Russell Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Russell Surname Meaning

Russell derived from the Old French rousel meaning “red” and was originally descriptive of someone with red hair.

The surname first appeared as Rousel in the early 12th century. The alternative Russel spelling still exists. Other derivations of the name are possible.

Russell Surname Resources on The Internet

Russell Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England, Scotland (East Coast), and Ireland (Down and Limerick)
  • to America, Canada and New Zealand

England.  Early sightings of Russell as a surname were in the west country, in Worcestershire and Devon.

SW England.  The Worcestershire Russells were first recorded at Strensham near Pershore in 1283.  A branch of the family appeared in Herefordshire in the early 1400’s. Sir William Russell was the Royalist governor of Worcester at the time of the Civil War. The last male representative of these Russells died in 1705. But the Strensham manor remained with his descendants until 1817.

Sir John Russell was reported in 1211 as the storer of the King’s wine barrels and was granted the royal manor of Kingston Russell near Weymouth in Devon.  His descendants held the Yaverland estate on the Isle of Wight and, in the 17th century, Chippenham Park in Cambridgeshire (which was subsequently acquired by Admiral Edward Russell).

Whether Sir John was the forebear of the famous Russell family from Dorset is unproven as no link has ever been established. However, so convinced were these Russells of the connection that they purchased the Kingston Russell estate in 1560.

Their earliest traced ancestor was Stephen Russell who represented Weymouth in Parliament in 1394. His descendants were wine merchants. John Russell made a name for himself in 1506 when he was able to look after the Archduke Phillip of Austria and his wife and escort them to London after their ship had been caught in a storm off Weymouth. This Russell was subsequently ennobled as the Earl of Bedford. He acquired Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire in 1526, which became the family home.

These Russells were to establish themselves as one of Britain’s leading Whig families and participated in every great political event from the Dissolution of the Monasteries to the Great Reform Act of 1832:

  • during the 17th and 18th centuries the Russells left their mark on London by their development of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury.
  • during the 18th century, the Bedfordites – led by John Russell, the fourth Duke of Bedford – were an important political faction in the country.
  • during the mid-19th century, Lord John Russell of this family served as both British Prime Minister and its Foreign Secretary.
  • and the family also produced the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Elsewhere.  The Russell name did appear in the north of England. William Russell, a banker in Sunderland, acquired the Brancepeth estate in Durham in 1796. By chance, he had also acquired land with rich coal seams. This was to make him and his son Matthew two of the richest men in the north of England in their day.

By the late 19th century, however, the largest number of Russells in England was to be found in London and the southeast.

Scotland.  The Russel family started out as a Border family in Roxburghshire and were said to have accompanied King Edward III in his siege of Berwick and the Battle of Hallydon in 1333.

Around the year 1600 Alexander Russel of this family was Provost of Elgin in Morayshire. His Russell descendants were subsequently the lairds of Moncoffer in Banffshire and Aden in Aberdeenshire.  And John Russell was an early 19th century Elgin merchant who had come from a Moray family that had farmed at Alves for several generations.

The Russells of Ashiesteel were a prominent family in Selkirkshire, many of whom distinguished themselves in military service in India in the 18th and 19th centuries.  By the late 19th century, the largest number of Russells in Scotland was living in and around Glasgow.

Also on Scotland’s east coast was the Russell farming family near Cupar in Fife.  George Russell, a younger son of Robert Russell of Tailabout, bought the farm of Colessie Mill in the early 1800’s and the family farmed there for several generations.  Later, David Russell of this family and his company Tullis Russell ventured into paper-making in Scotland and overseas ventures in India and Australia.

Ireland.  The Russell name started to appear in Ireland soon after the Anglo-Norman invasion when Robert de Russell was granted lands in county Down.

The main branch of this family was the Russells of Killough. They remained Catholic over the 17th and 18th centuries and experienced persecution for their beliefs and confiscation of their lands. Their numbers included Henry Russell, the famous explorer of the Pyrenees, who had been born of an Irish father escaping Catholic persecution at home and a French mother.

