Haley Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Haley Surname Meaning

The English surnames Haley, Hayley and Hailey all seem to have derived from the Old English heg meaning “hay” and leah meaning “clearing” – hence “hay clearing.” These were initially place-names before they became surnames.

The place-names of note here were probably Hayley, a minor and now lost location in Yorkshire, and the Hailey name found in both Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. The former gave rise to the more common Haley spelling found in west Yorkshire; the latter to the Hayleys and Haileys in London and the home counties.

Complicating the issue is the Halley name – generally of Scottish or Irish origin and with different origins – but which may in England have derived from a lost village in Derbyshire. And Haley can also be Irish, being an anglicization of the Irish name Healy.  Haley has been the main spelling in England and America.

Haley Surname Resources on The Internet

Haley, Halley and Hailey Surname Ancestry

  • from England, Scotland (East Coast) and Ireland
  • to America (incl. African American), Canada and New Zealand

England. The numbers in England, by the time of the 1891 census, were:

  • 3,550 Haleys, with 52% in Yorkshire
  • 550 Halleys, with 31% in London
  • 290 Hayleys, with 27% in London
  • and 500 Haileys, with 18% in London and 13% in Hertfordshire.

Haley has been by far the largest spelling of these names in England, but generally localized to Yorkshire. It was recorded as Haylay in the 1379 Yorkshire poll tax records. Haley and Healey emerged as early Yorkshire surnames, Haley around Bradford and Healey in the Birstall and Batley area.

There were two notable later Haley families of west Yorkshire:

  • Haleys in Cleckheaton date from 1765. Squire Haley fought and was decorated in the Peninsula Wars with France in the early 1800’s. Samuel Haley, a cardmaker and steel wire manufacturer, established his works in the town in the mid-1800’s. Although he was killed in 1870 in a train crash when on a pleasure outing, the business was continued by his family until 1946.  
  • while Haleys were iron founders in Bradford from the early 19th century. The first of this family was William Haley who had been born in Batley in 1734. Elisha and Enoch Haley formed a family partnership in Bradford in the early 1850’s. Elisha’s son Alfred became a prosperous mill owner in Wakefield, manufacturing worsteds. He was a Justice of the Peace in the 1880’s and a well-known art collector.

Sir William Haley was born in 1901 in St. Helier on Jersey, the son of a Yorkshire clerk and a French grocer’s daughter. He was Director General of the BBC from 1944 to 1952 and editor of The Times from 1952 to 1966.

A Haly family at Bradock in Cornwall dated back to the late 1500’s. They became Haley when William Haley and his family emigrated to Canada in 1850 and later to Kansas.

Halley – a name sometimes pronounced as Hawley – was to be found in the village of Beeley in Derbyshire in the mid-1500’s. Edmond Halley from Derbyshire came to London in the 1600’s and prospered there as a soap-maker. His son Edmond was the famous English astronomer – the second Astronomer Royal in Britain – who gave his name to Halley’s Comet.

Hayley.  William Hayley, a Shropshire butcher in the town of Cleobury Mortimer during the mid-1600’s, was father to the more celebrated William Hayley who was appointed Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1699. His son Thomas followed him as Dean after his own death in 1715. And Thomas’s son William was friend to the poet William Cowper and a poet in his own right.

Another line from Shropshire led to George Hayley, a merchant and shipowner based in London. After his death in 1781, his wife Mary successfully took over the shipping operations and ran them for another ten years.

Hailey.  Kathleen Casey in her 1982 book Four Centuries of Haileys found the name in a cluster of southeast counties, notably in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. Her Four Centuries of Haileys were from Amersham in Buckinghamshire. Haileys at Hitchin in Hertfordshire dated from about 1740.

Scotland. The Halley numbers in Scotland were around 690 at the time of the 1891 census.

Halley has been a name found in Angus, Fife and Perthshire on Scotland’s east coast. One family line began with the birth of Charles Halley of Clackmannon in 1753. William Halley, a flax manufacturer in Dundee, invested in a spinning mill at the Wallace Craigie works there in 1836 and this business continued under his descendants. Halleys were also to be seen in the Fife towns of Markinch and Auchtermuchty.

Ireland.  Halley can also be an Irish name. The root here is the Gaelic name O’hAilche, possibly from the byname ailchu meaning “gentle hound.”

The Irish census of 1911 showed around 530 people by the name of Halley or Hally, with more than 80% of these being in the counties of Tipperary and Waterford, mostly along the Suir river. There were Hallys in the Tipperary townlands of Aughavanlomaun and Boolahallagh in the Knockmealdown mountain foothills during the 19th century.

