Porter Surname Meaning, History & Origin
Porter is French in origin and is an occupational name. The word may have come from the old French portier. Here it would describe the gatekeeper of a town or the doorkeeper of a large house. The Milo Portarius who appeared in the Domesday Book of 1086 was the gatekeeper or porter of Winchester castle. The office could come with accommodation and even be hereditary.
Alternatively Porter could derive from the Old French porteour, meaning “to carry” or “convey.” This usage as a load bearer probably came in later. A porter here reflects the modern sense of one who carries loads for a living. It was, in medieval times, a well-organized trade. In York in 1495 it was written that “every porter must observe and keep their ordinances in every point or article,” or risk a heavy fine.
Porter may as well be an anglicized Jewish name, for example Sir Leslie Porter (from Pasamount) in England and Jack Nusan Porter (from Puchtik) in America.
England. There was a le Porter family recorded in Essex in the late 13th century.
Some two hundred years later, Porter as a surname was spread more widely – to Kent and Essex in the southeast, to Nottinghamshire in the Midlands, and to Gloucestershire and Cornwall in the southwest:
- a Porter family held Hall Place in Seal (near Sevenoaks) in Kent from 1448 to 1648 and the Porter name has continued in that area since that time.
- while Sir William Porter, sergeant-at-arms to Henry VII, came from Gloucestershire. His descendant Endymion Porter was a courtier and diplomat in the service of Charles I.
Later distribution of the Porter name showed two Porter concentrations, one in the southeast around London and the second further north in Lancashire and the northwest.
NW England. The Porters of Allerby in Cumberland may date from the 1400’s. This line perhaps died out by the early 1600’s. But there were Porters nearby at Weary Hall and later at Low Holme in Eskdale.
The Porter family of Bury in Lancashire can be traced back to the 1650’s. Liverpool trade directories of the early 1800’s list a number of Porters, including the alderman Thomas Colley Porter and the shipowner William Field Porter. John Merry Porter from Manchester was one of the developers of Colwyn Bay in north Wales as a seaside resort in the early 1900’s.
The Porter name in the 20th century was carried by Sir Leslie and Dame Shirley Porter of Tesco supermarket fame and by the fictional Jimmy Porter, the angry young man of John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger.
Ireland. Porter in Ireland appears mainly in Ulster and came from English plantation settlers in the 17th century.
They did not necessarily take the English side. There were five Porters among the Jacobites outlawed in Ireland following the final defeat of James II in 1691. The Rev. James Porter was a Presbyterian minister who was hanged in 1798 for his involvement in the Irish rebellion.
“Porter was a United Irishman who had published a series of letters under the title of Blind Bluff and Square Firebrand which had drawn the attention of the Government. He was tried on the false evidence of an informer and hanged at Greyabbey, county Down, within sight on his home and church.”
Alexander Porter of this family escaped to America in 1801. He was an early settler in Louisiana and became its senator in 1833.
There were, however, Porters who did take the English line. One such was John Porter, a Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, who came to Ireland in 1795 and became the Anglican bishop of Clogher. His family acquired the Belle Isle estate in county Longford in 1830. Son John Grey Vesey Porter was involved in a scandalous affair that came to light in a Dublin courtroom in 1870.
America. The early Porter arrivals were mainly into New England.
New England John Porter from Dorset arrived in 1635 with his wife Mary on the Susan & Ellen and settled in Salem, Massachusetts. He and his family prospered there, but at the expense of a feud with the Putnam family.
“The interfamily rivalry began in 1672 when a dam and sawmill run by the Porters flooded the Putnam farms. Seventeen years later, the arrival of the Rev. Samuel Parris intensified the conflict. It was Parris, backed by the Putnams, who initiated the witchcraft complaints and accusations.”
A later Porter of this family, Benjamin, moved to West Boxford in 1716 and became the wealthiest man there. His progeny included many distinguished doctors, lawyers, professors, and businessmen. Rufus Porter, who grew up in Maine, was the founder of Scientific American.
Richard Porter arrived in 1635 and settled in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Terry Porter-Fahey’s 2008 book The Richard Porter Family Genealogy described this family’s line.
