Townsend Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Townsend Surname Meaning

Townsend is, as its name suggests, a locational surname, describing someone who lived at the extremity of a village. Surname variants are Townshend and Townend.

Townsend Surname Resources on The Internet

Townsend and Townshend Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Norfolk)
  • to Ireland, America, Canada and Peru

England. The Townshend name in Norfolk dates back to the early 12th century and Ludoric of Townshend who married the heiress Elizabeth de Hauteville of Raynham. Raynham Hall was to be the Townshend seat for generations. The family remained Catholic during Elizabethan times and lost some of their estates as a result. The poet Aurelian Townshend was a court favorite of Charles I.

The family hey-day was the 18th century when Charles Townshend, known as “Turnip” Townshend, led the way in agricultural improvements that were made possible by the passage of the Enclosure Acts. He introduced a four-field crop rotation system of wheat, barley, a root crop and clover, thereby substantially increasing farm productivity by avoiding leaving the soil uncultivated every third year.

Grandson Charles was briefly Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1766. His is most remembered for the Townshend Acts, a series of excise taxes on America which led the way to the break between the two countries. Thomas Townshend was created Viscount Sydney and gave his name to Sydney, Australia.

One Townsend line with Norfolk roots began with Jonathan Townsend, a brewer in London in the early 18th century. His son Chauncey held the Government contracts for provisioning troops and settlers in Nova Scotia, from which he made a considerable fortune. Chauncey’s descendants included:

  • James Townsend, the Lord Mayor of London in 1772
  • Chauncy Hare Townsend, an eccentric art collector and poet who formed a friendship with the writer Charles Dickens. He is best remembered today for his bequests to the Victorian and Albert Museum.
  • while another line led to the Rev. Joseph Townsend of Pewsey in Wiltshire and to Chauncey Townsend, an early settler in New Zealand.

The other county in England with a sizeable Townsend population has been Yorkshire.

Ireland. An Anglo-Irish Townsend family began with Colonel Richard Townesend, an officer in Cromwell’s Irish army. He stayed in Ireland and built his home at Castletown, later Castletownshend, near Skibbereen in county Cork.

The main line of descent passed through his son, Colonel Bryan Townsend, to John Townsend, an Irish politician, and Samuel Townsend, a British general, in the 18th century. A descendant Sir Charles Townshend led an ill-fated Anglo-Indian expedition to Kut in Mesopotamia in 1915.

Another line from Colonel Townsend led to the Rev. Richard Townsend, the rector at Abbeystrewry church in Skibbereen from 1819.  At the time of the Famine he did extraordinary work in helping to relieve the poor and in highlighting their plight and suffering to the English authorities.  He was to succumb to famine fever himself following a visit to the local workhouse in 1850.

America. Thomas Townsend of the Norfolk Townshend family moved to London and then departed for America in 1637 on the Handmaid. He settled in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Some six years later three Townsend brothers – Henry, John and Richard – arrived in Dutch-held New York. They were Quakers and their beliefs resulted in a number of conflicts with the Dutch authorities. Henry Townsend who held Quaker meetings was arrested, imprisoned and fined. In 1658 the Townsend brothers moved to Oyster Bay on Long Island which was outside the jurisdiction of the Dutch.

Among their descendants were:

  • Dr. Platt Townsend, born on Long Island, who moved upstate to Delaware county in the 1790’s
  • John Townsend, a prominent industrialist in the Albany area in the early 1800’s, thrice elected mayor of Albany
  • while another line led to Colonel E.C. Townsend of Shulsburg, Wisconsin.

Townsends in the South.  One Townsend line began with John Townsend from Berkshire who came to Philadelphia with William Penn in 1712. Benedictus Townsend of South Carolina is believed to be related to his line. Joseph and Clarice Burval’s 2006 book Benedictus Townsend of South Carolina traced the descent from Benedictus through two of his sons, John and Light. Later Townsends of this line were to be found in Florida and Texas.

The interestingly-named Repentance Townsend appeared in the Scots Irish stronghold of Augusta county, Virginia in the 1740’s and was also to be found in Anson county, North Carolina. He ended up in Abbeville, South Carolina. Later Townsends migrated to Georgia and Alabama. Eli Townsend of Union county, Georgia fought in the Mexican war in 1847 and then disappeared.

Canada. Micah Townsend of Brattleboro, Vermont was a Loyalist during the Revolutionary War and received a land grant from the British Government in Farnham, Quebec. He and his family moved to Clarenceville nearby. His youngest son Micajah was ordained as a minister and remained in that position there for some sixty years.

William Townsend ran away from home in New York in 1828 at the age of sixteen. He ended up in Nova Scotia. He started a chandlery and hardware business in Yarmouth and later became a civic leader in the town.

South America. Andrew Townsend was an architect who came to Peru and designed the neoclassical cathedral at Chiclayo. His descendants are still to be found in Peru, notably the politician Andres Townsend and his daughter Arel.

Townsend Surname Miscellany

Townsend and Townshend in Norfolk.  The Townshends of Raynham in Norfolk date back to the 12th century:

“Townshend traditionally meant “at town’s end,” but in Norman dialect could be “town holder.” The silent “h” was dropped about 1500 as superfluous, but then returned to the family soon after 1580.”

Aurelian Townshend, Court Poet.  From an early age Aurelian Townshend had a reputation as a writer of graceful verse which gained him many friends amongst courtiers who shared his literary tastes.  He enjoyed a high literary reputation at Charles I’s court and was a particular favorite of the King’s wife Henrietta.  He succeeded Ben Johnson as composer of Court Masques in 1631.

