Holmes Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Holmes Surname Meaning

Holmes is a locational surname, describing someone who lived by a holm. The main root of “Holm” is the Viking holm, meaning an island (in particular a slightly raised land lying on flat land or partially surrounded by streams). The explanation below gives one explanation on the transference of Holm as a place name to Holme and Holmes as surnames and why many Holmes have resulted.

“Being restricted in area, many Holms were unable to support large communities and there was frequent movement to new places where work was available. The emigrants would have been known to their new neighbors as ‘the folk from the holm,’ which over time would have modified into Holme or Holmes.”

Supporting the Viking connection is that fact the names Holme and Holmes are mainly to be found in northern and eastern England, areas where the Danelaw held sway and where the Danish/Viking influence was strong.  Holm is a Danish and Scandinavian surname today.

An alternative origin of holm, again locational, is the Old English holegn becoming holm and holm oak or holly tree. Holmfirth in the West Ridings of Yorkshire, for instance, meant “the group of holly trees.” And Holme or Holmes was the man who lived by the holly tree.

Holmes Surname Resources on The Internet

Holmes Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland and from Denmark (Holm)
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and Australia

England.  The name Urkell de Holmes appeared in the Yorkshire assize court rolls of 1219 and Holmes have been more numerous in that county than in any other since that time.

Yorkshire.  The manor of Paull Holme on Humberside was owned by the Holme family, who took their name from the place, from about 1295 (the remains of the Paull Holme tower bear witness to the marriage of John Holme and Elizabeth Wasteneys in 1438).

Another Holme family were local gentry at Huntington Hall near York from 1500 and maybe earlier. Wilfrid Holme of this family was a Protestant poet, publishing his interestingly named tract The Fall and Evil Success of Rebellion in 1537. And the Holmes name appears frequently among the early farmer names in Nidderdale in north Yorkshire.

Cheshire.  The Holmes of Tranmere, a landed family, were traceable back to the marriage of Robert Holme and Matilda de Tranmere in the late 14th century. By the Tudor period, however, the family had become impoverished and they were tradesmen in Chester.

But their fortunes took an upturn following Thomas Holme the blacksmith. Randle Holme became Sheriff of Chester in 1615 and its mayor in 1633.  He was the forebear of four generations of Randle Holmes who were herald painters and early genealogists. All four painted memorial boards and hatchments, some of which can still be found in Cheshire churches.

Lancashire.  Holmes in Liverpool date from the late 1500’s (in Maghull). Samuel Holme was a self-made builder in the town who, in the 1830’s and 1840’s, was one of its largest employers. He built himself a large mansion called Holmestead (which still stands) and was a mayor in the 1850’s.

A Holmes line further north began with Robert Holmes who moved in the late 1500’s from Lancaster to county Cork in Ireland where he became the provost of Mallow. His grandson was the colorful Sir Robert HolmesThis family maintained estates in Ireland and on the Isle of Wight where they were governors and local MP’s.

The baronet Leonard Worsley, who took the name of Holmes in 1804, was the MP for Newport, IOW.  After his death his eldest daughter Elizabeth married William Ashe a Court in 1833 and created the Holmes a Court line.

Scotland. The Viking holm also made its way into Scotland. But the pronunciation here tended to be different than in England. This resulted in different spellings of the name in Scotland.

The two main versions on the Scottish borders were Hume and Home.  There was an early pocket of Holmes in Ayrshire (from the land of Holmes near Dundonald). Later this name spread elsewhere in Scotland.

Ireland. English and Scots settlers brought the Holmes name to Ireland in the 17th and early 18th century:

  • a Holmes family came to Tipperary in 1728 and established themselves at St. David’s along Lough Derg.
  • another family account tracks a Holmes family who were gamekeepers at Emo Park, Coolbanagher in county Laois.
  • the Holmes of Moycashel in county Westmeath included the early 20th century writer and poet Edmond Holmes.

However, the largest number of Holmes were in Ulster and in county Antrim. The Rev. William Holmes was first minister of the First Antrim Presbyterian church in 1730. Many of these Holmes later emigrated, such as Harry Holmes who departed for Canada in the 1920’s (although he left behind a younger brother Joe who became one of Antrim’s finest fiddlers). Eamonn Holmes, born in Belfast, is currently a presenter on British TV.

