Watkins Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Watkins Surname 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 “-kins” 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Watkins Surname Ancestry

  • from Wales and Western England
  • to America and Australia

Wales.  The Watkins surname probably first surfaced in Wales in Breconshire. Lewis ap Howell ap Gwylim ap Gwatkyn was recorded in the old Welsh patronymic 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 local 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 Welsh/English 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.

England. The Watkins name was also found on the English side of the border. Family accounts show 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 Shropshire, 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 Company 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 further 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 South Australia on the Oregon in 1851 under the Assisted Passage Scheme. Thomas was a gardener. His son Charles left Australia ten years later for Dunedin, New Zealand.

Watkins Surname 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 Birch, Herefordshire.

Some 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 Theophila 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 Watkins (1660-1717).  Immigrant from Montgomeryshire in Wales who settled in Pennsylvania.  His descendants moved to Georgia and Tennessee.
  • 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 Texas.

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 Manchester.

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 demanding universal suffrage.

He started to keep a diary in 1814 and this has been published as The Diaries of Absalom Watkin, a Manchester Man.  They record conversations with famous contemporaries and relate some fascinating details of daily living at that time.   Although he was successful 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 marriage, James White soldier being cautioner for both parties whereupon being thrice 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.

Their elder son became a linen manufacturer in Aberdeen, and a prosperous one as 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 St Peter’s cemetery.  After Alexander’s death in 1873 his widow, Jessie, and all his surviving children save one 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 remaining 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 Victoria’s magician and a revered member of the Magic Circle.  Dr. Holden married and there is a descendant line from him.

Watkins Surname 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.

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)

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.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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