Holt Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Holt Surname Meaning

In England, Holt as a name is Anglo-Saxon in origin and describes a wood or copse and, by extension, one who lived by a wood or copse. A spelling variant is Hoult.

This name or its near-equivalent has also appeared in Germanic and Scandinavian languages. The German Holz, when anglicized, may often receive a “t” between the “l” and “z.” Holt is to be found in Danish and Norwegian, Hult and Hulte in Swedish, and Hulti in Finnish. The German Hold or Holde, meaning “friend” or “servant,” may also sometimes get anglicized to Holt.

Holt Surname Resources on The Internet

Holt Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lancashire) and from Germany
  • to Ireland (Wicklow), America, Canada and Australia

England.  Holt as a place-name occurs in Norfolk and in north Wales; but Holt as a surname appeared elsewhere:

  • a Holt family was said to have held lands in Wimboldsley in Cheshire since the time of King John
  • John Holt was a 15th century English judge and landowner in Northamptonshire and then there were the Holtes of Nechells and Aston in Warwickshire (whose numbers included Sir Thomas Holte, an ardent Royalist and the man who built Aston House in 1631).

Lancashire.  It has been the county of Lancashire which has had the most Holts, over half of the Holts in the country according to Victorian censuses.

Hugo Holte was recorded as a landowner in Lancashire in 1190. Later Holts were:

  • the Holts of Gristlehurst near Bury who were a long-established family. Their most distinguished member was Sir John Holt, the Lord Chief Justice of England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
  • then there were the Holts who held Balderstone near Rochdale from the early 1500’s to 1713.

Many of these landed Holts would appear to have frittered their inheritance away during the 18th century.

Rochdale remained a hub for Holts in Lancashire. A public petition signed by 2,100 men of Rochdale in 1642 contained the dignatures of no fewer than 67 Holts. Robert Holt in fact left the town for America during those turbulent times.

A century or so later, a Holt family in Rochdale was involved in cotton manufacturing there. In the early 1800’s George Holt set himself up as a cotton broker in Liverpool and laid the basis for the family fortune.

Alfred Holt who came later started up the Blue Funnel Line to China in 1865 (a story recounted in Francis Hyde’s 1956 book, Blue Funnel). Coincidentally, there was another shipping Holt in Liverpool, John Holt from Lincolnshire, who began a trading business to West Africa in 1884.

A Manchester landmark today is the Joseph Holt brewery chain, with its 127 pubs in and around the city. Joseph Holt, the son of a Manchester weaver, began this enterprise with a small brewery there in the 1850’s. Edward Holt had a summer house built in the arts and crafts style in the Lake District in 1900. The brewery chain remains in the hands of this family.

Ireland. The Holt name, brought over from England, could be found in Wicklow, Offaly, and Monaghan. The earliest presence, in Elizabethan times, was in Wicklow.

Wicklow was also the most prominent presence – when Joseph Holt, a Protestant farmer, became General Joseph Holt, leader of the United Irish on the battlefield in the 1798 Rebellion. When that revolt was crushed, he was exiled to Australia, where he worked as a farm manager, and he eventually returned to Ireland in 1814.

America. Holts came to Virginia and Maryland mainly.

Virginia and Maryland.  The first arrival was a Randall Holt from Prestbury in Cheshire. He arrived at the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1620 as a 13 year old indentured servant. He survived the early traumas, was released from his indenture, and married well.

Robert Holt, from Rochdale in Lancashire, came to Maryland in the early 1650’s with his wife Dorothy and they later crossed the Potomac into Virginia. Some of the family remained there in Amelia county, others migrated south into North Carolina. James Holt was the first to head for the rich farmlands of western Tennessee in 1847. Many of his descendants remain there today.

Thomas Holt of Virginia had a good Revolutionary War, being at Lafayette’s side at the surrender of Cornwallis in Yorktown. For this he was granted bounty land in Kentucky. His son Joseph became a leading figure in the Republican party during the Civil War and is commemorated by many place-names. Judge Joseph Holt House in rural Breckinridge county, where he grew up, still stands.