America.  There were early Holmes arrivals in New England and elsewhere.

New England.  Obadiah Holmes and his family were among the Puritan wave of settlers in New England in the 1630’s. They arrived in 1638 from Lancashire and eventually settled in Newport, Rhode Island where Obadiah was free to practice as a Baptist minister.

Other early Holmes arrivals included:

  • John Holmes from Yorkshire in the 1620’s. He was appointed the Messenger of the Plymouth court.
  • William Holmes, the leader of a group from Plymouth colony who established the first English settlement in Connecticut (Windsor) in 1633.
  • David Holmes from Scotland in the early 1630’s (his descendants settled in Connecticut and later in Cambridge, Massachusetts and included Oliver Wendell Holmes, senior and junior).
  • and George and Deborah Holmes from Essex in 1637. They settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

George Gray’s 1908 book Holmes Genealogy 1594-1908 covered these various New England Holmes families.

Elsewhere.  Thomas Holmes who came to Adams county, Pennsylvania from England in the 1760’s was the progenitor of a Holmes line covered in Marjorie Caskey’s 1985 book Falling Leaves: A History of the Holmes Family.

Orsamus Holmes, a descendant of the Mayflower passenger Henry Samsun, had an adventurous Revolutionary War and was a pioneer settler first in upstate New York and then in Ohio.

Holmes in the South.  Francis Holmes, thought by some to be the son of the John Holmes at Plymouth, was a Boston merchant who moved south to Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1700’s.  Later generations owned southern plantations at Washington and Willow Grove.

Emma Holmes of this family kept a diary during the Civil War years which was later published as The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes.  The preface of the book read:

“A firm believer in aristocracy, Miss Holmes felt that people could be classed as betters or inferiors and she often spoke of the mobocracy. She accepted slavery without question. She was a woman of considerable intellect and curiosity, she read widely, and her intellectual bent drew her to the teaching profession.”

A Southern Holmes family, but from different Scots Irish roots, was the one in Sampson county, North Carolina. Gabriel Holmes became Governor of North Carolina in 1821. His son Theophilus was a Confederate general in the Civil War.

Another Scots Irish Holmes family traces itself back to James Holmes in Union county, North Carolina in the early 1800’s. He and his family later moved onto Georgia and Texas.

Danish Holmes.  Holm is the usual Danish spelling.  But Holm could become Holmes.  Holm Christensen and his wife Karen arrived in America in 1872 with their son who became Christian Holmes there and a well-known doctor in Cincinnati, Ohio.  A descendant is Elizabeth Holmes, the young woman who was convicted of fraud in 2022 after her blood-testing company Theranos went bust.

Canada. The Scottish Highlanders who came to Nova Scotia in the early 1800’s included a number of Holmes. John Holmes arrived with his parents in 1803 and later became active in local politics. His son Simon followed in his footsteps and became Premier of the province in 1878.

Ontario.  The first Holmes in Ontario was probably Dr. William Holmes, an Empire Loyalist who had been granted land in Altona Forest in the 1790’s. John Holme (later Holmes) from Lancashire came in the 1820’s and settled in Kent county.

William Holmes from Ireland arrived in Brockville in the 1830’s. The census listed him as a farmer, but he was known more as a land speculator and money lender (hence his nickname of ‘20% Holmes’). The Cottonwood mansion in Selkirk was his legacy. John Holmes, also from Ireland, was an early settler in the Huntley township in the 1840’s.

William and John Holmes moved from Ontario to start a dairy and grain farm along the Fraser river in British Columbia in the 1890’s.  Cuthbert Holmes Park in Victoria takes its name from an early settler in the town.

Australia. Susannah Holmes was onboard the First Fleet convict ship to Australia in 1787. A year later she married Henry Cabell in the first European marriage to be recorded in the new colony. The couple are commemorated today as one of Australia’s founding families.

The Henry Holmes vineyard in the Barossa valley in South Australia has been family owned since the 1860’s. However, the original Holmes were the German immigrant Henscke family.

Elizabeth Holmes’ Family Ancestry

Elizabeth Holmes’ surname sounds English, but isn’t.  Her family history comprises both Danish and Jewish immigrant ancestors, great wealth creation by them, and great extravagances as well.  And Elizabeth herself had her own pursuit of wealth.  Her company Theranos promised to make her rich.  But she ended up being convicted of fraud instead.

