Turner Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Turner Surname Meaning

Turner is in England mainly an occupational name for a maker of objects of wood, metal, or bone by the turning of a lathe.  It comes from the Anglo-Norman French tornier.  The products of the turner’s craft were wooden measures and a great variety of small objects used in the home, on the farm, and in industry.

Turner may in some places have been derived from the name of the official in charge of a tournament (from the Old French tornei); or it may have been a nickname for a fast runner – from the fusion of the Middle English elements turnen, meaning “to turn,” plus hare or hare.

Turner Surname Resources on The Internet

Turner Surname Ancestry

  • from England and Scotland
  • to America, Canada, South Africa and Australia

England.  There was a guild of turners in London, starting around 1310, which still exists today.  The heyday for furniture turners was the maple period of the late 17th century.  There followed a decline until the mid-19th century when there was a revival of interest in the old turning crafts.

The earliest references to Turner as a surname appear to have been in Oxfordshire.  Turners were quite numerous in Norfolk by Elizabethan times.  An early surname spelling, found in Suffolk and Essex, was Tournour.  

Norfolk.  A Turner family of Mulbarton and Keningham in Norfolk began in the mid-1500’s with William Turner, said to have been a servant of a local landowner.  Some of these Turners later moved to Great Yarmouth.  But Turners were still farming on the land there in 1900.

There were a number of other Turner families at Great Yarmouth:

  • Francis Turner was the minister of St. George’s Chapel for forty eight years in the mid-18th century and was the first of a distinguished Turner family based on Bracondale Hill.  His son Richard was the minister at St. Nicholas Church for thirty years.
  • while James Turner was head of the Yarmouth Bank in the 1770’s.  His son Dawson was a noted antiquarian, his grandson Frank a poet and man of letters.

Turners from North Elmham near King’s Lynn dated from the mid-1600’s.  They were country lawyers. However, a marriage connection with the influential Walpole family enabled Charles Turner and his descendants at Warham to become baronets.

Elsewhere.  Some Turners prospered in trade and were able to purchase country mansions:

  • the Turners of Kirkleatham in north Yorkshire began with John Turner, a wealthy London wool merchant from Herefordshire, who had acquired the estate in 1623.  His son William, Lord Mayor of London in 1669, endowed the local hospital and had the school named after him.
  • while the Turners of Ambroseden in Oxfordshire had their beginnings with Richard Turner of Sutton Coldfield in Warwickshire.  He came to London in the mid-16th century to seek his fortune.  His grandson John Turner, basing himself in the Canaries, grew rich from the wine trade; and Sir Edward of the next generation acquired Ambroseden in 1729 and became a baronet.

Other notable Turner families of the 16th century were to be found in Berkshire and Lancashire.

Later, the Turner name became fairly widespread around the country.  However, the largest numbers in the 1891 census were to be found in the north – with Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire accounting for 40% of all Turners.

Scotland.  Thomas Dictas Turner was recorded as holding land in Aberdeenshire in 1382.  William Turner, born there around 1645, seems to have been the forebear of Turners who emigrated to Maryland in the next century.

Turners in Scotland have been associated with the Lamont clan of south Argyll and there were Turners there in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The Turner name first appeared in Glasgow in the 1730’s and more Turners are to be found there.

The best known Scottish Turner is probably Sir John Turner, a soldier born near Edinburgh.  He was first a mercenary, then a Royalist officer during the Civil War, and later the scourge of the Covenanters.

America.  John Turner was a passenger on the Mayflower in 1620.  However, neither he nor his two sons survived the first winter in America.

Humphrey Turner, a tanner from Essex who arrived with his family in 1628 and settled in Scituate, Massachusetts, did survive.  His descendants became long-term residents of the area.  A branch under the Rev. Charles Turner later moved to Maine.  There is no relationship, according to the Mayflower Society, between Humphrey and John of the Mayflower.

Robert Turner, an indentured servant from Norfolk, arrived in Massachusetts in 1635.  His son was Captain John Turner who prospered as a hat and shoe merchant but died at sea in 1680.  He left to his family his House of Seven Gables home in Salem which remained with the Turner family for three generations.  The house was immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name and is now a town museum.

Virginia.  Early Turners in Virginia included:

  • Richard Turner who arrived there from England sometime in the 1680’s
  • and Terisha Turner who was born in Virginia in 1709 and died there 92 years later.   

From Richard Turner came the line of James Turner, Governor and Senator for North Carolina from 1802 to 1815.  James Turner himself was born in 1766 in Southampton county where his family was briefly. Southampton county is better known as the place where Nat Turner raised his slave rebellion in 1831.  Nat Turner had been born on the Virginia farm of Benjamin Turner in 1800.

