Lawrence Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Lawrence Surname Meaning 

Lawrence derives from the male name Laurentius, which itself originates from Laurentium, the “city of laurels,” in Italy. The idea of the laurel as a symbol of victory was probably one factor behind the popularity of the name.

In addition Lawrence was the name borne by a saint martyred at Rome in the 3rd century AD who enjoyed a considerable cult following throughout Europe in medieval times. In England Laurence, the second Archbishop of Canterbury, was revered as a saint after his death in AD 619.

The main spellings in English have been Lawrence and Laurence, together with the abbreviated forms of Laurie and Lowrie. Elsewhere Laurent is a common name in French, Lorenzo in Italian and Spanish, Lourenco in Portuguese, and Laurenz in German.

Lawrence Surname Resources on The Internet

Lawrence Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland, Ireland and Germany
  • to America, Canada and Australia

EnglandThe founder of the first Lawrence line in England was said to have been Robert Laurens. The story about him runs as follows:  

“During the Third Crusade in 1191 Robert Laurens was knighted by Richard the Lionheart. King Phillip of France had sworn to have his men reach the battlements ahead of the English at the great walled city of Acre. Both he and King Richard came down with a bad case of the ague and could not fight. But Robert Laurens ran and climbed and affixed the banner of St George on the highest tower.”

Lancashire. The Lawrence family established themselves at Ashton Hall near Lancaster. Edmund Lawrence married Agnes de Wessington in 1390 and thus began the entwining of the Lawrence and Washington families:

  • Lawrence Washington bought Sulgrave manor in Oxfordshire in the 17th century, the home from which George Washington’s great-grandfather departed for Virginia in 1656.
  • meanwhile the Lawrence family – now based in St. Albans in Hertfordshire – were Royalists during the English Civil War. They later became landowners in New York.

Elsewhere. Early Lawrence lines from the 16th century show a wide distribution around the country, from Lancashire to Gloucestershire and Dorset in the southwest and from Durham and Yorkshire down the east coast as far as Suffolk and London.

The Lawrences of Suffolk have been traced back to Thomas Lawrence of Rumburgh who died in 1471. John Lawrence emigrated to America in 1630. Another Lawrence line extended to Chelsea in Middlesex in the 16th century. Their numbers included Sir Thomas Lawrence, goldsmith and merchant adventurer in the City of London. He was the grandfather of the Robert Lawrence who emigrated to Virginia in 1638.

Henry Lawrence, a Huntingdonshire landowner, was a Puritan who came to prominence with Cromwell. He served as President of the Council of State during the Protectorate. His younger son John emigrated first to Barbados and then in 1676 to Jamaica where he founded a wealthy dynasty of plantation owners.

William Lawrence had been born in Burford, Oxfordshire in 1753 but moved to Cirencester in Gloucestershire where he became the town’s chief surgeon and physician. His son William became an even more famous surgeon, recognized as one of the best in the land and the recipient of a baronetcy from Queen Victoria. His son and grandson were both noted horticulturists.

Ireland.  The St Lawrence family in Ireland descended from Christopher St Lawrence who was elevated to the peerage as Baron Howth around 1425. This Anglo-Irish family held Howth castle near Dublin. The third and fourth barons both served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland.

From the Lawrences of Lancashire, it was said, came John Lawrence and his brother Walter in 1584 as Irish administrators serving Queen Elizabeth. John settled at Ballymore in Clonfert parish in east Galway where he built himself a castle. Being Catholic and Royalist, they suffered during the Cromwellian years.

Lawrence descendants moved to Lisreaghan in the early 1700’s and made their home at Belview. The Prince of Wales, later George IV, visited Belview in the 1780’s.  

“According to family tradition, the visit allowed the Prince to tide himself over some domestic difficulties he was having with his father. His stay was said to have coincided with the arrival from Italy of a bust of the Goddess Minerva.”

The Lawrence estate fell into decay in the late 19th century and by 1908 there were no longer any Lawrences left living at Lisreaghan.

America. Initially, the Lawrence name was to be found in New England and New York.

New England.  Three Lawrences came to New England in the 1630’s and were the forebears of illustrious Lawrence families in America.

First, John Lawrence arrived on the Arbella in 1630 and settled in Groton, Massachusetts where he died in 1663. His descendants were to be found there for a number of generations. In the early 1800’s four brothers – William, Amos, Abbot, and Samuel – made names for themselves in Boston as merchants, manufacturers and philanthropists.  Amos’s son, Amos Adams Lawrence, was a key figure in the abolitionist movement in America in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Then William Lawrence came on the Planter in 1635 and ten years later received a grant from the Dutch for land in Flushing in present-day Brooklyn. He resided at what became known as Lawrence Neck and died there in 1680. Joseph, his second son, had his mansion on Long Island Sound and entertained lavishly, his home being frequently crowded with society people from New York and Brooklyn.

