Wainwright Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Wainwright Surname Meaning

The Wainwright surname is occupational, from the Old English waegen or waen, meaning “wagon,” and wyrhta, “wright” or maker/builder. The wagon at that time would have been horse-driven and four-wheeled.

The Oxford English Dictionary observed that “wainwright” was not found as a vocabulary word in Middle English, although it had appeared as a surname by the 13th century. An Adam le Waynwrith was in Wakefield records in Yorkshire in 1285.

Wainwright Surname Resources on The Internet

Wainwright Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England
  • to Bermuda, America, Canada and Australia

England. Wainwright is a northern name – first, as the 1881 census shows, in Yorkshire, then in Lancashire, with spillovers into Cheshire and Staffordshire plus some Wainwrights in Essex.

Yorkshire Early Wainwrights in Yorkshire were to be found in the Peak District in the south of the county, in and around Penistone.

John and Dorothy Wainwright of Bradfield date from Elizabethan times. A Wainwright family acquired Shore Hall near Penistone in 1631 and Wainwrights were to be found there and in neighboring farmhouses in the 18th and 19th centuries. One Wainwright family ran an oil press business in Thurlstone in the early 19th century (their son Joseph emigrated to America).

There were Wainwrights in Halifax from the 17th century who owned the local dye works. But the largest cluster of Wainwrights in Yorkshire was and is to be found in and around Leeds. One remarkable family in Leeds started with a 19th century butcher’s business and then moved into the professional classes with:

  • Scurrah Wainwright, a chartered accountant and a delphinium lover Richard Wainwright, a conscientious objector in World War Two and then a Liberal MP
  • and Hilary Wainwright, the radical editor of Red Pepper magazine.

Elsewhere  There was a well-known musical family of Wainwrights to be found in Cheshire and south Lancashire from the 1740’s to the 1830’s. John Wainwright was best known as the composer of the Christmas hymn Christians Awake. His sons Robert and Richard were choristers in Manchester.

More recently, Lancashire has produced that lover of the Lake District and producer of extraordinary guide-books, AW Wainwright.

Bermuda. Wainwrights were among the first settlers of Bermuda in the 1620’s. John Wainwright held land at that time in Warwick. Some of these Wainwrights stayed on the island, others emigrated to Trinidad, Nova Scotia and America. Wainwright House, a mid 19th century townhouse, is to be found in St. Georges, Bermuda.

Jeffrey Wainwright left Bermuda in 1680 for the Quakers in Woodbury Creek, New Jersey.  His son David married into the Quaker Chew family.  David died young and left no children.  But his brother Samuel had descendants.

America.  Early Wainwrights came to New England.

New England.  Francis Wainwright was an early arrival to Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1638. His family became established there as fish and lumber merchants. But John Wainwright, the sole remaining son, was drowned while on a Rhode Island sloop carrying oak planking in 1721.

Another Wainwright family, from different roots, were fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts from the early 1800’s.

One Wainwright line originated with Peter Wainwright, a tobacco merchant from London who came to Boston some years before the American Revolutionary War.

He married Elizabeth Mayhew in 1790 and the line of John Mayhew Wainwrights began with their son, a clergyman, and continued with military men who fought first in the Civil War and later, General “Skinny” Wainwright (JM the fourth), in World War Two.

Related to these Wainwrights are the Wainwrights from South Carolina, the singer Loudon Wainwright and his fractious offspring.

Elsewhere.  Records of a Wainwright family in North Carolina started with a James Wainwright receiving land in Pitt county, North Carolina in 1768. His descendants later moved onto SE Georgia.

Canada. William Wainwright was a railwayman who came to Canada in 1862 and joined and rose up the ranks of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. The town of Wainwright in Alberta was named after him.

Australia.  Ellen Wainwright was a convict on the First Fleet that arrived in Australia in 1788. She died in Hobart in 1839 and there is a plaque there to her memory affixed by the Fellowship of First Fleeters in 1988.

Wainwright Surname Miscellany

Wainwright’s Folly in Halifax.  A tower on Skircoat Green in Halifax had been built by the owner of a local dye works.  He had chosen the elevated site in order to obtain a strong draught for the fires.

However, as a result of a disagreement with the owner of the land, Wainwright did not complete the work. Instead, he placed on the summit of the chimney a decorative pediment, intending the structure to mock and annoy the landowner.  The chimney’s height is 240 feet and it cost £2,000 to build.

Wainwrights in the 1881 British Census.  The following were the numbers and distribution of Wainwrights in the 1881 census.

County Numbers (000’s) Percent
Yorkshire     2.0  32
Lancashire     1.2   19
Cheshire     0.6    9
Staffordshire     0.4    6
Elsewhere     2.1   34

The total number of Wainwrights was 6,300.  The largest clusters were in Leeds, Eccleshall, and Sheffield, plus Adlington in Cheshire.   Interestingly, the number one male occupation was as coal miner.

Scurrah Wainwright and His Love of Delphiniums.  Leeds was a polluted place in the late 19th century.  Scurrah’s father Richard had spotted the commercial possibilities that might follow from ameliorating the effects of unhealthy air.  He invented and marketed a gadget which earned him the title of “Leeds smoke king.”

