Metcalfe Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Metcalfe Meaning
Metcalfe surname is composed of the Old English mete, meaning “meat,” and cealf, a “calf,” the thinking
being that this was a calf that was to be fattened up over the summer
for eating.  The name originated in the north Yorkshire
dales.  The Metcalfes themselves have some alternative stories as
to the
origin of
the Metcalfe name
The Metcalfe name came about early, probably in the late 12th or 13th
century.  Adam Medecalf was recorded in the subsidy rolls of
Bainbridge in the Yorkshire northern Pennines
in 1301.  Metcalfe history, based around a family and a
place, resembles that of a Scottish clan.  The
Metcalfe Society published the account of their history as Metcalfe – History of the Clan.  Surname spellings today are Metcalf and Metcalfe.

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Metcalfe Ancestry

The Metcalfs are said to have originated in Dentdale in the northern
A group under Adam Medecalf split away and headed east to Wensleydale
in the
early 14th century.  James Metcalfe fought at Agincourt in
1415.  In
return for his services he was awarded land at Nappa in

The Metcalfes, a prominent family during medieval and Tudor times, held
court at Nappa Hall for the next two hundred years.  The
Elizabethan writer William Camden probably saw the
Metcalfes in their pomp.  He described Nappa
Hall as follows:

“A faire house with towers, ye chief
seat of ye Mede-calffes, counted at this day as ye most numerous family
in all England.”

The high-roofed hall stood between two tall strong battlemented and
castellated towers.  The capacious stables and outbuildings
enclosed a large paved courtyard, access to which was by a deep gated

Sir James Metcalfe was said to have had 300 men of “his known
consanguinity” when he died in 1589. The Nappa line ended with the last of the male heirs, “Worthy Justice” Metcalf, in the late 1600’s.  Metcalfs continued at Beare Park and
Hoode Grange in Wensleydale and at Metcalf manor in

There were over 170 Metcalfs and Metcalfes
in the hearth tax returns of the North Ridings in Yorkshire in
The best-known Metcalf at this time was
John Metcalf, known all over Yorkshire as Blind
Jack of Knaresborough

There were Metcalfe farmers and millers (at the Hipswell mill)
and later flax spinners and leadminers in the north Yorkshire
dales.  Over time some Metcalfes moved away from the area, either
elsewhere in Yorkshire or further afield.  Leonard Metcalf, born
Wensleydale, had renounced the Catholic faith he had grown up with and
became the Protestant rector of Tatterford parish in Norfolk in
1574.    Michael Metcalf, his fifth son, was the Metcalf
emigrant to
America.  A Metcalf family held Inglethorpe Hall in
Norfolk and later an estate in Kildare, Ireland.

Other Metcalfes moved further south, to Essex and London and
Bedfordshire.  William
Metcalfe acquired Roxton manor in Bedfordshire in 1737.  Son Charles Metcalfe
built and sponsored the local Congregational chapel.  His
daughters Fanny and Annie went on to found a leading school for girls
in Hendon.

Ireland.  Metcalfs
crossed the Irish Sea to Ireland.  A Metcalf family settled in
Donard, Wicklow after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  Some
Metcalfs in this area opposed the Irish uprising in 1798 (John Metcalf
of Donard was murdered by insurgents at that time), others supported
it.  William Metcalf emigrated to Canada in 1819.  A number
of Metcalfs
continued to live in Dunlavin, Wicklow.

Metcalf, a weaver in Norwich, arrived on the Rose of Yamouth
with his family in 1637 and settled in Dedham, Massachusetts.  A
large share of the Metcalfs in America are probably descended from
him.  Howard Metcalfe’s 2002 book Some Descendants of Rev. Leonard Metcalf covered
this lineage.

John Metcalfe came from Yorkshire to Virginia in 1716.  His line
then went via son John, who fought in the Revolutionary War and
migrated to Kentucky in 1785, to his son Thomas Metcalfe, the Governor of
Kentucky in the 1830’s.  James Metcalfe headed for Natchez,
Mississippi where he and his family ran a number of cotton plantations
prior to the Civil War.

Meanwhile, Simon Metcalfe left Yorkshire for New York in 1765 and
became a fur trader.  By the late 1780’s he was in the Pacific
Northwest in search of furs.  Both he and his son Thomas died in
skirmishes in the Hawaiian islands.