However, in the confusion of the Civil War of the 1640’s, Townshend simply disappeared.  Some have listed his death date as 1651.  But no one knows.

Colonel Richard Townesend and Castletownshend.  Colonel Richard Townesend, an officer in Cromwell’s Irish army, stayed in Ireland and built his home in 1665 at Castletown, later Castletownshend, near Skibbereen in county Cork.

Early times there were unsettled.  In 1690 his castle was besieged by MacFineen O’Driscoll and Richard was forced to surrender. His home was destroyed; but, with the £40,000 he received in compensation, he was able to build a new castle nearby.

Castletownshend has stayed with the Townsend family since that time.  However, its useful life ended in the 1890’s when the estate, saddled with debts, was put up for auction.  Although bought back by Townshends, it lay forlorn and empty for many years.

All four sites of the castle – Bryan’s Fort, now a ruin; the original castle, of which only the foundations remain; its replacement, of which nothing remains; and the Dower House, the present day castle – are situated within a hundred meters of each other.

Colonel Richard always spelt his name Townesend, which subsequently became Townsend. In 1870 the then head of the family, the Rev. Maurice Townsend, consulted with Marquis Townshend of Raynham and requested that the whole family incorporate the “h” into their name. Not all did so and there are consequently Townsends and Townshends in Ireland.

The history of this family was first recorded in Richard and Dorothea Townshend’s 1892 book An Officer of the Long Parliament.

Townsends in Oyster Bay.  Three Townsend brothers – John, Henry, and Richard – arrived in Oyster Bay, Long Island in the 1650’s.  No father has been identified and where the brothers came from is not known.

The Townsend presence is still there.  It is the site of The Townsend Society of America’s Research Center. The original museum, a turn of the century house, was purchased in the early 1980’s as a repository of the archives with a bequest to the Society by Miss Helen Hart Townsend.   In accordance with her wishes, the museum was dedicated to the memory of her great-grandparents, Samuel and Rebecca Purdy Townsend.

Also in Oyster Bay there is Raynham Hall, a Townsend family home, and the recreated Townsend Inn, a Masonic Lodge, and next to an old Victorian Townsend house.

Colonel Townsend’s Family Recollections.  The following were the recollections of Colonel E.C. Townsend of Shullsburg Wisconsin about his family in 1904.

“The brothers John, Henry and Richard Townsend came to Oyster Bay, Long Island and afterwards settled in Duchess county.

My grandfather, Eber Townsend, was a son of Henry Townsend and was a soldier in the Revolutionary War.  He was wounded and taken prisoner when the British captured New York City and was one of the soldiers the British intended to execute, had not Washington ordered the execution of two British prisoners for every one of the Americans so treated.  Eber Townsend died in 1826.

His wife Sarah, my grandmother, was a very large woman, weighing 240 pounds, and of dark complexion. She remarried after my grandfather’s death and lived to be 103 years old.

My father, Samuel Townsend, was an American soldier in the War of 1812 and moved to Steuben county, New York in 1814.  She and my mother Sara had eight children, five sons and three daughters.  But Sara died in 1821.  I am now in my 87th year and when I am called for will be buried in Shullsburg, Wisconsin.”

The Mysterious Eli Townsend.  Eli Townsend was descended from Repentance Townsend who had been located variously during his life in the second half of the 18th century in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  One line from Repentance descended to his son Thomas who headed south to Georgia after the War thanks to a land lottery and then to his grandson Edward and great grandson Eli.

Eli of Union county in Georgia, born in 1810, lived for many years in the Choestoe district along a stream that officially and affectionately became known as Stink Creek.  Some say that the creek got its name because so much whiskey was made there and that the mash could be smelled for miles.

The records show that Eli was illiterate.  He emerged briefly from obscurity and then faded away.  Family tradition for years maintained that Eli Townsend “disappeared” during the Mexican War in 1847-8. However, research has revealed that he was discharged and returned to his home in Union county in August 1848.  Eli’s “disappearing” act may have been started by his family to cover up his deserting his family for another woman.

The August 1848 discharge paper was the last known record of Eli.  The 1850 census of Union County listed Eli’s wife and their seven children but not Eli.

Chauncey Townsend in New Zealand.  The earliest piece of correspondence held at Wellington city archives is a description by settler, Chauncey Henry Townsend, of his arrival and life in Wellington.

A newsy, four-page letter sent to a friend in England in 1842 includes gems of information such as this description of the bird life in Thorndon: “also the green parrot – I have shot hundreds and their feathers, my dear Isabella, has made into some excellent pillows.”  The letter is cross-hatched – the handwriting goes in both directions on each page a common practice in the 19th century when paper was hard to get.

Chauncey’s grandfather Joseph Townsend, an evangelical Anglican minister and son of an earlier Chauncey Townsend, had been rector of Pewsey in Wiltshire for more than fifty years, from 1764 to 1816. He had made a name for himself with his 1786 treatise A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. He had also started a free medical practice in Pewsey.

Chauncey himself was born in Pewsey in 1816 and had come to New Zealand as a young man.  He was recorded as a settler living on Tinakori Street in Wellington in 1858.

Townsend Names

  • Charles Townsend, known as “Turnip” Townsend, led the agricultural improvements in England in the 18th century by his introduction of a four-field crop rotation system.
  • Pete Townshend was the guitarist and songwriter for The Who group.
  • Bill Townsend is an internet developer of search engines such as Lycos and the social network site that formed the basis of LinkedIn.
  • Sue Townsend is an English novelist, best known for her Adrian Mole books.

Townsend Numbers Today

  • 21,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 24,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 16,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Townsend and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk) and surrounding areas in eastern England.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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