Surname Name Meaning, Origin, and Etymology
This last name is a Scottish and northern English patronymic form of the personal (first) name Nichol , which in turn is a nickname for the given name Nicholas, which derives from the ancient Greek nike (victory) and laos (people), literally translating to “victory of the people”. Another source translates the name as the “conqueror of the people”. In Greek, the name was Nikolaos and was later latinized to Nicolaus. It was popularized by a bishop from Antolia (Turkey), Saint Nicholas, who lived in the 300s AD, and was hence popularized throughout Christendom in medieval times.
In England, the family bearing this name first became established in counties Cumberland and Northumberland. Author Mark Antony Lower, in his book Patronymica Brittanica, states: “It is not improbable that they are descended from the great Anglo-Norman family of Fitz-Nigell or Nicholl”.
In Scotland, the family lived on the Isle of Skye, located on the western coast of the nation, which had been raided by Vikings in early times who also settled there. George Fraser Black’s 1946 book The Surnames of Scotland states the following regarding this surname: “Maucolum fiz Nicol rendered homage in 1296 (Bain, II, 816). William Nicholai (Latin genitive) or Nycholayi was burgess of Glasgow 1419-21, Gilbert Nicholai was vicar of Auferde (Alford) in 1435, and Patrick Nicholai, presbyter of Brechin, 1436, appears in 1448 as Patrik Nicholsone, perpetual chaplain of Caldhame. Michael Nycholson leased pert of Parcy (Persie), 1443, and Gylbryd Nycholay in 1446, Matthew Nicholay, witness in Aberdeen, 1489 (REA., II, p. 303), and John Nicholsoun was burgess of Dumfries, 1544. Ailleis Neclasson had remission in 1547 for his share in taking and holding the Casde of Akirgill, Caithness , and Mallie Niclasson is recorded in the Boigis, 1663. The Nicolsons of Lasswade are an old family, knighted in seventeenth century. Sir William Nicolson (d. 1766), four times married, was father of twenty-three children. The Nicholsons of Skye have Englished their name from Macnicol, which see. Necolson 1474, Nicollsoun 1624, Nucolsone 1655, Nycholsoun 1483”.
Common spelling variants or names with similar etymologies include Nicolson, MacNicol, MacNichol, MacNicoll, MacNickel, MacNickle, MacNickell, MacNychole, MacNiccol, Nicol, Nicole, and MacNicholas. Similar foreign names include Nicolausson (Sweden) and Nickelsen (Dutch).
Popularity & Geographic Distribution
The last name Nicholson ranks 534th in popularity in terms in the United Status as of the 2000 Census. The name ranks particularly high in the following seven states: North Carolina, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Iowa, West Virginia, and Montana. The surname is even more common in England, where it ranks 203rd. It ranks highest in the following counties: Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and Durham. In Scotland, it ranks highest in Dumfriesshire and Sherland. In Wales, Nicholson is most frequent in Anglesey. In Ireland, the name is most frequent in counties Sligo and Carlow. The name is common throughout the English speaking world: Scotland (234th), Wales (399th), Ireland (826th), Canada (364th), New Zealand (179th), Australia (245th), and South Africa (860th).
The 1890 book Homes of Family Names by H.B. Guppy, states the following in regard to this surname: “With few exceptions confined to the northern half of England, being most frequent in Cumberland and Northumberland, and afterwards in Durham and in the adjacent parts of Yorkshire. It is noticeable that Nixon, a contraction of this name, is also restricted to the northern half of England, being most numerous in Cheshire and Northumberland. From the north of England the Nicholsons and Nicolsons have extended into the Scottish border counties, especially into Dumfriesshire”.
History, Genealogy, and Ancestry
A one Alice Nicholson was born in Kippax, Yorkshire, England in 1510. She married Richard Wilkinson and had a daughter naked Margaret.