John and Rose Porter came in 1637 and were one of the early settlers of Windsor, Connecticut:
- their son Samuel was a prosperous merchant, but their daughter Hannah was slain by Indians at her home in Hadley in 1677.
- later, Joshua Porter fought in the Revolutionary War and his son Peter Buell was a successful general in the War of 1812. Porters then migrated to Illinois, Texas, and Oklahoma.
There were two brothers, Robert and Thomas Porter, who settled in Farmington, Connecticut in 1640 and possibly a third brother, Dr. David Porter, who was the town’s physician. A line of notable physicians followed. This line also produced the Rev. Noah Porter who was the Congregational Minister of Farmington from 1806 to 1866:
- his son was Noah Porter, the academic and writer who was President of Yale University.
- and his daughter Sarah Porter, who founded Miss Porter’s School in Farmington in 1843 (which still flourishes).
John Porter was born in Westerly, Rhode Island in 1672. His line extended to Sanford Porter who migrated west with his family to Independence, Missouri in 1832. As a Mormon, he was to suffer persecution for the next fourteen years before departing, two months after Brigham Young did, to their new home in Salt Lake Valley.
Some Porters distinguished themselves at sea:
- there was a Porter family of eight brothers in Freeport, Maine who were all involved in the sea in some fashion. Two of these brothers, William and Samuel, had the fast-sailing schooner the Dash built to run the British seaborne blockade during the War of 1812. Porters Landing in Freeport was named after these Porters.
- then there was Commodore David Porter, a hero of this war because of his daring capture of a British warship. He was the father of Admiral David Dixon Porter and the adopted father of Admiral David Farragut, two of the leading naval officers of the Civil War.
Irish Porters. Many of the Porters who came to America originated from Ireland.
Robert Porter came from Derry in Ireland in 1730 and eventually settled in Montgomery county, Pennsylvania. His son Andrew distinguished himself during the Revolutionary War and was credited with helping to found the US Marines. He was the forebear of a Porter political dynasty in Pennsylvania in the 19th century.
And Patrick and Margaret Porter left Ireland for America in the 1780’s. Their son Alexander arrived in Decatur, Indiana in the 1840’s and was one of the town’s first practicing physicians. Gene Stratton Porter, who married into this family, became a well-known writer and nature photographer. She had moved to California at the turn of the century but was killed in Hollywood in an early automobile accident in 1924.
Tom Porter, born of poor Irish immigrant parents in Pennsylvania, had come to the Pacific Northwest in the 1870’s and was an early logger and homesteader on the Skagit river (his wife Mima could recall vividly the flood of 1897 that nearly washed them downriver). The family stayed on the homestead until Tom’s death in 1927.
Canada. Porter immigrants to Canada came from both England and Ireland. Among the Irish were:
- William and Margaret Porter who came to Manvers township, Ontario in the 1840’s.
- while David Porter was the son of Irish immigrants in Halton county, Ontario. He started a sawmill there and then ran in local politics.
Australia. The escapades of Jimmy Porter, escaped convict, provided the first account of a Porter in Australia.
Today three homes offer insights into the lives of some later Porters:
- Tim Porter constructed his home Avoca at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains in 1886. He was the grandson of the convict Thomas Porter who had been transported to Australia back in 1820.
- Miss Porter’s house in Newcastle, NSW had been built by Herbert Porter in 1909. He died of the flu epidemic in 1921 and it was his wife and their two daughters who lived in the house. None of these ladies married or re-married and this distinctive Edwardian house, which stayed relatively unchanged over the years, was made into a museum when the last daughter died in 1997.
- while Hubert Porter purchased the rural Ramsay homestead in the Reverina wine district of NSW in 1911. Joel Porter is the fifth generation of the Porter family to own the property.
Another Porter in Australia, John Porter from Liverpool, discovered gold in NW Victoria in 1906 in one of the last individual gold rushes. He named his gold nugget Poseidon after the winner of the Melbourne Cup horserace that day.
New Zealand. William Field Porter was a failed shipowner from Liverpool who set off for New Zealand in 1841 to start a new life. He came with his family on his own brig the Porter to Auckland where he was a merchant, local politician, and later farmer.
