Kay Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kay and Kaye Surname Meaning

There are a number of possible origins for the Kay and Kaye surnames first found in northern England.

It could have been of Old Norse origin from the word ka meaning “jackdaw” and would describe someone who bore a resemblance to that bird.  Or it could have been a nickname for a left-handed man, from the Danish term kei meaning “left” which entered the Lancashire dialect.  And other origins have been suggested.

Kay has been the Lancashire spelling, first found in the vicinity of Bury.  Kay may also be Scottish, an anglicized abbreviation of the Gaelic McKay.  And Kay is also a common name found in Chinese immigrant communities.

Kaye on the other hand is more Yorkshire, first found near Huddersfield in the West Riding.  Many Jewish immigrants, bearing a lengthy “K-“ surname, shortened it to the more usable Kaye, Danny Kaye being a case in point.

Kay and Kaye Surname Resources on The Internet

Kay and Kaye Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Lancashire and Yotkshire), Scotland and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, India and Australia

England. Lancashire and Yorkshire have been the main homes for the Kay and Kaye names.

Lancashire.  The name Willo Kay appeared in the Bury pipe rolls of 1332.  Early Kay sightings around Bury were at Cobhouse Farm on the hills above Walmersley and at Woodhill across the river Irwell:

  • in 1346 William Kay of Cobhouse was charged with cutting down a neighbor’s trees.  Kays remained living at Cobhouse until the early 1900’s.
  • while Robert Kay, recorded at Woodhill in 1491, later obtained permission to erect a chapel in Bury church. His was a family of prestige and affluence in the 16th and 17th centuries but subsequently seemed to have died out.

Robert Kay, a husbandman at Sheephey in Walmersley, was the father of John Kay, born in 1704 and the inventor of the flying shuttle.  This was a wheeled shuttle for the hand loom that greatly accelerated weaving.  While John’s inventiveness was great, his business acumen was not and he was in money problems for the latter part of his life.

Richard Kay meanwhile was born into a related family at Baldingstone House in Walmersley in 1714.  He is known today for the diary which he kept between 1737 and 1749 which has been preserved.

Prestwich, now part of Bury, recorded a Samuel Kay born there in 1628.  Thomas and Elizabeth Kay emigrated from Prestwich to Tipperary in Ireland in the early 1700’s.

Finally, descended from an old farming family in Bury, was the politician James Kay.  Born near Rochdale in 1804, he would make his home at Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley and become the baronet Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth.

The 1881 census showed the main locations for the Kay name in Lancashire as being Bury, Bolton, Darwen and Oldham – all towns to the north of Manchester.  A long line of Bolton Kays has produced:

  • Peter Kay the king of stand-up comedy
  • and (unrelated) Vernon Kay the TV presenter (and married to Tess Daly of Strictly Come Dancing fame).

Yorkshire.  The spelling here may have been originally Kay.  But Kayes marginally outnumbered Kays in the 1881 census.   Kayes were mainly to be found in Huddersfield and in surrounding villages such as Almondbury and Kirkburton.

Almondbury was the site of one old and distinguished Yorkshire family.  John Kay, thought to have come from Lancashire, married the heiress of Woodsome at Almondbury in 1396 and his Kaye family were to remain there until 1726.  The main line became extinct in 1810.

But a line did continue through an illegitimate son John Lister Kaye.  He started the Lister-Kaye baronetcy two years later, making his home at Denby Grange near Wakefield.  He was known for his keenness for cricket.

Jewish.  Kaye could be Jewish.  Emmanuel Kagarlizky, brought to England as a young boy in the 1920’s, became Emmanuel Kaye in the 1930’s.  He made money by running the Lansing Bagnall forklift truck company after the war and was a generous philanthropist (for which he was knighted).

Scotland.  Kay in Scotland is a Lowland name, mainly present in Midlothian and Lanarkshire.  Kae of Corslats was an old family of West Lothian.  John Kay, the son of a mason, was born in Dalkeith near Edinburgh in 1826.  He achieved renown as a caricaturist and engraver.

There were Kays also in east Ayrshire.  William Kay started a workshop there in 1851 making curling stones.  It is still flourishing today.  One family line traces itself back to James and Marion Kay who were married in Galston in 1813.

