Whittaker Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Whittaker Surname Meaning

The root of this surname is the place-name Whiteacre, from the Old English hwit meaning “white” and aecer meaning “cultivated land.” This place-name translated into the early Whitacre name in Warwickshire and the later Whitaker name in Lancashire. The Warwickshire line died out and Lancashire has been where most of this name were to be found.

Whitaker and Whittaker are the main spellings. The spelling in Lancashire tended to end up Whittaker; while that in neighboring Yorkshire and for those emigrants to America it has been Whitaker.

Whittaker Surname Resources on The Internet

Whittaker and Whitaker Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Yorkshire and Lancashire)
  • to America, Australia and New Zealand

England.  Whitaker as a surname is Saxon in origin, predating the Norman Conquest and going initially by the name of de Whytacre. This Whitacre family in Warwickshire was to be found in the Domesday Book of 1086 and rose to some prominence in later medieval times.

Lancashire.  It is possible that that was some linkage between the Whitacres of Warwickshire and the Whitakers in Lancashire, but none has really been documented.

There have been two long-established Whitaker families in the Ribble valley district of Lancashire near Burnley, one at Simonstone and the other at Holme:

  • Richard de Whitaker, from High Whitaker, was recorded as living at Simonstone in 1333. The Whitakers of Simonstone Hall had their property seized and then restored during the Civil War and Restoration period. Charles Whitaker died at Simonstone in 1843.
  • Thomas Whitaker, recorded in 1431, is believed to have been the forebear of the Whitakers of Holme-in-Cliviger. Richard Whitaker was living at Holme in 1543.

“The most distinguished of the Whitakers of Holme was the celebrated divine, the Rev. William Whitaker, professor of divinity at Cambridge University, whose library was so famous that it was purchased after his death in 1595 by Queen Elizabeth I.”

Later came Dr. T.D. Whitaker, born in 1759, who was the vicar of Whalley and a well-known historian. The Holme estate remained in family hands until 1959.

Other branches in the area were the Whitakers at Broadclough and Huncoat. One Whittaker line came from Whittaker near Rochdale. The early spelling in Lancashire had been de Quitacre. The transition in spelling from Whitaker to Whittaker began in the 1500’s.

Yorkshire. Whitakers extended across the Pennines into the West Riding of Yorkshire. Jeremiah Whitaker, the noted Puritan clergyman, was born in Wakefield in 1599. Other Whitakers were to be found in Dewsbury at this time. The name had reached the parish of Howden in east Yorkshire by the 1640’s. A Whitaker family there later took possession of Balkholme manor.

Joseph Whitaker, from a west Yorkshire trading family, had moved to Sicily in the early 1800’s and developed a fortified wine industry at Marsala on the island of Motya. A later Joseph Whitaker of this family was a well-known ornithologist, as well as being an anthropologist and wine producer. He died in Rome in 1936. Meanwhile Benjamin Whitaker had returned to England and acquired Hesley Hall near Doncaster.

Elsewhere.  Stephen Whitaker, born around 1520, was the forebear of one of the most important families of the Wiltshire woolen industry during Tudor times. He may have come from one of the Lancashire Whitaker families, but there is no proof of this. He and his sons Henry and Stephen operated a mill at Westbury. Henry and his son William were both MP’s for Shaftesbury. 

Another west country line dates back to the marriage of Nicholas and Martha Whitaker in Halesowen, Worcestershire in 1623.

Ireland. There is a Whittaker line at Abbeyleix in present-day county Laios that apparently went back to three Whittaker brothers granted lands there at the time of Cromwell. Their mill was burnt down by Irish rebels in 1798. Many of these Whittakers departed for Canada in 1848 at the time of the potato famine.

America.  Two sons of the divine Dr William Whitaker of Holme in Lancashire came to the early Jamestown colony in Virginia:

  • the first being Alexander, known as the Apostle of Virginia, who arrived in 1611 but drowned in the James river in 1617.
  • and the second being the youngest son Jabez who arrived in 1619, survived the Indian massacre three years later, and died there in 1626.

