Swift Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Swift Surname Meaning

The surname Swift came from the Old English word swift and probably originated as a nickname for someone who was swift, a fast runner.  A Suffolk entry of 1222 showed “Nicholas, ye sonne of Swyfte.”  Swift was a name often given to a messenger or courier.  In the household books of King Edward III a Ralph Swyft was recorded as his courier.

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Swift Surname Ancestry

England.  Swift is a Yorkshire name.  The early wills of Yorkshire showed that there were Swifts at Easington in Holderness from the 1460’s.

Yorkshire.  One Swift family dates back to the early 1300’s and a Bryan Swyfte who was granted land at Allergill in Durham.  His family was later to be found in Rotherham in Yorkshire where Robert Swift, known as the rich mercer of Rotherham, profited from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century:

  • these Swifts then established themselves in some style at Broom Hall near Sheffield.
  • another branch moved to Kent and later, with the Rev. Thomas Swift of Goodrich, to Herefordshire.

The Swift surname distribution by the late 19th century showed that the greater number were still in Yorkshire, in particular in the Sheffield and Rotherham areas, with many also in Lancashire and London.

Elsewhere.  A Swift family was to be found in public records in Skelmersdale, Lancashire in the 16th century – when Peter Swift was involved in a court case over property against his father John.  Swifts stayed numerous in that area.

Swifts were also to be found in London by the 17th century.  There was a long-established Swift family at St. Giles Cripplegate; and William Swift had started a publishing business in London in the early 18th century. The business continued with James Platt Swift from Halifax in Yorkshire and his sons in the 19th century.

Ireland.  In 1627 Barnham Swift of the Yorkshire Swifts was granted lands in Ireland.  He was followed in the 1650’s by the Royalist Swifts from Herefordshire, four brothers led by Godwin, the sons of the Rev. Thomas Swift.  These Swifts acquired property near Jenkinstown in Kilkenny, Swiftes Heath and Foulksrath castle, and their descendants still live in that area.

“It was not a disaster to be born a Swift.  The Swift family in Ireland were gentlemen.  They owned land, occupied valuable properties, and made a good living from the law.  They were adventurers who did well in Ireland at a time when to be rapacious and unprincipled were advantages.”

From one of the Kilkenny sons Jonathan, a Dublin lawyer, came Jonathan Swift, the famous satirist who became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  The line later produced some odd and poetic Swifts:

  • Theophilus Swift who was shot in a duel with the Duke of Richmond and spent time in Newgate prison
  • and his son Edmund Swift who was Keeper of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.

The Swift name in Ireland today is to be found in Dublin, Kilkenny, and Wexford.  The Swifts of county Mayo are not of English origin.  Swift – as with the surnames Rush and Speed – were adopted there as an anglicized form of the Gaelic O’Fuada or Foody.

America.  William and Joan Swift from Bocking in Essex came to New England around 1630, settling first in Watertown and then moving to the Cape Cod town of Sandwich in 1639.  The farm William bought there was the largest in Sandwich at the time and was still in the possession of his lineal descendant Shadrach Freeman Swift in the late 19th century.

William Swift of this family was a cattle drover in West Sandwich in the early 19th century.  He had three sons:

  • Noble Swift, who stayed at home and expanded his father’s business
  • and Gustavus and Nathan Swift who moved to Chicago and founded the Swift meat-packing empire.

A much later descendant, from a line that went via Connecticut and Pennsylvania, is the country music singing star Taylor Swift who was born in Reading, Pennsylvania.

There was another William Swift, but this time a clergyman of Herefordshire Swift descent, who came out to Virginia via Bermuda with his family in 1728.  His descendants were and are to be found in Hanover county, Virginia.  Some Swifts from this family settled in San Antonio, Texas in the 19th century and Arthur Swift was a founder of the First Baptist Church of Seguin, Texas.

Meanwhile, Flower Swift arrived from London in 1732 and settled in Frederick county, Maryland.  Flower Swifts were later to be found in North Carolina and in Elbert county, Georgia.

Australia and New Zealand. John and Mary Swift from Chesterfield in Derbyshire came out to Australia and settled in Melbourne in the 1820’s.  Later Swifts from this family moved onto New Zealand.

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Swift Surname Miscellany

Early Swift Wills in Yorkshire

1461 William Swyfte Tinsley (near Sheffield)
1466 John Swyfte Easington in Holderness
1478 Thomas Swyft vicar of Egglesfield
1504 Henry Swyft Easington in Holderness
1520 Henry Swift Tunstall in Holderness
1521 Henry Swift Sheffield
1528 John Swift Easington in Holderness
1529 John Swift Easington in Holderness (son and
heir)

The second half of the 16th century showed the Swift will numbers mainly in Sheffield.

Robert Swift the Rich Mercer.  Robert Swift lived to be 84.  He was known as the rich mercer of Rotherham, benefitting as he did from Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (securing valuable property from the Worksop priory). There is a monument to him and his wife erected in 1561 in Rotherham parish church, with the following inscription:

“Here under this tomb are placed and buried the bodies of Robert Swift esq. and Anne his first wife, who lived many years in this town of Rotherham in virtuous fame, great wealth and good worship.  They were pitiful to the poor and relieved them liberally and to their friends no less than bountiful. Truly they feared God who plentifully poured His blessings upon them.