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

Holmes Surname Miscellany

Holme as a Place Name in England.  There are some 300 place names in England which bear the name  “Holme.”  The table below shows their distribution.

County Number Percent Examples
Westmoreland   26   11% Braden Holme
Cumberland   51   17 Oxenholme, Holme Cultram
Lancashire   16    5 Forest Holme
Yorkshire   98   33 Holme, Holme upon Spalding Moor
Lincolnshire   15    5 Kirton Holme
Norfolk   17    6 Ructon Holme
Elsewhere   77   23
Total  300 100%

As can be seen, the place name Holme is mainly to be found in northern and eastern England, in areas where the Danelaw held sway and where the Danish/Viking influence was strong.

Holm as a place name is even more prevalent in the Scottish islands of Orkney and Shetland where the Vikings were present for a much longer time.  The root is the same Old Norse holmr, meaning here “a small and rounded islet.”

The Paulli Holme Tower.  Built by Robert Holme in the 15th century, the Paull Holme Tower on Humberside was originally part of an H-shaped group of buildings forming a fortified manor house.  The tower is a Grade 1 listed building and scheduled ancient monument.  The site includes the remains of a moat that used to surround the building, and it is believed that the only entrance to the tower was via a heavily-defended door and portcullis.

The Holme family continued to live at Paull Holme until the early part of the 20th century.  But the decline of the tower as the family residence probably started in around 1640 during the English Civil War when the building suffered damage at the hands of Cromwell’s Parliamentary Army.  By the 19th century the tower had ceased to be habitable and in 1871 Colonel Bryan Holme converted it into a lookout and gazebo.

Local legend has it that the building is haunted by the ghost of a bullock which apparently climbed the tower steps in 1840 and fell to its death from the top.

Sir Robert Holmes and his Escapades.  Robert Holmes was a Royalist, born in Ireland of English parents, who made his name in the navy in the Restoration period.

He took part in the second and third Anglo-Dutch wars, both of which he is, by some, credited with having started.  Holmes’s Bonfire is what his raid in 1666 on the Dutch islands of Vlie and Schelling came to be called.

He was always quarrelsome and controversial during his professional life:

  • In 1660, he quarrelled with Samuel Pepys on the appointment of a ship captain.  Pepys recorded in his diary that he feared Holmes’ temper might result in a duel and then he would certainly die.
  • In 1668, he acted as second in the duel between the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Shrewsbury. When the Earl died during the duel, he himself was convicted of murder but was later reprieved.
  • In 1671, he entertained the King, Charles II, lavishly at his new estate on the Isle of Wight.
  • In 1682, he angered the King by presenting an address from Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth.

From his later base in Yarmouth he would carry out almost piratical operations against Dutch and French shipping, which added greatly to his wealth.

His statue in Yarmouth church was in fact originally intended for the French King, Louis XIV.  The sculptor had created the body and was travelling to France to do the head “from life” when his ship was wrecked.  Robert captured the body and sculptor who was forced to sculpt and place Robert’s own head on the statue.

A visitor, seeing the statue in the 1690’s, commented:

“Sir Robert Holmes is buried where his statue is cut in length in white marble in the church and railed with iron gates.  He was raised from nothing and was an imperious governor.  What he scraped together he was forced to leave to his nephew and base daughter, having no other, and they have set up this stately monument which cost a great deal.”

Reader Feedback – Holmes from Cumbria.  Using the Mormon genealogy website familysearch.com I have gotten stuck at Dr. William Albert Holmes of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, Any leads to go back further?

Charles James Ross Lind Holmes (jameslindholmes@gmail.com)

Holmes and Surname Spelling Variants in Scotland

In old parish records In the 1891 census
Number                   Percent Number   Percent
Holm    948                           14     111                 3
Holms    476                            7    254                 6
Holmes    567                            9  1,361               34
Holme    145                            2      10                  –
Home 1,000                          15    226                 2
Hume 3,458                          53  2,491               55
Total 6,594                         100  4,053             100

The old parish records reveal a number of different spellings around Holmes.  However, by the time of the 1891 census, there were only two names significantly still in circulation – Hume and Holmes.

