Metcalfe Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Metcalfe Surname Meaning

The 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.

Metcalfe Surname Resources on The Internet

Metcalfe and Metcalf Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Yorkshire)
  • to Ireland (Wicklow), America, Canada, South Africa, India and Australia

England.  Metcalf is very much a Yorkshire name.

Yorkshire.  The Metcalfs are said to have originated in Dentdale in the northern Yorkshire dales.  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 Wensleydale.

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 archway.

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 Northallerton.

There were over 170 Metcalfs and Metcalfes recorded in the hearth tax returns of the North Ridings in Yorkshire in 1673.  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 in 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.

Elsewhere. Some 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.

America.  Michael 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.

Hawaii.  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 soon afterwards in skirmishes in the Hawaiian islands.

Theophilus Metcalf, who arrived in Hawaii from Massachusetts in 1845, gave up his US passport and was a Metcalf who stayed. He owned a sugar plantation on the island and Metcalf Street on Manoa was named after him.

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.”

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.

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.

Australia.  Michael Metcalfe from Yorkshire arrived in Sydney on the Achilles in 1837.  He was the son of a shipowner in Yorkshire and involved himself in shipping in Sydney as an insurance agent and later as a director in various shipping companies.

Metcalfe Surname 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 shoemaker, 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 native 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. His descendants at the time of his death numbered 114.

William Metcalfe at Grewelthorpe.  The village of Grewelthorpe near Ripon in north Yorkshire became famous for its cream cheese in the mid-19th century.  Villagers won prizes at cheese shows and many sold their products to shops and outlets as far away as London.

Among them was William Metcalfe who was born in the village in 1834.  He and his wife Grace sold the cream cheese from their farm.  Also active were Firby & Atkinson (Robert Firby and George Atkinson) and Henry Lofthouse.

Charles Metcalfe and the Barn Chapel of Roxton.  Charles Metcalfe, the last of his family to reside at Roxton House in Bedfordshire, 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 world.

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.

Reader Feedback – Theophilus Metcalf in Hawaii.  My great great grandfather was Theophilus Metcalf who migrated from Massachusetts in the mid-1800’s to Hawaii and settled there, marrying Hawaiian nobility and raised a family on O’ahu.

His uncle was a state Supreme Court Justice in Massachusetts on or about that time.  We believe Theo attended Harvard College and received an engineering degree and used this skill to further his career as a road builder and as a sugar plantation owner.  He died unexpectedly in San Francisco while on a trip there to enrol his daughter at Mills College.

His English-American family lineage has always been a mystery to his Hawaii descendants.  Any information to share with be greatly appreciated.

Dr. Ontai (

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.

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).

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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