More common has been the Haley name found both in Ireland and on its travels. This has generally been an alternative spelling of the Irish Healy name and the earlier O’Healy septs:

  • one of these septs was in Sligo in the northwest. They were originally called O’hÉlidhe, the name derived from the Gaelic word eilidh meaning “claimant.”
  • while another sept, numerically larger, was in Cork. There the name was originally O’hÉilaigh, probably from the Gaelic ealadhach meaning “ingenious.”

Haleys also came from Sligo and Cork, Thomas Haley for instance being born at Larn in county Cork in 1735. Meanwhile Roscommon had the largest Haley count in Ireland in Griffith’s Valuation of the mid-19th century.

America.  Haley arrivals in America could be of English, Scottish or Irish origin. The largest number have been Irish.

New England.  No one really knows where Andrew Haley came from or when he arrived in Maine. But by 1653 Andrew Haley was a fisherman at the Isles of Shoals off the Maine coastline and was known as the “King of the Shoals.” He had settled on Smuttynose Island, later called Haleys Island, and Haleys were to live there for the next two hundred and fifty years. However, Haleys Island is uninhabited today.

Another early arrival was William Healy from Lincolnshire who came to Massachusetts sometime in the 1640’s. His descendants were sea captains who later settled in Nova Scotia and then, as Haleys, migrated to California at the time of the Gold Rush.

Virginia.  Two early arrivals here were the Halleys from England and the Haleys or Haileys (both spellings recurred) from Ireland.

Thomas Halley, pronounced Hawley, had come to Virginia around 1670 and made his home in a log cabin along the Potomac river, then in Westmoreland county. His son James became a prosperous planter who, on his death in 1792, owned several plantations and quite a number of slaves.

According to family lore there were two brothers from county Antrim in Ireland, James and John Haley, who came to Delaware in the early 1700’s and later moved onto Virginia and North Carolina. Their family spelling fluctuated between Haley and Hailey during this time.

James Haley had married Anna Cloud back in Ireland and the Haley and Cloud families stayed together through the Revolutionary War and then on into Tennessee and Georgia. One son William, who had fought in the War, moved to Elbert county, Georgia in 1792. Haley descendants subsequently spread across the South over the course of the 19th century.

Later Arrivals.  Among later Haley arrivals were:

  • John Cloud Haley a physician from county Cork who came to Roane county, Tennessee in 1798 and married Elizabeth Matlock there. 
  • Henry Haley from county Down who arrived in Virginia around the year 1810. His descendants migrated to Kentucky and to Highland Park in Michigan, which was where the rock and roller Bill Haley was born in 1925.  
  • William Haley who departed Ireland for California, traveling overland to St. Francisco in 1850. He started a dairy company that proved very successful, eventually delivering some 10,000 gallons of milk daily to customers in the area. His son Daniel settled in Yuba county and was elected mayor of Gustine in 1915.  
  • Ebenezer Haley from Nova Scotia who joined the California gold rush, also arriving there in 1850. Both he and his son Caleb were sea captains, but had some success in the gold fields. Caleb’s son Charles chose a mining career and was the author of the authoritative 1923 book Gold Placers of California. The family story was recounted in James Haley’s 1964 book The Haley and Healy Family.  
  • and John Haley, born also in Nova Scotia but of Irish parents, who had moved to Boston in the 1890’s in his capacity as a ship steward. However, he died in February 1898 when his ship the Charles A. Briggs sank in a storm off the Massachusetts coastline. His son Jack, just six months old at the time, became an actor and comedian, best known for his role as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Jack’s son Jack was a successful Hollywood film director and producer, married at one time to Liza Minelli.

Appalachian.  The Haley fiddle players were of Irish origin. The first that registered was Ben Haley who fought in West Virginia on the Union side in the Civil War and later settled in Lincoln county. His illegitimate son Milt continued the family fiddle playing until he was murdered during the feuding there in 1889; as did Milt’s son Ed, who had been born blind in 1885. Ed was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2015.

African American. Alex Haley created a sensation in 1976 when he produced his book Roots, later made into a TV mini-series, which managed to trace his ancestry all the way back to a slave-ancestor captured in Africa.

While the early history depicted in the book has been considered fanciful, the post-Civil War account, when the Haley name first appeared, seems accurate. Later DNA testing has shown this Haley line to have had Scottish ancestry.

