Watts Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Watts Surname Meaning

Wat as a given name in England dates back to the 8th century and an early Saxon king of Sussex (who was recorded in charters at the time as Wattus rex). A later Wat was Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Wat de Carnegy appeared in Scotland in 1446.

Wat by this time was short for Walter, a popular name in medieval times derived from the Germanic Wattier or Wautier brought to England by the Normans.

The surnames Watt and the patronymic Watts later emerged, as did other forms of the name such as Walters, Watson, Watkins, and Watkinson. Some of the Watts in America were originally Watz who had come from the German state of Hesse.

Watts Surname Resources on The Internet

Watts and Watt Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern England, NE Scotland and Germany
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

England.  Watts was a surname of southern England, but was widely spread there. It was found on the east coast and the west coast, with the largest numbers in London.

SE England.  Richard Watts, born near Rochester in Kent, was a successful London merchant during Elizabethan times and a benefactor to the city.

Isaac Watts the famous hymn writer, born into a Nonconformist household in Southampton, lived in Stoke Newington on the outskirts of London for most of his life – from 1690 and 1748. Watts from Odiham in Hampshire date from the 1700’s and possibly earlier.

SW England.  Watts, initially de Wath and Wathes, were to be found at Eston in Worcestershire from the 14th century. One later line of this family was the Watts of Hawkesdale Hall in Cumbria.

Lancashire.  There were other Watts in the north. A Watts family, dating back in Manchester to the 1730’s, were small farmers in the area who also engaged in handloom weaving. James Watts founded with his elder brother Samuel what was to become the largest wholesale drapery business in Manchester.

“James Watts was the classic type of Manchester entrepreneur: son of a self-made man, a free trader and a dissenter. He was concerned not only with business success, but also to make a social mark.”  

He was mayor of Manchester in 1855 and bought Abney Hall in Cheadle where many distinguished visitors later stayed.

Scotland. As Watt and Wattie, the surname was to be found in Aberdeenshire and Banffshire in NE Scotland.. There was a fishing village in Banffshire where, amazingly, 225 out of the 300 inhabitants once had the name of Watt.

Watson rather than Watt has been the more common surname in Lowland Scotland.

But James Watt, renowned for his development of the steam engine, was born in Greenock on the Clyde. One son Gregory Watt, a promising geologist, died at a young age in 1804. Another son James Watt – who carried on his father’s work – died unmarried, the last of the direct descendants, in 1848. A line did run to Robert Watson-Watt, born in 1892, who was one of the pioneers in the development of radar. Another line, the Gibson-Watts, was to be found in Wales.

The Watts of Rose Hill near Edinburgh were staunch supporters of King James VI of Scotland in 1596. Robert Watt, subsequently Watts, emigrated to America around the year 1700. The Rose Hill section of Manhattan, which his family later acquired, was named after the Scottish home.

Ireland.  A Watt family, probably from Scotland, came to Donegal at the time of the Ulster plantations, the first recorded being James Watt born in 1660.  They have lived at Claragh near the town and port of Ramelton from 1725 until 1970 (with the death of Geoffrey Watt there).

In the early 1800’s Ramelton had developed a linen industry and the Watt family owned its largest linen works.   Samuel Watt moved to Jamaica at that time and began importing linen there from Ramelton. with his brother James acting as agent,

In 1762 a branch of the family had crossed into Derry and started out as wine and spirit merchants.  David Watt acquired the Abbey Street whiskey distillery in Derry in 1839, which his nephew Andrew expanded into the largest distillery in Ireland by the late 1800’s.  However, the workers went on strike in 1921 and Andrew then abruptly closed the plant down.

America. Edward Watts from Somerset was an early arrival in America, coming to Virginia first in 1640 and marrying in Stafford county and then travelling between England and Virginia over the rest of his life. Later Watts of this line were to be found in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Thomas Watts became Governor of Alabama at the time of the Civil War.

Frederick Watts came to America from Wales in 1762 and settled in Pennsylvania. He was a Brigadier General during the Revolutionary War. He and his wife Jane raised six daughters and their youngest, David, a son. His son Frederick Watts, a prominent agricultural reformer, was the founder of Penn State University.

Scots.  Early Scots Watts in America included:

  • Robert Watts, whose family settled in Manhattan
  • and John Watts, an Indian trader and interpreter out of Virginia who worked primarily with the Cherokees.

John’s mixed race son John Watts, born in 1753, was a leading chief of the warlike Chickamanga faction of Cherokees that waged war on the American frontier. Descendants were later to be found in Georgia and Texas.

German.  A German Watz family was in the Carolinas by 1820. They then spread throughout the South, most notably settling in Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Several Watz have at least partial Cherokee blood and a number served in the Civil War. Today many of the descendants bear the Watts name.

Most Watz who arrived later in the 19th century settled in New York and the Upper Midwest.

