Norton Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Norton Surname Meaning

The surname Norton comes from the place-name Norton (from nor meaning “north” plus tun “farm” or “settlement”), of which there have been many in England. Similar type English place-names and surnames are Sutton, Easton, and Weston.

In the 1086 Domesday Book the Norton place-name could be found as far apart as Runcorn in Cheshire, Doncaster in south Yorkshire, as well as Northamptonshire and Suffolk further south. Modern-day examples of the name are Midsomer Norton, Chipping Norton, and Brize Norton. An early example of the surname was Osuuardus de Nordtone of Kentalso recorded in the Domesday Book.

In Ireland and Scotland Naughton or MacNaughton could become Norton.

Norton Surname Resources on The Internet

Norton and Naughton Surname Ancestry

  • from England (southeast and Yorkshire), Ireland (Connacht) and Scotland (Argyll)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England. The Norton family of Sharpenhoe in Bedfordshire was one early Norton line, beginning with le Seugneur de Norville in the 12th century. Norville became Norton sometime in the 13th century. Thomas Norton of Sharpenhoe prospered as a grocer in London in Tudor times and his son Thomas made a name for himself as a poet and as a persecutor of Catholics.

From this family, it was thought, came the Nortons of York. The male line there was originally Coigners. When Roger Conyers married the Norton heiress around the year 1300, the family adopted the Norton name. Richard Norton and many of his kinfolk were involved in the Catholic Rising of the North in 1569 and had their estates attainted as a consequence. Still, the line did continue to Sir Fletcher Norton of Grantley who became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1769.

“Sir Fletcher Norton ended his time as Speaker with a dubious reputation. He was derided by satirists as Sir Bullface Doublefee and described by Horace Walpole as one ‘who rose from obscure infamy to that infamous fame which will long stick to him.'”  

Another early Norton family traced its ancestry back to East Tisted in Hampshire in 1308. During the course of the 16th century they became one of the leading families of Hampshire. Colonel Richard Norton was a Parliamentary officer of some distinction in the Civil War. He survived the Restoration. However, his line ended with the next generation.

Meanwhile John Norton was the first of the Nortons of Sheldwich in Kent, inheriting the Lees-court estate there through marriage in the 1450’s. Sir John Norton of this family was sheriff of Kent in 1513 and again in 1522.

Robert de Norton was Sheriff of Norfolk in 1269.

And there were some early Nortons also in the west country. The spelling in Somerset was Nourton or Nurton in the 15th century but became Norton a century later. William Norton was a churchwarden at Ilminster in 1543; while a Norton family of tanners lived nearby at Broadway and White Lackington around this time. Subsequent Nortons were embroiled in a Norton family dispute which impoverished the family.

The later distribution of the Norton name reflected to some extent this earlier incidence. Yorkshire was one concentration, London and the southeast another. There was also a number of Nortons in Norfolk and Lincolnshire.

Ireland. The Gaelic O’Neachtain was most commonly anglicized as Naughton but sometimes as Norton. In early times the O’Neachtains were recognized as the hereditary door-keepers of the kings of Connacht and the chief commanders of the cavalry of Ui Maine.

They were displaced at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion and they then settled in the Athlone region of Roscommon. They remained a clan until the English incursions during the reign of Elizabeth. Many lost their lands at the time of Cromwell.

Nortons elsewhere in Ireland were often of Scottish origin.

Scotland.  The Naughton/Norton name also appeared on the west coast of Scotland in what is now Argyllshire. Naughton here came from the Pictish name Nechtan.

The MacNaughton name appeared in Lochowe as early as the 12th century. The MacNaughtons of Dunderawe were a pro-Royalist family at the time of the Civil War. But John MacNaughton, who was born in the region in 1760, became John Norton. And the family thereafter were Nortons.

America. Nortons from England came mainly to New England and some to Virginia and elsewhere. America also had Irish Nortons and even some Jewish Nortons.

New England had a number of early Norton arrivals:

  • George Norton who came to Salem in 1629 and died thirty years later in Wenham. He was by trade a carpenter and later in his life an inn-keeper.
  • two brothers, the Revs. John and William, who arrived from Bedfordshire and settled in Ipswich around the year 1632. They were followed by their uncle Thomas some six years later. He made his home in Guilford, Connecticut. There were several other Norton relatives who settled elsewhere in Connecticut.
  • while Nicholas Norton arrived from Somerset around the year 1640, settling first in Weymouth and moving to Edgarstown on Martha’s Vineyard some twenty years later. He lived onto 1690. His progeny were prolific. In 1790, one hundred years later, it was said that 174 of the 1,350 inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard were Nortons.

The Bedfordshire line of Nortons in America (with antecedents in England) was first presented in Charles Eliot Norton’s 1863 account The Genealogy of the Norton Family. The main descent in America was via the Rev. William Norton. From his line came the 19th century Unitarian preacher Andrews Norton, a trenchant opposer of Emerson’s trancendentalism, and Charles Eliot Norton, his son the writer.

