Watkins Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Watkins Meaning
Watkins is a pet form of Watt, itself an abbreviation of
Walter. It had appeared as Gwatkyn in Wales by the early 1400’s.
The suffix
was generally attached to a personal
name as a pet name, usually denoting “the little one.”
The suffix was apparently a Flemish import which for some reason became popular in England.  Various “-kins” surnames also became popular in Wales, including Watkins.

Watkins Resources on

Watkins Ancestry

The Watkins surname probably first surfaced in Wales in
Breconshire. Lewis ap Howell ap Gwylim ap Gwatkyn was recorded in
the old Welsh patronymical style in Breconshire in 1539. He may
have been the Lewis Watkins – known in Llangorse as ap Gwatkyn – who
had come to London
and the court of Henry VIII and adopted the English-style name.
However, in 1545, there was
trouble back home for him.

“Lewis Watkins and three others – a
laborer of Langorse named Richard ap Watkin, John Thomas ap Euan, and
Watkin ap Philip – slew Roger ap Watkin of Langorse with an
arrow. This was loosed by Watkin ap Philip but the three others
were also sentenced to death as accessories.”

Richard ap Watkin was executed. But Lewis
miraculously escaped the noose and received a pardon. He died
three years
later. The incident evidently did his family no harm. His
son and grandson, both William, were four times High Sheriffs of
Breconshire between 1567 and 1601. And the Watkins continued as
gentry. Colonel
Vaughan Watkins
was the local MP between 1832 and
1865. He lived at Pennoyre where he had an Italianate-style villa
built for him.

Watkins also started to appear as a surname in the 16th century on the
border area, in particular in Herefordshire which was then part of
Wales. The Welsh patronymic style was still around, even in the
17th century. Hence in 1666 David Watkins’ father was Watkin
David of Preston on Wye in Herefordshire, not Watkin Watkins. But
English-style Thomas Watkins was a Baptist preacher there at that time.

. The Watkins name
was also found on the English side of the border. Family accounts
Watkins at Ruardean in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire from an
early time. Richard Watkin was a gunsmith there in the mid 1700’s.

Watkin and occasionally Gwatkin has also been a surname in
England. Its starting point may
have been mid-Wales. The Watkin name has been found principally in
Staffordshire, and Lancashire.

John Watkin ran a small cotton business in Manchester in the late 18th
century. It was transformed when his nephew Absolom joined him
from London. Absolom Watkin became a wealthy
cotton merchant in his own
right and a leading figure in the Anti-Corn Law League. One of
his sons, Alfred, was mayor of Manchester; the other, Edward, a
leading railway magnate of the Victorian age. Edward was also
responsible for what became known as Watkin’s folly:

“One of Sir Edward’s projects was on
the site of what is now Wembley stadium. During a trip to France
in 1889, he became greatly impressed with the newly built
Eiffel Tower which stood over 894 feet high. He wanted to build
an even taller tower on land he owned in
Wembley Park. He set up the Metropolitan Tower Construction
and held an architectural competition inviting designs from all over
the world.”

America. Most Watkins who
immigrated to America
during colonial times came via
Virginia. Henry Watkins
came to Virginia from Wales in the 1670’s and settled to farm in
Henrico county. He suffered discrimination for a number of years
because he was a Quaker. Later Watkins had trouble with the local
Indians and with their fellow Quakers.

“In 1726 Benjamin Watkins was
“disowned” by his Henrico Quaker meeting for “marrying out of
unity.” The bride who caused the dismissal was Jane Watkins,
daughter of Thomas Watkins of Swift Creek in Chickahomony county.
Undaunted by the ban Benjamin Watkins and Jane Watkins formed a
successful alliance.”

The family history has been covered in John Hale Statesman’s 1989 book Some Watkins Families of Virginia.

An earlier Watkins family in Virginia began with John Watkins who came
to Isle of Wight county in 1641. His descendants move south into
the Carolinas and south into Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.
Another family line started with Joseph Watkins in South Carolina in
the 1750’s and moved onto Georgia in the 1830’s.

Frances Ellen Watkins was a notable African American Watkins. She
was born free in the slave city of Baltimore in 1825. She never
experienced the hardships of slavery and yet she devoted her entire
life in her writings and her lectures to the abolitionist movement and
what she called “a brighter coming day.”

Australia. Watkins to
Australia came from both Wales and England. One English family
was that of Thomas Watkins from Gloucestershire. They came to
Australia on the Oregon in
1851 under the Assisted
Passage Scheme. Thomas was a gardener. His son
left Australia ten years later for Dunedin, New


Watkins Miscellany

Watkins and “-Kins” Surnames.  Various “-kins” surnames became popular in Wales, including Watkins.  The table below shows the main “kins” names and their degree of penetration into Wales (the numbers here are taken from the 1891 census):

Name Pet form of: Numbers (000’s) Share in Wales (%) Found in England
Atkins Adam      10   4 spread
Dawkins David       2   4 Southwest
Dickens Dick       3   3 West
Hopkins Hobb (from Robert)      19 23  spread
Jenkins John      35 56 Southwest
Perkins Peter      14   8 spread
Watkins Walter      16 38 West Midlands
Wilkins William      13   7 West Midlands

Some Gwatkins.  Gwatkyn appeared frequently as a name in the Welsh patronymic style.  Its earliest appearance as an English-style surname – where the name had been passed down from father to child was the
baptism of Julian Gwatkyn, daughter of John Gwatkyn, in 1563 in Little

well-known Gwatkins were:

  • Robert
    Lovell Gwatkin, born in 1757, who became
    famous for his work as a political reformer, as well as for marrying
    Palmer, the niece of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
  • and Lieutenant-General Sir Willoughby Gwatkin, born in
    1859, who had the
    command of the Canadian army during the First World War.

