May Surname Meaning, History & Origin

May Surname Meaning
May is a first name that became a surname. Some see its origin in England as the Old French mai brought by the Normans as a term of endearment or greeting to a close friend. It could also designate
someone who was born in the month of May. Alternatively, it could be an abbreviated version of Matthew in England or of Matthias in Saxony and in other German-speaking lands.  
Early examples of the surname were Thomas le Mey and Goscelin Mey recorded at Ely Abbey in Suffolk in 1221. The spelling had become May by the 16th century. The May and Mays spelling are both found in America.

May Surname Resources on
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May and Mays Surname Ancestry

England. May has been very much a name of London and the home counties.

Sussex.  The first recorded here was probably Richard May, born in Wadhurst in East Sussex in 1464. He had two grandsons, Thomas and William, and the family split into two branches.

Thomas’s descendants were to be found at Mayfield Place. Here in 1595 was born Thomas May, a poet and historian, much in favor at the court of King Charles I. When the Civil War broke out he switched sides. He died in 1650 and was given a public funeral by Parliament. After the Restoration, however, his body was dug up and thrown into a common grave. John May of this family emigrated to Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1640.

The other line ran via William who moved as a merchant to Portugal where he died around 1540. These Mays lived at Raughmere near Chichester in West Sussex and included Richard May, a merchant tailor in London, and his son Sir Humphrey, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1618. Later Mays of this line were Hugh May, a practicing architect during the Restoration era, and Richard May, the MP for Chichester.

Suffolk. From Suffolk came the two 16th century clergymen brothers, William who was nominated as Archbishop of York in 1560 but died the same year and John who became Bishop of Carlisle in 1577. John May was recorded as a yeoman of Bawdsey on his death in 1655. One family history began with the birth of George May near Butley in 1777. His descendants later moved to the Campsea Ashe area.

London.  More recent Mays in London have been the Quaker Francis May, co-founder of the match company Bryant & May in
1850, and the young solicitor William May, co-founder of the law firm Slaughter & May in 1889.

Elsewhere.  Cornwall has been an outpost for May where it is thought to have been an abbreviation of the French diminutive form Mayou. Mays were long associated with the town of St. Austell. One line of these Mays was later to be found nearby at Polgooth. A May family at Newlyn dates from the 1660’s, another at St. Mawgan-in-Ryder from the 1720’s.

Ireland. Edward May, a younger brother of the poet and historian Thomas May from Mayfield, came to Waterford where his family established themselves at Maypark House. The Mays later moved to Belfast where Sir Edward May was MP in the early 1800’s and pioneered many urban developments at that time. From a related line came the Rev. Edward May whose son George was Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and whose grandson Francis became Governor of Hong Kong from 1912 to 1919.

May in Ireland may have Irish roots, an anglicized form of O’Miadhaigh. This surname, meaning “honorable,” was to be found in Westmeath and Roscommon.

Holland. In 1727 John May arrived in Amsterdam with two other English shipwrights to improve Dutch ship design at the invitation of the Amsterdam Admiralty. May remained in Holland with his family. A later May was an Admiral in the Dutch Navy who assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to the throne of Holland after the fall of Napoleon. The Mays then returned to England and Sir William May became an Admiral in the English Navy.

America.  May arrivals in America include many from England, some Irish and Scottish, and a contingent from German lands.

New England.  John May came to America on the James in 1640 and settled in Roxbury, Massachusetts, marrying Sarah Brewer there in 1656. One of his descendants Colonel Samuel May was the Warden of King’s Chapel in Boston, the first Unitarian church in America. He and his wife Dorothy had thirteen children. They included Samuel, the Unitarian minister and abolitionist, and Abigail, the mother of Civil War novelist Louisa May Alcott.

Virginia.  Various Mays were to be found in Virginia in the 17th century. They included John May who was transported to Accomack county in 1642 and other Mays who made their own way there. Other Mays were first recorded in Sussex county, Virginia.

One line from Accomack county was later to be found in Pitt and Beaufort counties, North Carolina. John May had his home along the Dan river. He was a captain during the Revolutionary War and subsequently a surveyor and land speculator in eastern Kentucky. The town of Maysville in Kentucky, initially a trading post, was named after him.

Chester May, thought to have been a descendant of the Mays of Roxbury, headed west and was a co-founder of the town of Mayville, Wisconsin in 1845. He and his son Eli were active in exploiting the nearby iron ore deposits.

Irish. Some Mays, like James May from county Cork, were Irish in origin. He settled in Maryland in 1800. His son John May migrated to Texas in 1835. A later John May, who came to Texas from Germany, fought with distinction in the Texas-Indian wars in 1870.