Canada. Two Watts brothers, William and Matthew, made the long sea voyage from Ireland to Canada in 1850. They were boat-builders and set up shop on Georgian Bay near Toronto to supply fishing boats for the local fleet.

Twenty years later William Jr. moved to Vancouver to build boats for the west coast market. The business passed from William to son Fred, but there the tradition stopped. It struggled through the late 1930’s and early 1940’s until Fred Watts lost his battle with cancer in 1947.       

Australia.  John Cliffe Watts was an Irishman who joined the British army and came to Australia in 1813. He became Governor Macquarie’s aide-de-camp and was an architect for many of the new buildings in Sydney. He later settled in Adelaide where he took up the position of Postmaster General.

From Scotland came:

  • John Brown Watt, who arrived in Sydney from Edinburgh in 1840 and prospered in business there. One son Ernest followed in his father’s business footsteps, another son Oswald (known as Toby) was an aviation pioneer whose life was cut short by drowning in 1921.
  • and James Michie Watt, a farmer from Aberdeen who came to Melbourne around the year 1843. His son William rose to become Premier of Victoria in 1912.

New Zealand.  William and Sophia Watts came to New Zealand on the Oriental from Kent as early as 1841. However, they were not happy there and, after a few years, settled in Jamberoo, NSW. However, one son Edward returned to New Zealand and was one of the Kaikora pioneers in Hawkes Bay.  His farm remained in family hands until 1960.

Watts and Watt Surname Miscellany

Richard Watts, Elizabethan Merchant and Benefactor.  Richard Watts was a prominent merchant in Elizabethan London who was noted at the time for his philanthropy.  The following memorial was later erected on his behalf:

“Sacred to the memory of Richard Watts Esq; a principal benefactor to this City, who departed this life September 10, 1579 at his mansion house on Bully-hill, called Satis (so named by Queen Elizabeth of glorious memory) and lies interred near this place, as by his will doth plainly appear.

By which will, dated August 22 and proved September 25, 1579 he founded an almshouse for the relief of poor people and for the reception of six poor travelers every night and for employing the poor of this City.  The mayor and citizens of this City, in testimony of their gratitude & his merit, have erected this monument in 1736. Richard Watts Esq, then mayor.”

Isaac Watts’ First Hymn.  A famous story about Isaac Watts tells how it all began.  The teenage Isaac complained bitterly to his father about the dreary Psalms sung in church.  He said the tunes were tiresome and the words meaningless.  His father encouraged him to see what he could do “to mend the matter”.

Isaac went to his room and wrote his first hymn.  The next Sunday, Behold the Glories of the Lamb was sung in the Congregational chapel to which the Watts family belonged in Southampton. The year was 1693 and Isaac was about nineteen years old at the time.

The Last Years of Gregory Watt.  In 1801 Gregory Watt set off on European travels in the hopes of recovering his health.

He first stayed in Paris where he met the Scottish-American geologist William Maclure and together they traveled through war-torn France and Italy.  In Naples, despite Watt’s consumption, they climbed and descended into Vesuvius and saw other evidence of recent volcanism.  At the time Watt thought this experience would change his mind about geological, especially volcanic, processes.

Watt was inspired on his return home to make experiments on melting basalt and to study its cooling history and to also attempt a “lithological” map of Italy. The first work led Watt to “sit on the fence” over the then much-debated question of the origin of basalt.  He believed it could have originated either from the action of heat or from water.  Meanwhile Watt’s early 1804 map was a brave attempt to delineate up to 46 separate lithologies on a “proto-geological” map of Italy.

Watt may well have met William Smith, the English pioneer of modern geological cartography, in Bath later in 1804 just before his death, but there is no further evidence.  The previous year he had become the main critic on matters geological for the Edinburgh Review and published there nine reviews, mainly on mineralogy. He died in 1804, aged just twenty seven.

The Watts Family and Rose Hill, New York.  The first Rose Hill in New York was the farm acquired in 1747 by the John Watts who represented the city for many years in the Colonial Assembly.  It contained over 130 acres and lay on the East River between what were to become 21st and 30th streets and between the future Lexington Avenue and the water.

Watts’ residence in town was at 3 Broadway, facing Bowling Green.  Watts himself was the son of Robert Watts of Rose Hill near Edinburgh who had come to New York around the year 1700. John Watts named the farm in honor of his father’s house back in Scotland.

As Loyalists, John Watts and his wife departed for Britain in 1775 and never returned.  They left Rose Hill and the house at 3 Broadway in the hands of their son John Watts who post-Revolution became a lawyer and politician in the city.

The main house at Rose Hill burned in 1779 during the British occupation, but a deed from the 1780’s mentions “houses, buildings, orchards, gardens” on the land.  Parts of Rose Hill Farm were being sold off in the 1780s.