Early Watkins in America.  The following
is a list of Watkins recorded in America in colonial times who have lines tracing down until the present day:

  • Henry
    Watkins (1638-1715).  Immigrant from
    Talgarth in Wales, a Quaker,
    who settled in Henrico county, Virginia.  His
    descendants moved to North Carolina.
  • Cadwallader
    (1660-1717).  Immigrant from
    Montgomeryshire in Wales who settled in Pennsylvania.
    His descendants moved to Georgia and
  • Lewis
    Watkins of New Kent county, Virginia (1680’s-1740’s).
    His descendants moved to Alabama
  • William
    Watkins of Virginia (1690-1784).  His
    descendants moved to Arkansas and Texas
  • John
    Watkins of Virginia (1694-1763).  His
    descendants moved to Iowa
  • Evan
    Watkins of Maryland (1700-1765).  His
    descendants moved to Kentucky.
  • William
    Watkins of Virginia and North Carolina (1721-1790).
    His descendants moved to Missouri and Iowa
  • James
    Watkins of Virginia (1744-1799).  His
    descendants moved to Ohio.
  • and
    James Watkins of North Carolina and Georgia
    (1748-1837).  His descendants moved to

Absalom Watkin of Manchester.  Absalom Watkin
was a cotton merchant, but an enlightened one of the early 19th century.  He as a Methodist – like other liberal
thinkers at that time – held Nonconformist religious views.  He was an early advocate of parliamentary
reform.  He did
not witness the Peterloo Massacre but played an
important role in the campaign to obtain an independent inquiry into
Peterloo.  He drew up the famous
Declaration and Protest document that was signed by over 5,000 people

In 1833 Absalom Watkin
organized the campaign in Manchester for the Ten Hours Bill.  His other great concern was the price of
bread.  He became Vice President of
Manchester’s Anti-Corn Law League.  However,
by that time, he had become opposed to radical political
movements and opposed the Chartist campaign.
In 1842 he helped the police to defend Manchester from rioters
universal suffrage.

started to keep a diary in 1814 and this has been published as The Diaries of Absalom Watkin, a Manchester
record conversations
with famous contemporaries and relate some fascinating details of daily
living at
that time.   Although he was
in business and public affairs he remained dissatisfied with his own
life –
unhappy in his marriage and his work and longing, most of all, to
write, tend
his garden and read alone in his library.

The Watkins Family of Aberdeen.  James Watkins
was a soldier based in Aberdeen who married Jean Simmons, a local girl,
at Old
Machar in Aberdeen in 1798.

“James Watkins soldier in Windsor Forester
Fencibles and Jean Stevenson in Spittal signified their purpose of
James White soldier being cautioner for both parties whereupon being
proclaimed without objection they were married.”

James settled down in Aberdeen as a
plasterer and mason.  He and Jean were to
have five children.  Both died in
Aberdeen, probably in the early 1830’s.

elder son became a linen manufacturer in Aberdeen, and a prosperous one
well.  A younger son James emigrated to
Michigan in the US in 1835.  He died
there in 1856.  News of his death was
evidently sent back to Aberdeen as it appears on the family memorial at
Peter’s cemetery.  After Alexander’s
death in 1873 his widow, Jessie, and all his surviving children save
emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand.
George Watkins stayed in Aberdeen and became superintendent
engineer of
the Aberdeen Waterworks at Cutts.

John Lloyd Vaughan Watkins.  Colonel Vaughan
Watkins came from a long line of Watkins gentry in Breconshire.  His father, the Rev. Thomas Watkins, was the
rector at Llandfaelog.  He himself was
the local MP for many years and lived at Pennoyre where he had an Italianate-style villa built for him in the late 1840’s.

However, his latter years were a
mystery.  He married twice but had no
children by either of his two wives.
After his second wife died, he sold his Pennoyre estate and in
1861 was
living upstairs in a pub in Brecon.  He
died four years later and left some money to the pub landlady and his
estate to two apparent unknowns, Harry and Bessie Bryant.

He did have at least five illegitimate
children, one of whom by Emma Holden was Dr John Watkins Holden, Queen
magician and
a revered member of the Magic Circle.  Dr.
Holden married and there is a descendant line from him.


Watkins Names

  • Edward William Watkin was a
    Victorian railway magnate.
  • Carleton Watkins was a
    pioneer photographer of the American West.
  • Vernon Watkins, brought up in Swansea and a contemporary of Dylan Thomas, was also a poet.

Select Watkins Numbers Today

  • 30,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Cardiff)
  • 40,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


Select Watkins and Like Surnames  

Hereditary surnames in Wales were a post-16th century development.   Prior to that time the prototype for the Welsh name was the patronymic, such as “Madog ap Jevan ap Jerwerth” (Madoc, son of Evan, son of Yorwerth).  The system worked well in what was still mainly an oral culture.

However, English rule decreed English-style surnames and the English patronymic “-s” for “son of” began first in the English border counties and then in Wales. Welsh “P” surnames came from the “ap” roots, such as Price from “ap Rhys.”

These are some of the present-day Welsh surnames that you can check out.



Click here for return to front page

Leave a Reply