Mills Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Mills Surname Meaning

Mills was locational and described someone who lived near a mill.  In time it also came to mean someone who worked at a mill.  The mill was an important center in every medieval settlement, normally operated by an agent of the local landowner.

The root of the word is the Old English mylen, from the Latin molere meaning “to grind.” Surname variants of Mills in Scotland are Milne and Mill.

Mills Surname Resources on The Internet

Mills and Mill Surname Ancestry

  • from England, Wales and Scotland
  • to America, Caribs (St. Kitts), Canada and New Zealand

EnglandThe first recorded spelling of Mills as a surname was Richard de la Melle in the Sussex rolls of 1200.  Over time the surname spread across England.  By the 19th century, it was most common in SE England, in the West Midlands, and in Lancashire.     

The Mills in Southampton date from the early 16th century when John Mill was a successful merchant there. By 1613 the family was well enough established to afford an impressive memorial in Nursling church.  “Sir Richard Mill and his wife Mary, plump and colorful in painted alabaster, lie propped up on their elbows, surveying their one-time domain.”   

By the 18th century the family had inherited Mottisfont Abbey and later became the Barker-Mill.  A Mills line from Mottisfont started with Thomas Mills, born there in 1799, and continued in Lyndhirst.  William Mills from Warwickshire acquired the ancient Bisterne house in the New Forest in 1792 and it has remained in his family since that time.

Thomas Mills was born in Lingfield, Surrey around 1540; while Henry Mills was baptized at Coldwaltham near Pulborough in Sussex in 1609.  George Mills was born in Coventry, Warwickshire also in 1609. The Rev. John Mills became rector of the village of Barford in Warwickshire in 1745 and his family were later the principal landowners there.  John Mills, born in Oldham in 1584, was an early Lancashire name. Later Mills of this family were Quakers who settled in America.

Two Mills families did well for themselves in the 18th century. One Mills family, thought originally to be Huguenot silk weavers, made their money from textiles and property in London and made enough to buy country estates in Hertfordshire and Norfolk.  William Mills was a linen draper in Coventry and also prospered, buying into the banking house of Glyn’s.

“William Mills, who married the heiress of Sir John Salter, the Lord Mayor of London and an East India proprietor, saved the Glyn’s bank in the panic of 1772 with £10,000, stipulating that he become a partner with his nephew Charles.”

Five generations of Mills were partners in Glyn’s, England’s foremost private banking house, until its takeover by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1939. 

Wales.  The Mills name appeared in mid-Wales, perhaps initially in villages such as Trefeglwys and Llandnwog in Montgomeryshire in the 16th century. 

The Mills family of Llanidloes was a family of composers, printers and writers.  The first of the family was Henry Mills, a pioneer in Welsh congregational singing.  John Mills, born in Montgomeryshire in 1799, was the forebear of a Mills family that settled in Liverpool in the 1830’s (a branch of the family later emigrating to New Zealand).

Scotland.  The Scottish name is Milne, found initially in Aberdeenshire. A family by the name of Milne were farmers at the mill of Boyndie for generations.  Milne was often pronounced Mill in Scotland.  James Mill, the Scottish economist, was born in Angus.

Ireland.  The Mills name was brought across from either England or Scotland. It could also come from the Gaelic an Mhuilinn, meaning “of the mill.”  One English Mills family was based at Knockall in Roscommon from the 1740’s and possibly earlier.  John Mills was an Ulster Scot who emigrated to America in 1682 and settled in North Carolina.

America.   The first Mills in America may have been Simon Mills who was said to have come to the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts on the Mary and John in 1630.   He and his family established themselves in Connecticut, first in Windsor and then in Simsbury.  Their family genealogy was undertaken most recently by Ralph Mills in his 1984 book The History of the Simon Mills Family.

Many Mills in America descend from George Mills.  It is believed that he came from Yorkshire and arrived in New England also around 1630.  More certain is the fact that he was one of the co-founders of the town of Jamaica on Long Island in 1656.  His son Samuel lived to be ninety five.  When he died in 1726 he left behind nine children, eighty grandchildren, and fifty four great grandchildren.  Hence the large number of descendants of his line in New England, New York, and, after the Revolutionary War, in Kentucky (Thomas Mills) and in Canada (Loyalists).

From Dutchess county in New York came James Mills who served as the supervisor of North Salem in Westchester county in the early 1800’s. His son Darius joined the California Gold Rush in 1848.  He made his money in railroads and in banking, not in gold. For a time he was California’s wealthiest citizen. Later Mills of this family were prominent in business, politics, and in racehorse ownership and breeding.

