Wagstaff Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wagstaff Surname Meaning

A quotation from the medieval writer Myles Coverdale read as follows:  “Be not afraid for the King of the Assyrians that he shall wag his staff at thee.”

The Wagstaff name derived from “wag a staff,” just as the Shakespeare name comes from “shake a spear.” Wagstaff, possibly a nickname, would describe some medieval official like a bailiff or a beadle who carried a staff and shook it for effect.

Wagstaff Surname Resources on The Internet

Wagstaff Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Warwickshire)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

England. The Wagstaff surname may well have started out in Warwickshire in the English Midlands.  

“There was recorded a coal pit in the Haunchwood area of Stockingford in Warwickshire in the 14th century worked by a man called Wagstaffe. It was referred to as Wagstaffe’s pit.”

WarwickshireThe Wagstaffes had been at Harbury near Stratford-on-Avon since 1500 and possibly earlier.  They in fact described themselves as an “ancient” county family.

The local church has a large stone slab dedicated to Alice Wagstaffe who died in 1563. The letters of Elizabeth Wagstaffe, dating from about 1614, have been preserved. And the village still has the Thomas Wagstaffe school which the family founded in 1611.

These Wagstaffes were Royalist at the time of the Civil War. Sir Joseph Wagstaffe, a younger member of the family, was a soldier of fortune abroad who returned to join the Royalist cause. In 1655 he led the Penruddock uprising in Wiltshire in an effort to restore the monarchy, but had to flee the country after its defeat. The Wagstaffe male line did continue at Harbury and at Bishops Tachbrook near Warwick until the death of Sir Thomas Wagstaffe in 1709.

The Wagstaff name was to be found in two distinct family groups at Bedworth and Nuneaton during the 18th century. Thomas Wagstaff kept the Bull Inn at Nuneaton in the 19th century, while William Wagstaff was the proprietor of the New Inn at Attleborough.

Elsewhere.  From Warwickshire the Wagstaff name seems to have stretched eastward, through Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire into south Yorkshire. These four counties recorded the most Wagstaffs in the 1881 census.

Anthony Wagstaffe was living at Hasland near Chesterfield in Derbyshire in 1611. And Wagstaffs were farmers around Darley Dale in north Derbyshire from the late 1600’s – Josiah Wagstaff, born in 1672, at Aldwark Grange and George Wagstaff, born in 1676, at Toadholes.

Wagstaffs were recorded in Yorkshire at Ecclesfield near present-day Sheffield from about 1500 onwards. Thomas Wagstaff married Elizabeth Slater there in 1565. By the 18th century the Wagstaff name appeared in and around Barnsley and in the Holme valley. John Wagstaff was a clothier at the Fox House in Holmfirth in 1789. And that great rugby league footballer Harold Wagstaff was born in Holmfirth in 1891.

Bedfordshire.  There was a southern outpost of Wagstaffs near London, in Bedfordshire.

These Wagstaffs were rural agricultural people in a part of NE Bedfordshire that was sometimes known as the Wagstaff belt. The largest number were in Wilden, the first recorded there being Richard Wagstaff who was born in 1498. Later they were to be found at Northill. Many left for America and Canada in the mid/late 1800’s.

America. Dr. Alfred Wagstaff, born in 1804, was the progenitor of a prominent Wagstaff family in New York. He had invested well in real estate and made his family country gentlemen. The line continued through his son Alfred Jr and grandson Samuel, both lawyers and high on the Social Register, to Sam Wagstaff Jr, a well-known art curator and collector in New York in the 1970’s.

The largest Wagstaff numbers in America have not been in New York, however, but in Utah. Many Wagstaffs from rural Bedfordshire joined the Mormon church and departed for Utah and the American West in the 1850’s. Prominent among them were three Wagstaff brothers – William, John and Samuel.

Canada. Wagstaffs from Bedfordshire also departed for Canada. Henry Wagstaff came in the 1880’s but then moved onto Utah. Charles Wagstaff settled in Medicine Hat where he was an engineer with the Canadian Railways. John Wagstaff also came to Alberta and made his home there.

Wagstaff Surname Miscellany

The Wagstaff Name.  Mark Lower in his 1860 Patronymica Britannica described the Wagstaff name as follows:

“Applied to one who could brandish or wag a staff with effect. It belongs to the same class as Shakeshaft, Longstaffe  and Shakspere and is the most common of that class. It is curious to observe among the archives of Stratford-on-Avon a record of proceedings between Richard Wagstaff and John Shakspere, the latter being William Shakespeare’s father.”