The famous genealogist Bernard Burke’s book “The Landed Gentry” discusses five branches of this family: 1) Nicholson of Balrath of Durry and 2) Nicholson of Ballow.
Balrath Bury House
Photo credit: New York Social Diary
The first begins with a mention of Christopher Armytage Nicholson, Esquire of Balrath Burry in county Meath, who was Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff 1856, who was born in 1825. In 1858, he married Frances Augusta, daughter of Augustus Henry Macdonald Moreton, and had issue with her: Gilbert Moreton (1860), John Hampden (1871), Mary Jane, Elizabeth Katharine, and Emilia Olivia. The family originated in county York. Gilbert Nicholson of Bare and Poulton, of Lyndall, in Lonsdale, and of Barbon and Easterton in Westmorland, married Grace Curwen and had three issue with her: Francis, Giles, and Grace (married Thomas Brathwaite). He died in 1605 and was succeeded by his grandson Humphrey. In turn, Humphrey had a son named Gilbert of Poulton in county Lancaster and the city of Dublin, Ireland. Gilbert was born in 1620 and was a Lieutenant in the Royal Army before 1649. He received land grants in county Monaghan and he bought Balrath Burry in 1669. He and his wife Mary had three sons: Christopher, Thomas, and John. His middle son Thomas Nicholson was Esquire of Balrath Burry and was born in 1662. He was Commissioner of county Meath in 1692 and High Sheriff of said county in 1704. He married Mary, daughter of John Beauchamp, and had issue with her, including a daughter named Anne. He later married Elizabeth, daughter and co-heir of John Wood of Garelony, and had four children with her: Christopher, John, Thomas, and Gilbert. His son Christopher was High Sheriff of Meath in 1735 and in 1723 he married Elinor, daughter of Simeon Pepper, and had children with her: John, Thomas, George (Major in the army), Christopher, Hampden (married Sarah Ormsby), Rose, Christian, and Emilia. His eldest son, John Nicholson, was Esquire of Balrath Burry and Captain in the Coldstream Guard who was born in 1724. In 1766, he married Anna Maria, daughter of Sir Samuel Armytage, and had two sons with her: Christopher and John. He died in 1782 and was succeeded by his son: Christopher Armytage Nicholson who was born in 1768. Christopher was Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant, and High Sheriff of Meath. In 1796, he married Catharine, daughter of William Newcome, and had five children with her: John Armytage, Christopher Hampden (Lieutenant-Colonel Grenadier Guards), William (Reverend, Rector of Welford), Thomas Gilbert (Justice of the Peace, married Grace Francis Alexander), and Anna Maria. His second was Anna, daughter of George Lenox Conyngham, and had three children with her: Armytage Lenox, Olivia, and Sophia Elizabeth. He died in 1849 and he was succeeded by his eldest son: John Armytage Nicholson. John was Esquire of Balrath Burry, Deputy Lieutenant, Justice of the Peace, and High Sheriff of county Meath in 1827. He was born in 1798 and in 1824 he married Elizabeth Rebecca, daughter of Nathaniel Alexander, Bishop of Meath, and had issue with her: Christopher (his heir, mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph), Nathaniel Alexander, John Hampden (Reverend), William Newcome (married Amabel Margaretta Cocks), Gilbert De Poulton (married Minna Anna Bertha), Katharine (married William Stuart), and Anne (married Samuel Sanderson). The Nicholson Family Crest is blazoned as follows: Ermine, on a pale sable, three martlets argent, with a crest: A leopard sejant argent spotted sable thrust through the neck with a demi-lance proper.
