Shaw Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Shaw Surname Meaning

The Shaw surname in England and Scotland may have either topographical or locational origins.

As a topographical name, Shaw was used for someone who lived by a copse, wood or thicket, derived from the Old English sceaga or “dweller by the wood.” Alternatively, the surname might have been come from a number of place names with the same root in Lancashire, Yorkshire and elsewhere. 

The Shaw name can then again have Chinese roots, from the Chinese Shao; or be Jewish.  

Shaw Surname Resources on The Internet

Shaw Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England, Scotland and China
  • to Ireland, America, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore

England.  The earliest spelling was Shaghe, as in William Shaghe in Somerset in 1333. However, the name has been mainly found in the north of England. The three counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire accounted for over half of the Shaws in the 1881 census.

Lancashire and Cheshire.  The largest Shaw concentration at that time was in the town of Oldham, which has a Shaw district. The Shaw name (del Shag) was to be found at Saddleworth, now part of Oldham, in 1379 and Shaws have continued there ever since.  

Richard de Shaw was recorded in Widnes, Lancashire in 1284 and an early Lancashire family near Chorley was called Asshawe. Hugo de Shawe of Chester lived around 1280 and held the manor of Haslington in Cheshire. Roger Shaw, born around 1550, was a yeoman farmer at Hulme Walfield near Congleton in Cheshire. There was also a long-standing Shaw family in Kirkham, Lancashire.

Yorkhire.  Prominent Shaws in Yorkshire have been:

  • John Shawe from Ecclesfield near Sheffield who was an influential Puritan preacher at the time of the Protectorate.
  • William and George Shaw of Sheffield, Quakers who suffered for their beliefs in the 1680’s.
  • a Shaw family, beginning with John Shaw in the 1770’s, who were mill owners at Holywell Green near Halifax until the 1930’s.
  • Henry Shaw, born in Huddersfield, who founded the Shaw family woollen business there in the 1840’s.
  • and Percy Shaw, born in Halifax in 1890, who invented the ubiquitous cats-eyes on British roads.

James Shaw, a wool sorter in Leeds, was the first of what proved to be a very talented and musical family.  In the 1870’s his son James moved to London where he became the organist at the Hampstead parish church.  His son Martin earned great renown as a composer, conductor and theater producer.  And Martin’s grandson Sebastian was an actor, a matinee idol in the 1920’s to a role in the 1983 Star Wars film.

Elsewhere.   There were Shaw families from elsewhere.  In Sussex Wylliam Shaw was born at Horsham in 1522.  He was the first in a line that continued there and elsewhere in Sussex into the 19th century.  A Shaw family were Quakers at Shipley near Horsham in the 1660’s.

Shaw was also a gypsy name originating from Whittlesford in Cambridgeshire.  The first of these Shaws may have been Old Moses Shaw who was living there around the year 1780.

Scotland. The English Shaw name spread into the Lowlands of Scotland – particularly into Lanarkshire, with Shaws originally being found around Paisley Abbey. One early family, which lasted until 1752, was known as the Shaws of Sauchie.

A Shaw family line has been traced from the marriage of Robert Shaw and Agnes Anderson at Kilsyth in north Lanarkshire about 1660. Around the same time John Shaw was the laird of the small estate of Bagarran in Renfrewshire.  His daughter Christian Shaw had an eventful and eventually a very successful life.

Highland.  Shaw has also been a Highland clan name. The name here can be an English rendering of the Gaelic personal name Sitheach, meaning “wolf.” The Shaw clan (or clan Ay) of Tordarroch near Inverness at one time held the stronghold of Rothiemurchus in the Cairngorms:

  • James Shaw, who was killed at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, was regarded as the first chief of these Shaws.
  • while Aeneas Shaw, a son of a latter chief, came to New York in 1770 but, being a Loyalist, he headed north after the Revolutionary War to Canada.

William Shaw, born in 1749, was a controversial Gaelic lexicographer who was well known to the English dictionary writer Samuel Johnson.

Ireland. Irish Shaws are more likely to be of Scottish origin: 

  • William Shaw, a Scottish soldier in Cromwell’s army who settled in Kilkenny, was the forebear of the playwright George Bernard Shaw. 
  • it was a Scottish soldier at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689 who was the forebear of the Shaws of Bushy Park near Dublin. 
  • and Thomas Shaw in 1755 was the first of the Shaws of Castledermot in county Kildare.  