Also in the 19th century, from the cadet Killowen branch in county Down, came:

  • Dr, Charles W. Russell, a prodigious Catholic scholar at Maynooth
  • and Charles A. Russell from Newry, one of the leading lawyers of his time.  He became Lord Chief Justice of England in 1884, the first Catholic to hold this office.

The latter Charles had a sister Kate who entered the Convent of Mercy in 1849 and emerged as Sister Mary Baptist Russell.  Five years later she was crossing the Atlantic and America to found a new Convent of Mercy in San Francisco.  For forty years she worked there and she was revered by her adopted town.

Another old Russell family in Ireland was the one based at Seatown north of Dublin. They too were Catholic and lost most of their estates in the 17th century. But their home, Drynam House, remained with them until the 1920’s.

The Russell name has also been long associated with Limerick, with references to the name there as early as 1272. However, the main recorded presence post-dates the year 1650 when Cromwell laid siege to the town.  

Nathaniel Russell, a soldier in Cromwell’s army who died during the siege, was probably the forebear of later Russells. Russells were prominent merchants in Limerick in the 18th and 19th centuries, contributing to its commercial expansion and often serving as Mayor. Ted Russell, a more recent Limerick politician from this family, died in 2004.

America. There were two notable Joseph Russells in early New England history.

New England.  Joseph Russell of New Bedford was a descendant of John Russell who had come to Dartmouth, Massachusetts in 1661. Born in 1719, he is considered the founder of the New Bedford whaling industry.

There was another Joseph Russell, this time of Rhode Island, and another John Russell immigrant, this time to Newbury around 1650. These Russells got to Rhode Island via Cape Cod.  Joseph Russell trained and worked as a silversmith (some of his pieces have survived) and later served as Chief Justice of Rhode Island. His home in Providence, built in 1772, is still standing; as is the home of his son Nathaniel, a merchant, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Then there was an earlier John Russell from Ipswich in Suffolk who came on the Defence in 1635.  He settled in Wethersfield, Massachusetts when his son was made the pastor of the church there twelve years later.  His line was covered in Gordon Russell’s 1919 book Some of the Descendants of John Russell.

Elsewhere.  Thomas Russell, from a Birmingham family of ironmasters, came to Maryland in 1720 to set up Principio Ironworks, the first iron blast furnace in the country. He subsequently returned to England. But his son Thomas arrived in 1764 and produced cannonballs there for the American army during the Revolutionary War.

William Russell, born in 1735, was a prominent citizen of SW Virginia at the time of the Revolutionary War. Many of his descendants lived in Russell county, Virginia which was named after him. His son William was an early settler in Kentucky and Russell county in Kentucky was named after him.

George Russell, son of another William Russell, was born in Virginia around 1720.  He moved with his family to the Watauga settlement in North Carolina around 1770.  For his services in the Revolutionary War, he was rewarded with land grants in what became Tennessee and was an early settler in the Fall Creek area in 1785.

Canada.  Joseph Russell came to New Brunswick from Clackmannan in Scotland in 1819 and became a successful shipbuilder there. He and his family converted to Mormonism in 1840 and they migrated to Utah two years before Joseph’s death there in 1855.

William and Hannah Russell migrated from Kent with their nine children to Canada in 1857, first settling in Brockville on the St. Lawrence river and, then, seven years later, moving by boat to Elk Rapids on Lake Michigan.  They lived there for just on a hundred years. A family Bible showed their line of descent.

New Zealand. Thomas and Mary Russell from Ireland were early migrants to New Zealand, arriving in 1840. Thomas tried his luck in the Californian goldfields a decade later, but then returned. His son J.B. Russell became a prominent Auckland lawyer.

Russell Surname Miscellany

Reader Feedback – Russell Name Meaning.  As a Russell I enjoy browsing through your webpage that is full of interesting information on Russell history and its link to Kingston Russell in Dorset.

I was also most interested to read in your web page that the name Russell comes from the Old French rousel for “red.’  I have also read various texts that claim its origin from Rufus, Rushall, or Hrod.  Another one says that the first Russell on record was William Russel, named in the Lenton Priory Register as the son of a Ralph de Rosel from Dorset whose name is in the Winton Domesday Book.

