Unwin Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Unwin Surname Meaning

Unwin was an important figure in Anglo-Saxon legend in England in the time before the Norman conquest. He appeared as a warrior king, as in this later version of the Waldef story.

“At the time after Arthur there reigned in Norfolk a certain king called Attalus. In Suffolk ruled Unwyn, king of Thetford, who fought in single combat against Attalus. But the two were reconciled without the intervention of a mediator.”

The name Unwine developed as a personal name and later as a surname.

There are two Old English words from which this name might have derived. The first was the personal name Hunwin, from hun meaning “bearcub” and wine meaning “friend.” The second was the Old English unwine, meaning “unfriend” or “enemy.” Both Hunwine and Unwine appeared in 13th century renderings of the name.

Unwin Surname Resources on The Internet

Unwin Surname Ancestry

  • from England (East Coast)

England.  The 19th century surname distribution suggests two groupings of the Unwin name – first in East Anglia stretching down to London and second in the north, mainly in Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Derbyshire.

East Anglia. The name seems to have originated in East Anglia. Later sightings in that region included:

  • the Rev. Morley Unwin in Huntingdon in the 1760’s. His son William was a friend to the poet William Cowper. He was killed in a riding accident.
  • George Unwin who rented Baythorne Hall in Halstead, Essex in the late 19th century. He started a grain business there. The family still live at the hall.
  • and Unwin Seeds, the company first begun at Impington near Cambridge by William Unwin selling his sweet pea pod seeds. The firm celebrated its centenary in 2003 by publishing Colin Hambridge’s The Unwins Century.

The Rev. Morley Unwin had come from an Unwin family long established at Castle Hedingham in Essex where they were clothiers. Thomas Unwin of this family lived in some style at Black Notely Hall. His sons were a clothier, a brewer, and Jacob who went on to found the Gresham Press.

Unwin thereby became a name in the London book publishing world. Jacob Unwin had started the Gresham Press in London in 1826. And Stanley Unwin of this family founded the publishing house of Allen & Unwin there in 1914. His son Rayner, who as a young boy had recommended the publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, followed him at the helm.

Unwin’s involvement in publishing predated Jacob Unwin. Matthew Unwin was Birmingham’s first printer in the early 1700’s and another Matthew Unwin, probably his son, Leicester’s first printer and active in the book trade from 1727 to 1743.

Elsewhere. Then there were the Unwins further north. Unwins in the Ravenscliffe area of North Staffordshire date from late Elizabethan times. Simon Unwyn was High Sheriff of Staffordshire in the 1670’s. Unwin was to be found in the parish records of Firbeck and other villages near Rotherham in the early 1700’s.

The Unwin name first appeared at Mansfield in Nottinghamshire in 1603 when William Unwin married there. Unwins were yeoman farmers in Mansfield in the 1600’s. Samuel Unwin settled in Sutton in Ashfield, marrying Elizabeth Fisher in 1735. He built a cotton mill there, based on Arkwight’s revolutionary new design, in the 1770’s.

“The machinery of this factory was originally propelled by oxen and horses, which, however, were soon superseded by a large water-wheel when the concern was considerably extended. Later, the supply of water being insufficient, the works were put in motion by steam.”

Samuel died in 1774, as did his eldest son William. The mill continued with his younger sons Samuel and Edward until Edward’s death in 1841.

Unwin genealogy in England was covered in Philip Unwin’s 1937 book Unwiniana.

Unwin Surname Miscellany

Unwin Origins.  There were Saxon folk histories that mentioned Unwen, “son born beyond hope,” which would have been told in King Alfred’s time.

It seems as a surname that Unwin originated in East Anglia.  In the Domesday Book, there was a Hunuuinus in Cambridgeshire and in 1166 a Hunwine de Batha, also called also Unwine, in Norfolk.  The surname, either as Hunwin(e) or Unwin, was to be found in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, and Norfolk in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Unwins of Castle Hedingham.  The spelling of the name was originally Onwyn alias Onion and there has been some speculation that the family might have originally been of Flemish origin.

They could be traced back to Thomas Unwin who died at Steeple Bumpstead in 1566.  His son Matthias had been born at Castle Hedingham in 1554. Early references were to them as yeomen farmers.  But they later became clothiers, starting probably with Thomas Unwin sometime in the 17th century.

