Nicholson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Nicholson Meaning
name Nicholas, which derives from the Greek Nickolaos meaning “conquering
people,” appears to have been introduced into Europe by returning
Crusader knights during the 12th century. It became popular there
because of veneration for a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor
named St. Nicholas – the precursor of today’s Santa Claus.
Although the longer Nicholas name was to be found in England, the most
commonly used form, particularly among the peasantry, was Nichol or
Nicol. Nicholas and Nichol gave rise to the surnames Nicholas, Nichols, Nicholls,
and Nicholson
. Their surname distribution shows the
north/south divide that exists between Nicholson and Nichols/Nicholls.
Spelling variants are Nicolson in Scotland and Nickerson in

Resources on

Nicholson Ancestry

Nicholson is a northern English name, with some 70 per cent of
Nicholsons in Victorian censuses to be found in Yorkshire and
Lancashire and other points north.

Northern England
The earliest Nicholson family reference was as wool merchants in Hull
in the East Ridings of Yorkshire in the late 1400’s. The
Nicholson name appeared in parish registers from 1617 of nearby Huggate
(Will Nicholson, a fisherman from Huggate, was an early emigrant to
America) and later in those of Boynton. By the late 17th century,
the Nicholson name had spread across Yorkshire – including Bedale,
an outpost in
the Yorkshire dales.

The other early Nicholson was Otho Nicholson or “Fitz Nigel” of Staffa
Hall in Cumberland, whose descendants lived in Hawkshead. The
Nicholson name was also to be found in Carlisle, Caldbeck, and Aspatria
by the 16th century. Thomas Nicholson, born in 1522, was the
forebear of the Nicholsons of Cartgate in Whitehaven. They were
seamen and sometimes Quakers. A later Nicholson was called “John
the Navigator” and a number of them settled in the Virginia colony in

Thomas Nicholson was a
successful banker in Leeds in the late 18th century. He bought
the old Roundhay estate on the edge of town in 1803 and redesigned it
with a new mansion and landscaped park (which function in public
ownership today). Another Nicholson mercantile success came in
Newark, Nottinghamshire where Benjamin Nicholson and his son William
started up the Trent Iron Works in 1854. Interestingly, this
family then became known for its painters, first with Sir William and
then with his children Ben and Nancy.

Southern England
The Nicholson name was and is to be found as well in the south, notably
London. Much of this has reflected southward migration. A
Nicholson family from Lancashire, for instance, moved to Worcester in
the 1840’s to start an organ-building business. That business
still operates there today. Nicholson in East Anglia may be
indigenous, from Nickerson of the local Norfolk dialect.

Clan Nicolson are a Lowland Scottish clan claiming descent from James
Nicolson, an Edinburgh lawyer who died about 1580. These
Nicolsons established themselves at Lasswade in Midlothian for many
generations. A line was ennobled as Baron Carnock. This
family included the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson and his son

MacNeacail is a Highland variation of the name and a branch in Skye did
anglicize themselves to Nicolson in the late 17th century. The
Rev. Donald Nicolson, the head of the clan at that time, was reputed to
have had 23 children and was the common ancestor for many a Skye
family. These Nicolsons rallied around Bonnie
Prince Charlie
in 1745, but lost out heavily in the Highland
Clearances in the 1830’s and an exodus began.

The last chief of the clan to reside in Skye was Norman Nicolson.
He had joined the British army and stayed on in Tasmania (where his
line has continued). Other Nicolsons from Skye departed for America
(North Carolina)
, Canada, Australia, and later to South
. Alexander Morison Nicolson became a successful
shipbuilder in China, but died in 1865 at the age of 33 after a boiler
explosion. His legacy is the Nicolson Institute in

Ireland. Nicholsons who
crossed over to Ireland during the 17th century were to be found in
Dublin, Down and Sligo, but most prominently in Armagh. The forebear
of the Nicholsons of Armagh
was a Rev. William
Nicholson who had arrived in Ireland in 1589 from Cumberland.
this line came the Quaker Nicholson linen family of Lisburn (started by
Nicholson in the 1730’s) and John
Nicholson, the “hero of Delhi”
at the time of the Indian
This family had widespread connections through marriage and business
with other Quaker families in the area.

They displayed great care for their workers. Joseph
Nicholson of Bessbrook testified as follows in the mid 19th century:

“To one unacquainted with Ireland, the
small earnings of the poorer females – frequently not more than two
pence a day, working diligently from morning to night for months
together – must appear very extraordinary.”

Bessbrook, a model village for workers, was named after Elizabeth
(Bess) Nicholson who had married into the Richardson family.


