Kemp Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kemp Surname Meaning

The Middle English and German word kempe was a status name for a champion, a professional fighter or jouster who engaged in single combat on behalf of others.

For example the King’s champion at his coronation had the duty of issuing a general challenge to battle to anyone who would deny the king’s right to the throne. The Norfolk word “kemper” is a term for an old warrior who has seen many a battle.

The surname spelling began as Campe or Kempe and later gave way to Kemp.

Kemp Surname Resources on The Internet

Kemp Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Southeast and East Anglia), Scotland and Germany
  • to America, Bahamas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand

England.  Fred Hitchin-Kemp in his 1902 book A General History of the Kemp and Kempe Families of Great Britain stated that the Kemp name was mainly to be found in the eastern and southern counties of England. Early sightings of the name were:

  • Edmund Kempe in Norfolk in 1099
  • Alan Kempe in Suffolk in 1273
  • and Ralph le Kemp in Sussex in 1296.

SE England.  Ralph Kempe who lived in the early 1300’s and held the Olantigh manor near Ashford was the earliest known ancestor of the Wye Kempes in Kent. Two famous descendants were John Kemp, the 15th century Archbishop of Canterbury, and his nephew Thomas Kempe, Bishop of London. An account of the time read:

“I met with two great men of this name, John Kempe, born at Wye in Kent, Archbishop of York and afterwards of Canterbury. He died a very old man in 1453. The other was Thomas Kemp, his nephew, who was consecrated Bishop of London in 1449 by his uncle the Archbishop.”

Sir Thomas Kempe died in 1607 and he was the last of the family to live at the manor.

Will Kempe, a comic actor on the London stage at the time of Shakespeare, is believed to have been related to him. The Kempes intermarried with the nearby Digges family and some of them were to cross the Atlantic to America.

Other Kempes moved to Lavethan in Cornwall and to Slindon in Sussex. A later descendant was the property developer Thomas Read Kemp who built Kemp Town in Brighton in the early 1800’s before fleeing his creditors and dying in France.

East Anglia.  Another notable Kempe family began in East Anglia with Nicholas Kempe in the early 1400’s. They resided at Spains Hall at Finchingfield in Essex and at Cavendish in Suffolk.

Their numbers included the 16th century judge George Kempe.  William Kempe the mute died at Spains Hall in 1628; while Robert Kempe was supposed to have been knighted by Cromwell on the steps of the house in 1641 (Cromwell’s home in Huntingdon was but a short distance away and Stephen Marshall, Cromwell’s favorite preacher, was the incumbent at Finchingfield). This Kempe line died out in the 1750’s.

John Kempe and Margery Brunham married in King’s Lynn, Norfolk around the year 1393. It was Margery Kempe who became famous – writing The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language. The book chronicled her pilgrimages to various holy sites in Europe and Asia, as well as her mystical conversations with God.

Kemps were local gentry at the small village of Gissing near Diss in Norfolk, starting with Robert Kempe in the early 16th century. For generations the bulk of the population there were Kemp family tenants. The last of these Kemps, Sir Robert Kemp, died in 1936.

Cornwall.  There was also a Kemp outpost in Cornwall, dating back to the 1500’s at Lavethan. James Kempe, the son of Nicholas and Joanna Kempe, was born at St. Gerrans in 1637. The American politician Jack Kemp was said to have been of Cornish origin.

Scotland. Kemps in Scotland may have had a Viking origin (having started out in the Orkneys) or, alternatively and perhaps more likely, have come north from England.  In the latter case they were first to be found in Edinburgh and then moved north into the Highlands.

These Kemps were present in the Black Isle in eastern Rossshire, near Inverness in the Highlands. This isle was a hotbed of Jacobite activity in 1745. After the defeat at Culloden many Kemps emigrated. Some of the Kemps in Rossshire may have been English ironworkers at Gairloch.

America. Edmund Kempe had married Mary Digges in Kent and they were in Virginia by 1653.  Their son Colonel Matthew Kemp was a Virginia colonial politician, a Speaker at the Virginia House of Burgesses.

Robert Kemp was a Quaker from Yorkshire who came to Maryland in 1664. He married and secured a tract of land called Bolton in Talbot county.  His son John was the first of five father-to-son John Kemps that lived and worked on the Bolton farm. Kemp descendants were to live on the property for nigh on two hundred years

Edward and Ann Kemp came to Groton, Massachusetts from Norfolk in 1658 and Ebenezer Kemp of this line fought in the Revolutionary War. Afterwards Ebenezer moved his family to Gorham in Maine.

German Kemps.  Kemps in America are mainly of English origin. Conrad Kaempf (Kemp in America) came to Philadelphia with three of his sons from Germany in 1733 and made for the German community in Frederick county,  Maryland. Some Kempes/Kemps arrived from Germany in the 19th century and a few also from Sweden.

Bahamas.  Kemps were one of the families that left Charleston, South Carolina for the Bahamas in 1776 to start a new life there. They were to be found on the island of Eleuthera. Some later emigrated to Canada.