The Whitaker line descended from Captain Jabez Whitaker was covered in Charles Brashear’s 2008 book Whitakers of Holme and America. Richard and William Whitaker were later sizeable landowners in the Jamestown area. One line moved to Enfield, North Carolina and thence to Georgia. Another line settled in the Camden district of South Carolina. William Whitaker of this line was an early settler in Florida in the place now known as Sarasota.

John Whitaker sometimes Whitacre was believed to have been an indentured servant arriving in Virginia around the year 1690 who then moved onto Maryland and acquired land known as Whitaker’s Ridge in the vicinity of Baltimore.

His grandson the Rev. John Whitaker, born there in 1722, became head of his family at the tender age of nineteen (after the death of his parents) and moved them twice:

  • first he moved them west to new land along the Monongahela river in what is today Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He established the village of Whitaker there. Many Whitakers lived and died and were buried there.
  • then in 1780, with the Revolutionary War still raging (and his sons Abraham and Aquilla engaged in that conflict), he moved the family west again to Beargrass Creek in Kentucky. John was one of just five frontier Baptist preachers active in Kentucky at that time. He continued preaching at the Beargrass Baptist church in Shelby county until his death in 1798.

North Carolina.  William Whitaker was from a line of Quaker Whitakers from Lancashire that had settled in Philadelphia in the early 1700’s. After a devastating fire at his home there in 1751, he moved his family to Rowan county in North Carolina. By 1767 Joshua and Mary Whitaker were also to be found in Rowan county (their children later moved to Buncombe county); while other Whitakers were in Surry county, North Carolina at this time.

Interestingly, North Carolina had the largest number of Whitakers in America in 1840 and still has the largest number today.

Australia.  James Whittaker was a convict who was transported to Australia for larceny in 1828. He later became a successful businessman in South Australia. But he died when the ship on which he was travelling hit the rocks in 1859 on its way to Melbourne.

New Zealand.  James Henry Whittaker, born in Manchester, came to New Zealand in 1890 and six years later started making confectionary chocolate in Wellington. His business remains family-owned with the third generation, Andrew and Brian, now in charge and Whittaker’s rivalling Cadbury’s as the largest chocolate brand in New Zealand.

Whittaker and Whitaker Surname Miscellany

Whitakers and Whittakers Today

Numbers (000’s) Whitaker Whittaker Total
UK    10    23    33
America    17     6    23
Elsewhere     2     7     9
Total    29    36    65

The Whittaker spelling predominates in Lancashire, the Whitaker spelling in Yorkshire.

The Whitacre Family of Warwickshire.  By tradition this family was descended from Wihtgar, a nephew of Cedric the king of the West Saxons.  It was said that Johias Whitacre died fighting at the Battle of Hastings on the side of King Harold.  Nevertheless this Saxon family was apparently allowed to keep their lands in Warwickshire after the Norman Conquest.

Simon de Whitacre was recorded as a landowner in Warwickshire at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. The principal seat was at Whitacre Hall, a medieval fortified manor house in Nether Whitacre. Jordan de Whitacre appeared to have held the Whitacre manor in 1203.

Sir Richard Whitacre was knighted by Edward III in 1327.  He later fought in the King’s retinue during the English victories at Calais and Crecy in France.  For this it is believed that he received lands in Lancashire and some of his descendants might have migrated there.  The name in Warwickshire does not seem to have lasted beyond the 1370’s. 

The Whitakers of Holme in Lancashire.  The first Whitaker to arrive at The Holme is thought to have been Richard de Quitacre who came to Cliviger from Padiham in 1340.  Thomas Whitaker was recorded at The Holme in 1431.  The Whitaker 40 room manor house, completed in 1603, rested on the site of an earlier property.

“Originally built of wood, the center and eastern wings were rebuilt in 1603. The west remained of wood until 1717 and had one or more private closets for the concealment of priests, the family having continued as recusants until the end of Elizabeth’s reign if not later.”