Another Thomas Unwin was recorded as follows:

“Thomas Unwin, son of Thomas Unwin citizen and grocer of London and Martha his wife, whose late father was clothier and inhabitant of Hedingham Castle, was baptized November 8th by me Richard Courtman, curate of Castle Hedingham, in the year 1702.”

In 1759 it was recorded in the Ipswich Journal that Thomas Unwin of Castle Hedingham married Mary Edwards of Bucklesbury.

Matthias Unwin was a merchant in Livorno for more than fifty years and died there in 1786 at the age of eighty six.  He was probably the source of the family’s later prosperity.

Matthew Unwin’s 1743 Book Catalogue.  Matthew Unwin’s 1743 catalogue is an important survival. It provides more detail than any other single source about Unwin and his book trade activities. There is a single copy in the British Library, comprising thirty-eight duodecimo pages:

“A catalogue of books in divinity, history, law, physick, mathematicks, poetry, classicks etc, being two small libraries, the one of a young clergyman, lately deceased, and the other of a gentleman.”

The catalogue – for a week-long auction sale to be held at the Feathers Inn in Nottingham – was printed reasonably competently, using a moderately large typeface on paper of average quality.  Each page listed approximately twenty-five books, categorized by size. A wide range of prices was indicated.

Unwin’s book premises in Leicester were located by the Angel Inn, the town’s main hostelry.

Jacob Unwin and the Gresham Press.  By the late 18th century the Unwins had become prosperous merchants, living at Black Notley Hall near Castle Hedingham.  They were Congregationalists.  Jacob himself was a punctilious chapel-goer and had the deep religious sense of the typical nonconformist of his time.

Jacob Unwin started the Gresham press in London in 1826 and it was continued by his son George.  They were seen as benevolent employers.  Some idea of George’s character can be gleaned from the following report:

“He belonged to that type of employer now fast dying out, who lived in close touch with his works and his employees.  At Chilworth, master and men were like a happy family. His high integrity of character made him trusted by all.  If we were writing his biography we should have to devote many pages to his church work as well as to his interests in geology, archaeology and numismatics.”

The firm had moved to Chilworth in 1871 and, after a devastating fire, relocated to larger premises in Old Woking in 1896.  Stanley Unwin of this family formed the book publishers Allen & Unwin in 1914.

Unwins of Impington.  Unwins at the small village of Impington near Histon in Cambridgeshire can be traced back to the early 19th century.  There was a family connection to the Chivers family which had started the Chivers jam plant nearby.  Alfred Unwin married Sarah Chivers in Histon in 1873.

Doctor’s Close in Impington was the home of James and Frances Unwin, the parents of seedsman William Unwin who himself lived at the Walnut Tree Beer House.  It was back in 1903 when William Unwin rented a field on Impington Lane and sold his first sweet pea seeds.  Impington Lane was often called Unwin Lane at that time because there were at least six members of the Unwin family living there (in the 1881 census there were a recorded 25 Unwins in Impington).

In 2003 Unwin’s Seeds closed and their large site off Impington Lane was sold to developers.

Unwinese.  Unwinese was a mangled form of English devised by the comedian Stanley Unwin in which many of the words were corrupted in playful and humorous ways. Thus his description of Elvis Presley and his contemporaries was “wasp-waist and swivel-hippy.”  Unwin claimed his gift came from his mother who once told him that on the way home she had “falolloped over and grazed her kneeclabbers.”

“Unwinese” was largely improvised and spontaneous by Unwin, with many actual English phrases and sentences thrown in for contrast.

The following list of examples give some impression of this “language:”

  • afterlubrious or afterloon – afternoon
  • baselode – bowlful
  • brewflame or brewflade – beer
  • childer and childers – child and children
  • do a snufflode – die
  • falollop – fall or go
  • goodlibilode – goodbye
  • mardi – mother
  • nockers (as in “I did nockers”) – not
  • roamer – road
  • sleevers – to sleep
  • thriftymost on your banky balancer – very good value

Stanley Unwin died in 2002.  He himself prepared his own valediction which read as follows:

“Goodly Byelode loyal peeploders!  Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee – oh yes!”

Unwin Names

  • Stanley Unwin was a British publisher, founder of the Allen & Unwin publishing house in 1914.
  • Stanley Unwin, sometimes billed as Professor Stanley Unwin, was a British comedian and comic writer and the inventor of his own language “Unwinese.”

Unwin Numbers Today

  • 4,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Unwin 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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