Swift Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Swift Meaning
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
often given to a messenger or courier.  In the household books of
King Edward III a Ralph Swyft was recorded as his courier.

Resources on

Swift Ancestry

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
, 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.

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
  • and his son Edmund Swift who was Keeper of the Crown Jewels at
    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 which settled in Pennsylvania, is
the country music singing star Taylor Swift.

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,
.  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.


Swift 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

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

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

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.



Select Swift Names

  • Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in
    1667, was the Anglo-Irish satirist, author of Gulliver’s
  • 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.

Select Swift Numbers

  • 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).


Select 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.




Click here for return to front page

Leave a Reply