Riddle/Riddell Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Riddle Surname Meaning

Riddle has been the English version of the surname,  Riddell the more common Scottish version – although the two spellings have overlapped in a border county such as Northumberland.  The Riddle spelling has predominated in America. Overall, Riddle outnumbers Riddell today.

The Riddle name has nothing to do with riddles. Riddle and Riddell have, most likely, French origins, derived from the early Ridels who had come to England in the wake of the Norman Conquest and were in Scotland by the early 1100’s.

An alternative explanation for the Riddle name in England, and also possibly for the Riddell name in Scotland, was that it was derived from a place-name – the primary candidate here being Ryedale in the North Riding of Yorkshire.  An early account of the Riddles/Riddells was to be found in G.F. Ridlon’s 1884 book History of the Ancient Ryedales.

Riddle Surname Resources on The Internet

Riddle and Riddell Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Borders) and England
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

Scotland. Walter de Ridel had received a charter for the lands at Lilliesleaf in Roxburghshire on the Scottish borders around the year 1150. The property was to remain in Riddell hands until 1819. The family also acquired at an early date land across the border in Northumberland.

In 1296 Sir William Riddell of Riddell appeared on the Ragman Rolls as swearing fealty to Edward I of England. These Riddells later took the title of “Riddells of that Ilk.” Sir John Riddell rose to prominence under Charles I and was made a baronet in 1628.

The Rev. Archibald Riddell, the third son of the second baronet, was a staunch Covenanter who was persecuted for his beliefs. He left Scotland to preach in New Jersey in 1685 on the infamous Henry & Francis where thirty-one people died during the journey, including his wife. On his return four years later, his ship was taken by a French warship and he was held in captivity for two years before he was released.

There were other Riddell lines with possible links to the earlier Ridels:

  • one Riddell line made its home at Kinglass in West Lothian in the 16th century and later acquired extensive Highland estates at Ardnamurchan and Sunart in Argyll. James Riddell of Ardnamurchan was made a baronet in 1778.
  • John Riddel was a prominent Edinburgh merchant of the 17th century who claimed a descent from the Galfridus de Ridel of 1048. His son acquired lands at Linlithgow in West Lothian at the time of Oliver Cromwell.
  • while Robert Riddell of Glenriddell in Dumfriesshire was a friend and patron of the poet Robert Burns in the late 18th century.  His father claimed a descent from the Gervase de Ridel of 1116.

By the 19th century many of the Riddells on the Scottish borders had migrated to Glasgow and the industrial jobs there.

England. The Norman Ridel family in England left their footprint in Northamptonshire and Essex.  But the main presence of the name was further north in Northumberland and Durham where there has been a strong Scottish influence. Both Riddell and Riddle have appeared there (they were about 50/50 for the two counties in the 1881 census). However, the most prominent of them has been Riddell.

Northumberland.  The Riddells of Tillmouth, a village near Berwick on Tweed where they held the manor of Twizell, were an important family of the 13th and 14th centuries. A 14th century effigy in the chancel of St Cuthbert’s church, Norham is believed to be that of Sir William Riddell of Tillmouth, the Sheriff of Northumberland and Constable at Norham Castle.

The Riddells had acquired Fenham Hall in Northumberland by the mid-1500’s and later became merchants in Newcastle. William Riddell prospered by investing in leases of Tyneside coal mines in the early 1600’s just at the time that the coal trade with London was undergoing an expansion. The family based themselves in Gateshead. But these Riddells were Catholic and, as the political climate changed, they had their problems.

The Roxburghshire line has been in Northumberland since Sir John Buchanan Riddle acquired Whitefield House in Hepple in 1804. A later Sir John was Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales from 1985 to 1990.

The Riddle spelling came later in Northumberland and they were from more humble backgrounds:

  • Edward Riddle, born at Troughend near Otterburn in 1788 to a farm laborer’s family, became a notable mathematician and astronomer in London.
  • two marriages around 1790 were those between William and Ann Riiddle at Wooler near Alnwick and Patrick and Margaret Riddle at Mount Pleasant near Haltwhistle.
  • while Andrew and Samuel Riddle ran a profitable millwright business in Berwick in the 1850’s. Samuel’s house on Ravendowne still stands.

Elsewhere. The Riddle spelling cropped up elsewhere, in London and the west country. There were Riddles at Redruth in Cornwall in the late 1700’s. There were also Riddles around this time at Mells in Somerset.  The name here later spread to Kilmersdon and Midsomer Norton.