There were three notable Nicholson families started in colonial
America, the first by Governor Francis Nicholson from Yorkshire, the
second by William Nicholson from the English Borders, and the third –
it would appear, although it is not confirmed – by a mariner, Thomas
Nicholson, from Whitehaven in Cumbria.

  • Francis Nicholson – of whom good
    things and bad things have been written – was at various times colonial
    governor of New York, Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina.
    Although he returned and died in England, his older son Richard
    remained, his progeny including Judge Joseph Hopper Nicholson who
    had his part to play in early American history.
  • The Nicholson family that
    originally settled in Anne Arundel county, Maryland produced
    distinguished captains in the American Navy who gave service in the
    Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. There have been
    four US Navy ships named USS
    in honor of these five Nicholsons.
  • A third Nicholson family
    decamped to an area known as Ragged Mountain in the Blue Ridge
    Mountains of NW Virginia sometime in the 1700’s. Here they
    intermarried with the Corbins for generations. In the 1920’s
    these families were described as “unlearned, uncouth, and totally
    removed from the rest of society” (although Audrey Horning’s 2004 book In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain
    paints a slightly different picture). In any event, they were
    removed from their mountain retreat to make way for Shenandoah National

There were also Scots Nicholsons in America. John Nicholson was a
gunsmith in Philadelphia who manufactured firearms for the Continental
Army during the Revolutionary War. His son James started a
bookbinding business which stayed with the family until 1911.
there were the Nicholsons who arrived in North Carolina in the early
1800’s and then moved onto Georgia. Later generations were
prominent in the Coca Cola Company.

Another Scot was Malcolm Nicholson from North Carolina, who was in
northern Florida by the 1820’s. Like many a pioneer settler at
that time he combined the roles of physician and planter. Malcolm
died in 1840 but his sons Angus and Archibald revived tobacco growing
on his Gadsden county plantation after the Civil War. Their old
farmhouse, built in the 1820’s, still stands.

Canada. The first
Nicholson in Canada was possibly Captain Arthur Nicholson from Sligo
who had fought on the British side in the Revolutionary War. He
was granted land in New Brunswick in 1784 and settled there. A
William Nicholson was born in Nova Scotia sometime before 1800.
His descendants were dam keepers, in charge of the water supply for the
city of Halifax for almost a century (from 1848).

Nicolsons from Skye came to Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton in
Nova Scotia during the 1830’s – where many have preserved their
Highland ways into modern days (Calum Nicolson has been a Gaelic poet
in the old bard baile

Australia. John
Nicholson from Newcastle was
Sydney’s first harbor master. He is said to have come up with the
first design for an Australian national flag sometime in the
1820’s. His sons owned land on the Monaro tablelands of NSW which
stayed with the family until well into the 20th century.

William Nicholson came out to Australia
as a young man from Cumberland in 1842 and soon prospered as a
businessman in Melbourne. He rose to be Premier of Victoria and
is remembered for having introduced the secret ballot. Nicholson Street in Melbourne is
named after him. Another Nicholson from Cumberland, Sir Charles,
to Sydney at around the same time and built up a considerable business
fortune there. Although he later returned to England, there is a
Nicholson Museum in Sydney named after him.

Nicolsons from Skye started arriving in the 1850’s after another bout
of Highland clearances. For many years Alexander Nicolson was a
captain of ships which brought convicts from England to
Australia. Eventually, in 1857, he decided to bring his own
family across. They settled with relatives in an area known as
Glen Alice.


Nicholson Miscellany

Nicholas, Nichols, Nicholls, and Nicholson.  The name Nicholas gave rise to the surnames Nicholas, Nichols,
Nicholls, and Nicholson.  The incidence of these names varied
around the country, as the following distribution from the 1891 census

Numbers (000’s) Nicholas Nichols Nicholls Nicholson Total
Scotland   0.1   6.2   6.3
North of England 0.6 2.0 1.9  14.3  18.8
Midlands   1.6   3.0   6.7   1.4  12.7
East of England   0.2   1.6   1.1   1.0   3.9
London   0.6   1.5   2.9   1.5   6.5
South   0.7   0.6   1.2   0.9   3.0
Southwest   0.9   0.5   2.7   0.2   4.3
Wales   2.2   0.2   0.6   0.1   3.1
TOTAL   6.9   9.4  17.1  25.6  59.0

The distribution clearly shows the north/south divide between
Nicholson and Nichols/Nicholls.  English Nicholsons were most
numerous in Yorkshire, then Durham, followed by Lancashire,
Northumberland, and Cumberland.  Scottish Nicholsons were 40%
Nicholsons and 60% Nicolsons.  The name Nicholas cropped up a lot
in Wales
(in particular in Glamorgan); and Nicholls in the southwest (notably in

The Nicholson Family Library.  Canon Nigel Nicholson worked for over 38 years on his hobby, putting together a comprehensive collection of family trees for the
Nicholson family library.  He started this library in 1968 as a
one-name family study and information came pouring in from all parts of
the world.