Other Holts.  Some Holts in America had come originally from Germany or Scandinavia. Jonas Hold, mayor of Stettin in Wurttemberg, is the earliest known ancestor of the Holt family of Virginia and later of North Carolina (the Holts of Alamance county). Edwin Holt took over the cotton mill there in 1851. Son Thomas carried on the business and later rose to become Governor of North Carolina.

Canada. Canada’s best-known Holt was probably Herbert Holt who arrived from Ireland in 1875 and became one of Montreal’s richest industrialists. But he was not liked.

In the midst of the Depression he was quoted as saying:  “If I am rich and powerful while you are suffering the stranglehold of poverty and the humiliation of social assistance, it is foolishness on your part and, as for me, it is the fruit of a wise administration.”

The crowd cheered when his death was announced at a baseball game in 1941.

Australia.  James Holt was a cobbler from Birmingham who came to Sydney in 1829.  His descendant Thomas Holt owned farming property in Nubba, NSW and Thomas’s grandson Harold Holt attended school there.  Harold entered politics and rose to become Australia’s Prime Minister in 1966.  However, a year later, while swimming off Victoria, he mysteriously disappeared and his body was never found.

Holt Surname Miscellany

Holt Origins.  Holt appears in England from Anglo-Saxon times and also in Germanic and Scandinavian languages as a word meaning wood or copse. The Holt name can also be found in Viking history.

“Holt the axe” was a Viking king, said to be cursed to remain immortal until he had physically died twenty one times and been reborn twenty one times (this number representing the number of priests he had slaughtered when he was king).  He appeared in different decades always as the same man, aged 40 and wielding the same axe.

Sir Thomas Holte and the Cook.  In 1608 Sir Thomas Holte of Aston in Warwickshire obtained damages against one William Astgrigg for a slanderous statement which alleged:

‘Sir Thomas Holte took a cleaver and hit his cook with this cleaver upon the head, and clave his head, that one side thereof fell upon one of his shoulders and the other side on the other shoulder, and this I will verify to be true.’

On appeal, however, it was ingeniously argued that although it had been stated that the halves of the cook’s head had fallen on either shoulder, there was no statement that the cook had in fact been killed.  The judgment of the King’s Bench was consequently given in favor of the appellant.

This slander gave rise to the curious local tradition that Holte murdered his cook in a cellar at Duddeston ‘by running him through with a spit’ and was subsequently compelled by way of punishment to adopt the red hand on his coat of arms.

The Holts of Gristlehurst.  Ralph Holt obtained the estate by marriage in 1449.  Gristlehurst Hall was a large half-timbered house with thirteen hearths near Bury in Lancashire.  The high fireplaces had chimney place beams that were carved with armorial crests.  The house itself had gable ends and long casements and was set in seclusion in 127 acres.

These Holts married well and this gave them a prominence and rank above other Holts in the area.  However, the estate was squandered away by Thomas Postumus Holt in the late 17th century.

The Holts of Balderstone.  The Balderstone land lay in the manor of Rochdale in the county of Lancashire.  Henry Holt lived in a Hall of some pretension there, but died without issue in 1520.  Balderstone then had several owners until the Holts of Stubley acquired it in 1582.

This Holt family were farmer-weavers.  The wool would probably have been fulled by hand or foot and stretched out on tenter frames to dry.  Charles Holt farmed thirty acres around the Hall in the early 1600’s. He built himself a water-powered cornmill sometime before his death in 1628.

The Holts sold the mill along with the estate in 1713.

Alfred Holt and the Blue Funnel Line.  The history of Alfred Holt’s Ocean Shipping Group began in 1865 when Alfred and his brother Philip set up this company and its famous shipping subsidiary, the Blue Funnel Line, in Liverpool.  Its purpose was to provide a regular steamship cargo service from England to China, at first via the Cape of Good Hope and then via the Suez Canal.

At that time the steamship was not considered an economic long-distance cargo carrier.  But Alfred, who had studied as a marine engineer, came up with a new design for a compound engine and screw propeller in an iron-clad ship which would result in a competitive long-haul steamer.

Three Blue Funnel ships using this new design had been built for the Holts by Scotts of Greenock: the Agamemnon, Ajax, and Achilles.  These ships began sailing to China in 1866.  More ships were added to the fleet over the years as the trade and competition increased.  In 1935 Blue Funnel acquired the Glen Line, a company that had traditionally been a great rival in the China tea trade.