Ireland. The earliest record of Scots Riddells in Ireland was in the 1630’s in Derry (perhaps in Coleraine but not in Ballymeath), where three sons – Hugh, Robert, and James – were born to Hugh and Mary Riddell.  Among their descendants were the Riddells who emigrated to Londonderry, New Hampshire in the 1730’s. Charles Riddell departed for Pennsylvania in the 1790’s.

In 1803 John Riddel from county Down started a wholesale hardware business in Belfast, importing the supplies he needed from England.  It did well. In fact it made the Riddels one of the wealthiest families in the city. These Riddels were strict Unitarians and displayed the strong philanthropic inclinations of that tradition. Unusually for the time, only two of the ten children of John Riddel ever married.

America. The Riddell and Riddle names both came to America. The Riddle name, however, has been by far the more numerous, with the Riddle spelling having often taking over from Riddell and even from the English Ridley name. Many Riddles in America have Scots or Scots Irish origin and some could have German roots from names such as Riedel or Riedl.

Virginia.  One  family in Virginia began with Moses Riddle who had been born in Surry county around 1710. He lived among the Cherokee Indians and his family apparently intermarried with them:

  • his son William Riddle was a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War who was captured by patriots and hanged in 1781.
  • William’s sons dispersed. Isaac and Joseph moved to Kentucky, with Isaac later settling in Texas.  Isaac’s son John converted to the Mormon faith and left for Utah in 1850.

John Riddle (initially Riddell) had come to Caroline county from Scotland with his family sometime in the 1710’s. His descendants later settled in Chatham, North Carolina.

Zachariah Riddle lived in Loudoun county, Virginia in the late 1700’s and his descendants in Stokes county, North Carolina a few decades later. Randolph Riddle departed for Tennessee around 1810. The family origins were in Maryland where John Riddle and Elizabeth Bowman had married in 1700.

Pennsylvania.  John Riddle, probably Scots Irish, was born in Pennsylvania around 1745 and lived most of his life in Mifflin county. After his death his widow and children moved in the early 1800’s to Ohio. Another John Riddle had come to Pennsylvania from Donegal in Ireland around 1810. Nine years later he left for virgin land in Ohio. His son James later recounted those early pioneering days in Ohio.

James Riddle had arrived in York county from Donegal in Ireland around the year 1750. His line extended to William Riddle, a merchant in Martinsburg in West Virginia in the early 1800’s, and then to David Hunter Riddle, the President of Jefferson College in Pennsylvania in the 1860’s.

Heading South and West.  Charles Riddle, a Primitive Baptist minister, moved his family from Chatham, North Carolina to Henderson county, Tennessee in 1817. His son Nathaniel intended to migrate to Texas and in fact set off in the 1840’s.  

“Nathaniel and his wife Elizabeth left their old homeplace in Tennessee and with their young son started a long journey west, supposedly to Texas. After only a day or two’s journey, Nathaniel died and his young wife took their son and turned around and returned back to their home in Tennessee.”  

This son William subsequently moved to Arkansas and enlisted and fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. He lived until 1912.

George Riddle meanwhile had been born in Maryland in 1787 and later moved to Kentucky.  One of his sons Simeon became a farmer in Bentonville, Arkansas. Another son Tazewell, better known as Frank, left Kentucky for California at the time of the Gold Rush. There he married Toby of the Modoc Indian tribe, also known as Winema, and got caught up in the Modoc wars of the early 1870’s. After peace was established, Frank, Toby and their son lived near the Indian Klamath reservation in southern Oregon.

Canada. The main spelling here was Riddell, not Riddle.  There were two notable Riddells from the Scottish borders that arrived in the 19th century:

  • Walter Riddell from Dumfriesshire came in 1833 to farm in Cobourg, Ontario.  His son William, born in 1844, became a distinguished lawyer, judge, historian and writer.
  • and James Riddell from Jedburgh in Roxburghshire arrived in 1880 to farm in Manitoba.  He represented his local constituency of Lorne in the Manitoba Assembly between 1896 and 1903.

Australia. There were Riddells and Riddles in Australia.

John Carre Riddell from Roxburghshire came to Melbourne in 1839 and was initially active in sheep and cattle farming. He later involved himself in Victoria politics. His wife Mary Riddell left descriptions of the upper middle-class life they lived in Melbourne at the time.

A Riddle family were pioneers of harness racing in Australia. The progenitors were Harry Riddle and Mary Hogg who had married in Gisborne, Victoria in 1853. Their son Walter farmed in Cowra, NSW and bought his first horse to race in 1897.  He then divided his time between farming, horse-breeding and racing until his death in 1933. All five of his sons took up harness racing, with Peter generally being considered the best horseman.