The Letters of Elizabeth to Her Husband Timothy Wagstaffe.  Elizabeth married Timothy, the son of Thomas Wagstaffe of Harbury in Warwickshire, in 1604. Timothy purchased the manors of Tachbrook Mallory and Bishop’s Tachbrook near Warwick in 1613. Elizabeth’s letters, which have been preserved, were written from Warwick and provide an interesting glimpse into the running of the couple’s busy household.

They also include snippets of news concerning many of the local gentry.  There is mention, for example, of Sir Bartholomew Hales the J.P. at Snittersfield, the village in which Shakespeare’s grandfather was a tenant farmer and where the bard’s father, John Shakespeare, was born.

The letters were written around 1614, about the time that her son Thomas was born. Her husband Timothy died in 1625 and Thomas was the heir to the estate.

Leading Counties for Wagstaff in the 1881 Census

County Number Main Locations
Warwickshire    341 Coventry area.
Derbyshire    339 Darley Dale in the Derbyshire
Nottinghamshire    283 Selston (with Alfreton in
Derbyshire nearby)
Yorkshire    517 Sheffield and the Holme valley.

The Wagstaff Family in New York.  Dr. Alfred Wagstaff was born in New York City in 1804, from Wagstaffs who had arrived there before the Revolutionary War.  He lived at Waverley Place and became wealthy as a doctor. However, his real fortune probably came from the investments he made in real estate in the city as it was expanding northward in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

In 1853 he built himself a large Italian-style estate named Tahluah on land he had acquired at West Islip on Long Island. There he became a true country gentleman. He had a good stable of horses and kennel of dogs.  All four of his children built homes on the West Islip estate.

He died in 1878 and the family fortunes then somewhat subsided. His house Tahluah was sold at auction in 1904.  None of his sons were as good as him at money-making.  Cornelius bred dogs at West Islip and was a charter member of the Westminster Kennel Club.  Alfred Wagstaff Jr and his son Samuel were both lawyers.

Samuel’s son Sam Jr. took time to find his metier as an art curator and collector.  He became known in the 1970’s for supporting new movements such as minimalism, pop art, and conceptual art.  He had met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1972, beginning a fifteen-year relationship that would last until Wagstaff’s death.  Mapplethorpe was his guide to the gay demimonde of extreme sex and drugs that flourished in New York at that time.  Sam Wagstaff died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987.

The Wagstaff Exodus to Utah and the American West.  Wagstaffs encountered Mormon preachers in rural Bedfordshire and many joined up with the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Many then left their homes for a long voyage by ship and covered wagon to the American West, starting in the 1850’s.

Prominent here were three brothers – William, John, and Samuel Wagstaff – who were joined by four of their sisters and a mother as well.  William and John settled in Salt Lake City, Samuel in American Forks.

There were other Wagstaffs from Bedfordshire who also made the journey, although not all of them were Mormons:

  • William Wagstaff who migrated to Preston, Idaho.
  • John Wagstaff who came to Evanston, Wyoming and later moved to Croydon, Utah.
  • and Henry Wagstaff who settled in Brigham City, Utah.

Wagstaff Names

  • Sir Joseph Wagstaffe was a Royalist officer during the English Civil War. He unsuccessfully led the Penruddock uprising in 1655 in an effort to restore the monarchy. 
  • Harold Wagstaff was a champion rugby league footballer for Huddersfield and England in the early 1900’s. 
  • Sam Wagstaff was an American art curator and collector who acted as a mentor to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Wagstaff Numbers Today

  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 1,000 in America (most numerous in Utah)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Wagstaff and Like Surnames

Nicknames must have been an early feature of medieval life in a family or community as these nicknames later translated into surnames.  People then lived a more natural life than we do today and the surnames have reflected that.

They could be about color (Brown, Gray, Green etc), whether of hair or complexion or other factors; mood (Gay and Moody are two extremes); youth (Cox and Kidd); speed of foot (Swift and Lightfoot); and actions (such as Shakespeare and Wagstaff).  Then there were likenesses to animals (notably Fox and Wolfe but also Peacock) and to birds (Crowe and Wren for example).  And then there were some extraordinary nicknames such as Drinkwater and Wildgoose.

Here are some of these nickname surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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