It is thought that Hiram Norton’s family originated from Connecticut. They were Loyalists who took refuge in Canada during the Revolutionary War. Hiram started a stage coach service between Montreal and Toronto in the 1830’s. He later left Canada and settled in Lockport, Illinois where he oversaw an extensive canal operation for grain and ran a large water-powered flour mill. He became by the 1860’s one of the wealthiest people in northern Illinois.

Elsewhere.  The Nortons of Fluvanna in Virginia started with Christopher Norton, a British naval officer who came to Virginia in the 1730’s and later retired there. His grandchildren all fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War. After the War, two of these grandchildren settled in Kentucky:

  • one line from there led to Nimrod Norton who moved to Missouri and later to Texas. He was a Confederate officer during the Civil War.
  • from another Kentucky line came David Norton who became a Mormon and headed to Salt Lake in 1847 on the first pioneer wagon there.

Thomas Norton was a 27 year old watchmaker who left London for Philadelphia on the Amelia in 1774. A descendant is the actor Edward Norton.

John Norton had arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 1800’s from Ireland. His sons James and Matthew worked on the railroad in Canada where they met the Laird brothers and learnt the lumber trade. But it was in Winoma, Minnesota where they started the Laird Norton company in the 1850’s. That company, in its seventh generation of family ownership, is now spread over the American West.

James was James Naughton in Roscommon in 1834 and James Norton there in 1839. He and his wife emigrated first to New York and then to Illinois in the late 1840’s. Michael Norton, born in Roscommon, came to New York as a child round this time. He became a New York state senator in the 1870’s.

Jewish.  Norton can be a Jewish name. The most famous bearer of the name was undoubtedly Joshua Norton who was born in London, emigrated with his parents to South Africa in 1820, and then arrived in San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush. There he remained, the celebrated Emperor Norton who died poor but famous.

Canada. Richard Norton from London came out as a young man to Canada in 1714 under the auspices of the Hudson Bay Company. His son Moses, thought to have been a mixed-blood son of his father and a native woman, was also a factor in the company’s employ. Moses’s only known descendant was a daughter named Polly, also born to a native woman.

Australia. Australia also had a prominent Norton father/son but from a later time. John Norton arrived from London in 1884 and made his name in newspapers, acquiring The Truth in Sydney in 1896. He was a hugely controversial owner, often drunk and abusive at work, but highly successful. He disinherited his only son Ezra. But after his death in 1916, Ezra managed to gain control of The Truth. He too was a successful and combative newspaper man before selling the paper in 1958.

Graham Norton’s Family Ancestry

Graham Norton. the popular UK chat show host, was in fact born Graham Walker in Ireland.  And he has Protestant roots in Ireland, going back to the early 1700’s.  Just click below if you want to read more about this story:

Norton Surname Miscellany

From Norville to Norton.  The Norton line was said to have begun with Norville who came over with William the Conqueror in 1066 and was a sheriff or tax collector.  A document of his pedigree from Charles Eliot Norton’s work was published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1859.  The article began:

“The genealogy of the Nortons of Sharpenhoe in Bedfordshire began with the Noruile that married into the house of Valois and came into England with William the Conqueror and was his Constable.  His posterity, a long time after, assumed the English name of Norton, being the same in signification that Noruile is in French.”

Seigneur de Norville who lived in the 12th century was said to have been the sixth in descent from the earlier Norville.  The line from him went as follows:

  • Sr. de Norville who married the daughter of Sir John Hardscoke
  • Sr. John Norton (Norville) who married Anna, the daughter of Lord Grey of Ruthen
  • John Norton who made his home in Sharpenhoe, Bedfordshire
  • John Norton of Sharpenhoe who married Jane, daughter of John Cowper, as his second wife
  • Richard Norton of Sharpenhoe who married Margery Wingar
  • and Margaret Norton who married Roger Conyers.

However, this Margaret Norton may not have been of the Sharpenhoe line.  There may have been another Norville-Norton line, this one the descendants of a Norville who had been sent by William the Conqueror to put down a rebellion in Durham. These Nortons became landowners in Yorkshire.

The Nortons and the Rising of the North.  When Queen Elizabeth executed two of the Norton family after the failure of the Rising of the North in 1569 in which the Catholic Nortons were implicated, it forced a division of the family into two factions – those loyal to the Queen and those who sought to replace the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Protestant ruler with a Catholic and legitimate heir to the throne of England.

The family that stayed loyal to Queen Elizabeth rose to high political office during the American Revolution, culminating in Fletcher Norton, the Speaker of the House of Commons who was made Lord Grantley, Baron Markensfield. His brother William had been a commander of British ships in the West Indies during the Seven Years War and was subsequently appointed Captain of the King’s Yacht.