Shaw may also have Irish origins, a variation of the Seoighe name in Kildare or the O’Shea or Shee name in Tipperary and Kilkenny.

America. Early Shaws came to New England.

New England.  The earliest was probably John Shaw, of uncertain origins, who came to the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts in 1626:

“Although Shaw was not one of the first settlers of Plymouth colony, he and only one other man, Phineas Pratt, were given the privileges belonging to old-timers, ‘those arriving on the first four Pilgrim ships, the Mayflower, Fortune, Ann, and Little James.”  

In 1633, John Shaw led a team of colonists that made the cut river between Green Harbor and Duxbury Bay, the first canal to be built in America.

There followed Abraham Shaw from Halifax in Yorkshire who came with his family in 1636 and settled in Watertown, Massachusetts.  Roger Shaw, possibly Scottish, came in 1638 and made his home in Cambridge where he was the town clerk.  In 1647 he bought land in Hampton, New Hampshire and moved there.

Elsewhere.  Other early Shaws in America were:

  • John Shaw who was born in Charles county, Maryland in 1663.
  • John Shaw, a Quaker who came to Bucks county, Pennsylvania in 1697.
  • and another Quaker, Samuel Shaw from Antrim in Ireland, who came to Richland, Pennsylvania in 1729 and farmed there.  Later Shaws of this family moved to Ohio in the early 1800’s.

John Shaw, born in 1790 in Scotland,  was one of the pioneers of that part of Kentucky bordering onto the Mississippi river.  He served as a scout in the Indian war of 1811 and was later a merchant and a representative in the state legislature in what became Hickman county.

Jewish.  The Shaw name can be Jewish. Artie Shaw, born Arthur Arshawsky, was a popular American big band leader of the 1930’s.

Canada. Early Shaws in Canada were from Scotland. Their numbers included William Shaw, a soldier during the Seven Years War who returned and settled in Nova Scotia in the 1770’s; and Angus Shaw from the Scottish Highlands who came to Montreal in 1786 and was a fur trader in the employ of the NW Company.

Even Aeneas Shaw, the Loyalist who had departed New York in 1791 for New Brunswick and later settled in Ontario, was originally from the Scottish Highlands.

New Zealand.  An early arrival was Elihu Shaw and his wife Mary from Sussex in 1838.  His story was recounted in Gwen Howe’s 1988 book The Gardener and the Squire’s Daughter.  Elihu lived amongst the Maoris for some years before moving to Auckland.

His son Elihu followed from Sussex with his wife Amelia in 1861.  However, Amelia died shortly after their arrival, aged just twenty two.  Elihu remarried two years later and he and his new wife Sarah raised ten children in Oratia, an Auckland suburb.

David and Janet Shaw in Ayrshire had contemplated emigrating to Australia, only to change their minds on learning that a ship would soon be leaving Glasgow for New Zealand.  In December 1864 they departed on the Viola with their growing family of six and landed in Auckland in April 1865.

They moved to a new settlement near Auckland at Clevedon where David became a farmer.  Later they bought land at Tauwhare at a place Granny Shaw called Scotsman’s Valley.

Shaw Surname Miscellany

Hugo de Shawe of Cheshire and Sir John Shaw of London.  Early Shaws were from Cheshire.  Hugo de Shawe of Chester was said to have distinguished himself in the fighting around Ruthinin 1280 against Llewelyn the Welsh prince and was granted the manor of Haslington near present-day Crewe.  His son Randal de Shaw was its first occupier.  The manor passed in the next century to the Vernon family who were responsible for the building of the Haslington Hall which stands today.

Sir John Shaw, the son of a London vintner, claimed descent from these Shaws.  He was a Royalist and was made a baronet after the Restoration.  This position enabled him to build a new manor house, Eltham Lodge, on his estate in Kent.

Shaws of Saddleworth.  The Shaw name is a long-established name in Saddleworth, now a part of the conurbation of Oldham in Lancashire (although it was originally in Yorkshire).  The Shaw district of Oldham lies nearby.  The earliest Shaw recorded in the parish records of Saddleworth was that of Thomas Shaw, son of Giles, who was born in 1656.

Shaws were yeoman farmers in Furlane hamlet and were also strongly associated with St. Chad’s church in Uppermill.  St Chad’s House and gardens were originally owned by the Shaw family which occupied the site from the early 18th century. The farm was rebuilt in 1798.  In the 1840’s the front was rebuilt by George Shaw, a local architect who lived there.

The 1822 trade directory for Saddleworth showed Shaw tradesmen being mainly in the Delph area of Saddleworth.

