Rathbone Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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

Resources on

Rathbone Ancestry

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

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.

  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

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
    , 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

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 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.
  1. 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.”
  1. 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
  2. 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
qualites.  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
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

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

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

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

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



Select 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
Jack Rathbone was the head of
Standard Oil Company of New Jersey in the 1960’s who forged the modern
company that is Exxon.

Select 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).


Select Rathbone and Like Surnames

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




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