Scurrah himself had trained as a chartered accountant and was able to purchase a house in leafy suburbia.  He believed passionately in gardens.  He wrote the following in a letter to the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1927:

“There are districts in the Leeds suburbs where the morning and evening walk to and from the tram is made full of interest and pleasure by a succession of open gardens with differing color schemes and well-cultivated flowers.  The owners of these gardens emulate and vie with each other, discuss and exchange until the whole neighborhood becomes ‘garden proud.'”

Scurrah fell in love with one particular flower, the delphinium, and one particular delphinium species, the Millicent Blackmore.  In 1936 he bought a large Victorian villa called The Heath where he could showcase its beauty.  Before long national experts were treading a path to The Heath and declaring what they found there to be one of the loveliest gardens in the north of England.  Delphiniums grew in such profusion, it was almost like a maze.

Reader Feedback – Wainwrights in New Jersey.  My family who came to central New Jersey in the late 17th/early 18th century were Quaker farmers.

Christopher Wainwright (cwainw2476@aol.com).

Ellen Wainwright of the First Fleet.  Ellen Wainwright, believed to have been born Ellen Eccles in Preston, had been charged with stealing a scarlet woollen cloak, a blue stuff quilted petticoat, and a black silk hat.  She was 17 at the time and living in Rishton.  She was sentenced to seven years transportation and was with the First Fleet on the Prince of Wales to Australia in 1788.

Ellen gave birth to a daughter Mary Ann, born in 1789 at Port Jackson.  Mother and child then travelled to Norfolk Island where Ellen gave birth to Henry in 1791.  Both children soon died. But another Mary Ann was born in 1795.

Sometime before 1800, Ellen began to co-habit with Thomas Guy and presented him with three daughters. Thomas made an honest woman of her when he married her in 1812.  The marriage certificate showed the bride’s name as being Ellen Wynwright.  Ellen was then aged 42.  She lived on another 27 years and died in Hobart in 1839.  There is a plaque to her memory that was affixed by the Fellowship of First Fleeters in 1988.

Daughter Mary Ann married Dennis McCarty in 1811 when she was 16. David was another colorful character who had been sentenced to two years for smuggling liquor.  But his main claim to fame was that he had built the first road in Tasmania from Hobart to New Norfolk.  Dennis drowned in a boating accident in 1820, some have said under suspicious circumstances.  Mary Ann promptly remarried and, within five months, had given birth to a daughter.

AW Wainwright and His Beloved Fells of the Lake District.  A Wainwright is the summit of what AW – as he preferred to be called – thought were true fell tops.  There are 214 “Wainwrights,” which many walkers try to get to the top of or to “bag.”

Wainwright’s first view of the Lake District was in 1931 and he began the first of his seven pictorial guides to its fells in 1952.  The following are some quotations from these books:

“The fleeting hour of life of those who love the hills is quickly spent, but the hills are eternal.

Always there will be the lonely ridge, the dancing beck, the silent forest; always there will be the exhilaration of the summits.

These are for the seeking, and those who seek and find while there is yet time will be blessed both in mind and body.”

“Haystacks stands unabashed and unashamed in the midst of a circle of much loftier fells, like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds.  For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.”

“Time is intended to be spent, not saved.”

“Much of Lakeland’s appeal derives from the very lovely names of its mountains and valleys and lakes and rivers, which fit the scenery so well. These names were given by the earliest settlers, rough men, invaders and robbers: they were here long before Wordsworth – but they too, surely had poetry in their hearts?”

When AW died in 1991, his ashes were scattered by the quiet waters of Innominate Tarn on his favorite fell, Haystacks.

The Fractious Wainwrights.  Many American families who have issues on the scale of the Wainwrights would spend most of their time and money on therapy.  This Wainwright tribe may have the money; what they lack is the time as they are far too busy writing about each other.

The 61-year-old patriarch, Loudon Wainwright III, has been doing it for decades, marking the ups and downs of domestic life in songs so frank they are literally breathtaking.  You really could hear the audiences gasp as he launched into the confessional Hitting You about the time he struck his daughter when she was a child.: “I was aiming for your buttock but I struck your outer thigh…”

This daughter, Martha Wainwright, is now in her thirties and has become a star in her own right.  So has her older brother Rufus, whose earliest feeding habits Loudon chronicled with a song called Rufus Is a Tit Man.  Not any more.  He now lives in New York with his boyfriend Jorn, a German arts administrator.  Both these siblings have made such an impact that if you tell anyone under forty that you are off to see Loudon Wainwright, they look uncertain and ask if he is anything to do with Rufus and Martha.  He sure is.

It’s not only his singing talents they’ve inherited, but also his notions of what a song can say, and to whom. Rufus wrote a real stinger called Dinner At Eight, apparently inspired by a dreadful row he and Loudon had about which of the two could take the credit for their being on the cover of Rolling Stone.  Martha showed she could do forthrightness too, with a number about her father called Bloody Mother F****** Asshole.

Wainwright Names

  • Skinny Wainwright was a commander of American forces in the Philippines during World War Two.
  • AW Wainwright was a writer of much cherished guide books of fells in the English Lake District.
  • Loudon Wainwright III is an American songwriter, folk singer, humorist and actor.

Wainwright Numbers Today

  • 12,000 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 2,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Wainwright and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Yorkshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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