Nightingale Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Nightingale Surname Meaning

The cuckoo and the nightingale are the songbirds that are heralded in England. No one has ever been called a cuckoo (at least as a compliment). It is the nightingale that has passed into a name for someone who sings with a sweet voice. The word nightingale comes from the Old English niht meaning “night” and galan meaning “sing.”

A nightingale once sang in Berkeley Square. But the incidence of the Nightingale name around England is something of a mystery. If the nightingale nests and is heard in the south, how come then that Nightingale as a surname only appears north of a line from the Midlands to East Anglia? Were the bird’s migratory patterns different in the Middle Ages? Or was there some other reason?

Nightingale Surname Resources on The Internet

Nightingale Surname Ancestry

  • from England
  • to America, Australia and New Zealand

England. There was an early sighting of the Nightingale name in Essex where Sir Thomas Nightingale was born at Newport Pond in 1576.  We was High Sheriff of Essex in 1627 and made a baronet.

Later, there were three clusters of the Nightingale name:

  • in Bolton in Lancashire
  • in Huntingdonshire and later in Cambridgeshire
  • and in Derbyshire.

Bolton. The Bolton Nightingales seem to have originated from the village of Rivington. John Nightingale was born there in the 1630’s.  Another John Nightingale was a yeoman in the 1730’s. And the Nightingale name is still current in the Bolton area today.

Huntingdonshire.  Samuel Pepys referred in his diary to a visit to his cozen Nightingale in Huntingdonshire “who hath a pretty house in Yelling.”

Geoffrey Nightingale was a lawyer who had managed to parlay his business into such a money-making enterprise that he was able tp purchase Kneesworth Hall in Cambridgeshire and become local gentry. Thomas Nightingale took over the estate soon after 1600 and it remained in the family until 1831.

Derbyshire. Also on the way up was Thomas Nightingale, a local farmer in Lea in Derbyshire. He proved very skilled in prospecting for lead and within a short space of time owned the local smelting works and much of the land in the area. Over the 18th century this family became, as a result of his enterprise, one of the richest in Derbyshire.

From this family came Florence Nightingale, so named because she happened to be born in Florence. In her twenties she decided to take up nursing even though nursing was not then considered to be a suitable profession for a well-educated woman. Her time came with the Crimean War when she exposed and dealt with the unsanitary hospital conditions that she found. Her campaign touched the public mood and she became known as “the lady with the lamp.”

America. Nightingales did make it to America. William Nightingale from Cambridgeshire was first recorded at Braintree, Massachusetts in 1670. The family homestead on Granite Street in Quincy, built by Solomon Nightingale in 1820, remained with his descendants until the 1920’s.

One line of these Nightingales, via Samuel Nightingale, migrated to Rhode Island in 1751. Joseph Nightingale became a wealthy Providence merchant and builder in the 1790’s of one of the grandest houses in the town.

“The location of the house on College Hill gave Nightingale a commanding view of the Providence river and its myriad ships, wharves, and warehouses filled with goods shipped from ports around the world.”

Nightingales from Lancashire came to Paterson, New Jersey in 1818. They operated a silk mill there. In 1849 John Nightingale migrated to California at the time of the Gold Rush. He did make a fortune in San Francisco, although in real estate.

Australia.  Early Nightingale arrivals in New South Wales were convicts:

  • Charles Nightingale, aged seventeen and arrested for passing forged banknotes, came in 1813 on the Earl Spencer.  He lived until 1860.
  • Robert Nightingale was Staffordshire was transported on the Dunvegan Castle in 1830.
  • and Henry Nightingale from London was transported on the Charles Kerr in 1837.

New Zealand.  William and Eleanor Nightingale came to Auckland from Shrewsbury on the Nimroud in 1860. A descendant Clifford Nightingale enlisted for World War One and died on the Western front at Passchendaele in 1917. He has been remembered for his war poems.

Nightingale Surname Miscellany

The Nightingale.  While I lingered away the latter half of May in Scotland, and the first half of June in northern England, and finally in London, intent on seeing the land leisurely and as the mood suited, the thought occurred to me that I was in danger of missing one of the chief pleasures I had promised myself on crossing the Atlantic, namely the hearing of the song of the nightingale.

Hence, when on the 17th of June I found myself down among the copses near Haslemere on the borders of Surrey and Sussex and was told by an old farmer, to whose house I had been recommended by friends in London, that the season of the nightingale was over, I was a good deal disturbed.

“I think she be done singing now, I ain’t heered her in some time, sir,” said my farmer as we sat down to get acquainted with a mug of the hardest cider I ever attempted to drink.

“Too late!” I said in deep chagrin, “and I might have been here weeks ago.”