After a time, It was decided to put together what was
becoming a vast collection of family trees.  In 1996 Nicholson
published the current state of his research in a 500 page
leather-bound book.  A second updated edition in two volumes has
now been printed.

Volume One contains:
– the Nicolsons/Nicholsons of Scotland
– the Nicholsons of the Borders, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Lancashire
and Cheshire
– the Nicholsons of north Cumberland
– the Nicholsons of Ireland.

Volume Two contains:
– the Nicholsons of Northumberland and Durham
– the Nicholsons of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire
– the Nicholsons of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire
– the Nicholsons of mid and southern England
– the Nicholsons of South Africa, India, America, Canada, and Argentina.

The Nicholsons of Bedale.  Bedale is a gateway village to the Yorkshire Dales.
Robert Nicholson was a curate there in 1692 and a Nicholson family had
been farming at Rand Farm from the 1730’s.  In the Annals of Bedale there was a
reference to an Old John Nicholson who died around 1800.  It went
as follows:

“John Nicholson the old huntsman
Did with the beagles go
And William who was his son
Swift after them did follow.”

The Nicolsons and Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The Skye Nicolsons did not rise as a clan for Bonnie
Prince Charlie, but tradtion has maintained that a band of Nicolsons
did fight at Culloden in Jacobite ranks:

“It was said that twenty Nicolsons from Skye fought at
Culloden and that they all came back unscathed with the exception of a
blacksmith who lost a hand.”

Their chief, John Nicolson, appears to have assisted in
the prince’s concealment in a cow byre on his estates.  John’s
descendants preserved a lock of his hair and the cup out of which he
drank on his night in Scorrybreac lands.

Donald Nicolson from Raasay also helped in the prince’s
escape and was subsequently tortured by Government troops after
refusing to reveal his whereabouts.

Reader Feedback: Duncan Nicolson from Skye.  I am trying to find information on the Scots Nicolsons/Nicholsons that came from Skye to North Carolina (Cape Fear) in the
early 1800’s.

My fourth great
grandfather Duncan Nicolson (1777 – 1861) was one of those Scots that
sometime before 1809.  I believe that Duncan was not married when
he left
Scotland as he married Mary Blackman in 1809 in North Carolina.  I only find the children of their union
listed in the 1810 US Census.  While Duncan died in Alabama, at
least one
of his sons, Archibald, moved into Georgia.

My father, James R., is the last male of this line and
still resides in
Georgia.  I am the youngest Nicholson of
this line.   Duncan is traced to me
though Archibald, then John B., then Robert A., then James F. and
finally, my
father, James Robert.

I cannot locate
any more specific information about those Nicolsons that came from Skye
a ship called the Midlothian between
1800 and 1809.  I believe my fourth great grandfather was born in
Scorrsbrea, Skye.   I am trying to
locate any information about Duncan’s father and mother to attempt to
trace my family tree.

Warmest regards, Karen Nicholson (

A Nicolson Family from Skye, and Back.  One Nicolson family were gamekeepers on the Glendale estate in Skye in the 1800’s.  Their son John served in the Boer War and stayed on to work in the gold
mines of South Africa.  Later he trekked north to Rhodesia where
he became a successful prospector and miner and acquired a small farm.

His son Donald
inherited this tobacco farm but left Zimbabwe in the 1970’s as the
troubles there began.  He travelled for a while but then returned
to his family roots in Skye, working at a fish farm in Glendale.

The Nicholsons of Armagh.  “Our tradition,” Henry Nicholson of Cranagill has written, “is that the
first who came over to Ireland was a Rev. William Nicholson, married to
a Lady Elizabeth Percy, who arrived in 1589 from Cumberland.  This
Rev. William Nicholson was, by tradition, the rector of that portion of
the country in which Cran-na-gael — the ‘oak-tree of the Gael ‘ — now
corrupted into Cranagill, was situated.”

The fortunes of William’s family came very near to utter overthrow by
M’Guire’s rebellion of 1641.  His son’s wife and her infant boy
were the only two in Cranagill who escaped the common massacre.
With the aid of a faithful servant, they were able to hide behind some
brushwood.  Eventually they fell in with a party of loyalist
soldiers who escorted them safely to Dromore, whence they made their
way across sea to the widow’s former home at Whitehaven on the
Cumberland coast.  Here they seem to have remained throughout the
troubled years that followed the outbreak of the Civil War.