South Africa. Kemps in South Africa are as likely to be of Dutch as of English origin:

  • Pieter Kemp arrived in the Cape in the early 1700’s and his family settled at Stellenbosch.
  • Dr. Johannes van der Kemp was a Dutch missionary who came to Port Elizabeth in 1803 and left what is now called the Van der Kemp Memorial Church.
  • and Jan Kemp from the Eastern Transvaal was a commando leader against the British during the Boer War.

John and Anne Kemp from Sussex were among the 1820 British settlers and James and Martha Kemp from Kent arrived on the Eastern Cape sometime in the 1830’s. They were brother and sister and had apparently left England because Mary was bearing an illegitimate child. Joshua Kemp was father of the first board of commissioners in Port Elizabeth in the 1840’s. South African Kemps were covered in M.V. Hall’s 1995 book Kemps of the Border.

Australia. Anthony Kemp had come out to Australia in 1795 as part of the NSW Corps. He was one of the key participants in the Rum Rebellion that removed the existing governor of the colony and established an interim military government. He later settled in Tasmania and became a successful merchant and farmer there.

Charles Kemp was one of Sydney’s early successful businessmen. He had arrived with his parents from London in 1825 and rose “from obscurity to eminence and influence.” He had started out in newspapers and expanded into banking, insurance and railways.

New Zealand.  James and Charlotte Kemp, missionaries from Norfolk, were very early arrivals in New Zealand. They came to the Bay of Islands via Sydney in 1818 and helped found the Church Missionary Society station at Kerikeri. The Kemps lived on until 1860 in their mission house, the present Kemp House, into which they had moved in 1832. In 1974, the house, the oldest existing building in New Zealand, was presented to the nation by their great grandson Ernest Kemp.

Kemp Surname Miscellany

Wye Kempe Origins.  Ralph Kempe, also known as Radulphus de Campis, was born in Kent sometime in the 1270’s.  He was the first to hold the manor of Olantigh and also the first of the Wye Kempes.

Hitchin-Kempe in his Kemp history concluded that Ralph Kempe was not, as some had thought, the son of John Kempe, a Flemish weaver who had settled in England under royal protection – because this John Kempe had appeared much later in 1313.

Ralph Kempe might have been related to an earlier Kempe recorded in Kent in a legal document in Canterbury.  Robert le Kempe in 1227 was “granted the tenancy of five acres of land at Holborough at a yearly rent of 12 pence.”  This Kempe was thought to have had Norfolk connections.  The Kempe name had been long established there. 

The Kempes of Spains Hall in Essex.  There has been a house on the site of Spains Hall for nearly ten centuries. The hall was named after Hervey de Ispania who held the Manor at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. The estate passed to the Kempe family on the marriage of Margery de Ispania to Nicholas Kempe in the early 1400’s. The façade of the present Elizabethan house was built in 1585.

William Kempe who died there in 1628 was the subject of the following story that went the rounds in the village:

“It appears that the squire, returning from a banquet, used foul language to his wife, whose gentle nature was so hurt that her tears were with difficulty stopped.  When the squire returned to his sober senses he vowed that for seven years he would speak no word to anyone.

This vow he most rigorously kept, filling up his days with manual labor by way of further penance.  His toil resulted in the formation of seven pools or fishponds, each one larger than the last, stretching away from the hall to the woods near the town.  His self-inflicted punishment was just completed – they said that it was the very day that he could once more speak – when he died.”

The story, though told with variations, was founded on fact.  The tablet to the memory of William and his wife in the Kempe Chapel of Finchingfield church read as follows:

“Here lyeth William Kempe esquire, pious, just, hospitable, master of himself so much that what others scarce do by force and penalties he did by a voluntary constancy hold his peace seven years; who was interred June the 10th 1628, aged 73.”

The Kemps of Brighton.  Thomas Kemp was important in the early history of Brighton.  He had been left a moiety of the manor of Brighton by his uncle in 1774.  His farmhouse there was rented in 1786 by the Prince of Wales and was later demolished when the Royal Pavilion was constructed.

In 1823 his son Thomas Read (TR) Kemp conceived the idea of the fashionable estate east of Brighton to bear his name.  It was also a speculation in order to improve his finances.  Kemp Town, as it became known, got built.  However, Kemp himself fell deeply into debt and in 1837 had to flee England to evade his creditors.  He died in Paris in 1844.

TR’s uncle Nathaniel, born in 1759, built Ovingdean Hall in a village outside of Brighton in 1792.  He married his second wife, forty-one years his junior, in 1823 and they proceeded to have seven children between 1824 and 1837.  One of their sons Charles started his own business, The Kempe Studio for Stained Glass and Church Furniture, in 1866.  It proved highly successful. Charles had changed his surname to Kempe because he thought it made him look medieval.

Reader Feedback – Scottish Kemps.  Some of the content for the Scottish Kemps may have been borrowed from my website (how they arrived from the northern regions into the Black Isle area for safety from further Viking incursions) which I’m now finding might be outdated and incorrect.

That information had been the thoughts of a Pict Museum curator on the Black Isle who I had talked to. More recent research is finding that they may not have originated from the north, but from the south, in England (during the 900’s Dane, Norse, and Norman conquests into the 1070’s) and the mixture of the Anglo-Saxons.