India.  One line of the
Nappa Metcalfes went to Ireland and then in 1767, via Thomas Matcalfe
who had enlisted in the British army, to India.  He later became a
director of the East India Company and amassed great wealth.
Other Metcalfes of his family were British colonial administrators in
India during the first half of the 19th century.

South Africa.  Joshua
Metcalf, who had grown up in the Leeds cotton-spinning industry,
left with his family in 1841-2 to seek a new life for them all in South
Africa.  They settled in farms around Caledon in the Western
Cape.  The Rev. Joseph Metcalf, a Methodist missionary, started
another Metcalfe line in Natal colony.

Canada.  John Metcalfe, a
horse-breeder, had emigrated to Canada from north Yorkshire in the
1840’s and settled in Kingston, Ontario.  His son James became a
prominent Ontario businessman and political figure. James also carried
on his father’s horse traditions.  During the Kingston races of
1901, the local newspaper described him as “that good horseman and
prince of good fellows.”


Metcalfe Miscellany

Metcalfe Origins.  There are two stories about the origin of the Metcalfe name.  The
first of them of them is fanciful and does not have much basis in fact.

The legendary story tells of two Saxon dalesmen travelling through the forest, the one named Wilfred and the other Oswald.  They were surprised to see what they thought to be a red colored animal of large size, approaching them at a slow gait.  Wilfred, seized with fear as he thought it was a lion, rushed off to the nearest hamlet. The more courageous Oswald confronted the animal and found it to be, not a lion, but a harmless red calf.

From that time forward he was known as Oswald Metcalfand; his friend received the name of Wilfred Lightfoot.

Medecalffe and Metcalfe Origins.  The other story has more fact to it.

The story starts with a Danish lord named Arkefrith who was granted
lands in north Yorkshire in the early 11th century.  His family
were lords of the lands of Dent in Dentdale.  Richard of this
family was said to
have ceded to his son Adam only a portion of his lands and estates, the
lands extending to the top of the mountain, known as “Calffe Fell,” on
the border with Westmorland.

In those times the region abounded with wild deer.  As a deer up
to the age of four years was called a “calffe” by the foresters, so the
mountain had become known as “the Calffe.”  By virtue of his
owning half of the Calffe, Adam in due course became known as the man
of “half-the-Calffe.”  Hiis son (also named Adam) who succeeded
him in 1278 took the name of “de Medecalffe de Dent.”

This Adam died in single combat, as the following account tells:

“Adam was slain in single combat by one
Richard de Steynbrigge who was mulct by ye coroner in a fine of 14/6d,
but he himself died of wounds received in ye fight before the sheriff
could levy against him.”

He was survived by his eldest son who also bore the name of Adam and
who appears to have been the first to use the surname in its more
modern shortened form (he was officially styled “Adam Mede-calffe of
Baynbridge, chief forester to the Earl of Richmond”).

William Camden on the Metcalfes.  The Elizabethan writer William Camden probably saw the Metcalfes in
their pomp.  He wrote about them as follows:

“We accept for a fact that Christopher
Marcalfe, a man of equestrian rank (i.e. a knight) and head of his
family accompanied by 300 horsemen of the same name and family in his
livery, welcomed the justice of assize and conducted them to York where
he was recently High Sheriff.”

This was in 1555.  Other reports say that the clansmen were all on
white horses.

Blind Jack of Knaresborough.  John Metcalf was commonly known all over Yorkshire as ‘Blind
Jack of Knaresborough.’  Born in Knaresborough in 1717, he had the
misfortune to be stricken with blindness after an attack of smallpox
at the age of six.

Apparently undeterred by his disability, he was
climbing trees and bird-nesting with other boys.  Soon he began
his long and useful career as an errand-runner.  This he started
from the age of nine, and soon gained for himself a thorough knowledge
of the then involved and labyrinthine pattern of paths and roads across
the Yorkshire moors.  As he grew up, he became also a good boxer,
wrestler and
swimmer, as well as a good horseman; and an excellent musician, chiefly
as violinist.