It looks like the name Russell could have more than one origin, although the ‘Rosel’ from Dorset one seems to have the advantage of official documents to back it up.

Regards  Charles Russell (

Russells of Kingston Russell.  Sir John Russel was granted the royal manor of Kingston Russell near Weymouth in Devon for his services to the King.  He had under King John been Governor of Corfe Castle and was recorded as follows in the 1211 Book of Fees:

“John Russel holds Kingston for half a hide of land from the Lord King from the time of William the Bastard sometime King of England through the serjeanty of being marshal of the king’s buttery (i.e. storer of wine barrels) at Christmas and at Pentecost.”

The serjeanty changed during the minority of King Henry III to the counting of the King’s chessman and storing them away after a game.  After Sir John’s death in 1224 there followed Ralph, Sir William, Theobald, Ralph, Maurice, and Thomas. Thomas died in 1431 and Kingston Russell passed to his sisters who had married and therefore the manor was separated from the Russell family name.

Sir William was Constable of Carisbrook castle on the Isle of Wight. He married there Katherine de Aula, heiress of the Yaverland estate which Russell descendants held.  The Kingston Russell line continued with his son Theobald.  It was long thought that this Theobald had a son named William who was an ancestor of the Russell Dukes of Bedford.  But no such son existed.

Chenies Manor.  The Chenies Manor House in Buckinghamshire had been owned by the Cheyne family who were granted manorial rights there in 1180.  Sir John Cheyne built the current house around 1460.  But by 1526 it had been acquired by John Russell who became the 1st Earl of Bedford.

The manor house was extended into a palace prior to Henry VIII’s first visit there in 1534.  John Russell had risen to the lofty heights of an Earldom under Henry VIII, despite lacking aristocratic antecedents.  Unlike Thomas Cromwell, he was able to hang on to both his head and his title and, as a consequence, his descendants became Dukes of Bedford in their turn.

The Bedford chapel at Chenies holds monuments starting with John and his wife Anne Sapcote and continuing until Francis, the 10th Duke and his wife Adeline Marie.  The manor house remained in the possession of the Russells until 1954.

The Russells of New Bedford.  It was Joseph Russell, a prosperous Quaker farmer from Dartmouth, who had acquired land along the Acushnet river and first settled in the early 1700’s in what became the town of New Bedford.   He in fact suggested the name of New Bedford as the Dukes of Bedford in England also bore the name of Russell.

His elder son Caleb farmed, his younger son Joseph was one of the first merchants of New Bedford and many consider him the founder of the New Bedford whaling industry.  Under Joseph’s leadership the inhabitants of Bedford village became whalers and shipbuilders.  He lived a long life and died in New Bedford at the age of 85 in 1804.

George Russell, Tennessee Pioneer.  When Captain Russell and his family arrived in the Fall Creek area about 1785, by way of an Indian trail, they found only wilderness, deer, raccoons, fox, panthers and other “critters” filled the woods and made their way often to the creek for water.  The stream was probably the main attraction to Captain Russell, as an excellent spring was located there.

At a place that would later be known as Russellville, he built his home.

Captain Russell died in 1796.  The most accepted story of his death is that he went out in the woods around Russellville to hunt and, while gone, was killed by Indians. The next day, when the family set out in search for him, they found him lying in the woods with his hunting dog whimpering beside him.

John Russel of Elgin and His Descendants.  In 1805 John Russel, an Elgin merchant who consistently spelled his name with only one ‘l,’ rode to the new tweed mills in Galashiels.  After concluding his business there he spent a few days with a wheelwright Thomas Russell in Peebles, where he fell in love with his daughter Janet and asked for her hand.

In marrying John Russel, Janet joined a Moray family which had farmed at Alves for several generations. There were legendary links with the Royalist Alexander Russell of the Civil War who was said to have fled to Elgin after Marston Moor.  More prosaically, they were a branch of the Elgin Russells who had acquired Blackhall in Aberdeenshire.