Caribbean.  Matthew Mills from London had arrived in St. Kitts in 1688.  He was shot in a duel and his nephew Thomas started up a plantation on St. Kitts in 1720.  This plantation stayed in family hands for four generations for about a hundred years. George Mills of this line, overcome by debts, shot himself to death in 1828.  

Canada. Jesse Mills and his family from Westchester county, New York – descendants of George Mills – were Loyalists who made the journey across the border into Canada in 1784.  They settled in Cumberland county, Nova Scotia. David Mills, a Liberal politician in Canada in the late 1800’s, came from these Loyalist roots.  Also arriving in Canada, this time near Niagara, was John Mills and his family from New Jersey.

James Mills came to Canada in 1800 from America and was a farmer in the Hamilton area of Ontario. His son Samuel was a businessman who did well, described at one time as “one of the three wealthiest men in Hamilton.” Stanley Mills’ 1926 book Genealogical and Historical Records of the Mills and Gage Families tracked the family history.

Australia.  Peter Mills had a short and eventful life in Tasmania, arriving there in 1806 as a protégé of Captain Bligh but disappearing ten years later.

New Zealand.  William Mills was an early arrival in New Zealand, coming to Wellington from Scotland in 1842 and later settling in Dunedin where he was collector of customs.  His son James Mills involved himself in coastal shipping and built up the United Steam Ship Company to be the largest shipping line in the southern hemisphere.  His company was also then New Zealand’s largest private sector employer.

Mills Surname Miscellany

The Mills at Barford.  The Rev. John Mills acquired the right to the living at Barford in Warwickshire and in 1745 was installed there as rector.  He had two sons, Francis and Charles, and by 1812 about two thirds of the lands in Barford was in their hands.  Francis succeeded his father as rector, holding this position for 56 years. Charles became the MP for Warwick.

If the squire was also the parson he would be known as the “Squarson.”  This was true of the Rev. John and Francis Mills and was also true later of the Rev. Cecil Mills.  He lived in the Rectory, now the Glebe Hotel, and died there in 1902. As Squireson he had the special right to own a dovecote to provide much needed fresh meat in winter.

The Mills Family and Congregational Singing in Wales.  Henry Mills was a pioneer in Welsh congregational singing.  As a young man his voice attracted the attention of Thomas Charles of Bala when he was on a visit to Bethel, the Methodist chapel at Llanidloes.

On the recommendation of Charles the Monthly Meeting gave Mills charge of the singing of the Methodists in the district, although the novelty of the idea and Mills’ youth and ability to play several instruments were obstacles in the eyes of elders of the severer sort. However, he overcome their objections and did much to improve the congregational singing in the district.

Henry’s work was carried on by his son James, whose abilities as a conductor found scope in the musical society founded at Bethel in 1834 with the objective of raising the standard of congregational singing.  They would meet on Sundays, plus a week-night class of instruction in the rudiments of music, that was attended by sixty to seventy young people.  Mills composed several anthems and hymn tunes, one of which, Hosannah, retained its place in later collections.

James’s brother Richard was an active member of the Bethel Musical Society.   He was also a composer and took prizes for the hymn tunes that he wrote.  His collections in fact greatly influenced congregational singing in Wales and were seen at the time as landmarks in the story of its improvement.

The Mills Plantation in the Caribbean.  The Mills family connection with the West Indies dated back to 1688 when Matthew Mills went into partnership with the planter William Woodley on St Kitts.  Matthew was murdered in a duel with a man named Barbott who was subsequently hanged for the crime.  By 1720 Matthew’s nephew Thomas had arrived in St Kitts and he started life there as a planter.

His letter books, which have been preserved, give an interesting picture of plantation life in the 18th century.  Much of Thomas’s time was spent overseeing the cultivation of sugar cane, and its processing once the harvest was underway. The success of sugar cultivation was heavily dependent on the climate. The fickle nature of the weather was a constant worry for planters.  A long, dry spell could force an early harvest and a poor crop.

Because family connections were so important to mercantile success, there were many opportunities for family rivalry and feuds.  Nothing quite illustrates this as well as Thomas Mills’ manoeuvrings when he was ready to return to London in 1753.  Now aged about 48 he had to plan for the future and the obvious move was to join his cousin John in his business in London.

When he learned, however, that John had promised a partnership to his young nephew Matthew Gallwey, Thomas began scheming against the younger man.  He spread stories undermining his character and position and threatened to set himself up in London in competition against John.  The result was a vicious family feud and the withdrawal of the partnership offer.

Simon Mills and His Family in America.  Family tradition has it that Simon and John Mills were youngsters on the John and Mary that set forth for Plymouth Rock in 1630.  John was said to have died in a storm at sea.  But Simon, aged 18, did reach his destination.

