Thompson Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Thompson and Thomson Surname Meaning

This is a patronymic name meaning “son of Thomas,” mainly to be found in the north of England and in Scotland.   The principal spellings are Thompson and Thomson.  Thompson is normally considered the English spelling, Thomson the Scottish.

But why are there both Thompsons and Thomsons?  Some reckon that the original spelling of the name was Thomson.  But in many areas it was pronounced as Thompson.  So it was decided to add a “p” to the written name to match what was heard.

Thompson and Thomson Surname Resources on The Internet

Thompson and Thomson Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland (Lowland)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

England.  The earliest record was a John Thompson who appeared in the charters of Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire in 1349. Thompson with a “p” has continued as a Yorkshire and north of England name.

The Thompsons of Scarborough were a prominent Yorkshire family, starting with Sir Roger Thompson in the 16th century.  A branch of this family, the Thompsons of York, prospered on the basis of Henry and Edward’s wine importing business in York in the next century.  Henry acquired Escrick Hall in north Yorkshire in 1668 and developed it as an estate village.

One Durham family line has traced itself back to Christopher Thompson, born in Darlington in the 1730’s. Robert Thompson, born in Sunderland, founded the J.L. Thompson and Sons shipbuilding company there in 1846.  The yard continued to build ships under the founder’s descendants until 1986.

A notable Thompson line in London began with Nathaniel Thompson who was born in Stepney around the year 1737.  The family began to prosper with a later Nathaniel and his son Thomas who became members of the Stock Exchange in the early 1800’s.  Theophilus Thompson became one of the best-known physicians in London in the 1830’s, as was his son Edmund some thirty years later.

Scotland.  Thomson, meaning “son of Thom,” is the more common spelling in Scotland.  The name is found mostly in central Scotland.  Early Thomson records appeared in Ayrshire.  John Thomson from Ayrshire led part of Bruce’s invading army in Ireland in 1318.  But there was no one single common ancestor or lineage of the Thomsons that followed.

Some Thomsons were Border reivers on the Scottish/English border in Eskdale north of Carlisle.  Syn Thomson and young Archie Thomson were listed as their leaders in 1587.  After 1603 many Border Thomsons fled to the Ulster plantations.

Other Thomson Lowland families have been:

  • the Thomsons of Dumbarton.  This line began with William Thomson, born in 1375 who was recorded as the Collector of Customs in 1410.   However, the line seemed to have died out around 1486.
  • the Thomsons of Corstophine near Edinburgh – the first of whom, Alexander, died fighting the English at Flodden Field in 1513.  His son later died of the plague, but the line did continue.
  • and the Thomsons of Duddingston near Edinburgh as well.  Sir Thomas Thomson had acquired these lands in the 1630’s and his family held them for a short time.  The Rev. John Thomson was the minister of Duddingston kirk from 1805 to 1840.  He was a friend of Sir Walter Scott and a well-known landscape artist of his time.

Thomson also has a Highland pedigree from the MacTavish clan in Perthshire and Argyllshire..

Ireland.  Border Thomsons moved to the plantations in Ulster in the 17th century, such as Samuel and Helen Thomson of Dumfries.  They chartered a sloop and took everything with them  to stock a farm and furnish a house, landing at Killyleagh in county Down in February 1690.  Their name in their new homeland became Thompson.  Their son Samuel later departed for America.

Many other of these Scots Irish also headed for America.  Included in this number were:

  • Matthew Thompson who left Donegal with his family in 1732 for Philadelphia, eventually settling in Virginia.  His eldest son John Thompson was a merchant seaman who was killed by pirates in 1757.
  • John Thompson, also from Donegal, who came to Pennsylvania’s Cumberland valley with his two brothers around 1740.  A descendant J.V. Thompson compiled notes on the various Scots Irish settlers in the Cumberland valley.
  • William and Ann Thompson who departed Longford for Goshen in upstate New York around the year 1737.  Some of these Thompsons migrated north to Canada in the early 1800’s.
  • and James Thomson with his wife Mary and family who left Londonderry in 1771 for what was then the American frontier in Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania.  By 1793 they were in Kentucky and later in Indiana.

Some Thomsons had become Thompsons by that time.  And Thompson with a “p” is very much an Ulster name today.

America.  David Thomson, a Scot although born in London, came to New England with his family in 1622 and was said to have been the first European to have set foot in what is now New Hampshire.   David died in 1628 in what is now called Thompsons Island in Massachusetts Bay.