Robert Turner was a slave on the Port Royal plantation in Virginia in the 1820’s.  His son Alexander escaped and after emancipation moved north to Maine and later to Vermont.

Many Turners in Virginia moved elsewhere in the South:

  • Thomas Turner was in North Carolina by the 1770’s and left for Kentucky in 1790.  His son William moved onto Missouri in 1837.
  • Archibald Turner, when young, moved to North Carolina in the 1780’s.  His son Henry, born there in 1839, settled in SW Georgia where he was a Congressman for sixteen years.
  • Edward Turner departed for Kentucky in 1801.  He was a farmer by occupation, but served in the War of 1812.
  • Reuben Turner came to Kentucky around 1810 and had moved onto Illinois twenty years later.
  • and Thomas Turner made the journey from Virginia to North Carolina in 1810 and then settled in 1842 in Missouri.

South Carolina.  In 1751 a Turner family from Maryland came to the back country in South Carolina in what was to become Newberry county.  William Turner started Turner’s settlement there and a fort to protect against the Indians. 

One of his sons, Ned Turner, became notorious for his brigandage before he disappeared to Florida (stories about him were collated in John O’Neill’s 1858 account Annals of Newberry). Other descendants migrated in the early 1800’s south to Georgia and Alabama. 

Henry McNeal Turner was born in Newberry, South Carolina in 1834, the grandson  of a white plantation owner and son of freed blacks.  Against all odds he was able to receive an education and rose to become a pioneering Methodist missionary and one of the most influential African American leaders in late 19th century Georgia.

Canada.  Philip Turnor from Surrey was a surveyor who came to Canada in 1778 to work with the Hudson Bay Company.  While there he headed up their Cumberland House factory in NE Ontario.  His son Joseph Turner by a Cree woman (and therefore of mixed race) worked at the Moose factory for sixty four years until his death in 1865.  His wife Emma was also of mixed race.  His legacy at Moose is the Turner House. 

William Turner and his extended family from Banff in Scotland came to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1790.  His descendants are still in Nova Scotia today.  

Robert Turner from the Bracondale Turners in Norfolk came out to Canada in the 1830’s.  A wealthy lawyer, he built his Bracondale Hill home in the fashionable outskirts of Toronto.  The house survived until 1937.

South Africa.  Alexander Turner from Wiltshire came out with his family to Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape in 1843 and worked there as a farm overseer.  His son Henry acquired his own farms nearby at Middleton.

Australia.  Robert Turner, from a wealthy Glasgow merchant family, and his wife Mary emigrated to Tasmania in 1839 soon after their wedding.

Their son Charles Turner was born on the voyage across.  He lived until 1922.  His grand-daughter remarked:  “Granpa Turner was too aristocratic, used to everything and trained for nothing – just a gentleman.”  It is interesting to note that he would have received some portion of his father’s share of his grandfather’s estate after 1858, perhaps in regular payments from the trustees in Glasgow.

James Turner and his family from London had come out to Western Australia and the new Swan River colony in 1829.  Although well off, Turner was of the ‘trade class’ and thus not ‘permitted’ to mix socially with the other ‘more respectable’ families.  He seemed to have spent almost as much time fighting with the authorities to get things done as he did battling to make a home out in the wilderness.  In 1849 he abandoned the struggle and moved to Perth.

Timothy and Sarah Turner from Lancashire were not wealthy at all when they emigrated to South Australia in 1855.  Their sons were soon to be off looking for work on pastoral stations or at some of the mining towns.

Turner Surname Miscellany

Early Turnours as Turners.  The Turnour spelling was evident in the 15th century but it seemed to have mainly died out by the 16th:

  • William Turnour was rector of Rayne in Essex in 1440.
  • the birth of Henry Turnour was recorded in Haverhill, Suffolk in 1478.  But two generations later the spelling was Turner.
  • while William Turnour, a merchant of Scotland, was granted a safe conduct to travel into England in 1473.  The same name appeared in Edinburgh records in 1481.

However, one legal family of Suffolk and Essex did seem flexible between the Turnour, Turnor, and Turner spellings in the 17th century.  This family later held estates in Galway. 

The Turners of Mulberton and Keningham.  The first recorded of this line was William Turner who died in 1547 and was a servant of Sir John Robsart of Stanfield Hall nearby in Norfolk.   Either William’s son, Thomas or, according to Blomefield’s History of Norfolk, his son John bought Keningham Manor from Sir Thomas Gresham in 1570.  The estate included about 500 acres of land.  How the Turners were able to make this step into land ownership is not known.

The Turner family remained associated with Keningham estate for several generations. Many of their names were recorded on the Turner memorials in the church.  John Turner, listed as owner of Keningham and yeoman in White’s Directory of 1845, eventually sold the estate in 1861. It did in part come back to the Turners in 1886 through John Hotblack who was married to a Turner.