And Thomas Lawrence came some years later. He obtained possession of a tract of land in Newtown, Long Island in 1655 and afterwards purchased the whole of Hell-Gate Neck, from Hell-Gate Cove to Bowery Bay. He died in Newtown in 1703.  Jonathan Lawrence, his great grandson, made two fortunes – one before the Revolutionary War and one after.

New York and New Jersey. The Lawrence family in New York remained rich and powerful through colonial times and well into the 19th century. Meanwhile the Lawrences of Hertfordshire were also large landowners in New York by this time. The last of this Lawrence line, Emma Lawrence, brought her land in the Bronx and on Long Island to her marriage to Leonard Jacob in the 1860’s.

In Elmira in upstate New York in 1842 was born William Van Duzer Lawrence. He became a millionaire real-estate and pharmaceutical mogul who is best known for having founded Sarah Lawrence College in 1926.

Another Lawrence family was prominent in the early history of New Jersey. John Lawrence created the “Lawrence Line” when he surveyed the boundary between East and West Jersey in 1743. Lawrence’s great grandson, Captain James Lawrence, achieved lasting fame in the War of 1812.

“Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake, with a green and mutinous crew, unwisely accepted a challenge from the British Captain Broke of the Shannon. He sortied from Boston to defeat and glorious death on June 1, 1813.  As he lay mortally wounded, he uttered the immortal phrase, ‘Don’t give up the ship.'”

Ironically, his Loyalist father had fled to Canada during the Revolutionary War, leaving a half-sister to raise him.

German Lawrences.  Johann Philipp Lorentz departed the Rhineland Palatine for America in 1748, settling first in the Shenandoah valley and then moving to Beaver county, Pennsylvania.  The spelling by this time had changed to Lawrence.  Isaac Lawrence headed west to Dearborn county, Indiana in 1818 with several of his brothers and they founded the small hamlet of Lawrenceville there.

Canada.  John Lawrence was an Empire Loyalist from New Jersey.  After the American Revolutionary War he departed first to New Brunswick and then in 1791 was granted land in what was then the small community of York and is now part of downtown Toronto.  He engaged in lumber mills there.  His grandson Jacob moved to Sarnia in 1878 and expanded this business greatly.

Another Lawrence arrival from America at this time, although originally from German Lorentzes who had settled in Ireland, was George Lawrence.  He fought for the British in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812 and was captured by the enemy both times.  He was a founder of Lawrenceville (later Virgil) in the Niagara area in 1784.

Australia. A line of Lawrences went from the Lawrences of Newtown, New York to Effingham Lawrence, a merchant in Trinity House, London after America was lost, to William Effingham Lawrence, who travelled independently to Australia on his own boat in 1822. He received large land grants in Tasmania and became one of the largest landowners in the colony.

Lawrence Surname Miscellany

Saint Lawrence.  Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome who were martyred during the persecution of Valerian in 258.

The story goes that the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Lawrence, it was said, asked for three days to gather together the wealth and during that time worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as he could.  On the third day, he appeared before the prefect, presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the Church.  By tradition, Lawrence was sentenced at San Lorenzo in Miranda, imprisoned at San Lorenzo in Fonte, and martyred at San Lorenzo in Panipema.

Lawrence is one of the most widely venerated saints of the Catholic Church.  French explorer Jacques Cartier gave the name of Saint Lawrence to the river running through Canada. Also in Canada are the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal and Saint Lawrence Boulevard running through Montreal. 

The Lawrences of Ashton Hall.  There are two conflicting genealogies for the ancestry of the Lawrences of Ashton Hall.

The first is the most commonly published ancestry by H. G. Somberby and others.  A Visitation may have been the source for this pedigree.  According to this genealogy, the Lawrences of Ashton Hall were descended from the Robert Lawrence, born about 1150 in the vicinity of Lancaster who distinguished himself in the Third Crusade.  One source indicates that his father was also named Robert and worked as a silversmith for the Lord of Lancaster castle.

The second genealogy is based on manuscripts written by Schuyler Lawrence in the mid-1930’s concerning the Lawrences of Lancashire.  He stated there that Ashton Hall did not come into the possession of the Lawrences until about a hundred years after the Third Crusade.  There was a lawsuit at that time brought by Lawrence de Lancaster, son of Thomas de Lancaster and grandson of Roger de Lancaster.  These de Lancasters were Barons of Kendal.

John, the son of Lawrence de Lancaster, was the first to use the Lawrence surname.  And he was the first in 1324 to be connected to Ashton Hall.

Early Lawrence Lines in England.  The following are Lawrence lines in England traced back to the 16th and 17th centuries:

  • Richard Lawrence married Margaret Ryves in Winterbourne, Dorset in 1559
  • Robert Lawrence born in Bonby, Lincolnshire in 1561
  • John Lawrence married Elizabeth Bull in St. Albans, Hertfordshire in 1579
  • Thomas Lawrence married Alice Sutton in Croston, Lancashire in 1584
  • John Lawrence married Agnes Burns in Billingham, Durham in 1598
  • Thomas Laurence married Unica Skinner in Ickingham, Suffolk in 1634
  • Mungo Lawrence married Anna Thornehill in Harewood, Yorkshire in 1672
  • Thomas Lawrence married Martha Mendlove in Wem, Shropshire in 1668
  • John Lawrence married Ann Beard in Randwick, Gloucestershire in 1669.

