Hurst Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Hurst Surname Meaning

The root of the English surnames Hurst, Hirst, and Hearst is the Old English hyrst, meaning a wooded hill. It could be locational, to describe someone who lived by a wooded hill, or (more likely) it could derive from a place-name with that spelling. 

The Hirst spelling is native to Yorkshire. Hurst place-names cropped up at various places throughout England and the Hurst surname has been more widespread. Another spelling variant is Hearst.

Hurst Surname Resources on The Internet

Hurst, Hirst and Hearst Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England, Ireland (Fermanagh), and Germany
  • to America, Canada and Australia

EnglandThe 1881 census showed 80% of the Hirsts in Yorkshire and 34% of the Hursts in Lancashire.

Yorkshire.  The early spelling in Yorkshire seems to have been Hurst. Hursts were recorded in Rotherham, Methley near Leeds, and Dewsbury in the 16th century. William Hurst, an architect from Doncaster, was responsible for the building of Firbeck hall and church near Rotherham in the early 1800’s.

But the Hirst spelling had begun to displace Hurst by that time. At the time of the 1881 census Hirsts outnumbered Hursts in Yorkshire by ten to one. The largest number of these Hirsts was concentrated in the metropolitan borough of Kirklees in the West Riding of Yorkshire, notably in Huddersfield and villages in the Holme valley where the wool trade and handloom weaving were important.

Coming from this area were:

  • William Hirst, born in Marsh, the so-called father of the Yorkshire woollen trade (although he himself went bankrupt in the crash of 1830)
  • Thomas Hirst, born in Heckmondwike, the 19th century mathematician 
  • and George Hirst, born in Kirkheaton, the Yorkshire and England cricketer at the turn of the century.

The Hirst name did extend elsewhere in Yorkshire. For instance, Jemmy Hirst, the noted 18th century eccentric, lived at Rawcliffe near Goole in the East Riding.

Lancashire.  The largest number of Hursts in 1881 was in Lancashire. Hurst place-names there resulted in Hurst surnames.

Hurst Brook was a small hamlet near Ashton-under-Lyne. A Hurst family was said to have been descended from Nicholas de Hyrst living there in 1422. These Hursts were resident in Ashton-under-Lyne in the early 1600’s. A number of Hursts were to be found in the wider Salford area from the 1700’s onward.

Tyldesley Hurst near present-day Wigan gave rise to Hurst families in Tyldesley and Shakerley. Jeffrey Hurst, a dissenter from Shakerley at the time of Queen Mary, was saved from martyrdom by the death of the Queen in 1558.

Elsewhere. Leicestershire was another sizeable Hurst outpost, possibly from the place-name Bringhurst. Bringhurst was already a surname by 1320. The Hurst family in Hinckley dates from the 16th century and Hursts were to be found in Claybrook from the 1750’s and in Wigston Magna from the early 1800’s.

The Hurst name in Hertfordshire goes back to the 13th century. Hurst Hills in Oxfordshire and Sussex probably gave rise to Hurst families in those two counties:

  • the Hursts in Oxfordshire date from the early 1500’s and were to be found in villages such as Great Milton, Great Haseley, Coombe, Wheately, and Leckhamstead.  
  • while the Hursts at Horsham in Sussex also started around that time. The diary of Sarah Hurst who lived there between 1736 and 1808 has been preserved. Her younger brother Robert did well and his family acquired and held onto Park House in Horsham from 1800 to 1929. Father, son, and grandson were MP’s for Horsham over the course of the 19th century. 

Ireland. Hurst in Ireland may be of English or of Irish origin, the latter being an anglicized form of the Gaelic de Horsaigh. Fermanagh accounted for 25% of the Hursts in Ireland in Griffith’s Valuation on the 1850’s. The Hurst name was evident in Enniskillen and in Derryvallan parish. The Hearst spelling can be found in Belfast.  

America. Hursts but not Hirsts travelled to America. Two early arrivals were:

  • Tobias Hurst who came to Jamestown, Virginia on the Treasurer in 1618 at the age of 22. He lived until 1655. However, he has no recorded descendants.
  • and James Hurst who arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts from Leiden in Holland in 1632 (possibly preceded by his daughter Patience) and was one of the early settlers of Dartmouth.

