Thomas Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Thomas Surname Meaning

The Biblical Thomas was initially a priest’s name but then emerged as a surname throughout Europe.  The English pronunciation as “t” rather than “th” (as would have been proper from the Greek theta) is the result of French influence from an early date.  The name became popular as a personal name in England after the martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket in 1170.

Thomas Surname Resources  on The Internet

Thomas Surname Ancestry

  • from SW England and Wales
  • to America, Canada and Australia

The Thomas numbers today in Europe today are approximately as follows:

  • UK, 220,000
  • France, 110,000
  • and Germany, 50,000.  

The Welsh influence accounts for the higher Thomas numbers in the UK.  Thomases in France are highly concentrated in Brittany.  There is another area of Thomases, in Lorraine near the German border and in Rheinland on the other side.

England.  Thomas first emerged as a surname in Wiltshire in 1275.  Its usage had spread to Devon and Cornwall by the 16th century. 

Cornwall.  Thomas records at Helston date from the 1610’s and at Sithney from the 1660’s.  Thomas was the second ranked name in Cornwall in 1881.  The actress Kristin Scott Thomas hails from Redruth in Cornwall.  

Many of these Thomases were miners, the best-known being Charles Thomas who was responsible for the successful development of the Dolcoath mine at Camborne in the early 1800’s.  However, the slump in the 1850’s and 1860’s pushed many of these miners to leave and to seek opportunities elsewhere.  A few did well and returned, as the West Briton reported in January 1852:

“Two miners, Nicholas and William Thomas of the parish of Northill near Launceston, have lately returned to their homes from California, bringing with them above £1,500 each.  Nicholas is a married man with three children and when he left his family were penniless and destitute.”

But most did not come back.  The three sons of Charles Thomas sought mining challenges in Ireland.  The majority headed for Australia.

Wales.  Thomas began to appear as a surname in south Wales in the 16th century.  Early Thomases were:

  • various Thomases lived at Plas Llanmihangel near Cowbridge in Glamorgan from the 1520’s to the 1680’s.  This Thomas family was said to be wealthy and linked to the Herberts who became the Earls of Pembroke.  They were later to be found at Tregroes House in Pencoed.
  • a Thomas family obtained the Wenvoe castle estate near Cardiff in 1560 and Edmund Thomas built an imposing mansion there.  A later Edmund Thomas was a staunch Cromwellian supporter during the Civil War.
  • while the Thomases of Llanbradach and Ystrad Mynach dated from the 1640’s.  William Thomas was sheriff of Glamorgan in 1675.

One Thomas family from Llanelli in Carmarthenshire was copper refiners in the early 1800’s before the copper mines there were all worked out. 

The Thomas of the poet Dylan Thomas began in the 1820’s when Evan and Anne Harries of Llanybri in Carmarthenshire gave, for some unknown reason, the surname Thomas to six of their children.  Dylan’s father David was a teacher in Swansea.

Rhondda Valley.  Thomases from Aberdare in the Rhondda valley were pioneers of the Welsh coal industry, starting with Samuel Thomas in the 1850’s.  He made his home at Ysguborwen House.  D.A. Thomas, the 15th of his 17 children, was the one who expanded his coal empire and was made Viscount Rhondda in 1918 for his war services.

By the time of the 1891 census, more than half of the Thomases in Wales were to be found in the county of Glamorgan, with the largest concentration there in the Rhondda valley.

America. Captain John Thomas of Carmarthen commanded attention in 1688 when he was asked by Parliament to convey to William of Orange in Holland their desire for him to come to England and accept the English throne.

In 1694 he decided to move to America and he settled in Braintree, Massachusetts where he died in unusual circumstancesHis descendants were to be found in Weymouth, Massachusetts and later in Troy, New York.

Tristram Thomas had come to Maryland from Kent in the 1650’s, marrying and settling down in Talbot county.  A later Tristram fought in the Revolutionary War and held the rank of Brigadier General.  He was a distinguished member of the South Carolina Senate until his death in 1817.  His grandson George was a successful Union General in the Civil War.

Pennsylvania. This state attracted many from Wales, at first because of its religious tolerance of dissenters and second because its emerging iron and coal industry in the 19th century mirrored the one in south Wales, but there was the promise of higher wages.

Two dissenting Thomases arriving there were:

  • James Thomas. a Quaker in Carmarthenshire who had been excommunicated with his wife from their local church at Llanboidy.  They came to Pennsylvania in 1686 and settled in Merion, Chester county.
  • and the Rev. Owen Thomas who became a Baptist minister for the Welsh tract in Pennsylvania in 1707.  One line of his family migrated to Kentucky.  John Thomas from Kentucky was a General in the War of 1812.  Another line established themselves in 1778 at the Glenowen Farm in Loudoun county, Virginia, where they breed cattle today.

