Phillips Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Phillips Surname Meaning

Phillips is patronymic, from the personal name Philip (from the Greek Philipos, a lover of horses). This name was popular probably because there were a number of early saints called Philip. The Philip name came to England from France probably sometime in the 12th century.  A variant is Phelps. 

The surname is not only English and Welsh, but also – as Philips – Dutch, Flemish, and north German as well. The numbers here are not large, just 3,000 in Flemish Belgium today and fewer elsewhere.  Anton and Gerard Philips were the Dutch industrialists who co-founded the electronics giant Philips in 1891.

Some Phillips are Jewish. An early example was Jonas Phillips who had arrived in America from Germany in 1756.  A more recent example is the British journalist Melanie Phillips.

Phillips Surname Resources on The Internet

Phillips and Philips Surname Ancestry

  • from Wales (Pembrokeshire), Western England, Germany and from Jewish emigrants
  • to Ireland, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Wales.  Philip arrived as a personal name in Wales in the 14th century, initially as Ffylib or Phelip. Ffylib ap Jevan in Pembrokeshire in the 12th century was also referred to as Jevan Phillips.

Pembrokeshire.  Phillips was taken as a surname by Sir Thomas Philipps who came to power and influence in Pembrokeshire in the early 1500’s under Henry VII.  Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the Philipps – from their base at Picton castle – were the most powerful family in Pembrokeshire, exercising tremendous political, social and economic influence over all aspects of local life.

The Phillips family of Trelewelyn in Pembrokeshire had assumed the Phillips name in the early 1600’s.  Thomas Phillips of this family was Sheriff of Pembrokeshire in 1667. Meanwhile Peregrine Phillips, a Puritan preacher, was known as “the apostle of Pembrokeshire” in the mid 1600’s.

A much later Phillips in Pembrokeshire was Nathaniel Phillips, born in 1730 the illegitimate son of a London sugar merchant.  He made his fortune with plantations in Jamaica and returned to acquire the Slebech Park estate near Haverfordwest in 1793.  Was he Welsh?  It is doubtful.  He was by many accounts a nasty piece of work.

Elsewhere. The Phillips name spread from Pembrokeshire elsewhere in south Wales.  The Phillips families of Treygbi in Cardiganshire and of Cwmgwili in Carmarthenshire are both believed to be related to the Picton family.  Grismond Philipps inherited Cwmgwili in 1713 and his family were a leading force in Carmarthenshire throughout the 18th century.

England. Phillips in England was to be found from an early time in the west country and later in London.

West Country.  The main numbers here have been in Cornwall.  There were Phillip and Phillips records in Redruth dating back to the 1570’s.  Francis Phillips was born in Breage around 1600.  One family line began with the marriage of John and Margaret Phillips in Phillack in 1692; another with the marriage of William and Elizabeth Phillips in Illogan around 1775.

Some Phillips may have derived from like-sounding surnames such as Phelps and Phelips also found in the west country.  The Phelps of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire date from about 1500 and sometimes became Phillips.  The Phelips of Montacute in Somerset were nationally important in the early 1600’s.

London.  There were two Phillips literary brothers in London in the 1600’s who were friends and associates of the poet John Milton. And one Phillips London line began with the birth of Thomas Phillips in Southwark around 1720. His son William Phillips had three wives and a mistress and died a wealthy man.  Harry Phillips meanwhile founded the Phillips auction house in London in 1796.

Gordon Phillips started a cigar manufacturing company in London in 1844 which, after his death in 1900, was continued by his five sons.  They focused on cigarette manufacturing.  Godfrey Phillips Ltd moved to India in 1936 and the company remained family-controlled until its sale to Phillip Morris in 1968.

Some Phillips in London were German and some Jewish:

  • Jacob Phillip arrived from Frankfurt in Germany in the early 1700’s. His son Arthur made his name in the British navy and undertook the responsibility for the first convict shipments to Australia on the First Fleet in 1788. He was Governor of the colony until 1792.
  • while Phineas Phillips, a merchant from Prussia, settled here around  1775.  He was the progenitor of the Jewish Phillips family in London.