I have recently realized that some of those Kemps later migrated to Edinburgh (a former Norse stronghold) and then up into the Dingwall and Black Isle area as King James V began chartering lands to various men there. Some of this ties the Kemps to Edinburgh through Mary Queen of Scots.  One of her confidants was a Kemp, whose wife, a Sinclair, was Mary’s bedchamber maid.

I have a feeling that some of the descendants of that Kemp, and others, migrated north, holding esteemed positions in the Royal Burgh of Dingwall, before branching out around the time of the 1745 Jacobite Risings, as farmers, tenants, and crofters when they reached Kiltearn and the Black Isle.

I’m running on the belief that my Kemps may have originated from Edinburgh, before landing in Dingwall, following a few land grants from James V in the 16th century near Gallowhill just outside of the town. That event brought a William Kemp to town, followed by a number of others, beginning around 1506.  For mine it seems that it was an almost straight journey from Edinburgh to the Highlands, beginning with that William in Dingwall and later a few more of them, then folks in Kiltearn, followed by my own on the Black Isle – of which there have been none since the turn of the 19th century

I’m still conducting a fair amount of research so some of this might change (not yet reflected on my website, which still contains the old theory).

Hopefully this helps on your end to better determine the presence of Kemps in the Highlands areas of Dingwall and the Black Isle (which is the furthest north that any of them seem to have went).

Greg Melanson of Black Isle Kemp descent (

Kemps in Rossshire and Nova Scotia.  The Kemps in Rossshire in Scotland may have had Viking roots. Another theory is that some of these Kemps could have come from northern England to work at the ironworks at Gairloch.

John Kemp lived in Gairloch in the late 18th century.  He was married three times and had many children.  Some of them stayed in Scotland.  Most emigrated to Nova Scotia, arriving there in and around 1820. Many of them changed their names from Kemp to Kempt.

William Kemp from Kemp’s second marriage settled in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.  Murdoch Kempt went first to Pictou in Nova Scotia and then moved onto Boularderie and settled in what is now known as Kempt’s Head.  A number of Kempts followed the Rev. Norman McLeod in the 1840’s in leaving Nova Scotia to found a new colony in New Zealand.

Ebenezer Kemp of Groton, Mass and Gorham, Maine.  Ebenezer Kemp Senior was a bayonet-man in Captain James Prescott’s company of Groton soldiers in 1758 during the French and Indian Wars.  He died in 1780 while the Revolutionary War was still raging. His son Ebenezer Junior, born in Groton in 1749, was a member of the Groton company of minutemen who marched to Concord and Lexington with Captain Henry Farwell’s company in 1775.

“He took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill where he was severely injured.  The tradition of the family is that he had his hip dislocated when he was taken prisoner by the British; but immediately afterward he managed to escape, hobbling off, it was said, with the aid of General Warren’s gun.”

After the war, he purchased land in Otisfield, Maine where he resided for a time.  Then about 1785 he moved to Gorham and cleared the farm where his descendants were to live for many generations.

Jan Kemp and his Bible.  Jan Kemp from the Eastern Transvaal was a commando leader against the British during the Boer War.  His family lost their Bible at that time.

“The Bible, printed in 1748 in Gorinchern in Holland in an old Dutch dialect, was removed from the Kemp homestead at Elandsfontein near Bethlehem by a British soldier in 1900 during the second Anglo-Boer War. Kemp wanted the Bible back as it was the custom to pass the Bible on from generation to generation.  The first inscription had been made in 1815 and the last in 1897.”

It was finally returned to the family in 2004.

Anthony Kemp in Australia.  Anthony Kemp, born in London, was an important figure man in the early history of both New South Wales and Tasmania.

Kemp was one of the key participants in the Rum Rebellion of 1808 that removed William Bligh, the appointed governor of the NSW colony.  He was at that time “well-known for turbulence and malevolence and for a tongue which spares none in its slanders.”  Despite or perhaps because of his various run-ins with the authorities in Sydney, he was in 1816 permitted to settle in Tasmania.

The town which developed in Tasmania in the area where Kemp had his largest land holdings – his Mount Vernon estate north of Hobart – was renamed Kempton in 1840.  It was here that he established and developed Tasmania’s infant wool industry, bred horses and cattle, and introduced a hardy North American variety of corn.

Kemp has sometimes been referred to as the “father of Tasmania.”  This is said to have been an allusion to the number of his children (seven sons and eleven daughters) and to the number of his grandchildren who married into other prominent families in Tasmania.  Kemp himself lived onto 1868, dying at the ripe old age of ninety five.

Kemp Names

  • John Kemp was a 15th century English cardinal, Archbishop of  Canterbury, and Lord Chancellor of England.
  • Edward Kemp was an English landscape architect, one of the leaders in the design of parks and gardens during the Victorian era.
  • Jack Kemp was a star American football quarterback who became a Republican politician in the 1970’s. He was the Republican running mate in the 1996 Presidential campaign.

Kemp Numbers Today

  • 30,000 in the UK (most numerous in Hertfordshire)
  • 17,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Kemp and Like Surnames  

Some surnames have come from SE England, in particular the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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