German. Indeed many Mays in America, in some cases originally Meys, were of German origin. Among the early arrivals were:

  • Daniel May who came to Philadelphia on the Loyal Judith in 1743. He settled in Guilford county, North Carolina
  • Catherina May, a widow, who arrived with her family on the Edinburgh in 1748 and settled in Conestoga township in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. Her children later moved to Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
  • Frantz and Anna May who arrived on the Phoenix in 1752 and settled in Berks county, Pennsylvania
  • and Jacob May who arrived sometime in the 1750’s. He is thought to have been the ancestor of the Mays of Ashe county in North Carolina.

David May arrived in New York with his family in 1854 at the age of 16. He migrated west to Colorado in the 1870’s for health reasons. There he started his first store and his business rapidly expanded into the St. Louis based chain of department stores.

Canada. William May, Protestant, was a soldier in Ireland and came with his family from county Carlow in 1817 to Canada where they settled in the Ottawa Valley. He and his wife raised ten children there.

Mays from Germany also came to Canada. William May was an Empire Loyalist from Albany, New York who had fought with Butler’s Rangers and crossed the border into Niagara in 1783. He was the descendant of German Palatine refugees who had arrived in New York as early as 1709. Much later German arrivals, around 1850, were Thomas and Ida May from Hamburg who settled in Montreal.

Australia. William May. a Quaker from London, emigrated with his family to South Australia in 1839 and later settled in Tasmania where he established an orchard at Sandford. His eldest son William studied shells and painted Tasmanian wildflowers; another son Alfred created paintings of birds.

John May was a Cornishman who came to Western Australia with his first wife in 1878. They raised eleven children at May Cottage in the outback at Bridgetown. May Cottage, a simple timber framed structure with gabled roof, still stands.

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May Surname Miscellany

The Death of Thomas May.  Thomas May, the writer and historian, was much in favor with the court of Charles I.  However, having failed to be appointed Poet Laureate, his sympathies turned to the Parliamentarians. He died in 1650.  It was said that he was found dead in his bed due to his night cap being too tightly tied under his rather fat chin and he choked.   He was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey.

A white marble monument was set up for him near the grave. The Latin inscription in translation went as follows:

“Champion of the English Republic, ornament of letters, most renowned poet of his age, delight of posterity, another Lucan, more than Roman, loyal historian, first-born son of a knight, Thomas May, is buried here, who added his own glory and fame to his father’s titles. He was invited by the supreme council of England to write its history.  At last, having shown a flawless loyalty to Parliament, he was suddenly carried off by death during the night and met his end on the thirteenth of November in the second year of the restitution of liberty to England, 1650.  The Parliament of the Republic of England erected this in honor of her well-deserving servant.”

When Charles II was restored to the throne all regicides and followers of Cromwell who had been buried in the Abbey were dis-interred. May’s body was buried in a pit in St Margaret’s churchyard in 1661, just outside the Abbey and his monument was taken down.  It was not until 1880 that he received a new memorial stone in the Abbey.

Mays at St. Austell.  The Mays were said to have been an ancient family resident in St. Austell in Cornwall.  The north aisle of St. Austell church contains a large tablet of slate inscribed to members of the May family with dates of 1594 and 1601.

Five vicars named May served the three parish churches around St. Austell over a period of one hundred and forty years.  Ralph May was appointed in 1584 and served in St. Austell for thirty seven years.  Then King James I appointed Joseph May who “enjoyed the esteem of his flock for forty years.”  In 1660 King Charles II appointed Joseph May Jr. who served for fifteen years. Another Joseph May was appointed vicar of St. Ewe in 1679 and served for seventeen years.  The other neighboring parish of St. Mewan also had a May vicar, Samuel, who was appointed in 1729.

Admiral Sir William May and His Forebears.  Admiral May described his family history as follows in his memoirs Life of a Sailor:

“My father was born in Holland in 1805 and was the son of Admiral May of the Dutch Navy.  My grandfather was a distinguished man who assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to the throne of Holland.  He was a clever engineer and his plans were adopted for improving the canal system in Holland.

My father’s forebears, as recorded in the pedigree table, show that John May, a naval architect, went to Holland in the 17th century and the family remained there until my father returned and settled in England. Although the family were in Holland for so many generations, all my ancestors married British wives.

My father settled in Liverpool and married Ann Jane Freckleton in 1840.  I was the fifth of ten children and was born on July 31st, 1849.  One of my godfathers was Prince Henry of the Netherlands, brother of the then reigning King.  He was present at my christening.”

There is a portrait of John May the master shipbuilder at the age of eighty which hangs at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London.