Scotland. Phillips travelled to Scotland also, initially as Philp.

Sir James Philp was curate at Abdie in Fife in the late 1400’s. Robert Philp married Margaret Allan in Crail, Fife in 1676.  The name has in fact been most evident in Fife, particularly around Dunfermline.  But there are now larger Phillips numbers today in the Glasgow area.

Ireland. There were Welsh Phillips who were granted land in the vicinity of Bandon, Cork in the early 1600’s. Later the Phillips name cropped up in the Cork parishes of Ballymoney and Kinneagh.

Thomas Phillips (originally Phelps), a Cromwellian soldier from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, was granted land in Tipperary in the 1660’s and his family later made their home at Mount Phillips. Turn the clock forward two centuries and Francis Phillips of Cashel, Tipperary was first a poet and then a Sinn Fein activist in the early 1900’s.

America. There were numerous early Phillips in New England.

New England.  One of the prominent early Puritans in New England was the Rev. George Phillips.  He arrived in 1630 from Norfolk and was the Congregational minister in Watertown.  His descendants numbered in the thousands and many might be considered part of what became known as the Boston Brahmins.  They included:

  • Samuel Phillips who was the first pastor of the South Church in Andover, Massachusetts in 1710.
  • Samuel Phillips Jr. who founded the Phillips Academy in Andover in 1778.
  • John Phillips who founded the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1781.
  • and Wendell Phillips, a formidable orator, who was a leading abolitionist advocate in the 1840’s.

William Phillips from Norfolk was one of the first settlers in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1637. He was killed by Indians in 1671. But his line continued, first in Rhode Island and then in upstate New York. As Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, they later moved north and made their home in Fredericksburg, Ontario.

Other early Phillips arrivals were:

  • Nicholas Phillips and his family from Buckinghamshire into Weymouth, Massachusetts around 1639
  • and Michael Phillips from Sussex into Newport, Rhode Island sometime in the 1640’s.

Maryland.  John Phillips from Cornwall acquired land in Dorchester county in 1674.  Later Phillips here moved onto Kentucky and Indiana.  Reuben Phillips, born in Cecil county in 1720, migrated with his family first to North Carolina in 1769 and then to Georgia in 1786.

Henry Phillips from Devon married Martha Whipple of Frederick county around the year 1656.  One line of this family is thought to have led to Daniel Phillips who was born in Pennsylvania in 1818.  By the 1870’s Daniel had moved west to Nebraska, which was where his grandson, the oilman Frank Phillips, was born.

Pennsylvania.  George Phillips, a Quaker of probable Welsh origin, came to Bucks county, Pennsylvania in 1713. His descendants ended up in Indiana.  A later arrival was the Rev. David Phillips from Pembrokeshire in 1755. He came with his three younger brothers and took the well-trodden Welsh route to Chester county, Pennsylvania.

Some of the Phillips there were German or Jewish from Germany.  Casper Phillips arrived from Germany sometime in the 1740’s and settled in Berks county.  Later Phillips moved to Ohio.  The Jewish Jonas Phillips made his home in Philadelphia where he was a merchant and a patriot  during the Revolutionary War.  Among his progeny in the early 1800’a were businessmen, financiers and a playwright.

Canada.  John and Anne Phillips from New England moved to Quebec in the 1760’s following their son John who had fought there against the French.  John’s son William became a flour merchant in Quebec. Some of his descendants headed west in the late 1800’s, crossing the border into Minnesota. Wendell Phillips departed for New Zealand in 1919.

John Phillips, a descendant of William Phillips of Taunton, was a Loyalist who decamped to Canada in 1777 after his farm in New York state had been seized. He and his family came initially to Missisquoi Bay before settling in Hastings county, Ontario. Another Loyalist, Matthew Phillips from New Jersey, emigrated to New Brunswick in 1783.  His descendants settled in Sunbury county.

