Nicholson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Nicholson Surname Meaning

The 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 Norfolk.

Nicholson Surname Resources on The Internet

Nicholson and Nicolson Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and from Scotland (Lowland and Skye)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

England.  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 the 1700’s.

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 in 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.

Scotland.  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 Nigel.

Skye.  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 to North Carolina, Canada, Australia, and later South Africa. 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 Stornoway.

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.  From this line came:

  • the Quaker Nicholson linen family of Lisburn (started by John Nicholson in the 1730’s)
  • and John Nicholson, the “hero of Delhi” at the time of the Indian mutiny.

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.

America.  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 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 Nicholson in honor of these 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 Park.

Scots.  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.

Then 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 tradition).

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.

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 Surname 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 reveals.

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 Cornwall). 

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 emigrated 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 aboard 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 further 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 figure.

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 candidate.

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.

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.

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).

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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