Canada.  Many Halleys departed the Tipperary area of Ireland for Newfoundland between 1830 and 1850, some remaining there and some departing later for America:

  • a number in Newfoundland were to be found at St. John’s, the subject of Irene Collins’ 1999 book A Long Way from Tipperary: A Halley Family History
  • while others were at Topsail on Conception Bay and had descendants who had moved south to Massachusetts by 1900.

Nova Scotia also had some Haleys who did not stay. Ebenezer Haley, a sea captain, arrived there in the 1770’s from Massachusetts and settled in Yarmouth county. One son Selah moved to Ontario and his son William to Michigan; another son Ebenezer left Nova Scotia later for California. Meanwhile John Haley, born of an Irish family in Antigonish, departed for Boston in the 1890’s.

New Zealand.  Cyrus Haley from Leeds who arrived in Auckland with his family in 1870 soon developed a reputation for starting fires.  

“When his wife Emily’s singing performance at the Music Hall was savaged, the hall was mysteriously gutted by fire. More arsons took place and while all these could not be linked to Haley, there was one involving the property of BNZ founder Thomas Russell who was the director of a company in which Hailey claimed to have lost ₤3,000.”  

Haley was subsequently convicted of the attempted murder of Thomas Russell. His sentence was life imprisonment in Dunedin jail. In trying to escape in 1875 he was shot dead by a warder.

Haley Surname Miscellany

Haley and Healey in Early Yorkshire Records.  George Redmonds in his 2015 book A Dictionary of Yorkshire Surnames had the following to say about Haley:

“Haley is a very common Bradford surname which had its origins in Hipperholme in the 13th century. Although it clearly derives from a place-name, the exact source is not certain.  Haley Hill in Northowram appears to be named after the family and Hayley in Oxenhope is not well documented. It may be that the locality was in Hipperholme, but that the site was abandoned sometime around 1350.

From the early spellings the meaning is “enclosure clearing.”  The surname quickly established itself in Overton, just to the north west of Hipperholme, and first occurred in Bradford records in 1327.  By the early 1500’s there were Haleys in Thornton, and a Richard Haley acquired interests in Little Horton in 1526.

The spelling of this period suggests that there may even then have been confusion with similar surnames such as Healey.”

Four Centuries of Haileys at Amersham.  Kathleen Casey who wrote in 1982 the book Four Centuries of Haileys about the Haileys of Amersham in Buckinghamshire had the following to say about the emergence of the name there:

“The name Hailey in England was oddly bunched in two quite distinct regions.  One large cluster I found in Yorkshire and another, just as large, in a group of south-eastern counties, notably Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire.

At Monks Risborough, about seven miles northwest of Amersham, a fir-crowned height rising to 813 feet is called Green Hailey to this day.  There a certain George christened nine children between 1590 and 1614.  The recording vicar was unsure how to spell their surname. Twice he wrote Haly, interspersed with Hailey, Halye and Halie, before settling on Hayley.

Back in 1563 in Amersham, a certain Richard Haleye had baptized a son called John and another eight children were to follow before the end of 1587. The Haileys, who appeared in the written records of Amersham in the 1600’s emerged as a self-contained and self-conscious family.”

O’hAilche and Halley in Ireland.  It was said that the O’hAilche family, anglicized as Halley and Hally, was a branch of the O’Kennedys of Ormond, descendants of Cormac Cas. Tuatha-Fearalt, a district in the county of Tipperary (the exact situation of which cannot now be ascertained), was the lordship of the family, whom the 14th century poet O’Heerin described in the following lines:

  • “Tuatha-Fearalt of the fair-woods,
  • Is the lordship of O’hAilche;
  • A plain of fair fortresses, and a spreading tribe;
  • The land resembling Teltown of rivulets.”

Haleys on Haleys Island off Maine.  By 1653 Andrew Haley was a fisherman at the Isles of Shoals off Maine along with the three Kelly brothers. He was called the “King of the Shoals.”  He had settled on Smuttynose Island, later called Haleys Island, and Haleys were to live there for the next two hundred and fifty years.

It was a later Haley from Kittery, Sam Haley, who built the family’s two-room cape house on the island in the late 1700’s (no one is exactly sure when).  A rugged entrepreneur, Sam turned his island into a self-sustaining kingdom.  At its peak Smuttynose had a dock and warehouse, a rope walk, a granary, distillery, brewery, cherry orchard, salt-works, boat house, hotel, bakery, cooper’s shop, brick-works, blacksmith shop and a windmill. When he died in 1811 the compound was valued at $3,000.

