Phelps Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Phelps Surname Meaning

Phelps is generally seen as a variant of Phillips, found in southwestern England. Phillips itself is patronymic, the son of Philip (from the Greek Philipos, a lover of horses). The Phillip name was popular probably because there were a number of early saints named Philip.

Some have suggested that the Phelps surname derived from Guelph, a family of princely rank in Italy, but this seems unlikely.

Phelps Surname Resources on The Internet

Phelps Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England
  • to America and Australia

England. Phillip patronymic names were common in medieval England from the 13th century in a variety of spellings. Phelps originated from this number in the west country. But it was not really until the 16th century that Phelps was being found in records.

Among these recorded Phelps in Gloucestershire were:

  • James Phelps, said to be from Staffordshire, who made his home in Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire in the 1560’s. His son William served as bailiff of Tewkesbury in 1607.
  • Thomas Phelps who died in Dursley in 1647. A later Thomas Phelps, a clothier, started the Phelps mill in Dursley in the early 1700’s. The last of these Phelps mill-owners, William Phelps, exited in the 1790’s as the business turned uneconomic.
  • the Phelps who were sheriffs of Gloucester in the late 1600’s and whose name increasingly appeared in town records in the 1700’s.
  • and Thomas and Mary Phelps who lived at Barbers Bridge Farm near Tibberton in the early 1800’s.  Phelps are still in the area today.

There were also Phelps in Porlock, Somerset from the 1600’s, including Richard Phelps the portrait painter. John Phelps the regicide was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1619; and Richard Phelps the bell-maker was born in Avebury, Wiltshire in 1670.

Wales.  Phillips is the usual Welsh spelling. The Phillips name was particularly strong in Pembrokeshire where they were a leading family. But some Phelps did cross the Severn. They were to be found in the early 19th century in Glamorgan and further west in Pembrokeshire.

Ireland.  Thomas Phelps fought with Cromwell in Ireland and settled in Limerick. He was an early Quaker who was repeatedly harassed for his beliefs. Later Phelps established themselves at Clonlara in county Clare where they remained until 1914.

America.  Phelps in America outnumber those in England by about three to one today.

New England. The first arrival was William Phelps, a Puritan settler in New England, who came in 1630 and was one of the founders of Dorchester, Massachusetts and then of Windsor, Connecticut. He is thought to have come from Crewkerne in Somerset and not from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, as posited in Oliver Phelps’ 1899 book The Phelps Family in America.

From this Phelps line in Simsbury, Connecticut came Noah Phelps, a captain in the Revolutionary War and a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The Phelps house and tavern in Simsbury was owned by five generations of this family for nearly two hundred years. Some notable Phelps born in Simsbury were:

  • Anson Phelps, the co-founder of the Phelps Dodge mining company
  • John Jay Phelps, an early railroad baron and financier
  • and John Smith Phelps, Governor of Missouri.

James Phelps migrated from Simsbury to Ohio in the early 1800’s.  His descendant Fred Phelps moved to West Virginia in the early 1900’s and worked there as a coalmining superintendant.  Later Phelps settled in Maryland – which was where Michael Phelps, the swimmer who holds the all-time record for Olympic gold medals, was born in 1985.

Elsewhere.  Thomas Phelps was a Bristol sea captain who died in Anne Arundel county, Maryland in 1674. However, the main Phelps line in that county seems to have started with a Walter Phelps from Somerset who had arrived there around that time. Some of these Phelps later migrated to North Carolina and Kentucky.  This line was covered in Nancy Roy’s 1960 book The Phelps Family of Virginia and Kentucky.

Nicholas Phelps, a Revolutionary War veteran from Virginia, was a pioneer in Kentucky, arriving there in the 1780’s and settling, despite Indian attacks, in what is now Butler county.  Several Phelps names in fact appear on the pioneer monument at Fort Boonesboro, Kentucky.

Australia. A Phelps family from Tewkesbury migrated to Ledbury across in Herefordshire and their son Robert Phelps embarked for Australia in the early 1850’s. He married Eliza Puzey in Dunolly, Victoria and they raised thirteen children there.

Phelps Surname Miscellany

Phelps Origins.  From the time of Edward 1, when Phelyp, Phelip, Phelips, Philip, and Phelipee were recorded, to Eizabethan times when Phelps was first mentioned, there were many ways used in spelling the name.  The following is one account of the Phelps origins:

“In the burying-ground beside the old Tewkesbury Abbey Church in Gloucestershire, founded by the Mercian princes, Dukes Odo and Dodo, two noble Saxon brothers who flourished at the commencement of the 8th century, lie interred some of the Phelps ancestors; others lie in the cemetery of Dursley in Gloucestershire; in Porlock in Somerset; in Staffordshire and in almost all of the shires of old England.”