Shaws in Delph in 1822 Occupation
Abram Shaw baker
Charles Shaw drysalter
George Shaw innkeeper of White Lion
John Shaw boot and shoe mfg.
Joseph Shaw woollen merchant

But there were also other Shaws in trades in the Uppermill and Dobcross parts of Saddleworth.  In 1844 Giles Shaw was recorded as letting his woollen mill in Uppermill to James Mills, a cloth finisher.

The 1881 census counted more than 700 Shaws in Saddleworth. 

The Highland Shaw Clan.  The Shaws were an ancient Highland clan which traced its ancestry to the old Earls of Fife. Initially, prior to the general adoption of surnames and specifically the use of the name Shaw for that purpose, the Shaws were the first chiefs of clan Mackintosh.

The clan name derived from Shaw Mor Coriaclich, great-grandson of Angus, the 6th chief of Mackintosh, and Eva, an heiress of clan Chattan.  By tradition he led the clan Chattan contingent to victory at the famed clan battle of the North Inch at Perth in 1396 and was, as a reward, given the lands of Rothiemurchus, which became the first seat of the clan.

The Shaw clan name later came from the anglicization of the Gaelic name Sitheach meaning “wolf.”  The Gaelic names for the clan were Na Siach and Mhic Sheaghd.

The Shaws of Sauchie.  The Shaws of Sauchie date from the early 1400’s when James Shaw of Greenock married Mary de Annand, the heiress of Sauchie.

One of their sons, James, was killed by a cannon-shot during the siege of Dunbar castle in 1478, another, George, was the Abbot of Paisley.  Later came Sir James Shaw, known as the “Sauchieburn Shaw,” who was involved in the conspiracy against James III which culminated in the 1488 Battle of Sauchieburn and the assassination of the king.

It was said that the Shaws of Sauchie were “borne from the earliest times as hereditary cup-bearers to the Scots kings.”  Apparently in connection with that hereditary office, these Shaws also held hereditarily the office of Master of His Majesty’s wine cellar.

This Shaw line lasted until 1752.

The Story of Christian Shaw.  Christian Shaw was born in 1685, the eldest daughter of John Shaw, laird of the small estate of Bargarran in Renfrewshire.

At the age of eleven she began to have fits and strange visions.  She claimed that Catherine Campbell and others in the household whom she disliked were torturing her and that her body showed the signs of severed pinch marks.   Her father persuaded the sheriff deputy of Lanarkshire to jail those his daughter accused of harassing her since witches lost their power when imprisoned.  But the victim’s condition showed little improvement.

In total 21 men, women and children were thrown into prison and ‘witch prickers’ examined them. They were brought to trial in Paisley in 1697 and charged with witchcraft and murder. Four women, including Catherine Campbell, and three men were sentenced to death. The executions were watched by a large crowd which probably included Christian.  And she was cured.

Understandably, Christian was not a hot property on the marriage market.  She was 34 before she found a husband and he died within three years.  The widowed Christian then found a small house in Johnstone and took up spinning.

At that time, Dutch lace and linen led the world. They had invented a mill that could twist flax to produce a strong, consistent thread.  Christian found that she was unable to produce its equal. But she saw an opportunity. She persuaded a Glasgow merchant of her acquaintance to bring back the vital bits of machinery on his next visit to the Netherlands and she built a little thread mill on Bargarran.  Soon her products were in demand from embroiders and lace-makers. Others in Renfrewshire, particularly in Paisley, copied Christian’s methods and she had spawned a flourishing industry.

As for Christian?  In 1737, in her 50’s and the possessor of a substantial fortune, she married William Livingstone, an Edinburgh glover.  And they lived happily ever after. 

John Shaw the Quaker.  These Quaker Shaw lines may or may not have been related.

John Shaw of Shipley in Sussex was a Quaker who was jailed in 1659 for his refusal to pay church tithes.  His Tudor house there, known as Little Slatter, was used as a Quaker meeting house and was in 1691 sold to the Quakers for conversion to a permanent place of worship.

William Penn, when not in America, was a resident from 1676 at nearby Warminghurst and attended Quaker meetings at this house.  Penn was said to have been delighted when this house, which later became known as the Blue Idol, was established for Quaker use.

The second John Shaw, born around 1670, was also a Quaker and was said to have embarked with William Penn on his second voyage to America in 1697.  He and his wife Susannah purchased land in Bucks county, Pennsylvania in Southampton township where they raised their family.  John died there in 1722.