Sam Haley was remembered for having left a light on in the window of his cottage to warn approaching ships of the treacherous Shoals. Yet in January 1813 a ship crashed onto Haley’s Island and over the next few days fourteen bodies were found.  In the romanticized version told, old Sam Haley (he was already two years dead then) found the bodies frozen in their last desperate attempts to crawl towards his house. The discovery must have been made by his son Captain Sam Jr. who supposedly buried the Spanish sailors in a shallow grave marked by rocks just down the walking trail today from the Haley cemetery.

According to the most famous legend, a few years after the Spanish shipwreck, Captain Sam found four silver bars under a flat rock.  He cashed them in and used the money to build or repair the breakwater between Smuttynose and Malaga island.   This tale, wrapped in rumors of Blackbeard’s treasure, has lured fortune hunters, divers and prospectors with metal detectors to the island ever since.

In the 1840’s the poet Celia Thaxter, then a young girl, used to sit on a lookout platform once attached to the roof of Haley’s house.  Thirty years later Celia recalled the Haleys in her 1873 book Among the Isles of Shoals.  From this book came most of the stories about Sam and his son Captain Sam.

The building itself has been abandoned and adapted, ransacked and renovated over at least two centuries.  The roof blew off in the hurricane of 1938.  The ruined cottage was fully restored in the 1990’s by a traveling carpenter who offered his work in exchange for chance to spent time there each summer.

The Haley House in North Carolina.  John Haley’s origins are not known.  He first appeared on the tax list for Rowan county, North Carolina in 1768. There are no records that show that John Haley was a Quaker.  But there again his wife Phoebe Wall whom he married in 1772 was a Quaker and there is no evidence indicating that Phoebe was disowned for marrying a non-Quaker.

John appears to have served as a militia captain during the Revolution War despite his Quaker heritage and is called “Captain” thereafter in many public documents.  Since Haley owned slaves, it is thought that he was disowned by his Quaker brethren, either because of his slaves or because of his military service. Haley was a blacksmith by trade and served at various times as overseer of the Martinsville to Salisbury road, tax collector, and sheriff of Guilford County.

The Haley House, now a museum, was built in 1786 in Guilford county on the road between Lexington and Martinsville.  John Haley lived there until his death in 1813.  It subsequently operated as a tavern on the traveling route. 

Alex Haley and His Scottish Ancestry.  At the time Alex Haley produced his 1976 epic story Roots, DNA testing was not far advanced.  Then in 2007 Alex’s nephew Chris Haley sent his DNA off for testing.  It turned out that his Y-chromosome matched that of a 78-year-old man in Scotland named Thomas Baff.  This derivation does seem to agree with something Chris found from Alex’s later book Queen:

“Following the custom among slaves the first Haley, Alex, had taken the name Haley from his true Massa, although his real father’s name was Baugh. William Baugh was an overseer on the Haley plantation in Marion county, Alabama who had sometimes taken his pleasure with a slave woman half black and half Cherokee called Sabrina.”

The plantation was in fact at Haleyville and owned by Green Haley from Kentucky.  And Chris’s newfound cousin in Scotland said that his name Baff was in fact a variation of the overseer’s name Baugh (which he said rhymed with “laugh”).

The following is the resulting Haley line:

William Baugh (born in 1816 in Scotland) and Sabrina in Marion county, Alabama
– Alex Haley (1844-1910) m. Queen Jackson (who was born a slave)
— Simon Alexander Haley (1892-1973) m. Bertha Palmer
(born in Tennessee, professor of agriculture at Alabama A&M University)
— Alex Haley the author (1921-1992).

Haley Names

  • Edmund Halley was the famous English astronomer of the early 18th century who gave his name to Halley’s Comet. 
  • Sir William Heley was Director General of the BBC from 1944 to 1952 and editor of The Times from 1952 to 1966. 
  • Bill Haley popularized rock and roll in America in the 1950’s with hits such as Rock Around the Clock. His group the Comets took their name from Edmond Halley’s Comet. 
  • Alex Haley was the author of the 1976 book Roots, later made into a TV mini-series, which traced his ancestry all the way back to a slave-ancestor captured in Africa. 
  • Nikki Haley, a woman of Indian background, has been the Governor of South Carolina and the US Ambassador to the United Nations.

Haley Numbers Today

  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 17,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 6,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)





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Written by Colin Shelley

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