Phelps in the 1881 Census

County Numbers Percent
Gloucestershire     740    25
Somerset     200     7
Glamorgan     170     6
Wiltshire     130     4
London     380    13
Elsewhere   1,350    45
Total   2,970   100

The largest numbers of Phelps in Gloucestershire were in Westbury, Cheltenham, Bisley and Gloucester.

Phelps at Porlock.  Phelps at Porlock in Somerset seem to date from the early 1600’s.  The death of Henry Phelps, yeoman, was recorded in 1637.   Richard Phelps the portrait painter lived from 1718 to 1785.  Abraham Phelps, a Porlock tanner, died in 1795.  And Henry Phelps was a landowner and surgeon in Porlock in the early 1800’s.

It was at Porlock in the mid 1800’s that a Mr. Phelps, a contemporary of the sporting parson Jack Russell, started the foxhounds which became famous as the “stars of the West.”  His kennels occupied the site of the Bridge House on Parson Street.  He showed wonderful sport with his pack, direct ancestors of the Exmoor foxhounds whose kennels were at Oare.

William Phelps, Early New England Settler.  William Phelps – with his wife Elizabeth, six children and brother George – came to America on the Mary and John in 1630 and made their home in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  His wife Elizabeth died there in 1635 and his eldest son Richard, aged then seventeen, departed for Barbados.

The next year William left for Windsor, Connecticut with his remaining children, becoming a founder of that town.  He married again.  It was said that he purchased his land from the Indians for the price of four overcoats.  However, not being able to prove title and payment, he had to pay a second time, the legal tender being wampum.  The site of his home was not too far away from Deacon Roger Phelps’ house in Windsor in the mid 19th century.

William Phelps was a man of property, as shown by the high pew rent that he paid.  He subscribed also to the fund for the poor.  Forty-two years of his life were spent in the New England of the New World; six in Dorchester, and thirty six in Windsor.  He died in Windsor in his 73rd year, on July 14, 1672, and was buried the following day.

The Phelps Home and Tavern in Simsbury, Connecticut.  The Phelps house and tavern in Simsbury served as a family home, canal hotel, lodge meeting site, entertainment hall, and local tavern.  From 1786 until 1849, three generations of fathers and sons, and one widow, served as tavern-keepers.

Built for Elisha Phelps in 1771, the house may have included part of an earlier dwelling constructed by 1761. The building was a family residence until Noah Phelps, Elisha Phelps’ brother, acquired the first tavern license in 1786.   His son Noah ran the tavern from around 1805 until his death in 1817.  His widow Charlotte operated the tavern for a while until her son Jeffery purchased the property in 1820.  Jeffery Phelps ran the tavern for 29 years, closing the business in 1849 to devote himself to agriculture and other interests.

The building was remodeled in 1879 and 1915 by resident family members and remained a family home until it was given to the Simsbury Historical Society in 1962.

The Memorial to John Phelps.  In 1881 US President James Garfield named William Walter Phelps as his minister to Austria-Hungary.  He held this post for only a few months, resigning after Garfield was assassinated. It was apparently while serving there that William W. Phelps traveled to Vevey, Switzerland, where he and Charles A. Phelps, M.D. of Massachusetts, commissioned a memorial to their ancestor John Phelps.

In August 1660, following the Restoration of Charles II,  a special court was appointed for those who had directly participated in the trial and execution of King Charles I eleven years previously.  Those regicides who were still alive and living in Britain were to be brought to trial. Phelps was among those sought for prosecution.

Phelps’ penalty, should he be arrested, was to be “drawn upon sledges with ropes about his neck.”  He fled instead to Vevey in Switzerland.

Michael Phelps’ Start in Life.  Both Michael’s parents came from small townships in Allegany county, Maryland – Michael Sr. from Luke (where his father John was a chemical engineer at the local sawmill) and Debbie at nearby Westernport.  They attended the same high school and were childhood sweethearts.  Michael Sr. was a Maryland state trooper, his wife a high school principal.  They divorced in 1994.

Michael began swimming at the age of seven.  He said: “The only reason I ever got in the water was my mom wanted me to just learn how to swim. My sisters and myself fell in love with the sport and we decided to swim.” When he was in the sixth grade, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  By the age of 10 he held a national record for his age group in the 100-meter butterfly.

Phelps Names

  • Richard Phelps was an 18th century English bell-maker. He made the Great Tom that is in the steeple of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
  • Anson Phelps was the co-founder in 1833 of the mining company Phelps Dodge.
  • Edmund Phelps was awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 2006 for his work on economic growth.
  • Michael Phelps is the American swimmer who won 23 gold medals, a record, in the Olympic Games of 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.

Phelps Numbers Today

  • 6,000 in the UK (most numerous in Gloucestershire)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in Kentucky)
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Phelps and Like Surnames

Many surnames originated from SW England, the principal counties there being Devon and Cornwall, Somerset and Gloucestershire.  These are some of the prominent and noteworthy surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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