Lear Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Lear Surname Meaning

The origins of the Lear surname are unclear.  

King Leir or Lear, the legendary king who ruled Britain in the 8th century and was dramatized by Shakespeare, is one possible starting point. On his death he was buried in a chamber under the river Soar in Leicestershire.  There was a William de Leyre recorded in the county in 1272.  Others have Lear derived from the French place-name Lire in Normandy; or from the Celtic word leyre, meaning “sea.”

Whatever its meaning, Lear does seem to have been a west country name in England.  In America there can be Lears of German or Jewish ancestry.

Lear Surname Resources on The Internet

Lear Surname Ancestry

  • from Western England, Germany anf from Jewish migrants
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England.  Lear is clearly a west country name. The table below shows some early wills at a time when the spelling was still variable.  

  • “1606. Humphrey Leare, Tisbury, Wiltshire 
  • 1647.  Thomas Leir. Somerset.
  • 1683. Thomas Leare.  Marledon, Devon.
  • 1684.  Humphrey Leer.  Motcombe, Dorset.
  • 1697.  George Leir. Somerset.
  • 1699.  George Leere.  Motcombe, Dorset.”  

Devon has had the largest number of Lears and may have been the origin for the name. Peter Lear was a poor farmer from Ipplepen who went out to Barbados as a servant in 1645, becoming a planter there and returning fifteen years later as a spectacularly wealthy man.  He acquired the Lindridge estate in 1660 and adopted the life of a country squire. Meanwhile Hugh Lear and his brother Tobias departed Staverton in 1665 for a new life in America.

Many Lear families came from the coal-mining communities of Bitton, Hanham, Magnotsfield or Siston east of Bristol in Gloucestershire.  Bitton had the main numbers.  The Rev. Samuel Lear, a Methodist minister, was born there in 1785. Some Lears with connections to the notorious Cock Road Gang in Bitton ended up being transported to Australia.  J. Lear’s 2012 book Lear Family History covered Lear families originating in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset.

During the 19th century the Lear name had extended northward into Staffordshire. 

Ireland.  Lear can be Irish.  The Mac Giolla Uidhir sept was to be found in county Tyrone.  When Gaelic names had to be anglicized, it often came out as McAleer.  But sometimes as Lear.

America.  Hugh Lear and his brother Tobias came to New England in 1665 from Staverton in Devon in 1665 and made their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

A later Tobias Lear was cousin to John Langdon, twice Governor of New Hampshire.  Tobias is known today as the secretary of George Washington – from 1784 until Washington’s death in 1799.  Through Lear’s journal in fact has come an account of Washington’s last hours.  One line from Tobias ended up in Pennsylvania. Richard Langdon Lear left New Hampshire for Northport, Maine in 1805.  Lears have been in Maine since that time.

Colonel John Lear had come to Nansemond county, Virginia from London by the 1650’s.   His line continued through various John Lears until the 19th century when the line extended to the Rev. Joseph Lear and the Rev. William Lear, both Methodist ministers.  Another Lear line in Virginia, possibly related, was the Lears of Culpepper county.

Lear in America could have German origins, from the German Lohr or Lair names.  Hans Peter Lohr came to Bucks county, Pennsylvania in the 1750’s.  His son was Leer, his grandson Lear.  George Lear was born in Warwick township, Bucks county in 1818.

A German Lair/Lehrer family cropped up in Rockingham county, Virginia.  They later became Lear in Kentucky.  Perhaps the German influence may partially explain why Lears are most numerous today in Pennsylvania, followed by Kentucky.

Lear could also be Jewish.  Jacob Lier or Lear from present-day Ukraine came to New Haven, Connecticut sometime in the 1880’s.  His descendant Norman Lear was the famous American television writer and producer who made his mark in the 1970s.  Born in 1922, he was still around in 2022.

Canada.  There were Lear fishermen at Hibbs Hole in Newfoundland since the 1760’s.  Some have them coming from Jersey in the Channel Islands, others from Devon.

Australia.  Lears from Devon were early settlers in the Western District of Victoria.  Tom Lear arrived with his wife and family on the General Ewart in 1852.  He later farmed in the Salt Pans.  Benjamin Lear came in the mid-1860’s.  He worked as a steward on the Dawn, a steamer which operated between Portland and Melbourne.

Lear Names

  • King Lear was the legendary 8th century king of Britain. 
  • Edward Lear was a 19th century English writer and poet, known for his nonsense poetry and his limericks. 
  • Bill Lear was a great American inventor, notably of the car radio and the 8-track stereo cartridge.  But he is best remembered for founding the Lear Jet Corporation, a manufacturer of business jets. 
  • Norman Lear from Jewish immigrant stock was an American television writer and producer who made such 1970s sitcoms as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude.

Lear Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in Devon)
  • 3,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)



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Written by Colin Shelley

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