America.  James Kay, a descendant of the Woodhill Kays of Bury, arrived in Virginia around 1660, settling in Old Rappahannock county.  The line from his eldest son James led to Robert Kay who migrated to the Pendleton district of South Carolina around 1800.  James Kay of this line became a well-known Baptist preacher in South Carolina.

Joshua Kaye came to America with his family from Almondbury in Yorkshire much later in 1819.  His son William started a brass foundry (known for its church bells) in Louisville, Kentucky in 1836.  In 1863 William was elected mayor of the town.  Rather surprisingly he was the second Kaye mayor of Louisville.  The first Kaye mayor, elected in the 1840’s, was Frederick Kaye, the son of German immigrant Friedrich Kaych.

David Kay from Ayrshire in Scotland, who lost both his parents when he was young, emigrated to America in 1869, first settling in Illinois.  Three years later he homesteaded in Nemaha county, Nebraska. He was a prominent supporter of the Farmers’ Alliance.

Jewish.  The entertainer Danny Kaye was born Daniel Kaminsky in Brooklyn in 1911.  Seven years later came Stubby Kaye, born Bernard Kotzin in Manhattan. Both started out in vaudeville.  Danny got to be the more famous of the two, starring in a number of popular movies during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

India.  The writer M.M. Kaye, the author of The Far Pavilions in 1978, came from a long line of soldiers and civil servants in India, the descendants of Charles Kaye, a London solicitor.  Their service under the East India Company and later under the Raj went back to the early years of the 19th century.

Mollie’s grandfather, William Kaye of the Bengal Civil Service, was among the last to attend Addiscombe, the East India Company’s college.  One of his cousins, Sir John Kaye, was Political Secretary of the India Office and the author of a classic six-volume history of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.  Another cousin, Edward Kaye, had commanded a battery at the famous Siege of Delhi and was later made a Lieutenant-General.

Australia.  Two Kaye brothers from Yorkshire, George and Joseph, arrived in Australia on the Sarah in 1832.  George got off in Melbourne, made money there and returned to England.  Joseph who got off in Sydney stayed.

Joseph later moved to the Queanbeyan district, near to where Canberra stands today.  In 1842 he leased a property there called Springbank.  But a big flood forced him to abandon the site and farm elsewhere.  However, his son Charles took over Springbank much later in 1924 and he and his sons farmed there until 1962.

The Kays from Newcastle meanwhile were notable figures in the early history of South Australia. William arrived in Adelaide in 1850 on the Sea Queen and his brother Robert a year later on the Ascendant:

  • William was one of the colony’s early business leaders and his sons Bert and Fred founders of Kay Brothers Wines
  • while Robert was the originator of the circulating library in Adelaide and one of the founders of its Art Gallery and Museum.

Peter Kay’s Family Ancestry

The comedian Peter Kay has roots in Bolton, Lancashire and ancestors who extend back there to mid-Victorian times.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Kay and Kaye Surname Miscellany

Kays and Kayes Today.  The following are the approximate numbers of Kays and Kayes in the English-speaking world today (in ‘000’s):

  • UK              – 24 (Kay) + 8 (Kaye) = 32
  • America      – 14 (Kay) + 6 (Kaye) = 20
  • Elsewhere* – 15 (Kay) + 4 (Kaye) = 19

*Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Kay and Kaye DNA.  Project 50 started when Marcus Kay of Virginia, who had traced his roots back to the West Riding of Yorkshire, suggested to Frank Kaye of Arkansas, who had similar origins, that they organised a DNA test to prove common parental ancestry.

In the event five more samples were made available – three from Yorkshire Kayes and two from Lancashire Kays.

The results were remarkable. Of the seven samples provided, six of the Y-chromosome signatures were identical, and one differed by just one point. This shows a common ancestry for Kays from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Virginia and Arkansas.

Early Kays in Lancashire.  The Victorian surname genealogist Henry Guppy wrote in 1890:

“Kay is an old name in the county of Lancashire. It was well established in Rochdale in the 16th century.  Kay was the name of the rector of Mitton in 1604 and of the second founder of Bury School in the early 18th century.  John Kay of Bury invented the fly-shuttle in 1733.”

Early Kayes in Yorkshire.   There is an assumption that most Huddersfield Kayes share a common ancestor, a certain John Kay who was taxed in Farnley Tyas in the 1379 poll tax, having acquired the manor of Farnley Tyas the year previously.