John and Janet’s son Alexander (he preferred two ‘l’s) became proprietor of the Elgin Courant, following his father’s purchase of the Courier plant in 1834.  He bought new premises for the paper on the High Street in 1840 and was to be its editor for thirty five years.

Betty Willsher’s 2005 book A Scottish Family: The Story of Eight Generations covered these and six more generations of this family.

Russell Merchants in Limerick.  By 1760, when Limerick was proclaimed an open city, the Russells had established themselves as prominent merchants there.  William Russell was recorded as a merchant on Main Street in the 1769 Limerick directory. His vault is to be found at Limerick’s St. John’s Church of Ireland.

Philip Russell’s vault was marked as follows:

“Here are interred the rewards of Philip Russell.  He was born on the 6th of March 1750 and died on 24th of June 1832.  In this tomb also rest the remains of his wife Susan and his sons Francis Philip Henry Ivers and Whitecat Keane Russell.”

He had signed the pro-Union petition circulated in Limerick after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as had John Norris Russell.

His first cousin John Norris Russell founded the firm of J.N. Russell and Sons in Limerick.  He started out as a corn merchant and later became a shipowner and an industrialist.  He built the Newtown Pery Mills on Russell’s Quay and the Newtown Pery store adjacent to it on Henry Street.   He was described as “the most enterprising merchant Limerick ever saw.”  He died in 1859. 

Sister Mary Baptist Russell’s Arrival in San Francisco.  In 1854 at the age of twenty-five she set off from Ireland with seven companions to found the first Convent of Mercy west of the Rockies.

They journeyed three months across the Atlantic, down the east coast of America, across the Isthmus of Panama by overcrowded river boats, and then a twelve-mile mule trip through the steep mountains to the Pacific.  Finally they were bodily carried out to a waiting skiff. They arrived in San Francisco at 5 am on December 8, 1854. There was no one waiting for them and no place had been prepared for them to stay.

Their flock was a motley collection of gold seekers, banished miscreants and people of broken lives. Down muddy lanes and rough sidewalks to the festering ghettos and disease-ridden hovels they brought food to the hungry, medicine to the sick and comfort to the dying.

Their work expanded in all directions: schools for the illiterate, A House of Mercy for shelter and support for vulnerable, unemployed girls, an employment agency that annually placed over one thousand applicants in jobs, an orphanage for abandoned children, a Home for the homeless and unwanted aged poor, a hospital for the sick.

Henry Russell, The Irishman who Conquered the Pyrenees.  Henry Russell’s love of physical contact with the mountains led to his introduction of sleeping bags into the annals of mountaineering.  His first sleeping bag was made of six sheepskins. Next he introduced shelters for climbers.  Wanting only natural items around him, he had local artisans build rock caves with iron doors on his beloved Vignemale in the Pyrenees.

He entertained there not only other climbers, but friends from high society.  Scientists, botanists, explorers and politicians overnighted in these well appointed caves.  He ordered in a large supply of food and wine, plus liquors and cigars.  They often would have an evening round of hot wine, then climb about a half hour to the summit to see the sun set.

His version of ecstasy was to spend the night buried in the top of his mountain with only his head exposed so he could, as he explained, “feel” and “be” the mountain.

His last cave, called the Grotte du Paradis, was built in 1893 just 18 meters below the summit. He began to spend more and more time there, living as a hermit.  Russell made his last ascent and sleepover at his beloved mountain in 1904. He spent his last five years writing books about his travels and died in 1909.

Russell Names

  • Lord John Russell was twice Prime Minister of England in the mid 19th century.
  • Jack Russell, known as the Sporting Parson, was a founding member of the Kennel Club. The Jack Russell terrier was named after him.
  • Dr. Charles Russell was a prominent Catholic scholar of the 19th century at Maynooth in Ireland.
  • Bertrand Russell was an eminent British philosopher, writer and, in his later years, a campaigner for nuclear disarmament.
  • Bill Russell was the leader of the great Boston Celtic basketball teams of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
  • Willy Russell from a working class Liverpool background was the author of popular plays such as Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine.

Russell Numbers Today

  • 83,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 84,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 59,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Russell and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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