Harmer Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Harmer Surname Meaning

The name could have various origins, depending upon the part of the country it sprung up.  The Latin word Hermerus appeared in the Domesday Book. A prior source could be the Old English personal name Heremar, a compound name which translates as “army” and “famous.”

Some think the Harmer name in Sussex may have come from the 12th century Hazemere Hall in Etchingham in East Sussex. Another suggestion is the Old Norse harmr, the root of the English word “harm,” which means one who grieves or causes grief. Then Harmer could be occupational, from the Old English healm meaning a collector of stalks.

Harmer Surname Resources on The Internet

Harmer Surname Ancestry

  • from England
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England. The three major groupings of Harmers in England are:

  • in Sussex
  • in Norfolk
  • and in Gloucestershire.

Sussex The Sussex Harmers were, according to 19th century records, numerically the largest. They have been traced back to a John Harmer from Heathfield, born in 1489. DNA testing suggests one single ancestor.

The name appears mainly in the villages of Heathfield and Salehurst in East Sussex. Heathfield baptism records for Harmer date from the early 1600’s. Heathfield’s favorite son was Jonathan Harmer, the early 19th century stonemason. His cottage Harmers still stands. Another Harmer line traces from Reuben Harmer, born in Heathfield in 1798. The first recorded Harmer from Salehurst was a Roger Harmer, born in 1658.

Norfolk In the Domesday Book, the Latin name of Hermerus appeared and is recorded as “possessing much land in Norfolk.” Later the Harmer name was to be found in various places in the county.

Harmers in the Kelling/Salthouse area trace to the 1700’s. A Harmer family were landowners at Walcott near Norwich. Some of this family went to the Stalham/Hoveton area and some to Norwich itself (where there was a Harmer’s Wharf on King Street).

The clothing manufacturer F.W. Harmer & Company became one of the largest employers in the city in the 19th century (the firm finally closed its doors in 1990). An earlier Harmer, John Harmer, was the leading lithotomist (extractor of bladder stones) in Norwich during the first half of the 18th century.

Gloucestershire.  The third Harmer location was Gloucestershire. In 1562 it was recorded that John Harmer held property by lease at Stanley St. Leonards. Harmer marriage records are to be found in the neighboring villages of King’s Stanley and Stonehouse from the 1570’s. The Harmer family owned the Stanley mill on the Frome at that time.

The Harmers of Randwick, churchmen and schoolmasters, can be traced from the 1660’s. Later Harmers were found in Gloucester and Cirencester.

London  The Harmer name also cropped up in London, generally from modest circumstances:

  • Jasper Harmer was an ironmonger in Smithfield in the 1680’s, and supposedly a clockmaker too (although the clockmakers’ guild disputed this claim).
  • a century later, James Harmer was born in Spitalfield, the son of a weaver. He contrived to set himself up as a lawyer and became very successful and wealthy. In the 1820’s he founded the radical paper, the Weekly Despatch, and, later in life, built himself the replica of a 16th century mansion on land outside Gravesend in Kent.
  • a third London Harmer – the son of a French polisher from Hackney – was Tommy Harmer or “Harmer the Charmer,” a Tottenham Hotspur footballer of the 1950’s.

America. There were not that many Harmers who emigrated to America. John Harmer was briefly mayor of Williamsburgh in Virginia, but didn’t stay. He had arrived from Bristol in 1733 and operated there as a slave trader.

It was the state of Pennsylvania which had the largest influx of Harmers. William and George Harmer, two Quaker brothers from Wiltshire, left England for Pennsylvania and religious toleration with William Penn in the 1680’s. A descendant Elias Harmer became a Mormon convert who headed West in the 1840’s.

Josiah Harmer, one of George Washington’s generals, suffered a crushing defeat in 1792 on the Ohio frontier and returned to Philadelphia in disgrace. Alfred C. Harmer was a 19th century Philadelphia shoe manufacturer.

Canada. Other Harmers were heading for Canada by the 1830’s. Early settlers in Ontario were:

  • Robert and Mary Harmer from Norfolk in Blenheim township in the 1830’s.
  • William and Elizabeth Harmer from Norfolk in Fullerton township in the 1840’s.
  • Harmers from Sussex in Kingston in 1836.
  • Edmund and Mary Harmer from Sussex in Guelph in the 1850’s.

A Harmer branch from Kingston headed west to Alberta where Bill Harmer was elected to the Senate in 1918. He was known as “Silent” Bill Harmer because, during his thirty years in the Senate, he only spoke a total of 89 words.

Australia. There are Harmers as well in Australia. The first were convicts, such as Benjamin Harmer transported to Sydney on the Glory in 1818.

John Harmer was a soldier who joined the Mounted Police in Australia in 1846. James Harmer was an early settler in the Adelaide hills. Francis Harmer and his family left Salthouse in Norfolk on the Bolton for South Australia in 1848. Their descendants are still to be found there.

Harmer Surname Miscellany

Harmer DNA Testing.  According to the Harmer Family Association, there are three major concentrations of the Harmer name going back over the last five hundred years – in East Sussex, Gloucestershire, and Norfolk.

The origin of the East Sussex Harmers is genetically quite different from the other two main geographical groups (based on the haplo group).  The East Sussex trees are likely to share a single common ancestor in the last thousand years, probably in the early days of parish records. Norfolk Harmers have at least two “original” ancestors and possibly a third.  At present there are not enough Gloucestershire results to draw any conclusions.

Reader Feedback – Origin of the Harmer Name.  I feel that the explanation about the name Harmer misses an occupational origin!  In the ongoing history of words, the spelling can get distorted, as well as the pronunciation.

So, if you spell the name Halmer or Haumer, both of which would be pronounced the same as Harmer, then you get – haulm or halm –  stems or stalks collectively, as of grain or of peas, beans, or hops dating prior to 900 from the Old English healm and the Latin culmus meaning “stalk.”