There were early Thompson arrivals at the New Haven colony.  These included three brothers possibly from Kent – Anthony, John and William –  who had crossed the Atlantic on the Hector in 1637.

William Thompson, a Catholic from Lancashire, came to Maryland in 1641.  Both he and his son William died young.  But his line continued in southern Maryland in Charles county.

William and Martha Thompson were to be found in Surry county, Virginia by the 1630’s.  Later Thompsons of this line settled in Wayne, Columbus and Moore counties, North Carolina.  The family line can be seen in K.B. Carter’s 1993 book Thompson: A Family History.

The Thomson/Thompson arrivals also showed many who were Scots Irish.  They began arriving in the 1730’s, with the Scots Irish outpost in Augusta county, Virginia being a favored destination.

One Scots Irish Thompson line were among the first settlers of Centre county, Pennsylvania.  The line from immigrant William Thompson who arrived in 1745 extended to his grandson General John Thompson and then to Moses Thompson, an ironmaster who prospered and helped to found Penn State University.

Canada.   Richard Thompson came to Halifax, Nova Scotia from Yorkshire in 1774.  He was the first settler of Oxford, Nova Scotia and died there in 1821 at the age of 77.

Three Thomson brothers came to Canada from Scotland in the 1780’s and 1790’s.  The line from the eldest son Archibald, based in Toronto, led to the newspaper tycoon Roy Thomson.  A younger brother David was the first settler of Scarborough, Ontario in 1796, followed there by the third brother Andrew.

Other Scottish Thomsons in Canada tended to change their spelling to Thompson.  Thompsons outnumber Thomsons by about four to one in Canada today.

Australia.  Andrew Thompson was convicted of theft at Jedburgh on the Scottish borders in 1790 and transported to Australia.  After his pardon in 1798 he settled at Green Hills along the Hawkesbury river in NSW and prospered.  By 1806 he was the largest grain grower and possibly the wealthiest settler in the colony.

Joseph and Mary Thompson were middle-aged when they departed their home in London with twelve children for a new life in Sydney in 1834.  In Sydney, as their children mushroomed, thee number of grandchildren escalated to seventy.  Their abundant correspondence can now be found in the NSW Mitchell Library.

Thompson and Thomson Surname Miscellany

Thomson and Thompson.  The Scottish spelling is generally Thomson, the English Thompson.  Thompson is the more common form in America.  Overall, Thompson predominates today.

Numbers (000’s) Thompson Thomson Total
UK    171     66    237
America    194     10    204
Elsewhere     85     30    115
Total    450    106    556

Early Thomsons in Scotland.  George Fraser Black had the following to say about early Thomsons in his 1946 book The Surnames of Scotland: 

“Thomson, meaning ‘son of Thom,’ is a fairly numerous surname in Scotland.

John Thomson, ‘a man of low birth, but approved valor,’ was the leader of the men of Carrick in Edward Bruce’s war in Ireland in 1318.  Adam Thomson appeared as the lord of Kylnekylle in Ayrshire circa 1370-80. John Tomson witnessed a grant in Ayr in 1401.   Donald Thomson was one of an inquest to determine the rights of pasturage which the Temple lands had over the adjoining town and territory of Letter in 1461.  John Thomsoun was juror on an inquest at Dunipace in 1426.

The most conspicuous family of the name was the Thomsons who possessed Duddingston near Edinburgh for five generations until it was sold by Sir Patrick about the year 1668.  His father had been created a baronet in 1636.

Many individuals of this name in Perthshire and Argyllshire were originally MacTavishes.”

Thomson’s Highland Pedigree.  There were many people around Perthshire and Argyllshire that were seen as septs of the MacTavish clan.  The surname here was an anglicized form of the Gaelic Mac Thomas or Mac Thomaidh.

The Chief of Clan MacTavish has tried to lay claim to those Thomsons who were originally descended from the Dalriadic Argyll MacTavishes or those who took the name as their own, as they have spread out to various regions of Scotland and changed their surname to a more gentrified anglicized version.

But the Thomsons of the Lowlands and Border areas would appear to have come from different sources and not be related to the MacTavishes.

The Thompsons of York.  The Thompsons had been a prominent Yorkshire family since Elizabethan times.  Based near Scarborough they appear to have been related to the Henry Thompson who received the estate of Esholt in Yorkshire after the dissolution of the monasteries.

