Knowles Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Knowles Surname Meaning

The word knoll, meaning a hill-top, originated from the Old English cnoll and gave rise to the Knowles surname, a locational surname describing someone who lived by a hill-top.

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Knowles and Knollys Surname Ancestry

EnglandThe Knolle name appeared at various locations in the 13th century, to be replaced a century later by Knolles or Knollys.

Robert Knolles or Knollys was a bowman from Cheshire who rose through the ranks fighting in France to lead a company of men which pillaged and ravaged the Brittany countryside (the ruined gables of burned buildings came to be known as Knolly’s mitres). His one legacy back in London, the Knollys Rose Ceremony, in fact came about because of actions taken by his wife.

Thomas Knollys, probably unrelated, was a grocer who rose to be Mayor of London in 1399. His descendants rose to political prominence during Tudor times with Sir Francis Knollys, a prominent courtier and statesman at the time of Queen Elizabeth. They made their home at Rotherford Greys in Oxfordshire. Much later Knollys courtiers were Sir William Knollys, comptroller of the Prince of Wales’ household in Victorian times, and his son Francis, private secretary to both Edward VII and George V.

Another line of Knollys, probably illegitimate, began with Charles Knowles who joined the Navy and rose through its ranks in the mid 18th century. He was also, briefly, Governor of Jamaica. His son, also Charles, commanded ships during the Napoleonic wars.

The Knowles spelling had become the norm in England by the 17th century.

Lancashire. The largest numbers, according to the 1881 census, were in Lancashire. The most well-known name there, particularly during the 19th century, was Andrew Knowles. Andrew Knowles had been born in 1783 into a family whose mining interests dated back to Elizabethan times and whose descendants were to dominate the coal mining industry in Lancashire until the end of the Victorian era.

The Knowles name was also prominent in the Lancashire cotton industry. In 1883 Thomas Knowles patented a balance estimated to estimate the ‘counts’ of a sample of yarn without the need for calculations or tables. This balance was a staple of the industry for the next fifty years. The Knowles name in cotton spinning dated back to 1800 in Bolton. Knowles Ltd. was formed as a company in 1904 and it continued to operate until the 1950’s. The 1948 booklet A Century and a Half of Cotton Spinning by William Crankshaw and Alfred Blackburn outlined the Knowles’ history.

Ireland. The Gaelic O’Tauthghail sept in Kildare sometimes became Newell and sometimes Knowles under English rule; while a number of Knowles from England came and settled in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thomas Knowles took over Cappoge castle near Dublin during Cromwell’s time.

James Knowles, born in Dublin, was the cousin of the playwright Richard Brinley Sheridan. A schoolmaster and lexicographer, he brought his family to London in 1793 where his son, James Sheridan Knowles, made his mark in the theater.

Many Knowles came from the Ballymena area of county Antrim. The first Knowles there was apparently a soldier with Cromwell. A number later emigrated:

  • John Knowles left for America in the 1770's and fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War. He settled in White county, Tennessee in 1806.
  • another John Knowles departed with his family for Lanark county, Ontario in the 1840's;
  • while two brothers, William and Hugh Knowles, set off for Australia in the 1890's. William Knowles became a journalist in Sydney.

But Knowles still remain in the area. David Knowles, for instance, runs a large dairy farm at Cullybacky near Ballymena.

America. Early Knowles in New England were:

  • Henry Knowles, who arrived as a 25 year old servant on the Susan and Ellen in 1635 and settled in Rhode Island;
  • Richard Knowles, a mariner, who arrived in 1638 and made his home on Cape Cod;
  • and John Knowles, who came in 1650 and settled in Northampton, New Hampshire.

The descendants of Richard and John Bowles were outlined in two genealogy books by Virginia Hufbauer that came out in the 1970’s.

Edmund Knowles, known as Old Silverhead, was the progenitor for a sizeable number of the Knowles in America today. He came in 1699 and settled in what is today Delaware. Many of his descendants later headed south to North Carolina and Georgia. A later Edmund Knowles arrived in Greene county, Georgia in 1788. Some of these Knowles had moved onto Indiana by 1820.

Caribbean. The Knowles name first appeared in Bermuda in the late 1620’s where Damon Knowles was a tenant farmer and slave-owner for close on forty years. Some have sought to connect him with the Knowles who were among the early settlers in the Bahamas in the 1650’s, but there is no clear link.

James Knowles, a mulatto plantation owner on Long Island in the 1750’s, was the first of a growing number of Knowles of white, black and mixed race backgrounds in the Bahamas. They have included:

  • William Knowles, a sea captain who went to Key West in Florida in the late 1880’s. He and his wife Araminta raised twelve children there. Many other Knowles followed him from Bahamas in the next twenty years.  
  • Leonard Knowles, who rose to become the first Chief Justice of the newly independent Bahamas in 1978.  
  • Mathew Knowles, who moved from Alabama to Houston and became a music executive. He managed the group Destiny’s Child and his daughter is the mega-star Beyonce Knowles. Mathew is also the father-in-law of the rapper Jay Z.  
  • and Mark Knowles, a doubles champion in the world of tennis recently retired.

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Knowles Surname Miscellany

The Knollys Rose Ceremony.  The Knollys Rose Ceremony is held on June 14 each year and is organized by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.  On that day one red rose will be plucked from the garden in Seething Lane and taken to the Mansion House on the altar cushion of All Hallows by the Tower, where it will be presented to the Lord Mayor.