The Holme remained in Whitaker family hands until 1959. Afterwards it served for a time as a nursing or retirement home. In March 2003 the middle and east wings burned down (the police suspected arson).  Three hundred year old oak beams fell in on the walnut floor in the living room with its fieldstone fireplace and mirrored wall.  The west wing of the building and the 1859 northeast additions did survive.

The Whitakers of Hesley Hall in Yorkshire.  The Whitakers were an old Yorkshire trading family that had moved to Sicily in the early 1800’s to develop the fortified wine industry at Marsala.  Grown rich, Benjamin Whitaker – the eldest of twelve children of Joseph and Eliza Whitaker – had returned to England in the late 1800’s and acquired Hesley Hall near Doncaster.

Hesley Hall had one of the largest households in the area in 1901 with an indoor staff consisting of a chaplain, butler, housekeeper, two footmen, and six maids.  The outdoor staff included a coachman, groom, gardener, farm bailiff, gamekeeper, and several farm workers.

Benjamin Whitaker was an important part of the local gentry scene until his death at the age of 83 in 1922.  When his wife Caroline died in 1941 Sir Albert Whitaker inherited the Hesley estate.  Hesley Hall later became a School for Crippled Children.

The Apostle of Virginia.  Alexander Whitaker was a son of Dr. William Whitaker of Holme, the noted English divine.  In 1611, at the age of 26, he made his way to the new English colony at Jamestown in Virginia.  There he established two Reformed churches and was known as “the Apostle of Virginia” by his contemporaries.

He was a popular religious leader with both settlers and natives.  In 1613 he was responsible for the baptism and conversion of Pocahantas.   Pocahantas and her husband John Rolfe stayed with him for a time at his Rock Hall plantation in Henricus.

His relative tolerance of the Native American population that English colonists encountered can be found in his sermons, some of which were sent back to England to help win support for the new colonies in North America.

The most famous of these sermons was Good News from Virginia, in which he described the native population as servants of sin and slaves of the devil,” but also recognized them as sons of Adam who are “a very understanding generation, quick of apprehension, sudden in their dispatches, subtle in their dealings, exquisite in their inventions, and industrious in their labor.”

Unfortunately in 1617, at the young age of 32, he drowned while attempting to cross the James river.   He was unmarried and left no issue.

James Whittaker in Australia.  In 1828 James Whittaker was convicted for larceny in London and sentenced to life transportation to Australia.  He duly arrived in Sydney harbor at the end of the year on the Royal George.

He worked at Parramatta in NSW until he finally received his pardon in 1845 and he then moved to the mining town of Kapunda in South Australia.  There he operated a general store and opened a hotel, the Sir John Franklin Hotel. He became a successful and respected businessman, and a wealthy one, before retiring in 1854.

In 1859, despite being ill, he took sail for Melbourne and the horse races.  He was confident that the ship, the Admella, was “unsinkable” and tore up his will as a sign of his faith.  But the ship hit Carpenters Rocks and 87 lives were lost including James.  Many of the businessmen offered $100 to anyone who could swim to shore and raise the alarm. The captain knew that the ship was about to sink and yelled for all to get on deck.  James, being so sick, was left behind and drowned.

The next months saw the Whittaker family travelling to South Australia to claim a share of the legacy he left.  Most of the fortune was in fact lost to lawyers as various family members fought each other for their share.  The story that he had a large number of golden sovereigns in a belt around his waist as he drowned lives on.

Whittaker and Whitaker Names

  • Sir Richard de Whitacre, from a Saxon family, was Lord of the Manor of Nether Whitacre and a prominent Warwickshire landowner of the 14th century.   
  • Dr. William Whitaker from Holme in Lancashiire was one of the leading English Protestant scholars and churchmen of the 16th century.  
  • Joseph Whitaker was the first of a family of Whitakers that became important in the iron and steel business in Pennsylvania during the 19th and 20th centuries. 
  • Joseph Whitaker, a London bookseller, launched Whitaker’s Almanack in 1869, an annual reference book which was to have immediate and lasting success.

Whittaker and Whitaker Numbers Today

  • 33,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 28,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 9,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Whittaker and Like Surnames

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


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Written by Colin Shelley

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