In 1907 his son recorded his remembrance of this voyage in his book Recollections of a Voyage to South Australia and New Zealand. “The account, written in old age, gives a child’s memory of the events of his early life, complete with explorers, pirates, whaling, exotic animals, and the strange indigenous inhabitants of his new home.”
Porter Derivation. Porter as a load bearer seems to have been a later rather than an earlier meaning of the word. Whenever the King or his royal party were going to travel, it was the porter or door-keeper that was instructed to carry the luggage to the coach. It was then the duty of the coachman to load the baggage. After the tradition was established by the King, people started calling anyone who had duty as load-bearers porters.
Early Porters of Essex. There was a le Porter family that appears to have been prominent in Essex during the 13th and 14th centuries. They have left their name to two houses in the county, Porter’s Hall near Stebbing in north Essex and Porters in the southeast of the county near present-day Southend.
The land around Porter’s Hall had been rented by the le Porters from the de Ferrers family. There are various deeds dating back to 1292 which record Henry le Porter and his wife Ymanye as holders of the land. The present house is 400 years old and surrounded by a moat.
Porters in SE Essex, as it now stands, is a late 15th or 16th century house. The general plan, medieval in character, suggests an earlier construction and supports a belief that an older building stood on the site. Its name appears to have been taken from that of the le Porter family. In 1305 and again in 1324, Laurence le Porter of Prittlewell was recorded as holding lands in Prittlewell and Middelton (Milton).
Porters in Liverpool. The following Porters were recorded in Baines Trade Directory of Liverpool for 1824.
- Porter Henry, shopkeeper, 48 London Road
- Porter Jas. & Co, tea dealers, 48 Old Haymarket
- Porter John, hairdresser, 89 Dale Street
- Porter John, grocer and flour dealer, 20 Circus Street
- Porter Letitia, boarding house, 44 New Scotland Road
- Porter Maria, commercial eating house, Market Street
- Porter Mary, funeral furnisher, 22 Lydia Ann Street
- Porter Thomas, coal dealer and shopkeeper, 3 Wright Street
- Porter Thomas Colley, oil and color manufacturer, 53 Mersey Street
- Porter William Field, shipowner and sail-maker, 77 Sparling Street
- Porter William, victualler and commercial eating house, 8 Wapping
- Porter William, tea dealer, 2 Nash Grove
Porter Street in Liverpool was named after Thomas Colley Porter, its mayor in 1827 “who won one of the most corrupt elections in Liverpool’s history.” Captain William Field Porter was a prominent shipowner and merchant engaged in the China trade. However, his vessels were uninsured and he lost heavily when a number of them came to grief. He left Liverpool in 1838 to start a new life in New Zealand.
A Scandalous Affair. In 1863 John Vesey Porter, the owner of the Belle Isle estate in county Longford, married Elizabeth Jane Hall, daughter and co-heiress of Richard Hall of Inishmore Hall nearby. The marriage was desirable from the financial point of view and because the Belle Isle and Inishmore estates marched. But it was childless and, it would seem, unhappy, partly on account of the disparity in their ages (he was 47 and she was about 18) and partly (it is conjectured) on account of Porter’s cantankerousness.
In September 1870 Mrs. Porter formed an illicit liaison with Captain Leonard Poynter of the 16th Regiment, then stationed in Enniskillen. Porter found out about this affair in December and, with the aid of his butler and other men-servants, lured Captain Poynter to Belle Isle where he was considerably knocked about, had his hair and one side of his luxuriant moustache cut off, and was then severely horse-whipped by Porter.
Captain Poynter brought an action for assault and battery against Porter and claimed damages of £10,000. Porter would probably have been well advised to have settled out of court. Instead, a packed Dublin courtroom was regaled for almost a week with salacious details of the doings of Mrs. Porter and Captain Poynter at Belle Isle. In the end, the jury – obviously composed of stern Victorian paterfamiliae – found for Captain Poynter, but awarded him a farthing in damages.