The second branch begins with a mention of James Steele-Nicholson, Esquire of Ballow in county Down, and Falmore in county Donegal procured Ballow from his nephew. He was born in 1819 and in 1870, he married Maria Katherine, daughter of George Augustus Chichester Maccartny of Glendarrgh, and had four children with her: George Percy (1872), William Herbert (1875), Caroline Edith, and Maria Kathleen Isabel. This branch of the family came from Cumberland, England. One member went to Ireland and settled near Bangor in county Down, during the era of King James I. He had issue, including a son named William Nicholson of Ballow who was born in 1591. He married Janet Brown and had children with her: John and Hugh. He was succeeded by his eldest son Hugh. Hugh married Isabell Orr and had six issue with her: William, John, James, Henry, Margaret, and Marry. He was succeeded by his eldest son William. This William Nicholson was Esquire of Ballow and was born in 1659. He married Eleanor, daughter of James Dunlop and had issue with her. He was succeeded by his son Hugh. Hugh died without posterity and was succeeded by his brother William. This William Nicholson was born in 1699 and married Mary, daughter of Hugh Whyte, and he later married Anne, daughter of Alexander Hamilton of Ballyvernon, whom he had issue with: Hugh, William, Robert Donaldson, Susanna (married Hugh Jackson), and Margaret Maxwell (married Robert Gawen Steele). He was succeeded by his son Hugh, who died and was then succeeded by his brother William. This William was born in 1728 and he married twice, but also died without issue, and he was succeeded by his brother Robert. Robert also died without issue and was succeeded by his nephew William Nicholson-Steele Nicholson, Esquire, who was Justice of the Peace born in 1772. In 1807, he married Isabella, daughter of Jacob Hancock, and had children with her: Robert, John (born in Melbourne, Australia), William (married Jane Frances Middleton), James, Charles, Elizabeth (married James Rose Clelan of Rath Dale), Margaret, Mary (married Hugh Moore), Isabel, and Emily. He died in 1840 and was succeeded by his son Robert. Robert was Esquire of Ballow in county Down, Justice of the Peace, and Barrister-at-Law who was born in 1809. In 1841, he married Elizabeth Jane, daughter of Walter Nangle, and had issue with her: Hugh (1842), Walter (1843), Edward (1845), Robert (1847), William Otway (1849), Hugh (1854), Gilbert Hamilton (1860), Catherine Elizabeth, and Isabel Frances. The book continues to provide several more pages of the Nicholson genealogy or pedigree. The Nicholson Coat of Arms or Nicholson Family crest is blazoned as followed in heraldry: Quarterly, gules, two bars ermine in chief three suns or, for Nicholson: 2nd and 3rd, argent, a bend counter-compony or and sable between two lions’ heads erased gules on a chief azure three billets of the second, for Steele.
Burke’s other book, Peerage and Knights, discusses two other families: 1) Nicholson of Kensington and 2) Nicholson of Luddenham.
Sir Charles Norris Nicholson, 1st Baronet of Harrington Gardens (1857–1918)
The first begins with a mention of Sir John Norris Nicholson, 2nd Baronet, of Harrington Gardens, Kensington who was educated at Winchester and Trinity College Cambridge who was Captain Cheshire Regiment. He was a Captain of the Cheshire Regiment, a Lieutenant, and served in World War II. He was born in 1911 and succeeded his grandfather in 1918. In 1938, he married Vittoria Vivien, daughter of Percy Trewhella, and had three children with her: Charles Christian (1941), James Richard Lothian (1947), and Tessa Mary (1944). Burke traces the lineage back to George Nicholson of Kirkoswald, Cumberland, son of Isaac and Isabel, who married Hannah, daughter of Samuel Lothian, in 1791 and had issue with her: Samuel of Finsbury Square and Isaac. His son Isaac was of Whitehaven and Staffield and he had a son also named Isaac. This Isaac Nicholson was of Clapham Common, and Gordon Square, St. Pancras was born in 1780. In 1814, he married Leonard, daughter of William Norris, and had issue with her. His eldest who was William Norris Nicholson born in 1815. William N. had the following issue: Charles Norris (1st Baronet), Lothian Demain, Robert Isaac, Captain William Henry of the Royal Navy who married Sibyl Wigham, Frederick, Godfrey John, and Reginald (Justice of the Peace for Sussex). The Nicholson Coat of Arms has the following blazon: Per pale nebuly azure and gules, two bars argent guttee de poix in chief two suns in splendor.