In addition to these lines, there were the earlier Lawrences of Ashton Hall in Lancashire and Lawrences from Rumburgh in Suffolk.

The Lawrences of New York.  This was how the Lawrences were described in Famous Families of New York, published in 1917.

“The Lawrences have been remarkable for their activity, energy, and industry.  Few families of which there are any records can begin to compare with them either in regard to these qualities, or what is equally important so far as the state is concerned, in regard to their numbers and vitality.

Though they marry as a class later in life than does the average citizen, they nevertheless have much larger families than the normal and a larger number of sons. This is shown in many ways.  The records of the Register’s and County Clerk’s offices, the civil list of the United States, the triennial catalogues of Columbia, Harvard, and other institutions of learning, the red book of New York State, the records of the Exchanges, and The Old Merchants of New York fairly bristle with the name.  More than two hundred are chronicled in the Lives of the Old Merchants alone, and more than fifty are inscribed in the red book.

On account of their numbers, their connections by marriage would fill an entire volume.”

Amos Adams Lawrence of Boston.  Amos Adams Lawrence, the son of Boston philanthropist Amos Lawrence, was a mill owner, a devout member of the Episcopal Church in Boston, and – more importantly – a leading campaigner against slavery in the years up to the Civil War.

He played a major role in the battle over the crucial border state of Kansas, contributing personally for the Sharp rifles, which, packed as “books” and “primers,” were shipped to Kansas and intended for the free settlers. Lawrence financed the founding of the University of Kansas in 1849 at Lawrence, a town named after him.

Back in Boston, Amos Adams Lawrence is often credited with founding an Episcopalian dynasty there, having encouraged many of the Boston Brahmins to convert from Unitarianism. His son William took an even more avid interest in the Episcopalian Church and became the long-time Bishop of Massachusetts.

The Lawrence Family Album at Lisreaghan.  The last-but-one landholder of the family at Lisreaghan, the Rev. Charles Lawrence, had a volume of photographs and documents relating to his family history compiled in the late 19th century.  It was known as the Lawrence Family Album.

The Album included biographical notes on various members of the family. But not all members of the wider family appear to have been recorded.  No reference was made to Thomas Lawrence of Belview who converted to Protestantism in 1788.  Similarly no mention was made of William Lawrence, originally of Ballymore, who served as a sergeant in the Irish Regiment of Dillon in the French army and who died in 1730.

Unlike several other families who served the Elizabethan administration and settled about east Galway in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, such as the Moores of Cloghan Castle, minor branches of the wider family descended from junior sons of the main line were not established about county Galway. The expiration of the main line in the early 20th century thus witnessed the disappearance of the Lawrence family in the county.

Bellview, the family mansion at Lisreaghan shorn of its works of art, was demolished following the sale of lands in the 1920’s, leaving just the ruins of its walled garden.

T.E. Lawrence’s Illegitimacy.  Sarah Lawrence was a beautiful young woman when she arrived in Ireland in 1879 to be the governess to Thomas Chapman’s four daughters.  Chapman was the grandson of a baronet and scion of seven generations of colonial English landlords.  He was also, when Sarah arrived from England to join his household as governess, an unhappy man, trapped in a marriage to a woman he had long ceased to care about.

Falling in love with Sarah, a girl very ambitious to better her circumstances, he had a serious choice to make when she became pregnant.  In those days it was a rare and unthinkable move for a gentleman to forsake his caste for a liaison with a servant.  But when Chapman asked his wife for a divorce and she refused, he did just that, eloping with Sarah to England, landing first in Wales in 1887 where T.E. Lawrence, their second son, was born one year later.

An astonishing name change defined his parents’ new life abroad. He was known by Sarah’s assumed maiden name.  But they would henceforth live as Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Chapman.  Together for 34 years until Thomas’s death in 1919, they kept their secret inviolate; while the consequences within were particularly lethal.  Their second son, T.E. or Ned, would change his own natal surname a couple of times before he died in a motorcycle accident at 47.

Lawrence Names

  • Sir Thomas Lawrence was a leading English portrait painter of the early 1800’s.
  • Amos Lawrence of Boston was a key figure in the abolition movement in America in the years leading up to the Civil War.
  • D.H Lawrence was an acclaimed but controversial English writer, author of such novels as Women in Love and Lady Chattersley’s Lover.
  • T. E Lawrence, the “Lawrence of Arabia,” fought for Arab independence during the First World War and wrote his account in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
  • David Lawrence founded in 1933 the weekly newspaper that became US News & World Report.

Lawrence Numbers Today

  • 51,000 in the UK (most numerous in Surrey)
  • 48,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 28,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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