“Yeas, sir, she be done now.  May is the time to hear her.   The cuckoo is done too, sir.  And you don’t hear the nightingale after the cuckoo is gone.”

The Nightingale Trust.  The Nightingale Trust was founded in 1580 for the village of Kersey in Suffolk by the will of Robert Nightingale.  There are six trustees, two representative trustees appointed by the Parish Council and four co-opted trustees who must be residents of the village.  The income, mainly derived from garden allotment land, is distributed at Christmas to the elderly of the parish.

The Church in Kneesworth, Cambridgeshire.  The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, erected in the 14th century, is a building of stone and flint, consisting of chancel, nave, aisles, south porch of the 15th century and an embattled western tower containing a clock and five bells cast by Milton Graye in 1650.  In the church are monuments to the Nightingale and Turpin families, including Jeffrey Nightingale, born in 1664, and Edward Nightingale, born in 1723.

Lea Hall in Derbyshire.  The origins of Lea Hall are obscure, but it is fairly certain that Robert Alverley raised a chantry chapel a short way behind the house in the reign of King John.  In 1709 the house was bought by Thomas Nightingale, a local farmer who was very skilled in prospecting for lead.  Within a short period of time he owned the local smelting works and much of the land in the area.

During the next hundred years his family became one of the richest in Derbyshire.  In 1754 Thomas’s son Peter added the Georgian facade to Lea Hall.  In 1796, the family moved elsewhere but continued to own the estate until 1922.

Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War.  Although being female meant Florence Nightingale had to fight against the military authorities at every step, she went about reforming the hospital system.  With conditions which resulted in soldiers lying on bare floors surrounded by vermin and unhygenic operations taking place, it is not surprising that, when Nightingale first arrived in Scutari, diseases such as cholera and typhus were rife in the hospitals.

This meant that injured soldiers were seven times more likely to die from disease in hospital than on the battlefield. Whilst in Turkey, Nightingale collected data and organized a record keeping system.  This information was then used as a tool to improve city and military hospitals.

Nightingales’s knowledge of mathematics became evident when she used her collected data to calculate the mortality rate in the hospital.  These calculations showed that an improvement of the sanitary methods employed would result in a decrease in the number of deaths.

By February 1855 the mortality rate had dropped from 60 percent to 43 percent.   Through the establishment of a fresh water supply as well as using her own funds to buy fruit, vegetables and standard hospital equipment, the mortality rate in the spring had dropped further to 2.2 percent.

Samuel Nightingale of Providence, Rhode Island.  Samuel Nightingale was the founder of the Nightingale family in Providence, Rhode Island.  The son of Joseph Nightingale, he was raised in Braintree, Massachusetts.  Early in life he was a clergyman.  He lived in Pomfret, Connecticut for a number of years and then settled in Providence in 1751.  He operated a distillery there, invested in mercantile ventures, and served for a time as a Justice of the Peace.

His eldest son Samuel was a prosperous Providence merchant, a younger son Joseph an even more prosperous one as founder of the merchant partnership of Clark & Nightingale.

John Nightingale, Forty Niner.  John Nightingale was a real forty-niner, having arrived in San Francisco from New Jersey in 1849.

He settled with his wife and eight children in the Lower Haight/Hayes Valley area of San Francisco.  Although he didn’t literally strike gold, he did amass a huge fortune by buying up properties and turning them over for profit years later.  He was a San Francisco alderman and was credited with selecting the site for City Hall (although the building itself was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake).

John Nightingale’s own house at 301 Buchanan spanned the entire block of Haight between Buchanan and Webster. What is known as the Nightingale House today is the property that stood next door at 201 Buchanan. This house was in fact John Nightingale’s wedding present to his daughter Florence when she married Hamilton Page in 1882. Florence and Hamilton Page sold the Nightingale House a year after her father’s death in 1912.

John’s eldest son John practiced general medicine in San Francisco.  For ten years his office was at the corner of Stockton and Market before he built his own six story medical building at the corner of Market and Van Ness.

Reader Feedback – Nightingales in New Zealand.  I am a direct descendant of William and Eleanor Nightingale. I am trying to figure out why my Nana (as well as aunts & great aunts) were named Florence Nightingale. I can find no direct or extended family connection.

Paula Fletcher (

Nightingale Names

  • Joseph Nightingale was a wealthy New England merchant in Providence in the late 18th century.
  • Florence Nightingale was the nursing superintendent at British military hospitals in the Crimean War and by her efforts became known as “the lady with the lamp.”
  • Earl Nightingale from Los Angeles was an American inspirational speaker on radio best known for his 1956 work The Strangest Secret. 
  • Annie Nightingale was the first female presenter on BBC Radio 1 and at the age of eighty was its longest-serving presenter.

Nightingale Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous in Derbyshire)
  • 2,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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Written by Colin Shelley

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