So perhaps a ‘harmer’ was a person who collected/bought/dealt in the waste stalks of some variety of vegetation (cultivated or gathered from the wild) in order to resell them for thatching, animal bedding, composting, etc.

Mary (marysplace33@gmail.com) 

Early Harmer Marriages in Gloucestershire

King’s Stanley
1588 Harry Harmer and Johane Tyler
Richard Harmer and Catherine
1589 Aston Caston and Ann Harmer
1594 Edmond Harold and Johane Harmer
1600 Richard Weebe and Catherine
Leonard Stanley
1590 William Harmer and Catherine
1570 William Harmer and Catherine Wood
1571 John King and Joyce Harmer
1578 Richard Harmer and Ann
1579 Garret Harmer and Bridget Bennett
1591 Richard Dangerfield and
Elizabeth Harmer

Early Harmer Baptisms in Heathfield, Sussex

1616 Sarah, daughter of John Harmer
1618 Margaret, daughter of John Harmer
1622 Elizabeth, daughter of John
1644 John, son of William Harmer
1649 William, son of William Harmer
Jonah, son of Anthony Harmer
William, son of William Harmer

Jonathan Harmer, Stonemason.  Jonathan Harmer was the son of a Heathfield stonemason who used his skills as a potter to enhance his father’s gravestones.  He took over the family firm in 1799 and from then until 1819 he added unusual terracotta bas-reliefs to a large number of local gravestones.

In the difficult times of the 19th century, those living locally who were poor could only afford a simple headstone and Jonathan, taking pity on these people, came up with the idea of ornamental bas-relief terracotta memorial plaques from the local red clay from Heathfield Park, sometimes combined with paler imported clay.  These plaques were then affixed to the gravestone.  Many have lasted for 200 years.  To keep costs down he made his own clay moulds and could therefore turn out many identical panels rather than each being carved individually.

The method he devised was to cut the outline of the terracotta into the stone, then cut around 3/4 inch deeper into the stone creating a cavity.  The terracotta plaque was then made, then the plaque was glued into the cavity using a mortar.  The colors of the plaques varied from cream to red and featured such designs as cherubs, vases, and baskets of fruit.

Churchyards where his work can still be seen are: Ashburnham, Burwash, Cade Street, Hellingly, Herstmonceux, and Salehurst.  Other plaques can be seen in the Brighton Museum and the Anne of Cleves Museum in Lewes.

The Case of The Duke of Brunswick vs. Harmer.  In 1848 the Duke of Brunswick, then living in Paris, sent his manservant off to the British Museum to get a copy of the Weekly Despatch printed in 1830 which he believed had defamed him.  He also got a copy from the Despatch’s London publisher.

Normally the six year limitation period would have prevented the Duke from suing over a publication of many years earlier.  But the court concluded that each fresh acquisition of the newspaper by the Duke’s agent constituted a new publication on which a new lawsuit could be based.  Thus the court found in the Duke’s favor.  He was awarded £500, a huge sum at the time.

The case of Brunswick vs. Harmer is often cited as possible precedent in more recent English libel trials.

A Victorian Murder Case.  One man who had too much to say as he sat down to a meal was George Harmer, 26, a plasterer and petty thief.  On August 14th, 1886, he was released from Norwich Prison and a few days later went to visit a friend, who offered him breakfast.  Over his eggs and bacon Harmer confided that he intended to rob a wealthy local recluse, Henry Last, a carpenter aged 66, who lived nearby in School Lane.

The friend apparently offered no counsel, and later that same day Harmer went to Mr. Last’s house with a drawing that he asked to be made into a model.  No one knows exactly what happened next, except that the same evening Mr. Last was found battered to death in his bed.  He had been killed with a hammer and his house had been ransacked.

Harmer was known to be the carpenter’s last visitor.  After the murder he was seen flashing money around, redeeming some of the clothes he had pawned the previous day.  When he was arrested he made a full confession, but retracted it at Norwich Assizes when he was brought to trial.

When the jury were told that the murder weapon was found in a box belonging to Harmer and heard the evidence of the friend to whom he had revealed his plan, the man who came to breakfast and had too much to say was found guilty, and was hanged on Monday, December 13th, 1886, in Norwich Prison.

Abraham Harmer on the Titanic.  David Livshin, 25, a jeweller from Russia, boarded the Titanic at Southampton as a third class passenger.  He had been living in Manchester, having started a watchmaking business there, and had recently married a Russian girl named Chyna.  He had decided to emigrate and would send for his wife later.

He had bought the ticket in the name of Abraham Harmer.  According to Captain Rostron, Mr. Harmer was one of the four people buried from the Carpathia.  He may have been the fourth person picked up by lifeboat 14 (if indeed there was a fourth person).  Alternatively he may have been the lifeless body referred to by Lightoller transferred from Collapsible B to lifeboat 12 during the night.

His family knew of no reason why David Livshin was travelling under the name of Abraham Harmer.  It was a name unknown to them and it could only have been assumed that he had bought the ticket from a third party.

Harmer Names

  • Jonathan Harmer was a well-known potter from Heathfield whose terracottas were to be found all over Sussex in the early 19th century.
  • Alexander Harmer was southern California’s first notable painter of the 19th century.
  • Sir Sidney Harmer from Norfolk was Director of the Natural History Department of the British Museum.
  • Henry R Harmer started the world’s largest stamp auction firm of H.R. Harmer in London in 1918.
  • Wendy Harmer is an Australian writer, radio show host, and comedienne.
  • Sarah Harmer is a Canadian singer/songwriter from Kingston, Ontario.

Harmer Numbers Today

  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Sussex)
  • 2,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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Written by Colin Shelley

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