Home and Hume were old Scottish border names, with Hume gradually taking over from Home.  But the name Home survived in the family of Lord Home of the Hirsel, the man who unexpectedly became British Prime Minister in 1963. Holmes would appear to have absorbed earlier spellings such as Holm and Holms.

Traherne Holmes at St. David’s in Tipperary.  St David’s was built for the Rev. Gilbert Holmes, the Protestant dean of Ardfert and a member of the prominent local Holmes family, who had arrived in 1728.

His son Captain William Bassett Holmes extended the house during the great famine and must have done a good job.  When it was completed, the local newspaper The Nenagh Guardian reported that he had erected “a handsome edifice.”

After the death of the captain, St David’s came into its own as the seat of his son, Traherne Holmes, who earned a reputation as an eccentric bachelor and wildly competitive sportsman.  Traherne was a skilled fisherman, horseman, swimmer and yachtsman.  After a falling out with the club captain over his yacht the Knockrockery, he defiantly formed a new yacht club at St David’s, known as the Lough Derg Corinthian Yacht Club.

Holmes was also a horse trainer and his best animal, Tipperary Boy, won the Irish Grand National, the Dunboyne and Galway Plates, and came fourth in the Aintree Grand National.  When a Cork Stud offered the then-colossal sum of £3,000 for the horse, Holmes refused.

In 1894 Holmes famously challenged a local hero named Dalton to a 350-yard swimming match for a bet.  Hundreds were said to have turned out to watch Holmes humiliate his opponent, winning by a dozen lengths.

Reader Feedback – Holmes in County Wexford.  My maternal grandad Holmes and paternal nanna Byrne nee Holmes were two cousins born in Wexford.

My grandad Philip Holmes was born at Cullenstown in Wexford in 1892 and died in 1982 aged 90.  My nanna Catherine Byrne nee Holmes was born at Ballyoction in Wexford in 1899 and died in 1987 aged 88.  They both could go back three generations of Holmes in the parish of Bannow in county Wexford.  There are now four more new generations added to our clan.

Caroline Holmes Byrne (byrnecaroline886@gmail.com)

Obadiah Holmes in Puritan New England.  Obadiah Holmes, his wife Katherine and their family were among the many English Puritans who sailed to New England during the “great migration” of the 1630’s.  They arrived in Boston in 1638, settled up the coast in Salem, Massachusetts, and joined the local church.

However, Obadiah took a disliking to the church’s rigidity of teaching and began expressing his own opinions in religious discussions.  His views in fact were veering towards those of the Baptist faith who had begun settling in Rhode Island.

In 1651, he travelled with two fellow believers to Lynn, Massachusetts at the invitation of a local Baptist there.  The three attended a local church service and, in a blatant act of disrespect, put their hats back on their heads after being seated.  For their action, they were removed by the constable, held overnight, and then sent to Boston for trial.  They were charged with disturbing the public meeting and, more seriously, seducing others to their “erroneous judgment and practices.”

A week later, in a trial before the General Court, they were swiftly convicted and fined.  Obadiah, however, refused to pay or to allow others to pay on his behalf, thereby forcing the court to carry out its alternative punishment of a public whipping.  The whipping took place on September 5, 1651, thirty strokes with a three-cord whip.  Apparently Obadiah was silent throughout the ordeal, but proclaimed to the witnessing magistrates: “You have hit me as with roses.”

Obadiah Holmes became a Baptist minister in Newport, Rhode Island and lived on for another thirty years.  He and his wife raised nine children and they presented him with forty one grandchildren.

Reader Feedback – Francis Holmes of Boston and Charleston.  The Christopher Holmes Bracken website suggested that Francis Holmes of Boston and Charleston was the son of John Holmes, Plymouth Court messenger, originally from Yorkshire, who had evidently emigrated in the 1620’s.

I understand that Mr. Bracken based his belief on a supposed letter his great-aunt received in the 1960’s from a Mrs. Hamer Scarborough Morse of Sumter, South Carolina, in which the writer (probably now deceased) posited to Mrs. Caroline Holmes Bivens (now deceased) that she had seen a book that said something to the effect of: “John Holmes moved from Yorkshire, England to Bedford, NY and he had one son Francis who further removed to Boston” or something along those lines.  Evidently that ended any further search efforts for Caroline Holmes Bivens and her immediate relations.