The second branch begins with a mention of Sir Charles Archibald Nicholson, 2ns Baronet of Luddenham who was educated at Rugby and New College Oxford. He was an architect who was born in 1867. He succeeded his father in 1903 and he married Evelyn Louise, daughter of Reverend Henry Arnold Olivier of Shapley Hill, and had issue with her: John Charles, Elizabeth Margeret (married Walter Vale in 1928), and Barbara Evelyn (born 1906). He later married Catherine Maud, daughter of Luckham Warren of Winchfield, Hants. The lineage is traces back to Charles Nicholson of London, the son of Charles Nicholson of Cockermouth, Cumberland). He married Barbara, daughter of John Ascough of Bedale, and had one surviving child with her: Sir Charles Nicholson (1st Baronet) of N.S. Wales, who was a doctor and Justice of the Peace of Essex who went to Australia in 1834. He was Speaker of the Legislative Council of New South Wales. He was also Chancellor of the University of Sydney and was Knighted in 1852, and created a Baronet in 1859. He was born in 1808 and in 1865, he married Sarah Elizabeth, daughter of Archibald Keightley, and had three children with her: Charles Archibald (2nd Baronet), Archibald Keightley (1871), and Sir Sydney Hugo. The Nicholson Family Crest has the following heraldic blazon: Azure, two bars nebuly argent, in chief, a sun in splendor proper, between two stars of eight points or, with a crest being a rock proper, a lion’s head azure, charged with a start as in the arms.
Sir Charles Nicholson, 1st Baronet of Luddenham (1808-1903)
Field Marshal William Gustavus Nicholson, 1st Baron Nicholson (1845-1918)
Early American and New World Settlers
The book Genealogical Guide to the Early Settlers, mentions 7 people bearing this surname:
1) Edmund Nicholson of Marblehead, 1648, who died in 1600. His wife was Elizabeth, who was prosecuted as a Quaker. He had children named Christopher, Samuel, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Thomas.
2) Robert Nicholson of Scarsborough and had two issue: Robert and John
3) William Nicholson of Yarmouth, fined for disrespect to religion, and had a son at Barnstable in 1646.
Ralph Nicholson, 20 years old, came to Virginia aboard the Bonaventure in January 1634.
Garret Nicholson, 23 years old, came to Virginia aboard the Constance in October 1635.
Other settlers in colonial America include: George Nicholson (Virginia 1637), Richard Nicholson (Virginia 1703), Peter Nicholson (Virginia 1714), William Nicholson (Maryland 1720), and George Nicholson Jr. (Virginia 1724).
One of the earliest bearers in Canada was William Nicholson who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1749. One of the earliest settlers in Australia with this name was Thomas Nicholson, a shoemaker aged 20 years, who came in 1836 on the Buffalo and arrived in Kangaroo Island. In New Zealand, a one E. Nicholson came to Wellington in 1842 aboard the Brougham.
Early Americans Bearing the Nicholson Family Crest
Charles Bolton’s American Armory, published in 1927, contains five entries for the surname Oliver:
Asenath Hatch Nicholson (1792-1855), American philanthropist
1) Az a cross arg charged with a mansion house or castle bet 4 suns or Crest: a man with sword and Bible. Motto: Deus mihi sol Lieut. Gov. Francis Nicholson. On canvas, 1886. Bostonian Society. Formerly in King's Chapel. Motto: Deus mihi sol Lieut. Gov. Francis Nicholson. On canvas, 1886. Bostonian Society. Formerly in King's Chapel.
2) Az 2 bars erm. On a chief arg 3 suns ppr Crest: out of a ducal cor or a lion's head erased gu. Motto: Per castra as astra. Seal of Isaac Lea Nicholson, Bishop of Milwaukee. Zieber Heral., p. 205.