In 1786 Nicholas Kruger acquired a lot at the north edge of the property, consisting of most of what is now the block bounded by 29th and 30th Streets and Second and Third Avenues.  There were at that time some venerable elms which stood at the corner of 28th Street and Lexington Avenue.

Frederick Watts and the Mechanical Reaper.  The whole idea was silly.  Some “new fangled” machine to cut wheat?

When folks around Carlisle, Pennsylvania learned that attorney Frederick Watts was going to demonstrate a mechanical reaper on his farm to harvest a field of wheat – some new variety of winter wheat imported from southern Europe that he insisted would ripen a full week before their own – they were astonished. Surely nothing could replace a team of hard-working men with grain cradles!  “Watts’ Folly,” they called it.

Watts didn’t mind the robust skepticism.  He was out to improve agriculture and show farmers that farm work could be faster and easier.

So on a warm, sunny summer day in 1840, a crowd of between 500 and 1,000 people gathered at his farm, saw that, indeed, the grain was ripe and they examined the machinery as they prepared to witness the spectacle.  A horse and rider drew the equipment into the field followed by a man who was to rake up the wheat as it was cut.

The contraption clattered and rattled as it began to cut the wheat and the rake man had some trouble keeping up, which began to cause difficulties with the machine.  The people hooted, jeered, and laughed. They knew it wouldn’t work!

Watts was beginning to get embarrassed.  But then a man stepped forward from the group and showed everyone the proper way to work with the harvester.  He was Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the machine called “McCormick’s Reaper.”  The fool thing worked after all!  The dubious Scots-Irish farmers were suitably impressed.

Gentleman farmer Watts had successfully demonstrated that farm work could be made less burdensome and more efficient, two major objectives of the new way of farming that Watts and others sought to encourage.

The Watt Family and Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey.  Seemingly prior to prohibition in 1920, billboards around New York at baseball and football grounds carried advertising for Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey, then one of the biggest-selling whiskey brands in the US.

This referred to the famous Tyrconnell brand distilled by Andrew A. Watt & Co at their Abbey Street distillery in Derry and named after a prize-winning horse owned by the Watt family.

In 1876 the Watt family had entered a horse named Tyrconnell in the Irish Classic horse race The National Produce Stakes in Dublin.  It won at odds of 100 to 1. The event went into racing folklore and was celebrated on their labels.

One of their advertising posters claimed “100 to 1 Tyrconnell Wins: Andrew A Watt & Co Ltd Londonderry’. This proud declaration was set against the backdrop of a racetrack, with three tiers of wildly cheering crowds, and three horses straining for the winning post, with one just nudging ahead.

Whiskey continued to be made at the Watt’s Abbey Road distillery in Derry until a workers’ strike there in 1921.

The boss Andrew Watt then arrived unexpectedly in his chauffeur–driven Rolls Royce.  Pushing his way through the bad-tempered gathering, he climbed onto a barrel and asked if the men would return to work.  When the answer came that the gates would remain closed until their demands were met, Watt glibly replied: “Very well then, shut they shall remain – and permanently so.”

It was with these blunt words that Derry’s great whiskey empire came to an end.

A Watts Family in Australia.  It would seem that many Watts from Stroud in Gloucestershire emigrated to Australia in the mid-19th century.  Samuel Elijah Watts was born there in 1845 and worked for a firm of solicitors in Birmingham before departing for Australia in 1863.

He and his wife Lydia, whom he married in Sydney four years later, had no children.  Even so, they were part of a large Watts family who had settled in various parts of Australia.

It was through Samuel’s gift of writing poetry and song that researchers were able to connect several of these branches of the family.  He was the nephew of Henry and Joseph Watts of Smithfield, NSW (Joseph, who died in 1873, donated land for the building of the Smithfield Methodist church). Samuel was also named as executor in several family wills and witnessed several legal documents for other members of the Watts family.

Samuel’s poetry writing was much admired and some thought that there was a family relationship to Isaac Watts the hymn writer.  But this has not been confirmed.

Watts and Watt Names

  • Isaac Watts was an 18th century English hymn-writer credited with being the father of English hymnody. 
  • James Watt was the Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer whose improvements to steam engines were fundamental to the changes wrought during the Industrial Revolution. He developed the concept of horsepower and the watt unit of power was named after him. 
  • James Watts was a prominent cotton trader and wholesale distributor in Manchester in the mid-19th century. 
  • Alan Watts was a British-born writer and speaker in America, best known as an interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy. 
  • Charlie Watts who died in 2021 was the long-time drummer for the Rolling Stones.
  • Naomi Watts is a British-born Hollywood actress.

Watts and Watt Numbers Today

  • 46,000 in the UK (most numerous in Gloucestershire)
  • 31,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 22,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Watts and Like Surnames  

Patronymic surnames can be with either the “-son” or the shorter “s” suffix to the first name.  The “s” suffix is more common in southern England and in Wales.  Here are some of these surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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