However, in her own notes which she published and circulated to various family members during the latter part of the 20th century, she admitted that family members who still live in Charleston do not agree with her unsourced conclusions.

Most still only know Francis Holmes as the first Holmes ancestor and have seen nothing viable to indicate that his parent is that John Holmes.  Ms. Bivens never actually produced the latter from Mrs. Morse and certainly no citation to the book was ever presented to anyone. If you review what is available, particularly the work of anyone claiming a proven parentage for Francis Holmes of Boston/Charleston,  I am fairly certain that you will find that connection lacking any substantial proof.

On the other hand, I would love to see anything tending to prove such a connection or any clues as to who Francis’s parents actually are.  I’ve gone so far as to hire professional genealogists in New England to conduct primary research for me and we have never come up with anything.

Ms. Bivens spent a good portion of her life working on Holmes and other genealogy and maybe it was easier for her to feel like she had finally solved the puzzle she had spent decades working on before she died.  Understandably her close relations would continue to support her beliefs but, to my knowledge, we are still pretty much in the dark as to Francis Holmes’s ancestry.

Riley Holmes Jr (rileyholmes@gibbs-holmes.com)

Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Supreme Court.  Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Boston in 1841, the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, a physician and author of novels, verse and humorous essays.  He thus grew up in a literary and prosperous family.  He entered Harvard Law School in 1864 and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar three years later.

By 1902 he was appointed to the US Supreme Court and he would serve there for thirty years, longer than anyone else.  He was called “the Great Dissenter” because he was often at odds with his fellow justices and was capable of eloquently expressing his dissents.  Louis Brandeis often joined him in dissents and their views often became the majority opinion in a few years’ time.

Holmes was widely considered a “liberal” because he believed in free speech and the right of labor to organize.  But he was very conservative in his response to injury cases.  And he was a champion of “judicial restraint,” deferring to the judgment of the legislature in most matters of policy.

He is considered one of the giants of American law, not just because he wrote so well but also because he wrote so much and for so long.  A lawyer seeking a quote from Holmes is never found wanting.  Even the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington DC bears his writing: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

Reader Feedback – Holmes in Illinois and Iowa.  I have traced our Holmes family to Illinois back about 1800 but it seems to be a dead end there. My great grandfather was Isaac Holmes of Iowa; and his father was also Isaac Holmes; and he said his father was born in Illinois in the 1840 census.

Chris Holmes Bukowski (canyonrimranch@aol.com)

The Transports, a Ballet Opera.  This ballet opera relates the true story of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, convicts who were transported to Australia on the First Fleet in 1787, and the trials and tribulations which culminated in that historic voyage.  The story follows the historical research that had been undertaken by Eric Fowler.

The tale is presented as a cycle of new compositions in the idiom of traditional English folk song, linked by narrative passages in the style and to the melodies of broadsheet ballads of the time.

The orchestral passages and arrangements for the accompanied songs were conceived in such a way as to underline the overall feeling of “period.”  The instruments used were those likely to have been heard in the church bands or “quires” of East Anglian villages in those days.  The singers were chosen from the front rank of the English folk song revival and the melodies were composed to suit their individual style.

The Transports was first performed in 1977.  There was a subsequent commemorative re-issue of the recording in 2004.

Holmes Names

  • Wilfrid Holme was a Protestant poet from Yorkshire in the 1530’s.
  • Sir Robert Holmes was a colorful Admiral during the Restoration period.
  • Edwin Holmes is credited with the invention of the burglar alarm at his Boston factory.
  • Sherlock Holmes is the famous fictional detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr served on the US Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932 and has been one of the most cited of Supreme Court justices.
  • Larry Holmes, born in Georgia, was the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1978 to 1985.
  • Kelly Holmes won the women’s 800 and 1,500 kilometer gold medals in the Athens Olympics in 2004.
  • Elizabeth Holmes was convicted of fraud in 2022 after her heavily promoted blood-testing company Theranos went bust.

Holmes Numbers Today

  • 72,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 52,000 in America (most numerous in Texas).
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).


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Written by Colin Shelley

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