The ceremony commemorates an ancient City judgment dating from 1381.  Sir Robert Knollys owned a house on Seething Lane.  He was sent abroad to fight alongside John of Gaunt.  While he was away, Lady Constance his wife was reputed to have become annoyed with the chaff dust blowing from threshing ground opposite their house.  So she bought the property and turned it into a rose garden.

She also built a footbridge over the lane to avoid the mud, but without the equivalent of planning permission. The penalty was that a red rose ‘rent’ from the garden had to be paid annually to the Lord Mayor. The rose payment was no more than a peppercorn rent, a symbolic fine upon Sir Robert Knollys.

For this payment permission was given “to make a haut pas of the height of 14 feet” across the lane.  The footbridge has long since disappeared.  But the legal requirement for the payment of this quit-rent has been established as one of the City’s traditions.

Sir Thomas Knollys’ Epigraph.  Sir Thomas Knollys, Lord Mayor of London, was buried in the north aisle of St. Antholin’s Church on Watling Street in London.  On his tomb was the following epitaph:

  • “Here lyeth graven under this stone
  • Thomas Knollys, both flesh and bone,
  • Grocer and Alderman years forty,
  • Sheriff, and twice Mayor truly:
  • And for he should not lie alone,
  • Here lyeth with him his good wife Joan:
  • They were together sixty years,
  • And nineteen children they had in fier;
  • Now be they gone we them miss:
  • Christ have their souls to heaven bliss.  Amen”

Sir Thomas was also Lord of the manor of North Mymms in Hertfordshire. His arms displayed in the church window at North Mymms suggest his family believed that he and they were descended from Sir Robert Knollys.

Knowles in the 1881 Census

County thousands percent
Lancashire    5.1    35
Yorkshire    2.4    17
Elsewhere    7.0    48
Total   14.5   100

Blackburn and Preston contained the largest numbers of Knowles.  And their main trade at that time was in the cotton industry. 

The Knowles Coalmining Family.  Andrew Knowles and Sons was a coal mining company that operated for many generations in Lancashire.

Their business began probably in Elizabethan times. Robert Knowles, who died in 1780, started the pits in Eagley Bank and Sharples north of Bolton in the mid 18th century.  It was his great grandson Andrew Knowles who founded Andrew Knowles and Sons Ltd, having taken his four sons into the company in the 1830’s.   The next generation joined the company after a disagreement in 1872.  The firm grew to be the largest on the Manchester coalfield by the end of the 19th century when it had almost 4,000 employees.

These Knowles presented some contrasting outward public relations.  Many were prominent in their civic duties. However, starting in 1866, the company locked out all workers who joined a fledgling trade union and repeatedly defeated over time any attempt to unionize the workforce. The company’s intransigence towards unions continued until 1891 when a strike left miners little better off. However, the firm was forced to negotiate with a union it had until then refused to recognize.

Old Silverhead Knowles.  Edmund Knowles, who left Lancashire for Virginia as a young lad on the Elizabeth and Jedeth in 1699, was known as “Old Silverhead.”

One story has him wounded by an Indian who fractured his skull with a tomahawk.  It was said that someone fashioned a plate from a silver coin and this was inserted in his scalp to cover the head wound. The other story, the more practical one, is that Edmund had a full head of silver colored hair.

Family stories indicate that Edmund married a Swedish woman, but her name has not been recorded anywhere.  They settled in Sussex county, Delaware where Edmund died in 1762. His descendants have been traced through their oldest son Richard.

James Knowles, Plantation Owner in the Bahamas.  James Knowles was a mulatto plantation owner on Long Island in the Bahamas.  He was born sometime in the 1720’s in an unknown location, thought to be Eleuthera, to John Knowles, listed as white or European, and an unknown African woman or woman of African descent.

He was sometimes listed as being born on December 20, 1733, as that was when he was baptized at Christ Church Cathedral in Nassau.  Due to his racial background, his baptism was logged in the registry reserved for mulatto children.  The priest who baptized him noted that he appeared to be about ten years old.

Long Island was to be more receptive to interracial marriage than were other Bahamanian islands.

Knowles in Australia – A Case of Irish Sectarianism.  William Knowles had come from a Protestant landowning family in county Antrim.  For some reason he and his brother Hugh departed Ireland for Australia in the 1890’s. William became a journalist in his new home, working first for the Sydney Morning Herald and later for the Farmer and Settler. 

His family remembers him as a friendly old man, smoking his pipe and talking with that strong and distinctive Ulster accent.  But he was brought up in the Protestant/Catholic divide.  When his eldest daughter Marguerite married a brilliant engineer named Flynn, Dr. Flynn’s only fault in life was that he was a Catholic. The result was that, after her marriage to Flynn, her father never spoke to her again. Not once for the rest of his life.

For a time her sisters kept in touch with Marguerite surreptitiously.  However, the family was irrevocably divided.  In due course, Marguerite just passed out of the family, another victim of Irish sectarianism.

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Knowles Names
  • Sir Francis Knollys was a leading English courtier and statesman at the time of Queen Elizabeth. 
  • James Sheridan Knowles, Irish-born, was a prominent actor and playwright in London in the early 19th century.   
  • Andrew Knowles founded the company of his name which was to dominate coal mining in Lancashire during the 19th century.   
  • Beyonce Knowles is an American mega-star singer.  Her father is of Caribbean Bahamas background, her mother of Creole roots.


Knowles Numbers Today
  • 26,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 11,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
Knowles and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.

BanksFieldMeadShaw
BarnesFordMooreStone
BrooksHillNashWells
CrossLaneRhodesWood

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