Virginia. Henry Hurst came to Northumberland county in the northern neck of Virginia in 1650. John of Stafford and Henry of Orange are thought to be his grandsons and from there the lines appear well documented. The descendants of John Hurst can be found in J.C. Hurst’s 1950 book Hursts of Shenandoah.

Tennessee and Kentucky.  Thomas Hurst came to Tennessee from Shenandoah county, Virginia in 1807 and settled in Claiborne county. His brother Elijah followed him shortly afterwards and Elijah’s son Fielding came to McNairy county in the southwest part of the state in 1833. Fielding Hurst was for many years a respected farmer and slave-owner. But his name was forever blackened by the stories about him during the Civil War when Hurst Nation held sway.

Henry Hurst from Frederick county, Virginia fought in the Revolutionary War and died in Morgan county, Kentucky in 1844.

Other Hursts.  Hurstd in America have varied origins, not just English but Irish and German as well. The German name was usually Horst (of similar meaning) which tended to become Hurst in America. They were mainly to be found in Pennsylvania. Their numbers included Mennonite Horsts/Hursts and later arrivals from Baden. 

And the Hearsts. John Hearst and his family (first listed as Hearse) came from Belfast on the Belfast Packet to Charleston in 1766. They settled in the Long Cane district of South Carolina, then still Cherokee territory, which later became part of Abbeville county.

Son George migrated to Missouri. His son William did not prosper, but his grandson George did, first in mining and then in publishing – acquiring the San Francisco Daily Examiner in 1882. It was his son William Randolph Hearst who established the Hearst publishing empire. The family story was traced in Judith Robinson’s 1991 book The Hearsts – An American Dynasty.

Canada.  William Hearst emigrated from Fermanagh to Ontario sometime in the 1840’s. His son William, who trained to be a lawyer, became Premier of Ontario in 1914.

Australia and New Zealand.  Early Hursts in Australia were convicts. William Hurst of Bedfordshire was transported there for horse theft in 1823. The owner of the horse, Owen Cambridge, in fact wrote a small book about his chase across England to catch Hurst and his horse. Hurst ended up with his family in Tasmania.

Frederick Hurst led an adventurous life. Born in Jersey in the Channel Islands, he embarked with his parents in 1839 at the age of six for New Zealand. They settled near Wellington. In 1852 Frederick labored in the Bendigo goldfields in Australia where he joined the Mormon church.

Three years later he sailed for America by way of Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands. Frederick was involved in many Mormon pioneer activities in Utah and a mission to New Zealand later in his life. In 1961 his grandson published his diary – The Diary of Frederick William Hurst.

Hurst, Hirst and Hearst Surname Miscellany

Hirst and Hurst in the 1881 Census

Numbers (000’s) Hirst Hurst
Yorkshire    7.8    0.8
Lancashire    0.9    3.5
Cheshire    0.1    0.5
Leicestershire      –    0.5
London    0.2    0.9
Elsewhere    0.8    1.5
Total    9.8   10.7

The Yorkshire Hirsts were mainly concentrated in the Holme valley in the West Riding.  Towns and villages such as Huddersfield, Almondbury, Batley, Dewsbury, Meltham, Mirfield, and Slaithwaite had sizeable Hirst populations.

The Diary of Sarah Hurst.  Sarah Hurst was born in 1736 and died in 1808.  For four of these years, from 1759 to 1762, she kept a diary which has been preserved.  Her father, like his father before him, was a tailor in Horsham in Sussex.  The elder Hurst had also been something of a local dignitary, serving as Surveyor of the Highways and Overseer of the Poor.

Sarah’s diaries at this time revealed her to have been a remarkable young woman: she was well-educated, at ease in polite society, kept the accounts of the family business, did needlework for lady customers, and wrote poetry in her spare time.

One of the main stories that ran through the diary was Sarah’s love for Henry Smith, with whom she fell in love when only sixteen years of age.  From the diary it is clear that much of Sarah and Henry’s affair was carried on in secret as the Smith family generally opposed the marriage, mainly because Sarah’s father was a local tradesman while they were a family of London merchants.