The trade with the Far East continued until the late 1980’s when the company’s traditional ships gave way to containerization.  But the Blue Funnel ships – with their familiar tall vertical blue funnel and black top – will always be remembered with affection by those who served in them.

Holt Places in America

Place Founded Named after:
Holt county, Missouri  1841 local politician Dr. David Rice
Holtsville, New York  1860 Postmaster General Joseph Holt
Holt county, Nebraska  1862 Postmaster General Joseph Holt
Holt, Michigan  1865 Postmaster General Joseph Holt
Holtville, California  1908 city planner and community
founder W.F. Holt

Reader Feedback – James Holt in Tennessee.  I think that the James Holt mentioned as moving from North Carolina to western Tennessee in 1847 was my three times grandfather. He had a son, also named James, who stayed in eastern Tennessee in Sullivan county.

Phillip Holt (pkholt53@gmail.com).

Edwin Holt’s Cotton Mill.  Edwin Holt built his home Locust Grove in the 1830’s on the plantation where his ancestors had fought the battle of Alamance in North Carolina.  His sister married a man named Carrigan and he and Carrigan started a cotton mill in Alamance.  When Carrigan left North Carolina for Arkansas in 1851, Edwin wrote to his son Thomas, who was then living in Philadelphia, to return to Alamance to help him manage the mill.

Thomas Holt later recalled:

“In 1853 there came to our place of business on Alamance Creek a Frenchman who was a dyer and was hard up and out of money.  He proposed to teach me how to color cotton yarns, that is if I would pay him the sum of one hundred dollars and give him his board.

I persuaded my father to allow me to accept the proposition and he immediately went to work with such appliances as we could scrape up (including a large cast-iron washpot and an eighty gallon copper boiler which my grandfather had used for boiling potatoes).

As speedily as possible we built a dye house and acquired the necessary utensils for dyeing.  The Frenchman remained with me until I thought I could manage by myself.  I got on very well, with the exception of dyeing indigo blue.  Afterwards an expert dyer in blue came from Philadelphia and he taught me the art of dyeing in that color.  He then put two negro men to work with me.”

Henry Holt the Brick Collector.  Henry Holt accidentally found a brick marked “E.H. & Co. Accrington” in 1963 and it generated an interest.  In 1964 he found another marked “E. Holt & Co. Rosendale” and he was a convert to brick collecting!

By the end of 1977 he and his wife Mary had a collection of over nine hundred bricks.  They were to be involved in cataloguing them for nearly thirty years.  In the spring of 1996 Henry (by then a widower) moved part of his collection out of a rented garage into his own back garden and greenhouse. He died at the end of that year.

Henry seemed to have been primarily interested in the bricks themselves and where they were made.  His interest in the buildings from which they were removed was apparently very high for many of the local and other Lancashire sources, but less so for sources out of this area. He would make several visits to big demolition sites, photographing them and adding bricks to his collection in the process.

His wife Mary was primarily responsible for writing up the catalogue entities whilst Henry sought out the bricks and the information about them.  The catalogue of the collection was handwritten onto both sides of a mixture of A4 and quarto feint ruled sheets filed in ring and lever arch files.  The bricks were numbered sequentially according to the order the bricks had come to hand.

Each brick was given a unique number applied to it, using yellow Harbutt’s waterproof marking crayons.  The numbering sequence ran from one to 5,103.

Holt Names

  • Sir John Holt was Lord Chief Justice of England from 1689 to 1710.
  • Alfred Holt was the leading figure of the Holt shipping family of Liverpool who started the blue Funnel steamship service to China.
  • Benjamin Holt established the Holt tractor company in Peoria, Illinois which evolved into the Caterpillar Company in 1925.
  • Winifred Holt was an American sculptor and philanthropist who founded the first Lighthouse for the Blind in New York in 1913.
  • Harold Holt was briefly Prime Minister of Australia before he died through drowning in suspicious circumstances in 1967.

Holt Numbers Today

  • 25,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 28,000 in the UK (most numerous in Texas)
  • 14,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Holt and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Lancashire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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