Rathbone Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Rathbone Surname Meaning

Rathbone is a very distinctive English surname and there are many possible origins of the Rathbone name.  But no one is in fact quite sure where the name has come from.

Rathbone Surname Resources on The Internet

Rathbone Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Cheshire and Lancashire)
  • to America

England.  The name first appeared in Cheshire.  A John Rathbone from north Wales was reported there in the 13th century as being granted land at Macefen near Malpas.  A later John was mayor of Chester in the early 1500’s.  There were subsequent branches of the family in Chester, the Wirral (where the landscape artist John Rathbone was born), and the parishes of Astbury, Tushingham, and Farnworth in Lancashire.

Then came the forebears of two famous Rathbone lines:

  • John Rathbone from Ditton near Farnworth.  The son of a shoemaker who had inherited some money on his father’s death, he left with his wife for America in 1654.
  • and William Rathbone (of the Astbury Rathbones) from Gawsworth near Macclesfield.  He set out in the 1720’s for the growing port of Liverpool, working there as a sawyer and starting up a timber business.

The Rathbone family of Liverpool – of whom William Rathbone was the forebear – was a family of nonconformist merchants whose sense of high social consciousness led to a fine tradition of philanthropy and public service well into the 20th century.  Basil Rathbone, famous in film as Sherlock Holmes, came from this family.

As a surname, Rathbone stretched from Cheshire north into Lancashire and south into Staffordshire and Warwickshire.  Rathbone in Warwickshire is said to have come from the word Rawbone.

America.  Most Rathbones in America probably descend from John and Margaret Rathbone who came to Dorchester, Massachusetts from England in 1654.  Four years later, the Rathbones were party to the purchase of Block Island, a small island off the coast of Rhode Island where John was given a deed of land in the middle of the island.

A number of his descendants distinguished themselves in business and the church in New England during colonial times.  There have been two noteworthy longer-lasting Rathbone lines.

One line went via Jonathan Rathbone who had settled in Colchester, Connecticut:

  • a descendant here was General Ransom Rathbone, after whom the town of Rathbone in Steuben county, New York was named.
  • another was Jared Rathbone, a wealthy merchant of Albany, New York and the first elected mayor of that town.  When he died in 1843 he left an estate of $200,000, an unheard-of amount in those times.  His son Henry Rathbone is famous for having been in the box at the theater with President Lincoln when Lincoln was shot.

Another line went via Joshua Rathbone who had settled in Stonington, Connecticut, and Wait Rathbone, a New England sea captain who had fought in the Revolutionary War.

Later Rathbones of this line worked for Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, culminating in Jack Rathbone being appointed CEO of that company in 1960.  Under his leadership Jersey Standard was reorganized as Exxon Corp and greatly expanded its international business.  His great grandson is the actor and singer Jackson Rathbone.

Rathbone Surname Miscellany

Rathbone Possible Origins.  Various suggestions have been made for the origin of Rathbone, particularly in light of the varied spellings (such as Rathbun, Rathburn, and Rathborne in addition to Rathbone).  None of them is entirely satisfactory.

  1. The name is descriptive.  The Old English (or Old Welsh) rhath means “short” or “stubby” and could be used to describe someone with short legs.
  2. The name is locational, from Radbourn in Warwickshire or Radbourne in Derbyshire.  Here the root is the Old English hread meaning “reeds” and burna “stream.”
  3. A Welsh origin has been suggested (as the earliest Rathbones may have come from Wales).  Bardsley’s Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames suggests the town of Ruabon in north Wales.  “The change to Rathbone is peculiar but perhaps the place name Ruabon has undergone a change.”
  4. There is also a possible Irish origin as well.  There is a Rathboyne parish on the Boyne river not too far from Dublin.  The theory of an Irish origin is supported by the fact that the Rathburne and Rathbourne names have been quite common in Dublin.  The Rathbornes were prominent candle makers in Dublin for many generations.

Rathbone Genealogists.  The Rathbone Genealogy compiled by John C. Cooley was published in 1898.  It provided a complete history  of the Rathbones who had come to America in 1654 and their antecedents and descendants.  For many years family historians had accepted Cooley’s version of the family’s earliest generations.  However, by the 1940’s many found that they could not prove what Cooley had stated in his genealogy.

Much research was done by Frank H. Rathbun of Fairfax, Virginia.  He established the current thinking on the early records of the family as we know them today in the Rathbun/Rathbone/Rathburn Family reports published from 1981 to 1996.

The overall authority today on the Rathbones, both English and American, is generally seen to be Dorcas Hendershott with her Rathbone Register.