In 1588 Henry Thompson of this family set up a wine importing business in York.  It proved very successful. By 1647 the company had acquired wine cellars in Bordeaux and also established itself in Hull, London and Amsterdam.  Like other wine merchants of the time, the Thompsons did not only trade in wine. The vessels that they chartered to transport wine from the vineyard regions to northern Europe carried other goods such as textiles on the return journey.

The business was then being handled by Sir Henry Thompson and his brother Edward.  In 1668 Sir Henry moved from York to a new country estate at Escrick.  He briefly entered politics and was a patron of the poet Andrew Marvell.

Escrick Hall was to be the family home for many generations of Thompson country gentry.  In 1820 Paul Lawley inherited the estate and changed his name to Thompson.  He became Baron Wenlock in 1839.   He had four sons, one of whom was a friend and private secretary of W.E. Gladstone.

Early Thomsons and Thompsons in America

Arrivals Birth Location Death Location
David Thomson (Scots) 1592 London 1628 Massachusetts
William Thompson 1597 Lancashire 1649 St. Mary co, MD
Samuel Thomson 1691 Scotland 1753 Louisa co, VA
Thomas Thompson 1731 Durham Baltimore co, MD
Joseph Thompson 1749 England 1810 Anderson, SC
Scots Irish
James Thompson 1668 Wicklow 1712 Salem, NJ
Matthew Thompson 1692 Donegal 1753 Crosskeys, VA
John Thompson 1695 Donegal 1783 Cumberland co, PA
James Thompson 1715 Ulster 1808 New London, Conn.
Matthew Thompson 1720 Tyrone 1776 Abbeville, SC
John Thompson 1720 Ulster 1758 Augusta co, VA
John Thompson 1732 Derry 1811 Augusta co, VA

John Thompson of Virginia, North Carolina and Barbados.  John Thompson, sometimes called Theophilus, was the eldest son of Matthew Thompson and had come with him to Virginia from Ireland in 1732.  He was a restless one.   He had originally settled in Albermarle county, before moving to Norfolk county and then to Nash county and Robeson county in North Carolina.

He was also a merchant seaman, owning a ship called the Ranger that he sailed from England to Norfolk and then to the Bahamas and Barbados. His ship was captured and he was killed by pirates near Barbados in 1757.

Through his wife Alsey Butt he had eight sons and daughters, born between 1738 and 1757.  He may have sired other children elsewhere.  There were Thompsons in Barbados where it is believed he may have had a wife or concubine.  Lumbee Indian tradition also had it that he was one of the prime progenitors of the Thompsons in the Lumbee tribe. 

Three Thomson Brothers to Canada.  Farming was not a good proposition for the Thomson family in Dumfries in the second half of the 18th century. That was why Andrew Thomson decided to be a stone mason and that was why Archibald, the second of his seven children and the father of a large family, decided to emigrate to America in 1773.   He went first to New England and then to Canada via Quebec as a United Empire Loyalist.

In 1796 Archibald’s two younger brothers David and Andrew, accepting his advice, followed him.  For a time all three of them had homesteads on the same street in York (later Toronto).

The line from Archibald via his son George left and then returned to Toronto.  Herbert Thomson worked as a barber at the Grosvenor Hotel in Toronto.  His son Roy, born in 1894, became the famous Canadian and English newspaper proprietor Lord Thomson of Fleet.

David and Andrew settled in Scarborough, Ontario.  David came first and he and his wife Mary were in fact the first settlers of the township.  Mary was alone as a woman and for seven months she did not see another white woman at all.  The Indian women became very friendly as they seemed to understand her predicament.   A few years later she was known to all as the “Mother of Scarborough.”

Thompson and Thomson Names

  • James Thomson was the early 18th century Scottish poet who wrote Rule Britannia.
  • J.J. Thomson was the British physicist credited with the discovery of the electron.
  • Ben Thompson, born in Yorkshire, was an Old West gunfighter and Austin city marshal in Texas.
  • Roy Thomson was the Canadian newspaper tycoon who came to London in the 1960’s and bought The Sunday Times. 
  • Hunter S. Thompson was the irreverent Gonzo journalist and writer, well known for his intake of mind-altering substances.
  • Daley Thompson was the British athlete who won the Olympic decathlon title twice.
  • Emma Thompson is a distinguished English actress.

Thompson and Thomson Numbers Today

  • 237,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 245,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 115,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Thompson and Like Surnames  

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


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Written by Colin Shelley

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