Australia. Samuel Phillips from Oxfordshire was an early settler in Western Australia, arriving there in 1839 and over time becoming known as the “Squire” of the Toodyay valley. His Culham home is still held by descendants.  Meanwhile John Phillips from Bristol arrived in Sydney around 1850, married there, and was an early settler in Brisbane, Queensland.

New Zealand.  The Jewish Philip Philips from Brighton emigrated to New Zealand in 1848.   He was from 1871 to 1874 the first mayor of Auckland, before acting as its town clerk for twenty-seven years.  Also arriving in Auckland, in stages in the early 1860’s, were various Phillips families from Lincolnshire.  They cleared land in Dome Valley to the north of Auckland to farm.

Phillips Surname Miscellany

Sir Thomas Philipps of Picton Castle.  Sir Thomas Philipps was the forebear of the powerful Philipps family of Picton Castle which held sway over Pembrokeshire during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

His grandfather was said to have been Meredith Philipps of Clisant, his father Phillip Philipps.  This Cilsant family which had extensive lands in West Carmarthenshire was descended from a late 11th century lord of Blaen Cych named Cadifor Fawr. Cadifor’s great grandson Aaron ap Rhys took part in the Third Crusade and became a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher.  He is said to have added the golden collar and chain to the back of the lion rampart insignia of the Philipps family.

However, other records have suggested different ancestors.  Instead these Philipps may have come from Kent and migrated west to Somerset by the 1460’s.

Thomas Philipp was born around 1465 and in 1491 married Joan Owen, heiress of the Wogan line, and thereby inherited Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire.  He rose to power and influence under Henry VII.  He was knighted in 1513 and became Sheriff of Pembrokeshire in 1516.

The Phillips Name in England.  According to Charles Bardsley’s 1901 book Directory of English and Welsh Surnames,  Philip was first seen in France, being a name born by five kings of France, and was brought from France to England sometime in the 12th century.  Henry Phelipe, noted in the 1273 hundred rolls of Norfolk, was one of the earliest recorded bearers of the surname in England with a “Ph” spelling.

For patriotic reasons, because of the rivalry with Spain, Philip ceased to be a popular given name in England at the time of Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada.

Early Phillips in Redruth

Year Event Name Comments
1575 Birth Agnes Philipp daughter of Thomas Philipp
1615 Marriage Michel Philipp married to Katerine Robins
1617 Birth John Philipp son of Michel Philipp
1623 Birth Julian Philip son of Joan Philip
1623 Birth Elizabeth Philip daughter of William Philip
1623 Marriage Jane Philip

The first spelling as Phillips did not appear until 1658.

William Phillips – Three Wives, One Mistress, and A Dog.  His father Thomas Phillips claimed an exotic heritage, the son of a Gaelic chieftain who had died at Culloden – a tall story indeed.  He prospered as a gin distiller and pub owner in London.  William the eldest son, born in Southwark in 1752, built upon this family inheritance through some shrewd property investments.  He died a rich man.

William had three wives and at least one mistress.  He married his first wife Frances at St. Marylebone in 1777.  They had three children, the last of them being born in 1781.  Somewhere along the line he acquired a mistress, either while his first wife was still alive or as a widower.  They had a son named John, born in 1785.  In 1797 William married again to Elizabeth, a widow, but this marriage proved short-lived as she died within the year.

William remained unmarried until 1815 when he wed Mary Jane Abbiss, the daughter of a rich widow.  This widow had died two years earlier, in which she named her brother and William Phillips as guardians of her two children – including Mary Jane who was just fifteen when the will was written.  Could she ever have imagined that Mary Jane would have ended up marrying her whose own children were ten to fifteen years older than Mary Jane.  She gave him two children.  And he was in his sixties then!

A story often told about William was his rescue by a dog when he was about to drown.  One account went as follows:

“While bathing at Portsmouth Mr. William Phillips ventured out too far and was in imminent peril.  Two boatmen, instead of starting off to assist him, selfishly strove to make a hard bargain with some of the bystanders who were urging them. While the parley was going on, a Newfoundland dog – seeing the danger – plunged into the water and saved the struggling swimmer.

It is pleasantly told that Mr. Phillips, in gratitude for his deliverance, bought the dog from his owner and thereafter gave an annual festival at which the dog was assigned the place of honor with a good ration of beefsteaks. He had a picture of the dog painted by Morland and engraved by Bartolozzi and the image of the dog put on all his table linen.”

Rev. George Phillips, son of Christopher Phillips.  The Norfolk family of Christopher Phillips is steeped in the lore of the founding of America.

His son Thomas is found on the list of people who were to sail on the Mayflower in 1620.  Thomas, for some reason, did not make the journey, and stayed the rest of his life in England.

Two other sons, John and George, made the passage ten years after the Mayflower on ships of the Winthrop Fleet.  Son William came to America, though apparently not on the Winthrop ships but by some other similar means, and raised his family and died in New England.

Phillips Farmers in Pennsylvania and Indiana.  The Quaker George Phillips from Cheshire in England was an early arrival in Pennsylvania, disembarking on the Delaware river from the Endeavor of London in early 1683.

By 1700 he had made his home near the Welsh Quaker settlement of Gwynedd. He and his wife Patience later moved to Richland in Bucks county where they were among the area’s earliest settlers.

These Phillips were farmers and over time migrated westward.  They moved to Stokes county, North Carolina around 1790 and then in the 1820’s to Indiana – first to Wayne county and later to the rolling pastures of Hendricks county in central Indiana.

Jonas Phillips and His Offspring.  Jonas Phillips, the son of Aaron Phillips, was said to have been born in Frankfort, Germany in 1736.

At the age of twenty, he was on a ship to America, first to the Jewish community in Charleston, South Carolina and later to Philadelphia where he was a merchant and fought on the patriot side in the Revolutionary War.  He died in Philadelphia in 1803.

Many of his offspring were to distinguish themselves in 19th century America:

  • from his oldest son Naphtali came Isaac Phillips, an influential member of the New York Chamber of Commerce.
  • from his next son Benjamin came the playwright Jonas B. Phillips.
  • and from his youngest son Zalegman came the financier and Congressman Henry Mayer Phillips.  His nephew Henry Phillips Jr. was an expert on American currency.

Frank Phillips’ Humble Beginnings.  Ohio born, Lew Phillips was the son of Daniel and Marilla Phillips.  About 1856 the Phillips family relocated to Des Moines, Iowa where Daniel farmed and Marilla was a local schoolteacher.

Lew fought in the Civil War and returned home to marry and farm himself.  He and his wife Lucinda raised ten children.  In 1871 the Phillips relocated to Nebraska, seeking opportunities under the Homestead Act.  They helped found the town of Scotia which was where their son Frank was born in 1873.  But a plague of grasshoppers there drove them away to Iowa just two years later.

Frank Phillips began in Iowa as an apprentice barber.  However, when he heard about the oil boom in Oklahoma in 1903 he rushed there to check it out.  In Bartlesville he started up a small oil company which grew to be the Phillips Petroleum Company in 1917.

Frank Phillips retired from the company, still based in Bartlesville but a major oil company, in 1949.  Some employees, for years later, would still say when picking up a tab at a restaurant: “Let Uncle Frank pay.”

Phillips Names

  • Sir Thomas Philipps was the forebear of the powerful Philipps family which held Picton castle in Pemrokeshire from the early 16th century.
  • Anton and Gerard Philips co-founded the Dutch electronics company Philips in 1891.
  • Henry Phillips founded the American Screw Company in 1934 and was the man after whom the Phillips screwdriver was named.
  • William Phillips was the English economist after whom the term Phillips curve was named.
  • Frank Phillips, the oilman, founded the Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1917.

Phillips Numbers Today

  • 122,000 in the UK (most numerous in Essex)
  • 134,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 77,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Phillips 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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