The Rathbone Family of Liverpool

  1. William Rathbone II (1696-1746) – he came from Gawsworth near Macclesfield and was the forebear of the family in Liverpool. – he became a Quaker after the death of his wife Sarah in 1742.
  2. William Rathbone III (1726-1789) – the eldest son and a devout Quaker, he was a merchant and shipowner in Liverpool. – he married twice and fathered twelve children.
  3. William Rathbone IV (1757-1809) – he was also a merchant and shipowner in Liverpool, involved very much with the American trade – although opposed to slavery, he broke from the Quaker faith in 1805.
  4. William Rathbone V (1787-1868) – he was a Liverpool merchant active in the American cotton trade. – his brother Richard (1788-1860) worked in partnership with him. – William was also active in local social causes (such as public hygiene).
  5. William Rathbone VI (1819-1902) – he was a politician noted for his philanthropic and public work. – his nephew Hugh, son of Richard and Frances Rathbone, was a merchant who also sat as an MP.
  6. The Rathbone daughters of William VI – Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946) was an early campaigner for women’s rights. – her cousin Elfrida Rathbone (1871-1940) was responsible for the founding of the Rathbone charity.

Other related Rathbones were the actor Basil Rathbone of Sherlock Holmes fame and the politicians John Rathbone and his son Tim, the MP for Lewes from 1974 to 1997.

Basil Rathbone’s Autobiography.  Basil Rathbone’s autobiography In and Out of Character had some mixed reviews from its readers.

The first one here is generally positive:

“Rathbone’s book is full of the lore and magic of a wonderful era of the 20th century called the movies.  He gives candid and insightful information on some of its original giants.  He is romantic yet concise and realistic. His anecdotes are often hilarious, sometimes sad, always involving.  The stories of his personal life show that qualities like true love, loyalty and dedication do exist in the fickle, often ruthless world of show business.  His advice on acting is right on and should be part of any aspiring or working actor’s education.”

The next is somewhat more critical:

“Rathbone was a wonderful theatrical actor capable of reaching greatness, but who instead frequently sold out.  This dreamy memoir suggests some of the reasons.  He was known in Hollywood mainly for the lavish parties he and his wife gave; and in fact he writes like a well-bred dinner guest amusing a stranger with anecdotes about co-workers, half-forgotten friends and lovers, and odd experiences. While son Rodion and daughter Cynthia get almost no mention, there is a vivid and moving portrait of Basil’s dog Moritz.  This seems to sum up the charm and the limitations of this sweet little book.”

General Ransom Rathbone.  It was said that General Ransom Rathbone was a man of rare social qualities.  His father had been an officer in the Revolutionary War.  He himself had come to the recently formed township of Oxford, New York in 1806 and started up a merchant business.

His store and home there were among the most palatial buildings of their day.  He also owned a paper mill in the village.  In addition to his business enterprise, he was a lover of fine horses.  He would occasionally hitch them tandem to his gig, driving to neighboring towns and even as far as Utica in a day.

This was one reminiscence of him:

“I remember the stir which a new store, established in Lisle by the Rathbones, created in our neighborhood.  It was “all the talk” for several weeks until a party of housewives fitted out an expedition to go there.

They returned triumphantly at sunset with fragrant Bohea for themselves, plug tobacco for their husbands, flashy calico for the children, gay ribbons for the girls, jack-knives for the boys, cookery for the cupboard, and snuff for granny.

The expedition was a theme for much gossip.  The wonders of the new store were described to staring eyes and open mouths.  The merchant wore shiny boots and tassels, the clerk a ruffle shirt, and both smelt of pomatum!  I do not believe that the word dandy had been invented at that time for it would certainly have come into play on that occasion.

Thirty years later, I laughed all this over with my old friend General Ransom Rathbone, the venerable proprietor of that new store.”

In 1842 Rathbone moved onto a new development area in the southern part of Steuben county and opened a store.  The town of Rathbone there was named after him.

In the Booth with President Lincoln.  Major Henry Rathbone and his wife Clara were in the booth with President Lincoln at the moment when Lincoln was shot.  He sat at the far left in the famous scene from 1865.

At the fatal shot:

“Instantly Major Rathbone sprang upon the assassin.  Booth dropped the derringer, broke from Rathbone’s grasp, and lunged at him with a large knife.  Rathbone parried the blow but received a deep wound on his left arm above the elbow. Booth placed one hand on the balustrade to the left of the center pillar, raised his other arm to strike the advancing Rathbone, and vaulted over the railing. Rathbone again seized Booth but only got his clothing.”

Reader Feedback – Jack Rathbone of Standard Oil.  Jack Rathbone, President of Standard Oil, went by Jack although his name was Monroe Jackson Rathbone Jr.  His son, who also went by Jack, was Monroe Jackson Rathbone III, the late great surgeon of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  His son Jack, or Monroe Jackson IV, is also in the oil business.  And it is Monroe Jackson Rathbone V, the actor/musician, who is the great grandson of Jack Rathbone of Standard Oil.

Sincerely, Kelly Garrett Rathbone (kellygrathbone@gmail.com)

Rathbone Names

  • William Rathbone migrated from Cheshire to Liverpool and founded the long-lasting Rathbone family business there.  He became a Quaker in 1726.
  • Henry R. Rathbone was the man who tried but failed to stop Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
  • Basil Rathbone of the Liverpool Rathbones was the film actor who famously played Sherlock Holmes.
  • Jack Rathbone was the head of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey in the 1960’s who forged the modern oil company that is Exxon.

Rathbone Numbers Today

  • 2,000 in the UK (most numerous in Cheshire)
  • 800 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

Rathbone and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Lancashire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *