Knowles Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Knowles Meaning
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.

Knowles Resources on

Knowles Ancestry

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

Knolles or Knollys was a bowman from Cheshire who rose through the
fighting in France to lead a company of men which pillaged and ravaged
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,
fact came about because of actions taken by his wife.

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
its ranks in the mid 18th century. He
was also, briefly, Governor of Jamaica.
His son, also Charles, commanded ships during the Napoleonic

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

Lancashire. The
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
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
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

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
    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
    Knowles departed with his family for Lanark county, Ontario in the
  • while
    two brothers, William and Hugh Knowles,
    set off for Australia in the 1890's. William Knowles became a
    journalist in

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.

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
, 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
Bahamas in the 1650’s, but there is no clear link.

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
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
    who rose to become the first Chief Justice of the newly independent
    Bahamas in
  • 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
    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.


Knowles 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
of All Hallows by the Tower, where it will be presented to the Lord

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.
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
family believed that he and they were descended from Sir Robert

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
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


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)


Select 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.





Click here for return to front page

Leave a Reply