The said Anne died in the month of June in the year of our Lord God 1539 in the 67th year of her age; and the said Robert departed the 8th of August in the year of our Lord God 1561 in the 84th year of his age.

On whose souls, with all Christian souls, the omnipotent Lord have mercy.  Amen.  Respice finem.”

His younger brother William made his will in 1568.  In it he directed that “every poor man and woman and child shall attend his funeral and shall have a dinner and a penny in silver.”

The Swift family was prominent in the area and intermarried with other local gentry, the de Wickersleys, Reresbys, and Watertons.  They later moved to Sheffield where they owned the historic Broom Hall house.

The Ghost of the Swift Girl in Foulksrath Castle.  When Dean Swift was the owner of Foulksrath castle near Jenkinstown in Kilkenny, the story goes that his daughter fell in love with an Irish boy.  He locked her away in the “Cuckoo Nest” room to stop her from seeing him.  The girl is believed to have finally been killed by her father in this room.  It seems that the ghost of the girl can still be found in this “Cuckoo Nest” room.

The castle, a striking 16th century Norman house tower, has recently been transformed into a hostel. It still retains its medieval features.  These include a magnificent dining room with enormous fireplaces and a spiral staircase to the upper floors.  The staircase appears to end up by the dorm, but there is indeed a secret passageway out to the roof.

Another castle story tells of a Swift who had built a flying machine in the dining room.  He had to knock a wall down to convey the machine up the staircase to the roof.  He then put a manservant at the controls of the machine and launched it, much to the hazard of the said manservant.

The Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift.  The best-known example of the Anglo-Irish was Dr. Jonathan Swift, poet, satirist, and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Fighting bitterly against the poverty and injustice which he saw inflicted on Ireland by the self-interest of the English government, his struggle was nonetheless largely on behalf of his
fellow Irish Protestants.  He was aware that “government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery” could apply just as well to the relationship between Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Irish, as it could to the relationship between the English government and the Anglo-Irish.

In attacking injustice done to his own race, he was in the peculiar and uncomfortable position of implicitly attacking injustice done by them.  In Swift’s case at least common humanity could outweigh partisan considerations.  Some of his most famous work is universal in its implications.  A Modest Proposal, written in response to mass starvation amongst the most destitute Irish, satirically suggested selling their young children as food for gentlemen and even offered some helpful recipes.

Swift Surname Distribution in the 1881 British Census

County Numbers (000’s) Percent
Yorkshire   2.5    27
Lancashire   2.5    27
London   0.6     7
Derbyshire   0.5     5
Staffordshire   0.4     4
Elsewhere   2.7    30
Total   9.2   100

The two main areas in Yorkshire where Swifts were to be found were Sheffield and Rotherham.

Nobel Swift and the Birth of the Swift Meat Packing Business.  Nobel Swift was born and grew up in West Sandwich, Massachusetts. He was a drover in his early years.  He would travel with his father to the Brighton market, buy livestock, and drive the herds down-country to Sagamore and Sandwich.  There the cattle were butchered and dressed and then sold to meat dealers all down the Cape.  It was from such humble beginnings that the Swift’s meat packing business began.

It was said that when he drove his herds down from Brighton he’d keep the poor beasts from water during the last twenty miles.  When they finally got to the brook in Sagamore they’d drink enormous quantities of water, which would of course raise their weight.

Nobel went into business with his brothers, Gustavus and Nathan, when they started their owned dressed meat business.  Some in fact have said that it was Nobel’s ultra-competitive spirit that drove Gustavus and Nathan out of Sagamore to Chicago.  Nobel held an interest in their Chicago operations, but he never left his family homestead in Massachusetts.

Nobel was also involved in cranberry growing and was one of the early pioneers in that field.  Through a keen foresight and an uncommon business sense, he was able to accumulate a fortune of his own and became one of the largest landowners on the Upper Cape.

He was said to be “a man of fixed ideas,” one who was “not afraid to speak his mind whether in town meetings or anywhere else.”  At one point he was dropped from membership of the Methodist meetinghouse. Apparently he would just sit there and roar with laughter and his cackling and crowing would interrupt the sermons.

Swifts in Hanover County, Virginia.  In 1933, Mrs. Aletha Pearl Lockhart (nee Swift) went to Virginia from her home near Longwoods, Maryland, to search for records of the Swift family in Hanover County. Virginia.  She went to the place where the Swifts for several generations lived and walked over the ruins of her grandfather’s old home in which her father (Francis Marion Swift) and all of his brothers and sisters were born.

The family burying ground was still there, only one tombstone being left with the inscription barely visible. She also saw where the old St. Martin’s Parish Church stood, very near the Swift property. She visited relatives of her father and found that they had a great deal of information in regard to the Swift family.

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Swift Names
  • Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667, was the Anglo-Irish satirist, author of Gulliver’s Travels.
  • Gustavus Swift founded the meat-packing empire in the American Midwest that bears his name.
  • Frank Swift from Blackpool in Lancashire was England’s goalkeeper in its international football team of the late 1940’s.
  • Taylor Swift is a hugely popular American country singer/songwriter.

Swift Numbers Today
  • 19,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 7,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).
Swift 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.

BirdFoxKiddShakespeare
BrownGayLightfootSwift
CoxGouldMoodyWagstaff
CroweGrayPeacockWilde
DrinkwaterHardySavageWren

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