The Rev. Howard Turner compiled a history of the family in his 1907 book The Turner Family of Mulbarton and Great Yarmouth.

Turners in the 1891 Census

Turners (000’s) Numbers Percent
Lancashire    12    15
Yorkshire    10    13
Staffordshire     5     6
London/SE    20    26
Elsewhere    30    40
Total    77   100

The House of Seven Gables.  The earliest section of the House of the Seven Gables was built in Salem, Massachusetts in 1667 for Captain John Turner.  It remained in his family for three generations, descending from John Turner II to John Turner III.

Facing south towards Salem Harbor, it was originally a two-room, two-story house with cross-gables and a massive central chimney.  This portion now forms the middle of the house.   In 1692, John Turner II added a new north kitchen ell to the rear of the house, as well as the famous “secret stairway” within the rebuilt main chimney (built at the time of the Salem witch trials). About 1725 he remodeled the house into the new Georgian style.

After John Turner III lost the family fortune, the house was acquired by the Ingersoll family in 1782. One of their relatives was Nathaniel Hawthorne who often stayed there when he was a child and later immortalized the house in his works.  It was described by Hawthorne and, hence his fascination, as “a rusty, wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass.  And a huge clustered chimney in the middle.”

Terisha Turner in Virginia.  Terisha Turner’s life span was long.  He was born in Hanover county, Virginia around the year 1709 and died in Amherst county in 1801 at the age of ninety two.   His name was probably pronounced Terrisha, since his nickname was Terry.

The earliest land record of him showed that he patented 200 acres of land on the south side of the James river in 1749.  He married Sarah Wimpey who died in 1806.   They had eight children.  He appeared on the 1783 tax list of Virginia with five in his family and twelve slaves. Old Terisha died in 1801 owning several thousand acres, not only in Virginia but in North Carolina as well. He called himself ‘ancient’ in his will which had been written in 1793 and proven in 1802.

His descendants followed a classic migration route – from Virginia to North Carolina, then through Tennessee to Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, and points further west. Toby Turner’s branch came to Texas after the Civil War.

Turners from Virginia to North Carolina to Missouri.  Martin Turner was born in England and came to America when a child, both his parents dying on the ocean while they were enroute to Virginia.  He attained his majority there and married Elizabeth Lipscomb.  Thomas, born in 1790, was the youngest of their ten children.  Around 1810, they went to North Carolina by wagon and raised their family in Caswell county.

Thomas was in his twentieth year when his parents moved to North Carolina.  While a resident of that state he enlisted in the War of 1812, serving until the close.  In 1842 he went with his family overland to Missouri, eventually settling in what is now Laclede county.  There he improved a large farm and lived there until the onset of the Civil War.  He went south to Texas for four years and then returned to the farm in Missouri where he died in 1875.

His son Andrew fought in the war as well, being present at the battles of Lexington, the first siege of Corinth, Prairie Grove and Little Rock.  He then returned to his farm in Laclede county.  He became a prominent farmer in his area and was elected as a judge on the county court.

Robert Turner and Bracondale Hill.  Robert Turner was a wealthy lawyer in Toronto in the 1840’s who lived with his family in what was called “one of the fashionable houses of York.”  He then purchased land in the outskirts of the town.  From the finest five-acre section, the site of the ancient oak forest on the crest of Davenport hill, he carved out his estate.

This estate included several buildings, an orchard, a large market garden, stables and a Georgian-style home he named Bracondale Hill after his home in Norfolk back in England.  Robert and his family moved there when all was completed in 1847.

He was undoubtedly relieved to move his family to the countryside.  Typhoid was rampant in the city and in 1849 the downtown core of Toronto was destroyed by fire. Early settlers believed in the health-giving properties of the air up Davenport hill.

The village of Bracondale sprang up around the original estate, taking its name from the Turner home.  In 1880 Robert’s son Frank built the Bracondale Post Office.  Bracondale Hill itself was boarded up in the 1930’s and then demolished by the city in 1937.

Turner Names

  • J.M.W. Turner was an early 19th century English Romantic landscape painter.
  • Nat Turner led the largest slave rebellion in the antebellum South in 1831.
  • Frederick Turner, an American historian, is best known for his work, The Significance of the Frontier in American History. 
  • Lana Turner was a glamorous  American actress.
  • Ted Turner was the pioneer developer of CNN, the cable news show.
  • Tina Turner has been called “the queen of rock and roll.”

Turner Numbers Today

  • 125,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 125,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 61,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Turner and Like Surnames   

The various medieval trades and occupations were a source of surnames as John the baker would over time would become known as John Baker.  Some skilled craftsmen – such as chandlers, fletchers and turners – were able to form guilds, protective organizations, and style themselves Worshipful Companies.  These are some of the occupational surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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