The son William during his sojourn in Cumberland became a Quaker.
In due course he returned to Cranagill and had three sons.  From
this issue came the Nicholson linen family of Lisburn and John
Nicholson, the “hero of Delhi” at the time of the Indian mutiny.

John Nicholson, The Hero of Delhi.  John Nicholson is best known for his role in the Indian Mutiny of 1857,
planning and leading the storming of Delhi.  He was but thirty
four at the time, yet was already a charismatic and authoritarian

A Hindu guru deified Nicholson as an incarnation of
Brahma.  As a result, a sect of Nickalsainis
grew up and, although Nicholson in his embarrassment had them whipped
and imprisoned, they persisted in worshipping him.

One famous story recounted by Charles Allen in Soldier Sahibs is of a night during
the Mutiny when Nicholson strode into the British mess tent at
Jullunder, coughed to attract the attention of the officers, then said:
“I am sorry, gentlemen, to have kept you waiting for your dinner, but I
have been hanging your cooks.”   He had been told that they
had been poisoning the soup.  When he force-fed the soup to a
monkey and it expired on the spot, Nicholson immediately strung up the
cooks on a nearby tree without any semblance of a trial.

He died of his wounds nine days after recapturing
Delhi.  That only added to the luster of his achievement. He became
the Victorian “Hero of Delhi,” inspiring books, ballads, and a
generation of young men to join the army.

The Governor Who Was Jilted in Love.  Francis Nicholson has been called one of the best Governors Virginia
ever had.  It was he who oversaw the transfer of the capital from
Jamestown to Williamsburgh and and it was he who was instrumental in
the creation of William and Mary College.  But he was also
described as “depraved, dissolute, and ungodly, a wildly immoderate and
disordered man.”

This bad side came out in his pursuit of Lucy Burwell as his wife.

In the spring of 1699, seventeen year old Lucy Burwel, the daughter of
a well-established planter, caught the eye of Virginia’s 44 year old
Governor, Francis Nicholson.  He was immediately smitten.  He
regaled her with letters that were addressed to his “virtuous pretty
charming innocent dove, the only center of my constant love.”

But Lucy was indifferent.  That drove Nicholson crazy.  For
more than two years he reacted with temper tantrums and threats at
reports that Lucy was being courted by younger rivals.  When he
learned that she loved someone else, he threatened to slit the throat
of “the bridegroom, the minister, and the justice who issued the
license,” threats that were repeated when her engagement was announced
in 1703.

However, the Burwells had powerful friends, including Sir Robert
Walpole back in England.  They petitioned for his recall on the
grounds of his behavior and he was forced to relinquish his position
and leave Virginia in early 1705.

Judge Nicholson’s Role in American History.  Joseph Hopper Nicholson was a member of the U.S.
House of Representatives who, although painfully ill, was carried into
Congress to cast the deciding vote for Thomas Jefferson in his battle
with Aaron Burr over the Presidency.  Nicholson’s vote for
Jefferson resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr in the Maryland
delegation and, therefore, insufficient state’s votes to elect a

Nicholson persisted in voting for Thomas Jefferson for President
through 36 ballots until the Federalist members of the Maryland
delegation gave up their fight for Aaron Burr.  If Nicholson had
been prevented by illness from voting in an equally divided Maryland
Congressional delegation, Burr would have been elected President on the
first ballot and the whole course of American history might have turned
out quite differently.

Later, Judge Nicholson became Chief Judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit
(then comprising Baltimore and Harford counties) and a judge of the
Court of Appeals.  It was Judge Nicholson who suggested the music
for the Star-Spangled Banner
and had it published.  The original copy of the poem was in the
Nicholson family for 93 years.


Select Nicholson Names

  • Francis Nicholson from Pickering in
    Yorkshire has been called “the father of water-color painting” in England.
  • William Nicholson was a
    noted English chemist and writer on natural philosophy in London at the turn of the 19th century.
  • John Nicholson was the British
    general from Dublin best known for his role in putting down the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He was called “the hero of Delhi” for his exploits.
  • Harold Nicolson was a British diplomat of the early 20th century, best
    known for his published diaries.
  • Jack Nicholson has been one of the great actors of the late 20th century.

Select Nicholson Numbers Today

  • 42,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Durham)
  • 23,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Texas)
  • 33,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).


Select Nicholson and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “son” suffix is more common in northern England than in the south and in lowland Scotland.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.




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