Defying family expectations, Sarah and Harry married in secret at Slinfold church on 28 April 1762.  The pages of the diary were cut out around that date so we do not know the full story of the marriage.  Until the question of the dowry was sorted out, Sarah and Harry kept their marriage quiet.  Sarah was forced to lie on several occasions, including to her mother-in-law who was fiercely against the marriage.  This was an entry at that time:

“Friday, 8 October 1762.  Go down to Mrs. Wicker and find there Dr. Smith’s wife and my Harry’s mother.  The former wishes me joy and says she heard I was married.  I answer people will say anything.  Captain Smith’s mother seemed greatly agitated and said she knew it was not so.  It’s wrong to be too positive, but we too often believe what we wish.  Poor woman, she will be horridly vexed when she knows it’s true.”

Jemmy Hirst, An English Eccentric.  Jemmy Hirst was born in 1738 to a farmer family in Rawcliffe in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  Even at school he kept a pet jackdaw and trained a hedgehog to follow him around.  His parents’ hope that he would become a priest never materialized after he was thrown out of school for his pranks.  Hirst was apprenticed to a tanner, fell in love with his daughter and became engaged to her.

Reputedly Hirst’s eccentricity began when his betrothed died of smallpox after he rescued her from a flooding river. At first Hirst retired to his bed and reputedly contracted “brain fever.”

When he recovered, he continued his habits of animal training.  His first success was his later favorite, a bull he named Jupiter and trained to behave as a horse so that he could ride him and use him to pull his carriage. The carriage itself was made of wicker and had unusually big wheels, looking like a lampshade upside down.  When Jupiter found it hard to pull, Hirst fitted it with sails. The experiment was unsuccessful and the carriage crashed into a shop window in Pontefract. Hirst was then banned from the town.

Hirst rode Jupiter in a fox hunt, using pigs as pointers instead of dogs.  He would go to Doncaster races dressed in a lambskin hat with a nine-foot brim and a waistcoat of duck feathers.  Hirst blew his hunting horn to summon the poor and the elderly to his house for tea. Sometimes the visitors found that the refreshments were served from their host’s favorite coffin.  Hirst hung the walls of his house with bits of old rope and iron and wrote doggerel verse.

Hirst’s fame grew enough that King George III was intrigued and invited him to visit London.  When he arrived there in his carriage he attracted much attention in his flamboyant costume.  During the visit one noble began to laugh.  Jemmy proceeded to throw a goblet of water in his face because he was clearly “having hysterics.”  He announced that he was pleased to find his monarch a “plain-looking fellow” and invited him to visit him in Rawcliffe for a good brandy. The king did not oblige, but reputedly gave him a number of bottles from the royal wine cellar.

Jemmy Hirst died in 1829.  His will left £12 to twelve old maids who were to follow his coffin and two musicians, a fiddler and a bagpiper who were to play happy songs. Only two old maids obliged.  He left his accountant a piece of rope to “go hang himself with.”  The rumor went around that Hirst had had his own coffin built with windows and shelves which he kept in his front room.  He would charge people to sit in it.

The Early Years of Cricketer George Hirst.  George Herbert Hirst was born in Kirkheaton on 7 September 1871 at the Brown Cow public house in St. Mary’s Lane.  The pub was run by his mother’s parents James and Sarah Maria Hirst.  James also farmed six acres attached to the pub.

George left school at the age of 10 and went to work as a wirer for a hand-loom weaver.  He also helped his grandfather droving the cattle but, as his granddaughter said, he told her that he always “played cricket from noon till night otherwise.”

He recalled in 1937, when asked to write a passage for a brochure to raise money for the new Kirkheaton pavilion:

“At the Old Brown Cow Inn there we boys played our cricket in the yard and the intake field below.  It would be about 1885 or 1886 when I joined Kirkheaton. We lads practiced cricket and football every spare moment we could get after work.  In fact, our parents said we lived at the ground.  Practice with a ball makes the player – well we got our share.”

Later he worked in Robson’s dye-works on the other side of the valley, and all the time he was playing cricket as a “Saturday man,” first for Elland, then for Mirfield, and afterwards for Huddersfield.  In 1889 he played his first game for Yorkshire when he was only 17.