The family that fell to the Queen’s displeasure fled to Spanish Flanders and was supported by the King and Queen of Spain while plans were made to secure a legitimate heir to the throne of England (culminating in the failed Spanish Armada). Other families in Yorkshire emigrated to the American colonies.

A Norton Family Dispute in Somerset.  Robert Norton, a prosperous mill-owner in Wells, died in 1590 and his will was executed by nephew William. But so controversial was his handling of the will that Robert’s widow Joan and their children filed chancery suit against him.  The case dragged on for twenty two years to the ruin of the estate.

The Star Chamber Proceedings reported as follows:

“The son John sickened and died with great grief and anguish of leaving behind him a poor widow and eight children in 1616 whereof your subject is the eldest, but not one penny towards their relief and maintenance other than the hopes of the said decree, by means of whose death his wife and children have not only lost a careful provider for them but also the possibility of an estate which the said Nicholas had, after the said William the executor, worth at least 200 marks.”

This Nicholas Norton was the father of another Nicholas who emigrated to America in 1640 and settled in Martha’s Vineyard.

George Norton’s Misbehavior.  George Norton moved to Wenham, Massachusetts in 1646 and kept a tavern there.  The church authorities did not approve.  The misbehavior of George Norton was the principal matter of church business at Wenham during 1648 and 1649.

In 1649 he was presented at Salem court for “lying and subborning witnesses to scandalize the church of Wenham” and was required to pay 20s. for two lies.  He was also to confess before the assembly met at Wenham in the meeting house as follows:

“I do confess and acknowledge that I have sinfully endeavored to justify myself and my turbulent and factious agitations against the just and orderly proceedings of the church against me for my sin in that I have incessantly labored out of the pride of my heart to gather up witnesses of all sorts to testify against the dealing of the church with me seeking thereby to lay a scandal upon the church which cannot but greatly tend to the dishonor of God and the reproach of religion.”

Refusing to make this confession, he should sit one hour in the stocks.

Christopher Norton, A British Naval Officer in Virginia.  Christopher Norton (sometimes called Norden) went to sea in the 1720’s at the age of twelve and was forty years on the sea.

There was a family account of him chasing a pirate ship for five years and finally catching up with it in heavy fog.  These pirates had two ships, a small one which he sank and a larger one which his men boarded and after a long struggle overpowered. Unfortunately most of the pirate treasure was on the small vessel.  But Norton and his men took the money that was on the large vessel and divided it amongst themselves.

Christopher later retired and settled in Virginia. His son John, born there in 1738, gave five sons to the Continental army. One of these died on an English prison ship in Charleston harbor; another was a sergeant in Washington’s bodyguard who was present at the surrender of Cornwallis and afterward was a field officer in the Indian campaign in the Northwest.  Following the war, two of these sons settled in South Carolina and two with their father near Lexington in Kentucky. 

Emperor Norton.  In 1849 Joseph Norton was lured, as were thousand others, to San Francisco by Gold Rush fever.  He found no gold.  Indeed by 1856 he was bankrupt.  Three years later this eccentric man had a second incarnation. He posted the following message in the San Francisco Bulletin:

“At the pre-emptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of these United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.”

Norton I, Emperor of the United States.”

The legend began and his fame, fanned by subsequent news releases in the Bulletin, spread.  People loved him, politicians courted him, restaurant owners claimed him as a patron, and he could ride free on all of the city’s ferries and streetcars.

In 1867 a policeman made the mistake of arresting Norton for vagrancy.  The desk sergeant pointed out that Norton had $4.75 and a key to his room at the Eureka Lodgings in his pockets. To save face, Norton was charged with lunacy instead. Of course that charge did not stick and he was released with an apology.  From then all police officers would salute Norton when he passed them on the street.

In reality Emperor Norton lived a life of relative poverty.  On one rainy evening in 1880 he slumped on the streets and died. The next morning the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle screamed: “Le Roi Est Mort.”  It was estimated that 10,000 people came to see Emperor Norton lying in state at the morgue.

Norton Names

  • Thomas Norton was a prominent anti-Catholic Puritan, known in the 1570’s as the Rackmaster General.
  • Joseph Norton, known as Emperor Norton, was an eccentric self-publicizer who became famous in San Francisco in the latter part of the 19th century.   
  • James (Pa) Norton was a pioneer of the British motorcycle industry with his Norton bike which was first produced in 1902.   
  • William Norton, the son of a Dublin tram driver, was the leader of the Irish Labor Party from 1932 to 1960. 
  • Graham Norton, born Graham Walker, is a popular Irish-born TV chat-show host in Britain.

Norton Numbers Today

  • 17,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 24,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 12,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Norton and Like Surnames

The Anglo-Saxon word tun meaning “settlement” gave rise to many place-names with the suffix “-ton.”  And the place-name could become a surname describing someone who came from that place.  Sometimes the name was specific to just one location; but often the place-name could be found in various places and the surname would also crop up in a number of locations.  These are some of these place-name surnames that you can check out here.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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