Crozier’s General Armory mentions one bearer: Francis Nicholson of South Carolina who was Captain General from 1719-1728, who originally lived in Downham Park, Yorkshire, England. His coat of arms, blazoned in heraldry as follows, was granted in 1693: Azure on a cross argent, between four suns proper a cathedral gules, with the crest being a demi-man habited in close coat azure, buttons and cuffs, turned up or, face and hands proper, armed with a headpiece and gorget argent, in the dexter hand a sword erect proper hilt and pommel of the second, in sinister an open Bible, clasps argent.
We have identified 10 Nicholson family mottoes:
Per castra ad astra (Through the camp to the stars)
Providentiâ Dei (The providence of God)
Generositate (By Genorosity)
Virtus sola nobilitas (Virtue is the only nobility)
Deus milil sol (God is my son) (Nicholson of Ballow)
Post praelia praemia (After battles honours)
Pro republica (For the state)
*This is the name of a fortress in the East Indies, borne as one of their mottoes by a branch of the Nicholson family to commemorate the services of General Robert Nicholson (1745-1821) at the siege of said fort.
**This commemorates the services of Captain McInnes at the battle, who in 1821, assumed the name of Nicolson. He also bears the words “Vittoria” and “Barvach” in memory of the services of Lieutenant General Robert Nicholson.
We have 15 coats of arms for the Nicholson surname depicted here. These 15 blazons are from Bernard Burke’s book The General Armory of England, Ireland, and Scotland, which was published in 1848. The bottom of this page contains the blazons, and in many instances contains some historical, geographical, and genealogical about where coat of arms was found and who bore it. People with this last name that bore a Nicholson Coat of Arms include:
1) Francis Maryland, Governor of Maryland, 1693
2) Nicholson of Cateaton Street, 1806
3) Nicholson before Fall, William, of county York, 1811
4) Stephen Nicholson, Chapel Allerton and Roundhay Park, York and Stamford Hill, London, 1817
5) Nicholson, late Phillips, William, Roundbay and Leeds, county York, 1827
6) Alexander McInnes, of East Court, Charlton Kings, county Gloucestershire, for service at Waterloo
7) Nicholson to Shaw, of Arrow Hall, county Chester and Liverpool, Captain of Militia, 1837
8) Patrick Charles Nicholson, of Moresby, county Cumberland, and Ashton-under-Lyne, county Lancaster, 1842
9) Sir Charles, Knt., of New South Wales, Speaker, L.A., 1852
There are hundreds of notable people with the Nicholson surname. This page will mention a handful. Famous people with this last name include: 1) Benjamin Lauder Nicholson (1894-1982) who was a British painter of abstract landscapes from Eight Bells, Denham, 2) Samuel Danford Nicholson (1859-1923) who was a United States Senator from Colorado, 3) Alfred Osborn Pope Nicholson (1808-1876) who was twice Senator from Tennessee before the Civil War, 4) Francis Nicholson (1655-1728) who was a British military officer and Governor of Maryland starting in 1694, 5) John Joseph “Jack” Nicholson (1937) is an American actor from New Jersey known for numerous roles including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Terms of Endearment, and Batman, 6) Lorna Schultz Nicholson who is a Canadian writer of children’s books, 7) Richard Nicholson (1563-1638) who was an English composer associated with Oxford, 8) Peter Nicholson (1765-1844) who was a Scottish engineer, architecht, and mathematician from Prestonkirk who is known for work on the skew arch and inventions such as the cyclograph and centrolinead, 9) Sir Syndney Hugo Nicholson (1875-1947) who was an English organist and choir director who founded the Royal School of Church Music, and 10) Seth Barnes Nicholson (1891-1963) who was an American astronomer from Springfield, Illinois.
Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Nicholson (1655-1728), colonial governor
Sir Sydney Hugo Nicholson (1875-1947), Organist & composer
© National Portrait Gallery, London