David Thomas, one of the foremost ironmasters in Wales, relocated to Pennsylvania in 1839 and started in the Lehigh valley the first successful anthracite iron furnace in the United States.  His achievement earned him the nickname of “Father Thomas.” 

John J. Thomas, brought up in the coal mining town of Brynmawr in Breconshire, departed with his family for Pennsylvania in 1848.  He settled in Scranton, being one of the first Welsh miners to arrive there. 

Elsewhere.   Richard Thomas, originally from Wales, fought in the Revolutionary War and afterwards accepted a land grant in western North Carolina.  He died young, too young in fact to know his son who had to be raised by a single mother in a lowly mountain home.

However, this son, William Holland Thomas, became one of the most influential figures in western North Carolina’s history.  He was adopted by the local Cherokee tribe, acted as their interpreter and attorney, and led them as their chief during the Civil War.

Canada.  A Thomas family from Devon was prominent from the late 1700’s in the early history of Newfoundland, as sea captains, merchants, and land developers.  William Thomas built his home Devon Place in the capital St. John’s in 1843.

Another William Thomas, this time born in Suffolk, emigrated with his family to Toronto in 1843.  He was an architect and designed some of the fine decorated Gothic Revival buildings in the city.  His son William continued his father’s work, but in Montreal.

Australia.  Robert Thomas from a Welsh farm in Montgomeryshire was an early arrival in South Australia, getting there with his family in 1837 and living for a time in tents and a rush hut.

He published the colony’s first newspapers.  The diaries of his wife Mary have been preserved and they provide a valuable account of the early settlement.  Their son William and their grandson Sir Robert were also South Australian newspaper proprietors.

Many Thomas miners from Cornwall set off for South Australia in the 1850’s and 1860’s.   They went principally to the Moonta and Kapunda copper mines there.  Some later moved onto the Broken Hill mine in NSW.

Thomas Surname Miscellany

Thomas at Wenvoe.  The Thomas family inherited the Wenvoe estate in Glamorgan in 1560 when Jevan ap Harpway of Tresimont in Hertfordshire married Catherine, the only daughter and heiress of Thomas ap Thomas.  But it was Edmund Thomas, his son by a second wife, who had a swift rise in fortune and was responsible for building the mansion at Wenvoe.

Wenvoe was occupied by several generations of the Thomas family.  A later Edmund Thomas was a staunch Parliamentarian during the Civil War and was made a peer by Cromwell.  A later still Edmund embarked on a major landscaping of the estate in the 1750’s.  Lord Verulam who visited Wenvoe in 1769 wrote:

“Wenvoe is not at all worth seeing; the grounds about it being laid out in the modern taste are rather pleasing and show the genius of the father of the present possessor, who, fired with the zeal of electioneering and improving his place, spent here more than the income of his estate would allow; the ill consequences of which the son now experiences in such a manner that he is obliged to pay off the debts his father contracted by parting with his inheritance.”

Unfortunately, all these improvements had been more ambitious than the available finances.  Sir Edmund died heavily in debt in 1767 and seven years later the estate was sold.

Samuel Thomas at Ysguborwen.  It was said that the Thomas family had held land around Aberdare in the Rhondda valley since 1477. However, this family was in no way grand.

John Thomas, born around 1770, had married into a yeoman family in Merthyr Vale and became a haulage contractor to the Crawshay family.  He and his wife had four children.  Of these the eldest, Samuel, initially became a merchant in Merthyr Tydfil; the youngest, David, was a minister at Clifton.

There was something about Samuel that suggested he would succeed:

“Samuel Thomas started out as a shopkeeper in Merthyr Tydfil who later turned his hand to prospecting for coal.  He was a hard man, perhaps the secret of his business success, and his tastes were simple.  He could never forget the hardships through which he had to pass and was unable to shake off the fear of failure.  A Welsh Baptist, he managed his household according to the Protestant work ethic.”

He was prudent, sometimes miserly.

He started the Ysguborwen colliery near Aberdare in 1849 and he built his home, Ysguborwen House, in the years between 1852 and 1855.  At first, only the Welsh language was spoken in the home, both Samuel and his wife Rachel being Welsh speakers. However, they realized that the language of the business world was English and they engaged an English nurse to get their children used to speaking English.

Thomases in Wales in the 1891 Census

Thomas (000’s) Numbers Percent
Glamorgan    33    52
Carmarthenshire    12    19
Monmouthshire     6     9
Elsewhere    13    20
Total    64   100

The largest numbers at that time in Glamorgan were recorded in Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, and Ystradyfodwg, all places in the Rhondda valley.

The Strange Death of Captain John Thomas.  In 1714 John received a summons to return to England, which he felt it imperative to obey.  Having a large amount of gold in the house he determined to bury it for greater security during his absence, reserving only enough for his own and family expenses.