The Shaw Cemetery in Hampton, New Hampshire.  Roger Shaw, the first of his family, does not appear here.  But his son Benjamin does, as do other Shaws.

1702.  Benjamin Shaw, Born July, 1641, died 1718. The date of 1702 carved in the beginning was put there years before. Shaw carved it himself as a prediction and missed the mark by several years.

1787.  In memory of Mr. Edward Shaw who died July 16, 1787 in the 64th year of his age.

1842.  Simeon Shaw died Sept. 6, 1842; AE 85 yrs. 3 mo. “When I lie bury’d deep in dust, My flesh shall be thy care; These with’ring limbs with thee I trust, To raise them strong and fair.”

George Bernard Shaw’s Ancestry.  George Bernard Shaw’s ancestor William Shaw was descended from the Scottish Shaws of Sauchie who had participated in the Plantation of Ulster.  When in Ireland William had joined the British army fighting under Cromwell and was rewarded for his services by land grants in Kilkenny. His family home became Sandpitts in Kilkenny.

Son William fought for King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689.  And soldiering remained a feature for this family, with a father and son both serving in the Scottish “Black Watch” regiment in the 18th century.

Bernard Shaw, the grandfather of GBS, was the last of these military Shaws.   He had eleven children, most of whom his grandson called ‘downstarts.’  The ‘Shaw family of dipsomaniacs,’ as Shaw described them, were on the male side all ‘unconvivial dramdrinkers.’  His father George Carr Shaw, a failing corn merchant in Dublin, came into this category.  Shaw’s affections instead were with his distant relatives, the Shaws of Bushy Park.

The Shaws of Bushy Park.  William Shaw had gone out to Ireland from Scotland and fought for King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689.  He was rewarded by a grant of land.  But it was not until almost a century later that his great-grandson Robert moved to Dublin and prospered there as a merchant.  He acquired the Terenure House estate outside Dublin in 1785.

Ten years later his son Sir Robert married Maria Wilkinson, the daughter of a neighboring family who brought with her the 110 acre Bushy Park estate.  This now became the principal Shaw estate.  The Shaw family that was established there became an important and prominent part of Dublin’s financial and civic life.

Sir Robert’s wife Maria died in 1831, having borne him nine children.  His cousin, Bernard Shaw, had died in 1826 and Sir Robert provided Bernard’s widow, Frances, with a cottage on the Terenure estate where she lived for the next 45 years.  On several occasions Sir Robert proposed to Frances, but he was turned down each time.  One of Frances’ grandchildren, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, was to be a regular visitor.

In 1953 after 166 years, Maria Shaw the last of the Shaw family left the house.

Granny Shaw at Scotsman’s Valley in New Zealand.  Granny Shaw loved Scotsman’s Valley, Tauwhare as it reminded her of her beloved Highlands in Scotland.  She would think nothing of riding a horse or driving a buggy into town to attend her ‘kirk.’

A little below average height, she was strong and wiry and spoke her Scotch brogue so quickly and broadly that it was difficult for the average colonial to understand her. It was probably for this reason that children usually feared her and invariably treated her with considerable respect.

It was the skill of Granny Shaw in the art of butter-making and in the manufacture of cheese with a homemade press which enabled the family to ‘make do’ until initial crops of wheat and oats came to harvest. The butter and cheese were taken on horseback to Te Aroha where it met a ready market.

Granny Shaw lived to a great age, passing away in 1916 at ninety-four, leaving behind one hundred and thirty-seven descendants and a record of courage and true pioneering spirit.

Shaw Names

  • John Shaw was a prominent English architect in the early 19th century who pioneered semi-detached housing in London.
  • George Bernard Shaw, born in Dublin, was a great English playwright and socialist advocate of the early 20th century.
  • Napier Shaw was the British meteorologist who developed the air pressure unit milibar.
  • Artie Shaw, born Arthur Arshawsky, was one of the great jazz clarinetists.
  • Runme Shaw and his brother Run Run Shaw, born in China, were the founders of the Shaw Organiization in Singapore and pioneers of the movie industry in SE Asia.

Shaw Numbers Today

  • 90,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 49,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Shaw and Like Surnames

These names are locational, describing someone who lived in those medieval times by the side of a bank, or by a barn or a lane or a shaw (which means a wood) or a wood and so forth.  Both the oak tree and the ash tree have in fact provided locational surnames – Oakes and Nash (from atten Ash).  Here are some of these locational surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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