Hursts in America by Country of Origin

Country Numbers Percent
England    416    58%
Ireland    154    21%
Germany    133    19%
Elsewhere     13     2%
Total    716

There were in addition 290 Horsts who immigrated to America from Germany, some of whom adopted the Hurst name.

Hurst Nation.  Colonel Fielding Hurst led the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry, a Union regiment, in SW Tennessee during the Civil War.  His family also owned a block of land that served as an enclave for Union sympathizers in a rebel state.  It became known as the Hurst Nation.

The land was about five miles wide and stretched 15 miles down the west side of what was then McNairy county.  The Hursts controlled the numerous east-west routes from the Tennessee river to Memphis that traversed their holdings.

Siding with the Yankees did not sit well with most of the Hurst neighbors.  Many considered people like the Hursts worse than the Yankees. One citizen wrote:

“Tories, as we called them, were our worst enemies. These were the men of our own and adjoining counties who had gone over to the Yankees.  Those were the meanest and cruelest class we had to deal with.  They scrupled less at murder and all sorts of outrages, most of them being the very scum of the country.”

This was one line of verse that was written at the time:

  • “Despair for the children who lie now in bed.
  • The widow, the aged, the soldier who bled.
  • For out of the “Nation” comes a sickness and curse –
  • God save us all from the demon called Hurst.
  • Like vandals of old through our land they did ride
  • With hunger and death always close by their side.
  • Came terror, his herald, but the wailing comes first
  • We know he is coming, that demon called Hurst.”

In West Tennessee, the site of much guerrilla fighting, Civil War scars have run deep. Hostility toward the Hursts took generations to undo.  That animosity stoked stories, even legends, through the years.  The story has been told how, on a patrol to LaGrange, Hurst carried with him a band of Confederate prisoners and, at every mile post, killed one, cut his head off and hung it on a post.

Surprisingly, the Hurst home still stands.  Some say it is the oldest structure in McNairy county.  It is said to be haunted.  According to legend, Hurst died there after being shot by one of his many enemies.  Some have suggested that he died at the top of the stairs on the second floor.  On the anniversary of his death, the blood reappears and he can be heard screaming.

These Hurst tales may have been exaggerated and Hurst painted more of an ogre than he actually was.  Resentment against him grew in the South after the defeat in the Civil War.

Reader Feedback – Henry Hurst, Revolutionary War Soldier.  Henry Hurst is one of my relatives and served in the Revolutionary War.   I believe he had a brother from John Mill Creek who also served in the same war.

Henry Hurst was the son of Elisha Hurst.  He was born on 27 October, 1762 in Frederick county, Virginia and married his first wife Elizabeth Kiser (born the same year) there. She died in Shenandoah county, Virginia. He died in 1844 in Morgan county, Kentucky.

Any information you might have, also the names of others who have researched him or relatives, etc.

Linda Gay Tooley (

The Hurst Family in Australia.  William Hurst and Mary Keep had married in Wootton, Bedfordshire in 1814 and they had eight children, four in Bedfordshire prior to William’s transportation to Tasmania in 1823 and four more after Mary joined him there in 1829.

These children enjoyed remarkably long lives.  A newspaper report in 1919 noted that two were still living, Elizabeth aged 89 and William aged 82.  The ages of the six that had died were Ambrose 94, Sarah 90, Rebecca 89, Rhoda 78, Leah 75, and Emma 35.

The total combined ages of the family reached 632 years, which was believed to be a record for one family.  Elizabeth in fact lived onto 1923 (aged 93), William to 1927 (aged 90).

Hurst, Hirst and Hearst Names

  • George Hirst was a Yorkshire and English cricketing all-rounder who played between 1890 and 1920. 
  • William Randolph Hearst was the American newspaper publisher who built the nation’s largest newspaper chain in the early 1900’s. 
  • Geoff Hurst was the English footballer who scored a hat-trick for his country in the 1966 World Cup final. 
  • Damien Hirst is an English artist, the most prominent member of a group known as the Young British Artists in the 1990’s.

Hurst, Hirst and Hearst Numbers Today

  • 34,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 17,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)



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Written by Colin Shelley

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