There is no record for Simon Mills at the Plymouth colony.  In 1635 or so Simon moved his family to Windsor, Connecticut.  His son Simon was born there two years later.  According to the Windsor land records, Simon became a prominent landowner as the years passed. However, in 1661, he was killed in an Indian raid on his house, along with two of his baby grandchildren.  He was about forty nine years of age at the time.

In 1667 a section of land along the Farmington river was set aside by the Windsor officials for use by selected settlers.  The area comprised about 10 square miles and was very quickly taken up by forty settlers, including Simon the son.  The name of the resulting settlement was Simsbury.  Simon and his wife Mary were the first of four generations of Mills in Simsbury. 

Mills Loyalist Petitions.  Loyalists who left the American colonies after the Revolutionary War were honored by the British because of their loyalty to the King. They were generally granted tracts of land in their new home in Canada.

In 1794 John Mills filed a petition for land, stating:

“He was formerly an inhabitant of Sussex county, state of New Jersey, and by reason of his attachment to the King and Constitution of Great Britain lost nearly all what he was possessed of, and in the year 1780 or 1781 on that account was long imprisoned, indicted and sat in a pillory for a long time in an extreme cold season that it nearly cost him his life and for a long time rendered him incapable of supporting his family and obliged him to remain in the States in a miserable way.”

His character as an honest, industrious man was attested and in 1796 he was recommended for 200 acres in Grimsby township near Niagara.

Meanwhile, the following was the petition made by Jesse Mills for additional land in Cumberland county, Nova Scotia in 1814:

“The petition of Jesse Mills, most humbly showeth:

  • that your petitioner is a native of the state of New York,
  • that he served his Majesty during the late American War,
  • that he was wounded and lost the use of his left hand in the service,
  • that at the conclusion of the war he was obliged to seek refuge in Nova Scotia,
  • that he settled in the county of Cumberland where he has ever since resided, that he has a wife and a numerous family of children,
  • that under the administration of his late Excellency Sir John Wentworth your petitioner obtained an order of survey for one thousand acres of land as a compensation for his services and sufferings, that five hundred acres only was located to him,
  • that upon his applying lately for a grant of it he was informed
  • that no minutes could be found in the offices to authorize the giving of the grant of it.

Your petitioner therefore humbly prays that he may be allowed a grant of the said five hundred acres of land.”

Thomas Mills, Revolutionary War Veteran.  Thomas Mills may have been over a hundred years of age when he died and was buried in the Sandrun churchyard in Hebron, Kentucky on February 26, 1864.  The headstone shows that he was born on September 29, 1763 and that he had fought in the Revolutionary War.

He was in fact born in 1763 at the family home on Long Island. He moved at a young age to South Carolina with his father and signed up for Marion’s Swamp Fox Soldiers during the Revolutionary War when he was just 12 or 13 years old. He later travelled to Kentucky and Ohio where he was a scout and Indian fighter and met up with Daniel Boone.  He served in the Corn Stalk Militia between 1791 and 1799 and also fought in the War of 1812.

He had time as well to marry twice and raise thirteen children.  He settled down, appropriately enough, in Boone county, Kentucky.

The Brief Life and Career of Peter Mills.  Peter’s father was a businessman in the silk trade in Dublin, his brother a doctor of medicine.  But Peter chose a naval career and in 1805 sailed to Australia under Captain Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame.  He was for a while deputy surveyor in Tasmania.  There he married Jennifer Brabyn in the second wedding ever sanctioned in the colony.

However, he soon fell badly into debt.  To escape his creditors, he went bush in 1814 and briefly led a bush-ranging gang.  Mills and his companions found little opportunity to “support themselves by rapine and violence” and soon tired of the discomforts of “woods and retired places.”  The promise of a pardon led him to surrender.  He was brought to trial at Launceston, but later released for lack of evidence. He was then able to return to his family.

Two years later Peter Mills set sail from Hobart on the Adamant and was never seen again.

Reader Feedback – Mills Convict in Tasmania.  I’m a Mills descendant looking for a William Mills who was born around1827-1830 in England.  He was transported to Hobart Town, Tasmania and married Catherine Dunn.  Is anyone related to the Mills family from Elderslie, Tasmania?

Janine Mansson (

Mills Names

  • James Mill was a Scottish economist of the early 19th century, one of the founders of classical economic theory. 
  • John Stuart Mill, the son of James Mill, was an influential philosopher and political economist of the mid-19th century. 
  • Darius Mills was a prominent American banker and philanthropist.  For a time, he was California’s wealthiest citizen. 
  • Bertram Mills was a British circus owner who ran the Bertram Mills Circus. 
  • John Mills was a well-known 20th century English actor whose career spanned seven decades.

Mills Numbers Today

  • 70,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 54,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 41,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)




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Written by Colin Shelley

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