Thorpe Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Thorpe Surname Meaning

Thorp or Thorpe as a name in England is generally to be found in areas where there was Danish settlement. Places with “-thorp” or “-thorpe” as a suffix crop up in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk. The word – of Old Norse and Old Danish origin – means a small hamlet or village.

Its first recording as a surname was William de Torp in the Northumberland pipe rolls of 1158.  Thorp and Thorpe are the main spellings, with Thorp more to be found in the north of England. Thorp could become Tharp in America.

Thorpe Surname Resources on The Internet

Thorpe and Thorp Surname Ancestry

  • from England (East Coast)
  • to America, Australia and New Zealand

England. The main locations for Thorpes in the 19th century were, following the Danish settlements, in Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Lincolnshire, with smaller numbers further south along the coast in East Anglia.

Early Thorpes.  One early recorded Thorpe family started with a Stephen de Thorpe who lived in the late 12th century in Yorkshire and begat a line of Stephens there.

Another was to be found in East Anglia in the late 13th century. This Thorpe family held Uphall manor in Norfolk until 1522. John de Thorpe of Ashwell-Thorpe in Norfolk, born around 1270, did much to establish his family’s fortunes. But perhaps the best known member was Sir William de Thorpe. As Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in the 1340’s he amassed great wealth and estates through bribery and corruption.

“As a clerk of the court he had been assaulted on one occasion in 1318 when his enemies allegedly urinated on him. In 1350 he was imprisoned and condemned to hanging and confiscation of all his property. The next year, however, he was pardoned and had his property restored.”

Thomas Thorpe from Essex was speaker of the House of Commons in 1453 who, unfortunately, was beheaded by a London mob eight years later (one of five speakers to be beheaded in the fractious 15th century). A descendant – via churchmen and Conservative MP’s – was the Liberal party leader of the 1970’s, Jeremy Thorpe.

Thorpe as a place-name was to be found near Chertsey in Surrey (from whence has come Thorpe Park, the amusement center). John Thorpe was a Surrey MP in the late 14th century and the Thorpe ironmasters in Sussex in the late 16th century may have been related.

Later Thorpes.  There were the Thorps in Northumberland and Durham, starting with the Rev. Thomas Thorp of Chillingham. His son Robert became Archdeacon of Northumberland in 1792 and his son Charles, also a clergyman, was a founder of Durham University in 1837.

One family history began with the birth of Ezekiel Thorpe in Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1709. These Thorpes were to remain there for the next 150 years before beginning to drift to London, with some emigrating to Canada. Another started with Thomas Thorpe who was born in the Staffordshire village of Elford in the 1750’s. And Francis Thorpe of Pateley Bridge in Yorkshire was born in 1776.

America. Thomas Thorpe was in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1631, married Rebecca Milward in Boston in 1656, and later settled in Woodbridge, New Jersey. His descendants lived in Woodbridge and Perth Amboy for more than 200 years. Other Thorpes had spread by that time into neighboring Monmouth and Union counties.

Another early arrival was William Thorp from London on the Hector in 1637. He was one of the first settlers of New Haven, Connecticut. Joel Thorpe of this family headed west to Ohio in 1799 but was killed in a skirmish with the British during the War of 1812. His son Lewis became a sailor on Lake Erie and later settled in Missouri.

There were several Tharps that immigrated to Virginia and Maryland in the colonial period. John Jacob Thorp, related to the Woodbridge Thorpes, migrated west in the early 1800’s. Interestingly, his name was Thorp in New York and Ohio and Tharp in Indiana. From a Quaker farming family in Portland, Indiana came the dance choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Hiram Thorpe was born in Kansas in 1852, reportedly the son of an Irishman and a Native woman. A member of the Sac and Fox tribe in Oklahoma, he was the father of Jim Thorpe – whom some have called “the greatest athlete of all time.” Sadly, Jim Thorpe lost his amateur Olympic medals that he won in 1912 because he had been a professional and he lived out the latter part of his life in poverty and poor health.

Australia and New Zealand. Early Thorpe arrivals were convicts. Charles Thorpe, convicted at York assizes, was one of the 338 convicts transported on the Coromandel and Experiment to Australia in 1803.

Joshua Thorp left his native Yorkshire for Australia in the 1820’s. He married Sarah Garratt of Hobart in 1827 and twelve years later they embarked on a new challenge in New Zealand. Joshua wrote his memoirs of those early days in 1880 in Journey of a Visit to New Zealand.

Three Thorpe brothers from London went to South Australia with their families in the early years of settlement there. Robert and Margaret Thorpe travelled on the Navarino in 1837. Three years later came Charles and Mary Ann Thorpe and their large family of seven on the Fairfield, together with brother Thomas and his wife Amelia.

Jonathan Thorpe from Sussex arrived with his family in 1854.  They made their home in the Northern Tablelands of NSW.  A descendant is the champion swimmer Ian Thorpe.

Ian Thorpe’s Family Ancestry

The Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, nicknamed “Thorpedo,” was the swimming sensation of the early 2000’s.  His ancestors came from Sussex and lived for many years in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Thorpe and Thorp Surname Miscellany

Baron John de Thorpe of Norfolk.  John de Thorpe of Ashwell-Thorpe in Norfolk, born around 1270, did much to establish his family’s fortunes. He was a knight of the shire for Norfolk in the parliament of 1305 and was also a collector and assessor of aid for Norfolk and Suffolk. Four years later he received a special summons to parliament and sat as a baron during the remainder of his life.