Riddle and Riddell Surname Miscellany

Riddles and Riddells Today

Numbers (000’s) Riddle Riddell Total
  England    2    2    4
  Scotland    4    4
America   12    2   14
Elsewhere    1    4    5
Total   15   12   27

The Early Ridels.  The Ridels came from France, originating from the powerful de Blaye family whose land holdings extended from Aquitaine north into Normandy.  The first who apparently bore this name was Geoffrey Ridel, born in Aquitaine in 1044.

Ridels had come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, their name being found among those inscribed at Battle Abbey.  They were rewarded with much land in England, including Wittering in Northamptonshire where they made their base.  Geoffrey Ridel was appointed a royal Justiciar in 1106.  However, he died in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120 and left no male successor.

It was said that the Ridel name was first introduced into Scotland by Galfridus Ridel de Blaye who was recorded there as early as 1048.  Gervase Ridale, a witness to a charter of King David I in 1116, was later made the Sheriff of Roxburghshire.  His son Walter received a charter for the lands of Lilliesleaf in Roxburghshire.

An alternative theory for the origin of the Riddell name in Scotland was that the family wasfrom Gascony and had come to Scotland via Ryedale in Yorkshire, with Ryedale (meaning “valley of the rye”) then becoming the basis for their name.   It was said that the spelling adapted to the way they pronounced the name. However, this appears a less credible explanation.

Robert Riddell and Robert Burns.  Robert Riddell had Riddell on both his father’s and mother’s side in Dumfriesshire.  His father, Walter Riddell of Newhouse, had been taken prisoner by the Jacobites in 1745.  He died in 1788.  His mother Anne was the daughter and heiress of Robert Riddell of Glenriddell, to whose estate he ultimately succeeded.

Much of his life was passed in antiquarian and literary pursuits at his Friars Carse estate in Dumfriesshire. He is remembered today chiefly as the friend of the poet Robert Burns. Friars Carse was within a mile of Burns’s farm of Ellisland and Riddell gave Burns a key to his grounds.

In the little hermitage there Burns wrote the Verses in Friars Carse Hermitage in 1788 and the song The Day Returns later that year in celebration of the anniversary of the Riddells’ wedding day.  In October 1789 a great drinking bout was held at Friars Carse, with Riddell contesting for an historical whistle with Sir Robert Laurie and Alexander Ferguson.  Ferguson was the victor, as Burns described in The Whistle.

When Robert Riddell died at Friars Carse in 1794, Burns published a sonnet on his late friend. Riddell left most of his property to his widow Elizabeth.  Glenriddell passed to his brother Walter.  Riddell’s library of books on antiquities was sold by Robert Ross the following year.

The Catholic Riddell Family of Gateshead.  The Riddell family in Gateshead had their problems as the tide turned against Catholics.

Sir Thomas Riddell, a colonel of a regiment of foot in the service of Charles I and Governor of Tynemouth Castle, “died a banished man at Antwerp in Brabant after his estate at Tunstall had been sold off.” He had “rendered himself so obnoxious to Parliament that £1,000 was offered for his apprehension.”  He escaped with difficulty from Berwick in a small fishing vessel.

Another Thomas Riddell, seated at Swinburne Castle, engaged in the Jacobite rising of 1715 and was taken prisoner.  He managed to escape from Lancaster Castle and was later included in the general pardon.

In the early 18th century the Riddells had built a chapel adjoining their mansion on Gateshead High Street.  But in January 1746, following the Jacobite rising of 1745, it was gutted, plundered, and set on fire by a Protestant mob. The mansion itself fell into ruins soon afterwards.

Reader Feedback: Riddells in Ireland – Not Ballymeath, Maybe Ballymather.  There is not a Ballymeath parish in Londonderry county or what was Londonderry county in the 1630’s, although there is a Ballymather townland from 1703 in Antrim.  Riddells have been found in Templemore, which is across the river from the city of Londonderry in the North West Liberties.

The three American books that list Ballymeath as being a parish in Londonderry are unsourced.  G.T. Ridlon wrote a history on the Riddells and used Ballymeath (again unsourced), while an earlier Riddell family history written by Dr. William Pitt Riddell and edited by John Leonard Riddell added yet a third possible location in Northern Ireland – Coleraine.

Based on the credibility of William Pitt Riddell (a medical doctor) and his brother Dr. John Leonard Riddell, as well as the Robert line in their direct line of ancestors while using the Genealogical Proof Standard to evaluate information, the Coleraine location is also a possibility to consider.

Gwynn Socolich (gwynngenealogy@gmail.com).