In 1739 he befriended Dorothy Benson, the daughter of the
landlord at the Granby inn at Harrogate.  When at the age of 21 he
made another woman
pregnant, Dorothy begged him not to marry the woman.  Jack fled
and spent some time living along the coast and lodging with his aunt at
Whitby while working
as a fiddler. When he heard that Dorothy was to be married to a
he returned and eloped with her on the night before her
projected marriage to this shoemaker.

It was as musician to the troops that in 1745 he
joined Colonel Thornton’s troop of volunteers against the
Pretender.  The campaign only served to whet his appetite for
travel and soon
he set off again to explore the north of England, travelling sometimes
on horseback, but mostly on foot, earning his way by playing the violin
at village fairs and taverns.  From the north he took ship to
London.  Colonel Liddle there offered him a seat in his carriage
back to Yorkshire.  But this he declined, saying he would get back
there sooner on foot.  And walk he did, the 200 odd miles, beating
the carriage by more than a day.

After that he turned his hand first to fish-dealing and then
to cotton spinning.  But these he gave up again, returning to his
moors, starting off first as a carrier and subsequently as a
guide.  From that he turned to road-making and bridge-building, at
which he was highly successful and earned himself a great
reputation.  He constructed miles and miles of road over the
swamps and marshes of the district, building lots of culverts and
bridges.  His last road was constructed in 1792 at the age of
seventy five when he took a
farm in Spofforth.

At the age of 93 he died on
his farm and was buried in the churchyard at Spofforth in 1810.
descendants at the time of his death numbered 114.

Charles Metcalfe and the Barn Chapel of Roxton.  Charles Metcalfe, the last of his family to reside at Roxton House, was
a Dissenter.  For some years he and his family had travelled to
nearby St. Neots to worship.  But his hopes to open a church for
Independent worship at Roxton were realized in 1808 when “the Barn
Chapel” opened “for occasional worship on the Lord’s Day.”  The
thatched Congregational Church was in fact once a barn and had been
converted by Charles Metcalfe to a place of worship.

Later two wings were added.  The north wing was used as a
schoolroom with children paying two pence a week for their
education.  Both churches are still in regular use and hold coffee
mornings and fundraising events as well as the usual services.

Metcalfs and Metcalfes.  Metcalf and Metcalfe are the two most common spellings.  Metcalfe
predominates in England, Metcalf in America.  The following are
the current approximate numbers of Metcalfs and Metcalfes around the

Numbers (000’s) Metcalf Metcalfe Total
UK 6   15 21
USA    8    2   10
Canada    1    3    4
Australia    2    2    4
New Zealand    –    1    1
Total   17   23   40

The Metcalf spelling has persisted in England.  The
high share of Metcalfs in America is probably due to the first
immigrant, Michael Metcalf in 1637, spelling his name without an “e.”

Thomas Metcalfe, Governor of Kentucky.  Thomas Metcalfe had arrived in Kentucky with his family
in 1785 as a young boy.  He received there a limited
school education and at the age of sixteen was apprenticed to learn the
stone mason trade, apparently under the tutelage of his older
half-brother, John.

He built several
courthouses in Kentucky and his own home at Forest Retreat (which still
stands), together with the tavern across the street and the stone barn
where stagecoach horses were stabled for the night.  From his
trade and his great earnestness afterwards as a public speaker, he got
the nickname of “Old Stone Hammer.”

He was a soldier, a
captain of the Kentucky volunteers, in the War of 1812 and then he
started his political career.  After representing his state in
Congress for many years, he entered and won the race for Governor of
Kentucky in 1828.  Twenty years later Metcalfe filled by
appointment the unexpired term of John J. Crittendon in the U.S. Senate.

After his death in
1855, Metcalfe county in Kentucky was named in his honor.


Select Metcalfe Names

  • James Metcalfe, who fought at
    Agincourt in 1415, started the Metcalfe line at Nappa in Wensleydale.
  • Blind Jack Metcalf of
    Knaresborough was, despite his blindness, a noted early road-builder in the north of England.
  • Sir Thomas Metcalfe was a director of the British East India Company in the late 18th century.
  • Thomas Metcalfe was Governor of Kentucky in the 1830’s.

Select Metcalfe Numbers Today

  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Yorkshire)
  • 10,000 in America (most numerous
    in California)
  • 9,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).


Select Metcalfe and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Yorkshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.




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