In 1316 he was certified as lord of nineteen manors in Norfolk and of two, Combs and Helmingham, in Suffolk. One of these manors, Uphall in Norfolk, remained in his family until 1522.  He died in 1324. 

John Thorpe, Sussex Ironmaster.  John Thorpe was by profession an ironmaster.  From 1567 he was operating the Warren furnace at Hedgecourt in Worth and the Woodcock hammer forge at Felbridge in Surrey. John and his son Thomas lived in some splendor at Hedgecourt manor.  They were recorded in the 1580’s as being fined for cutting down mature trees for charcoal.

The Thorpes were later to be found at Worth and Ifield on the Sussex/Surrey border. Giles Thorpe, born there in 1577, was described as a gentleman.  However, the family had become indebted by the 1650’s and their fortunes declined.

Thorp and Thorpe in England.  The following were the numbers of Thorps and Thorpes in England in the 1891 census:

Numbers (000’s) Thorp Thorpe
Yorkshire   1.1   3.2
Lancashire   0.7   2.0
Derbyshire   0.1   0.8
Elsewhere   1.8   7.2
Total   3.7  13.2

Joel and Sarah Thorpe in the Ohio Wilderness.  Joel and Sarah Thorpe were some of the earliest settlers in Ashtabula county.  Their only neighbors for twenty miles were the Indians.  They cleared the land and lived in a log cabin that Joel built himself. They were so isolated that when their supplies ran low, Joel would embark on a journey of weeks to replenish them.  Without roads, Joel relied upon a pocket compass to find his way to the nearest settlement in Pennsylvania.

In 1801, while one of his trips, heavy rains swelled the many streams that Joel had to cross and made the return trip impossible.  Back home, Sarah and the children ran out of food.  She feared that they would all starve before Joel could return.

Then, unexpectedly, while looking out the doorway of the cabin, Sarah spotted a wild turkey flying nearby.  She got down her husband’s rifle and discovered that there was just enough powder left for a small charge.  She carefully cleaned the barrel and loaded the gun and set off in pursuit of the turkey.

In her excitement, she came close to failure by frightening the turkey so that it flew a short distance and landed in a potato patch.  On her second approach she acted with caution, creeping on her hands and knees, from log to log, until she had reached the last obstruction between herself and the turkey. She lifted the rifle to eye level, aimed and fired, and with that one shot ensured her family’s survival.

Thorpes of Woodbridge and Perth Amboy, New Jersey.  The Woodbridge branch seems to have been Presbyterians and the Perth Amboy ones belonged to St. Peter’s Church.

Robert Thorp was a grocer in Perth Amboy in the 1840’s.  It was said that above his counter was painted the following legend: ‘Since man to man is so unjust, I cannot tell what man to trust.”

Joshua Thorp in New Zealand.  Why did an educated surveyor and engineer leave his family in Yorkshire in the 1820’s and travel first to Australia, then New Zealand?  Writing in his memoirs Joshua recalled studying a globe with a liberal master at his Quaker school and dreaming of far-away New Zealand.  He grew to dislike the English climate and conditions.  Soon his desire for adventure was turned into a reality.

He sailed for Australia in the early 1820’s where he designed and engineered the construction of prison buildings in Sydney, while establishing a large farm there and performing magistrate’s duties. He married Sarah Garratt of Hobart in 1827 and in 1839 they sought a brighter future in New Zealand.

Joshua’s first land purchase in New Zealand was at Te Kouma, near Coromandel.  His wife convinced him this was unsuitable and they bought land at Puke from Chief Taraia of the Ngati Tamatera tribe.

Chief Taraia, who held his last cannibal feast in 1842 when he took revenge on a Matakana tribe for their insults, treated Joshua as friend at first and honored land agreements with him.  He ensured that “Ehoa Tapa, Rangatira pakeha” was treated with respect.  But he caused considerable trouble later.

During those early days the Thorp family faced the challenge of the winds and tides when taking the sea route to Auckland in their cutter, of taming the land by plough, and of the tensions of living amongst warring tribes in the isolated interior.

Thorpe Names

  • Thomas Thorpe was an English publisher, best known for publishing Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1609.
  • Jim Thorpe was an American athlete of mixed ancestry (Caucasian and American Indian) who won Olympic gold medals in 1912 for the pentathlon and decathlon.  He also played professional football, baseball, and basketball.
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe gained popularity in America in the 1930’s as a gospel singer.  She has been called “the godmother of rock and roll.”
  • Twyla Tharp is a modern dance choreographer.  Twyla Tharp Dance toured extensively around the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
  • Jeremy Thorpe was leader of the British Liberal party from 1967 to 1976.
  • Ian Thorpe, nicknamed “Thorpedo,” was the Australian swimming sensation of the early 2000’s.

Thorpe Numbers Today

  • 20,000 in the UK (most numerous in Nottinghamshire)
  • 7,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)




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Written by Colin Shelley

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