The Mays in Belfast.  In 1795 Sir Edward May from Waterford, who was described at the time as “a moneylender who also ran a gaming house,” managed to get the aristocratic Lord Donegall released from debtors’ prison.  He then offered his daughter Anna in marriage, an obligation which his lordship felt obliged to accept.

The couple came to Belfast in 1802 to escape his debtors and brought the May family with them.  Anna had been under-age at the time of her marriage at an obscure church in London in 1795 and should have had the permission of the courts.  But this had not been sought.  So, as a consequence, the marriage was declared as unlawful.

Still, the Mays prospered in Belfast.  Sir Edward was its MP for many years in the early 1800’s. Edward Street in Belfast was named after Sir Edward, as was Great Edward Street, May Street and May’s Market.

Sir Edward pioneered the reclamation of land from the edges of Belfast Lough.  However, he was regarded as the man who desecrated the graves of those buried at St. George’s graveyard at High Street and Ann Street in order to sell the land for the development of Church Street and Ann Street.

Colonel Joseph May.  Joseph May was the son of a relatively modest lumber dealer in Boston. Enterprising and ambitious, he had by the age of thirty become a rich and extremely gregarious man.  Outside of his family he was distinguished by his snuff habit and for wearing outmoded black stockings and knee knuckles.  All Boston knew of his vanity about his shapely legs.

However, he made some bad investments. To clear his debts and his name he gave up everything he owned, including even the gold rings on his fingers.  From 1800, the later part of his life was lived in more modest circumstances.  He became Warden of King’s Chapel in Boston, the first Unitarian church in America.

Reader Feedback – Mays in Virginia.  I am doing research on our May family who, according to oral tradition and some documentation, seem to have come from Sussex county in Virginia.  The link that I’m most confident in is for a John May who was a soldier in the War of 1812.  He was born about 1782-84 from Greenville county, then part of Sussex county.

I believe his father was Allen May who married Elizabeth Whitehorn. There was an Allen May born in 1744 to John and Elizabeth. This seems a likely candidate.  I think our most distant ancestor then was a May who might have come during the early colonization of Virginia.

Do you have any resources on the early Virginia May families that could help?

As far as DNA, my Y-DNA test shows a close relationship with the Mayhew family of Massachusetts.  Mayhew was the first governor of Massachusetts.  It appears our link may be from back in England and it was common to list the Mayhews as May/Maye/Mayes/Mayo. There are also a few Mayos in early Virginia which is a possible connection.

Warren L. May (VanArles@aol.com)

May Arrivals in America

Country of Origin Numbers Percent
England    1,051     46
Ireland      448     19
Scotland       79      3
Germany      782     32
Total    2,360    100

The Demise of the William B. May Agency.  It was said that the William B. May real estate family had a long history, dating back to the 17th century in England where the family sold prized London properties to the Crown estate. They had been present in New York real estate ever since 1866 and sold there some of Manhattan’s finest homes on the Upper East Side to pedigreed families such as the Carnegies, Fricks and Vanderbilts.

However, this long history has come to an end.  In June 2004 Mrs. William B. May Jr, matron of the agency, received a gift from her son-in-law Peter Marra, a tribute for her 84th birthday.  She sent the box back unopened.

Her son William Talcott May was the co-chairman and the eccentric fourth generation member of the family company.  Perhaps this eccentricity was due to a bipolar disorder.  He had a felony conviction for leaving fake bombs at a local airport after 9/11 to highlight its lax security.  He was sometimes seen “wearing a fire-truck-red Scottish kilt and a navy-blue wool sweater, his broad, leonine cheekbones streaked with charcoal-hued face paint, looking more Braveheart than businessman.”

It was this William Talcott May who sat down with William Lie Zeckendorf at the Chestertown Yacht Club on the Chesapeake Bay. They were there to broker a settlement deal to put his family’s company back together after May’s brother-in-law Peter Marra had left the firm to join a rival establishment that was owned by the Zeckendorfs.  His exit had brought the two companies close to dueling lawsuits.

The rift in the family launched a battle for control of the privately held company.  In the end the May family members sold out their interest to a Century 21 franchisee, Kevin B. Brown and Associates.  Their name remains.  But the family business has gone.

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May Names
  • Thomas May was a 17th century English poet, dramatist and historian.
  • Samuel May was a radical 19th century American reformer who championed women’s rights and abolitionism.
  • Peter May was an English cricket captain in the 1950’s and 1960’s.   
  • Willie Mays was a great American baseball center fielder of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • Theresa May was the British Prime Minister between 2015 and 2019.

May Numbers Today
  • 35,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 53,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 26,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
May 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.

FullerJennerKempMay
HawkinsJuddLucasPelham

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