covered in Carl Beck’s 1953 book The Abijah Gilbert Family of Gilbertsville.

Canada.  Early Gilberts in Canada were French. Jean Gilbert had arrived in Quebec by the 1680’s and made his home at Pointe-aux-Trembles. Louis Gilbert came with his wife around 1720 and settled in L’Ile Dupas. Some Gilbert descendants crossed the border into Wisconsin and Maine during the 19th century.

Isaac Gilbert was a Loyalist who crossed over to Canada after the Revolutionary War. He was one of the pioneer settlers of Woodhouse township, Norfolk county in Ontario. His story was covered in Harriet Walker’s 1981 book Isaac Gilbert: United Empire Loyalist.

Australia. The Adelaide suburb of Gilberton in South Australia owes its name to Joseph Gilbert, a sheep farmer and winemaker who had come to the colony from Wiltshire in 1838. Simon Gilbert, the fifth generation of these Gilbert winemakers, has his vineyards in the Mudgee district of NSW.

Gilbert Surname Miscellany

Gilberts in England and France.  Gilbert is a surname that occurs in both England and France.

The English presence is larger.  The Gilbert numbers today probably run about 30-35,000. The name was earlier a name of the west country.  But it has since spread to London and the southeast and to the Midlands.

The Gilbert numbers in France are about 15-20,000 today. The name is most noticeable in western France, from Brittany to Bordeaux with a sizeable number in Vendee.  Philippe Gilbert has come from there and has written about the dark side of its history. Danielle Gilbert, the daughter of a wartime Resistance fighter in Auvergne, made herself a successful French TV personality in the 1970’s.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Picture.  Prince in his Worthies of Devon concluded his account of Sir Humphrey Gilbert in the following manner:

“This noble knight’s lively effigies are yet remaining in his grand-nephew’s house at Compton – the one hand holding a general’s truncheon and the other is laid on the globe of the world; Virginia is written over; on his breast hangs the golden anchor, with the pearl at peak; and underneath are these verses which may supply an epitaph:

  • ‘How you may see the portrait of his face,
  • Who for his country’s honor oft did trace,
  • Along the deep; and made a noble way
  • Unto the growing fame, Virginia.
  • The picture of his mind, if you do crave it,
  • Look on virtue’s picture and you have it.’”

This description probably flatters him. The latter part of Gilbert’s life was spent in a series of failed maritime expeditions, the financing of which exhausted his own fortune and a great part of his family’s.  He did not venture to Virginia.  He did establish an English base at Newfoundland in 1583, although he was lost at sea on the return voyage.

Gilbert’s mottoes, quid non? (“why not?”) and mutare veltimere sperno (“I scorn to change or to fear”) indicated how he chose to live his life.  The writer A.L. Rowse later described him as follows:

“Gilbert was certainly an interesting psychological case, with the symptoms of disturbed personality that often go with men of mark.  He was passionate and impulsive, a nature liable to violence and cruelty, but also intellectual and visionary, a questing and original mind with the personal magnetism that went with it.  People were apt to be both attracted and repelled by him, to follow his leadership and yet be mistrustful of him.” 

W.S. Gilbert’s Family Background.  The forebears of W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame came originally from Hampshire.  Gilberts could be found at Shipton Bellinger in Hampshire since the early 1500’s.  William Gilbert, the son of Thomas and Mary Gilbert, was born nearby at Over Wallop in 1746.  The family fortunes were in decline at that time and William departed for London in search of his own fortune.

In 1768, at the age of twenty two, he set himself up as a grocer amidst the slums of Westminster.  Twenty years later, after the completion of the Blackfriars Bridge, he saw a better future south of the river and moved his business to Blackfriars. He prospered and was able to retire to the country, and let his son William take over, in 1803.  But William senior did not live much longer.  He died in 1805.  Neither did William junior.  He died of TB in 1812 at the age of 32, the same disease having taken his wife away in 1810.

William had provided some financial security for his son William, although he had to wait for it.  In the interim, he travelled in his early years and became a surgeon in the Navy. Later he could spend his time as a gentleman and a writer.  The first child of he and his wife Anne, born in the clean air of Hammersmith in 1836, was W.S. Gilbert.

The Gilberts’ Indian Ordeal.  In April 1780 the Gilbert family in Byberry, about 15 miles outside Philadelphia, was surprised early one morning at their log cabin by a party of eleven Indians.  Those captured were the elderly Benjamin Gilbert, his wife Elizabeth, six of their sons and daughters, as well as four other workers on the farm.