His family settled at Woodsome in Almondbury when John Kaye married the daughter and heir of Sir John Woodsome.  The Visitation of 1520 recorded the following about these Kayes:

“John Kaye of Woodsome married and had issue Lawrence his son and heir, William his second son, Peter his third son, Richard his fourth son, John his fifth son, Jenkin his sixth son, and six daughters.

Lawrence had son and heir John who had son and heir John who had son and heir Edward who had son and heir Nicholas who died without issue.  The line continued through a second son George and his son and heir Arthur and his son and heir John.”

John and Jenkin, fifth and sixth sons, may have been bastard sons.

By 1545 the Kaye name had become quite common in this part of the West Riding.  Some twenty-three Kaye families were distributed in the parishes of Almondbury, Huddersfield, and Wakefield. The name was absent in neighboring towns such as Leeds, Bradford and Halifax.

Rev. James Kay in South Carolina.  According to T.H. Garrett’s 1896 book History of the Saluda Baptist Association, James had led a wayward early life, indulging freely in the drink habit perhaps to the age of forty years.

During his wayward time he may have prospered.  In the 1860 Abbeville county census which came out when he was seventy-three, he was shown as having 28 slaves, more than any other Kay listed in that census.

On August 2, 1828, he had made a public profession of his faith in Christ and was baptized by Elder Arthur Williams into the fellowship of Barker’s Creek Church.

Licensed to preach in the Baptist faith, he was ordained to the work of the gospel ministry in 1837. He shared duties with his older brother William at Barker’s Creek Baptist Church and later served at the Little River Baptist Church.

Kay Brothers Wine.  This Kay family can be traced back to 1724 in Scotland where their ancestor James Keye was born in Arbroath.

In 1850 William Kay, James Keye’s great grandson, arrived in Australia and the new colony of Adelaide.  He had grown up in Newcastle and was just 20 years old. In 1853 he married Sarah Catcheside, also from Newcastle.  Together they raised eight children, four boys and four girls.

The two youngest children were brothers Herbert and Frederick Kay, founders of Kay Brothers Wines.  After the premature death of their father, Bert and Fred set out to find an industry of their own, settling on an agricultural property in McLaren Vale. Within seven years of their arrival in 1890, they had planted 103 acres of vines.  During the 1890’s they built the first part of the winery consisting of a crusher, fermenting tanks, press and storage tanks, most of which still stands today.

Towards the end of the 1940’s the winery was just returning to normality after World War Two when tragedy struck. Fred died in 1947 after a dreadful accident. The following year Bert passed away after falling ill. The brothers had been in partnership for fifty-seven years, a record unequalled in Australian winemaking history.

Kay Brothers Wines has remained in family hands through son Cud and grandson Colin.

Marcus Kaye in London.  Marcus Kaizer, later known as Kaye, was born in London in 1898, his father Myer Kaizer being a teacher at the South London Jewish School. In 1910 Myer and his wife were appointed headmaster and matron of the Norwood Jewish Orphanage where they were to remain for the next twenty-five years.

Marcus had an adventurous First World War.  Having joined the Royal Flying Corps, he was shot down behind enemy lines in 1917, captured and held at a number of prisoner-of-war camps in Germany.  But disguised as a German workman he managed to escape to Poland.

He also served in the RAF during the Second World War and played an active part in the planning of the Dunkirk, Dieppe, and D-Day operations.  He was twice mentioned in dispatches and reached the rank of Wing Commander.

After his retirement he became a sculptor, exhibiting in many galleries.  He was also a black belt and fifth Dan in judo and was President of the London-based Budokwai, Europe’s oldest and largest Japanese martial arts club.  He died in 1984.

Kay and Kaye Names

  • John Kay from Bury in Lancashire invented the flying shuttle in 1733, a wheeled shuttle for the hand loom that greatly accelerated weaving.
  • Patrick Kay, better known by his stage name of Anton Dolin, was an English ballet dancer and choreographer of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
  • Danny Kaye, born Daniel Kaminsky, was a popular American comedian, singer and dancer from the 1940’s to the 1960’s.
  • M.M. (Mollie) Kaye was a British writer based in India whose best-known book was The Far Pavilions in 1978.
  • Peter Kay is a popular stand-up comic from Bolton in Lancashire.

Kay and Kaye Numbers Today

  • 32,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 20,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 18,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Kay and Like Surnames 

Many surnames like Kay 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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