Reader Feedback – Moses Riddell of Surry County, Virginia.  I am a professional genealogist for a client doing research on their client Moses Riddell.

I have run across several Moses Riddles online.  Another Moses lived in North Carolina and not Virginia.  I need to find more information on the Moses Riddle I am sure is hers, that you list in your page as being born in 1710 in Surry county, Virginia.  I believe another Moses was born in 1725, not 1710.   Then I found another one born in 1715.

Do you happen to have any other information on the Moses Riddle born in 1710 in Surry County?  His parents, his children?  You only mention one son William and no other children. She is claiming she is descended from a daughter.

Dee (proingenealogist@aol.com)

William Riddle of Virginia in the Revolutionary War.  Until 1991 the Riddle family tradition had been that William Riddle, married to Happy Rogers, was a patriot soldier in the Revolutionary War.  He was said to have fought with Francis Marion in the South and then been captured and hung by the British in Georgia.

However, recent research has revealed that William Riddle had in fact remained loyal to the British Crown during the War.

In the spring of 1781 he had captured Colonel Benjamin Cleveland of Surry county, North Carolina who was a particularly vigilant patriot.  Cleveland escaped with the help of his brother Robert Cleveland and others.

Shortly thereafter Riddle was caught and hung by Cleveland (although some reports had him being shot and mortally wounded instead).   Cleveland and his associates stated that William Riddle was hung at Wilkesboro in Wilkes county, North Carolina. 

James Riddle’s Pioneer Upbringing in Ohio.  James Riddle wrote about his early years in Ohio in a hand-written autobiography that he wrote around 1900 when he was an old man. This is a shortened edited version of his text.

“I was born at Pittsburgh in 1812 and moved with my parents to Ohio in 1819 into what was then called Hardy township in Coshocton county.  The county was very new and thinly inhabited.   Bears and wolves were very plenty.  it was very common for hunters to kill several bears through the hunting season.  We could frequently hear plenty of wolves at night.

There was not a sawmill nor grist mill within 15 or 20 miles of us.  The first wheat we raised my father cut with a sickle and dried part of it in the sun. My father and I took the wheat on horseback up to Jones’s log cabin mill in Wayne county 15 miles away.  When we got there the mill was shut down and the miller gone. But we went to the house and told Mrs Jones and she came down and worked the mill. We got home after dark. Mother baked some cakes for supper which we thought were good as we had lived mostly on potatoes for more than a week.

Schools were scarce in those days. My father used to teach in the winter in some log cabin that they would fix up and the scholars would come from one to four miles to school.”

Reader Feedback – Pennsylvania Riddells.  I am descended from John Allen King Riddell of Pennsylvania who migrated to Webster county, Mississippi.  I am DNA tested thru Ancestry. If anyone has any connections would love to swap notes. Correspondence makes me think I may be descended thru the Glenriddell Pennsylvania Riddells.

Wanda Carlton (wjclac@cox.net)

Mary Riddell in Melbourne.  John Carre Riddell had married Mary Anne Stephen in Melbourne in 1846. John later became a politician, although – as one contemporary account put it – “he was distinguished for gentlemanlike bearing and high character rather than for political activity or demonstrativeness.”  From 1866 they lived in a large house named Cavers Carre in the suburb of Elsternwick.

Mary was the author of a twenty-four page rhyming ode, published in 1868, entitled Lay of the Far South.  This gives an interesting perspective on the colonial settler mindset of the time.

Of particular interest for the social history of early Melbourne are the Scribbling Journals, dating from 1872 to 1885, which were kept for Mary Riddell and her daughters Annie and Bessie outlining the women’s schedules and social visits. They also contained receipts for fashion and household and grocery items.

Notably Mary’s diary entry for February 17, 1875 suggested that the Riddell’s domestic staff were predominantly Irish.  They described the novelty for the family cooking for themselves when their cook was granted leave on St. Patrick’s Day.

Riddle and Riddell Names

  • Geoffrey Ridel, born in France in 1044, was the first to bear the Ridel name and was probably the forefather of later Riddells. 
  • Robert Riddell was an antiquarian in Dumfriesshire and friend and patron of the poet Robert Burns.  Burns made him a collection of his poems which later became famous. 
  • Edward Riddle was an English mathematician and astronomer, based at the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich from 1820 to 1850. 
  • Nelson Riddle was an Oscar-winning composer and arranger, best known for his work with Frank Sinatra in the 1950’s.

Riddle and Riddell Numbers Today

  • 8,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lanarkshire)
  • 14,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)




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Written by Colin Shelley

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