On the night of October 4, 1714, with his treasure and a spade, he left the house, later returning with his clothes soiled and his spade showing evidences of recent use.  He entered the living room of his home, sat down in his accustomed chair without speaking.  When his wife approached him a little later she found him dead. The buried treasure was never found.

One item he did leave, however, was the painted portrait of King William of Orange, a gift to him for his service in bringing the King to England.  The portrait descended through seven generations of the family to Frank Warner Thomas in Troy, New York.

John Thomas, from Wales to Pennsylvania.  John J. Thomas was born in 1823 at a time when Brynmawr (meaning “big hill”) in Breconshire was just a small collection of farms and cottages.  However, during his childhood he witnessed a population explosion as the iron and coal industries transformed the region.  By 1841 both he and his father John were working at local coal mines.

John saw a better life for himself and his family in America.  Wages in the coal mines there were reported to be double what they were in Wales and word of mouth encouraged a migration.  In 1848 John and his wife Elizabeth, plus other members of the Thomas family, set off for America from Liverpool on the Ivanhoe.  Their numbers did not include John’s father who may well have died by this time.

Although the Thomas family first set foot in New York, their real destination was the coal-mining district of what would become Lackawanna county, Pennsylvania.  By the time of the 1850 census, John had found work there as a miner and the Thomases had settled in Providence township.  John, illiterate, had marked his form with an “X.”

John prospered as a miner and was able to buy property in Scranton.  He died in 1876.

The Glenowen Farm.  The Rev. Owen Thomas who came to Pennsylvania from Wales in 1707 was the forebear of the Thomases of Glenowen Farm in Loudoun county, Virginia.  Owen appears in Glenowen and also as the first name of descendants through the generations.

The family presence began there when David Thomas purchased the Cherry Grove property adjacent to the current farm in 1778.   Their son Owen, on return from the Revolutionary War, then acquired another adjacent property in 1784.  It was his son Joseph who in 1820 bought land where the current farmhouse sits.

Since that time, as the Thomas family has remarked:

“We have witnessed Quaker settlement, Civil War construction of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, and rapid urbanization of DC through the years at Glenowen.”

It was Owen Thomas who in 1947 purchased the original registered Angus herd at Glenowen.  The Thomas cattle have recently been recognized by the American Angus Association as a historic herd.   The farm today is owned by three generations of the Thomas family.

A Cornish Mining Tragedy.  The Royal Cornwall Gazette of September 1875 reported as following:

“A man named William Thomas, a resident of Carnkie near Redruth, was working as a trammer at the West Basset mine on Friday morning when he fell on the axle of the stamps, and was instantaneously crushed to death.

He and a comrade had been engaged in pushing a small truck containing tin-stuff on a tramway to the stamps.  When near the stamps, a stone which had by some means got on the rail, made the truck rise up on end.  The other man got out of the way but the deceased fell on the axle of the stamp and went round with the axle.  The stamps were stopped as soon as possible and the deceased extricated. The body was horribly mutilated, being nearly cut in two in the middle, and the top of his hand was also taken off.

The deceased was about 50 years of age and leaves a widow and seven children.”

Cornish Thomases who Emigrated to Australia.  The following table lists some Thomases from Cornwall who came to South Australia as miners during the 1850’s and 1860’s:

Thomas Birth Location Death Location
Alexander Thomas 1801 Lanlivery 1867 Kapunda, SA
William Thomas 1809 Sithney 1882 Wallaroo, SA
William Thomas 1823 Hallankene 1899 Glenburn, SA
Richard Thomas 1828 1909 Kapunda, SA
Abraham Thomas 1837 Wendron 1890 Moonta, SA
Thomas Thomas 1843 1900 Moonta, SA

William Thomas from Sithney above had come with his family to South Australia on the Utopia in 1858. Joseph Thomas from Camborne had first followed his family as a child to Mexico and then came to Australia in the 1880’s.  He entered politics in 1894 on behalf of the Broken Hill mining district in NSW.

Not Only in Stone by Phyllis Somerville was the fictional story of an emigrant Cornishwoman, Polly Thomas, who faced many trials and tribulations in the pioneering era of South Australia.  The book won the South Australian Centenary novel award in 1936.

Thomas Names   

  • Samuel Thomas was one of the pioneers of the Welsh coal industry in the mid 19th century.  His son David expanded his father’s commercial empire.
  • David Thomas, an immigrant from Wales, helped develop the iron industry in the LeHigh valley of Pennsylvania in the mid 19th century.
  • Edward Thomas was an Anglo-Welsh poet-soldier who died on the Western front in 1917.
  • Dylan Thomas was the celebrated Welsh poet.
  • Dave Thomas from New Jersey founded and developed the Wendy fast food restaurant chain.

Thomas Numbers Today

  • 220,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 254,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 77,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Thomas and Like Surnames   

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “s” suffix is more common in southern England and in Wales.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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