Shortly afterwards, Porter successfully sued for divorce. His wife and her parents retired to London where Mrs. Porter died, still only in her early forties, in 1887.
Drs. Daniel Porter of Farmington, Connecticut and Environs. The first Dr. Daniel was initially recorded in Farmington in the early 1650’s. He lived on the west side of the main street, not far from the South schoolhouse, and was paid a salary of twelve pounds by the General Court for setting all the broken bones in the colony. He was allowed six shillings extra for traveling expenses for each journey to the river towns.
Dr. Daniel the younger assumed the practice of surgery on the death of his father. He moved to Waterbury and was the second of five generations of Drs. Daniel Porters – father, son, grandson, great grandson, and nephew of great grandson. His medical library consisted of a bone “set book,” appraised with a value of two shillings. He died in 1690.
T.P. Kugelman’s 2006 book A New England Bonesetter Dynasty covered this family. The last Porter recorded here was Charles Allen Porter (1866-1931), a pioneer Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. He was among the first to recognize the carcinogenic effects of radiation.
The Porter Family of Pennsylvania. The Porters were one of the leading political families of Pennsylvania of the 19th century. There were strong ties with the Edwards family from Maryland and David Rittenhouse Porter was grand-uncle by marriage to Abraham Lincoln.
The General Andrew Porter who distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War had three notable sons:
- David Rittenhouse Porter (1788-1867), the eldest son who was Governor of Pennsylvania from 1839 to 1845
- George Bryan Porter (1791-1834), the sixth son who was Governor of Michigan territory during the last three years of his life
- and James Madison Porter (1793-1862), the seventh son who was US Secretary of War in 1843-44. He was earlier instrumental in the founding of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
David’s son Horace was a general in the Union army during the Civil War, as was George’s son Andrew. Horace later served as the US Ambassador to France.
William Sidney Porter, alias O. Henry. His mother died when he was three and his father, a medical doctor, began to care more about alcohol than his practice. His grandmother was thus given the task of raising him and a younger sibling. She also was responsible for their extensive education. He was an avid reader and, by the age of nineteen, had read a wide variety of books and articles that would later influence his literary works.
Porter moved to Texas in 1884 to be with friends because they were concerned about a chronic cough that had plagued him from childhood. In Texas, he got married and obtained a job as a bank teller at one of the local banks. When faced with charges of bank fraud from the bank he fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras. He returned to America when word came that his wife was losing her battle with tuberculosis. On his return he was convicted for bank fraud and was sentenced to three years in an Ohio penitentiary.
From this low point in Porter’s life, he began a remarkable comeback. Three years and about a dozen short stories later, he
emerged from prison as “O. Henry” to help shield his true identity. He moved to New York City where, over the following ten years, he published over 300 stories and gained acclaim as America’s favorite short story writer.
He was also an alcoholic. Sadly he died in New York City at the age of just forty seven virtually penniless.
Jimmy Porter, A Convict’s Story. “Born in the neighborhood of London in 1802 – parents moving in a respectable sphere of life – when six years old I was transferred to the care of my grandmother by her particular request, tho’ not without great reluctance of my mother. I remained happy under the care of my grandmother (going to school regularly until I was twelve years of age) and whose kindness you will find in the sequel proved my ruin.
At twelve years old I could write a tolerable hand and was pretty forward in arithmetic; but being punished by my schoolmaster for placing hair in his cane so that when he chastised any of us it would split up and cut his hand, and indeed to this day and through all my misfortunes and rambles the same propensity for mischief haunts me.”
So began the life story of Jimmy Porter, convict, thief, sailor, and scallywag. He had led a colorful life until the time he was transported to Tasmania in 1823. Ten years later he was imprisoned on the notorious Sarah island. In a calculated and audacious bid for freedom he and nine other convicts commandeered the brig Frederick from Macquarie harbor and made their escape to the open seas. Rather than head for the islands in the Bass Straits or the coastline of New Zealand, the men decided to make their way to Valdivia on the coast of Chile, a full six thousand miles away. And – extraordinarily – they made it!