They were taken to an Indian village some ten miles away where they were bound in captivity in the traditional Indian manner.  They were then moved onwards and suffered beatings “until their enemies grew weary of this cruel sport.”

Later they endured the pain of separation.  Benjamin the elder, his wife and son Jesse were surrendered to Colonel Guy Johnson, British commander of the Fort Niagara garrison where they had come.  They were then sent further north to Montreal, much of it by boat.  During the voyage Benjamin died, but his wife, showing great fortitude, managed to make it with their son to Montreal.  They remained captives there.  However, they did learn with joy of the release of some of their family.

Eventually, in August 1782, they were able to take their leave of Montreal and, after an arduous journey of 36 days, return to Byberry.

Reader Feedback – German Gilberts in Pennsylvania.  When the German Gilberts came to Pennsylvania, they settled in Gilbertsville, Pa and established the German Lutheran Church there.

I was wondering if the German Gilberts are related to the English Gilberts.  I haven’t been able to find the link to the English Gilberts. I’m from the German side.  My mom was a Gilbert from York, Pa.  Joseph Henry Gilbert was her grandfather.

Lois A. Pollock (

Johan Conrad Gilbert, Fraktur Artist.  Johan Conrad Gilbert, an immigrant from Hoffenheim in Germany in 1750, was at various times in Pennsylvania a tailor, a schoolmaster, and a fraktur artist.

He was in fact an artist who produced a number of drawings in color (German Fraktur) on laid paper, some with texts or other writings.  The first Easter Bunny in America has been attributed to him.  This drawing is in the Abby Rockefeller Folk Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Two hundred years after Conrad made the Fraktur, the fourteen photographs of his work were presented in the Journal of the PA Society.  All of the photographs suggest that the originals are still in good condition. 

Isaac Gilbert, United Empire Loyalist.  Isaac Gilbert was a descendant of the early English emigrant Matthew Gilbert, one of the founders of the New Haven colony.  According to family tradition, Isaac enlisted in the British Navy during the Revolutionary War.   He himself stated that he was a sergeant in the New England regiment, the Queen’s Rangers.

After the war ended, he settled in St. John, New Brunswick where he remained just a little too long to receive a U. E. Loyalist land grant in the new province of Upper Canada (Ontario).

In 1800 or 1801, he came to the Long Point settlement with his family and settled in what became the Woodhouse township.  They had arrived there up the lake shore in small boats and landed at Port Ryerse. For several years following the Gilbert settlement there was a trail leading through the woods from the home of Colonel Samuel Ryerse to the log cabin of Isaac Gilbert which was often traversed by the old pioneers and their families.

Isaac Gilbert was a quiet, unobtrusive man, and a staunch Loyalist. He died in 1822 in his 80th year. His wife Mary had died on the same day of a lingering illness.  It was said that Isaac, aggrieved and weary with watching, had rested in his chair and within an hour had passed away too.   His son Isaac had been a colonel in the Norfolk militia during the War of 1812 and was a charter member of the first Woodhouse municipal government.

Reader Feedback – Gilbert from Cornwall to America.  My great great grandfather William Henry Gilbert was from Cornwall. He immigrated to the United States of America in approximately 1836. The Federal US Census placed William Henry Gilbert (from Mass.) in Port Townsend, Washington. He piloted ships from Port Townsend to Alaska and died in Alaska in 1912.

Wedlidi Speck (

Gilbert Names

  • Sir Humphrey Gilbert was an Elizabethan adventurer, soldier, and explorer who through planting the English flag in Newfoundland was a pioneer of the English colonial empire in North America. 
  • William Gilbert was an English 16th century scientist credited with the invention of the term electricity. 
  • W.S. Gilbert was the dramatist and librettist in the phenomenally popular 19th century Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas. 
  • Sir Martin Gilbert is a renowned Jewish British historian and the biographer of Winston Churchill.

Gilbert Numbers Today

  • 32,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 42,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 18,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Gilbert and Like Surnames

The Norman Conquest brought new rulers to England and they brought their names and language, a form of French, with them.  Over time their names became less French and more English in character.  Thus Hamo became Hammond, Reinold Reynolds and Thierry Terry and so forth.  The names Allen, Brett, Everett, and Harvey were probably Breton in origin as Bretons also arrived, sometimes as mercenaries.

The new Norman lords often adopted new last names, sometimes from the lands they had acquired and sometimes from places back in Normandy.  Over time the name here also became more English.  Thus Saint Maur into Seymour, Saint Clair into Sinclair, Mohun into Moon, and Warenne into Warren.

Here are some of these Norman and Breton originating names that you can check out.





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Written by Colin Shelley

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