They enjoyed a year’s blissful refuge until betrayal led to their discovery and recapture. Porter was tried for piracy and condemned to death in Tasmania. Then his sentence was commuted to exile and he was sent to rot on Norfolk Island.
But Porter had a story to tell and he was determined to be heard. He wrote two versions of his life story, one surviving in manuscript and another published in the Hobart Town Almanac. A third narrative, purportedly by a returned convict named James Connor, was serialized in the Fife Herald in the mid 1840’s. James Connor was the alias used by Porter while on the run in South America and the Fife Herald narrative told basically the same story as the two predecessors.
Porter in Australia – from Convict Ship to Paradise. In 1819 Thomas Porter was tried at the Old Bailey in London and convicted of “feloniously having in his custody and possession three forged banknotes for payment of one pound each, well knowing them to be forged.” For this he was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. His common law wife Sarah Ward had in the previous year also been convicted at the Old Bailey for passing forged banknotes. Thomas was transported to Australia on the Prince Regent and arrived in Sydney in early 1820. An 1822 muster recorded him as a Government servant living there with his wife Sarah and their five children.
Two generations later, grandson Tim Porter bought land in the Blue Mountains south of the railway line in Blackheath and built a home there, Avoca, for his family in 1886. They were the first settlers in the area and he named it Paradise. Tim Porter’s main claim to fame is through the path from Blackheath down into the Kanimbla valley which is now known as Porter’s Pass walk. It is as spectacular and beautiful as any in the Blue Mountains.
Porter’s house was built on a site sheltered from the westerly winds. When the bitter winds blow in the rest of the town, their
large garden is the place to sit and enjoy the site of the gales bending the tops of the trees.
Sir Leslie and Dame Shirley Porter. In 1949 Leslie Porter’s life was transformed through his marriage to Shirley Cohen, one of the two daughters of the founder of Tesco, Jack Cohen. She was only seventeen, ten years younger than her husband, of whom she said in 1994: “He looks a bit like Paul Newman. Women still swoon.”
However, throughout their married life Leslie Porter was hampered by his wife’s bullying, according to one of his colleagues. As soon as he became chairman, she “began to meddle in the business and, in the process, made his life and ours hell.”
Monday was his worst day, after he had spent a weekend at home. Normally the most easy-going and affable of characters, he would arrive at the office like a bear with a sore head and grumble his way through to lunchtime, by which time he had finally recovered from the shock of being over-exposed to Shirley’s strictures.
Not surprisingly Porter, who enjoyed his social life, was fond of “a Scotch or three” and at parties his wife would threaten “in a voice as sotto voce as a buzzsaw: ‘Leslie, if you don’t behave I’ll take you home.'”
Reader Feedback – Porters in Liverpool and Australia. My Porter ancestors, two brothers and a cousin, came to Australia from Liverpool. The family had been originally from Hull in Yorkshire, but both John and his brother Thomas were born in Liverpool. John had been a carpenter there.
It was John who struck lucky with the Poseidon gold field discovery in Victoria in 1906. He later settled in the Milton Uladulla area. His daughter Kitty, a nursing sister, won a Red Cross medal in World War One. Meanwhile, brother Thomas returned to Liverpool and became Porters the funeral directors.
My line married Irish girls for several generations in a row. They may have been Irish; or maybe there were a lot of single Irish girls!
Dr. Gary Porter, Toowoomba, Australia (email@example.com)
- Endymion Porter was an English diplomat and royalist at the time of Charles I.
- Rufus Porter was an American inventor and, in 1845, the founder of Scientific American.
- William Sydney Porter who wrote under the pen name O. Henry is considered as one of the masters of the short story.
- Cole Porter was an American composer and songwriter. His works have included musicals such as Kiss Me Kate and Anything Goes and songs such as I Get a Kick out of You and I’ve Got You under My Skin.
- Sir Leslie Porter, born Leslie Pasamount, took over the management of the UK supermarket chain Tesco from his father-in-law Jack Cohen in 1973. His wife was the controversial politician Shirley Porter.
Porter Numbers Today
- 45,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
- 60,000 in America (most numerous in California)
- 36,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).
Porter and Like Surnames
The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker. Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies. These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.
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