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2,405 study surnames with us
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About the study

Childhood visits to ancestral haunts in the West Sussex area of the UK, together with the stimulus of my father-in-law's great interest in his aristocratic genealogy led me to look into the details of my own peasant "AgLab" origins. I started collecting information in the 1980s, which has now led to a mass of information on the surname worldwide, as well as information specifically from my own line in the West Grinstead area of West Sussex.

Variant names

The name almost certainly developed in multiple places resulting in numerous variations. The two main variants are Hillman and Illman, but the number of "l"s and "n"s, as well as the nature of the first vowel used, have also varied, resulting in Hilman, Ilman, Hylman, and even possibly Helman, Holman and Hulman. My focus to date has been on Hillman and Illman. In Europe it is possible that Hildman(n) and Helpfman(n) should also be recognised as variants.

Name origin

The surname Hillman can be found across the "Germanic arc" from Finland, through Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, France and England. It was also found in parts of Russia and Eastern Europe, and more recently as a Jewish family name. It is most unlikely that all these instances arose from the same origin.

The name has then been secondarily distributed by emigration from more than one of these sources to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as elsewhere, and more widely in the United Kingdom. On the South Atlantic island of St Helena we found a slave line with the name, sired by a single British soldier of the St Helena Regiment from the 1780s.

In England the earliest origin of the name can be seen in the Anglo-Saxon family names of "atte Hille" and "uppe Hille". In one Devon Family Tree both these names are recorded, along with Hillman for later generations. In some earlier documents the Latinised "ad Montem" has been used followed by "ate Hille" in brackets.

These all point to a simple topographical surname origin as applied to the man whose domicile was associated with a hill in an area. It has been postulated that it could also have arisen from "Hill's Man" i.e. the man working for one Mr Hill, but no clear evidence for this has yet been found. Clearly a topographical origin relating to the man who lived in, on, up, near or below a hill could have arisen in many places in England or elsewhere.

Historical occurrences of the name

Early records of the name indicate a degree of involvement as clerics with the church, but this probably results from those being the earliest written records with useful genealogical information. Later in time it is clear that most of the Hillmans of this world were humble workers on the land ("AgLabs"), fishermen, workers in leather, and the like. Many instances of the name were then found in southern England, especially in Sussex, Kent, the London area, Devon, Wiltshire and Norfolk.

As emancipation progressed and the migration began from the land to industrial centres, so Hillmans appear as boat-people and coal-miners in Staffordshire and elsewhere in the industrial Midlands, as well as in Wales and Ireland. There was a notable solicitor Edward Hillman of Lewes, Sussex in the 1800s. At the end of the same century and into the next William Hillman came to prominence in Coventry making sewing machines, the first "Penny Farthing" bicycles, motorbikes and then the cars - which tend to be the Hillman landmark for most people. In the 1930s Edward Henry Hillman transformed his Essex-wide bus company into the "international" Hillman's Airways for a few glorious years, before he died and the airline was merged with two others as precursor to today's British Airways.

Elsewhere in the world, Alfred Hillman was Assistant Surveyor-General in the 1830s of Western Australia. His journeys and discoveries did much for this infant "colony", and a careful search will reveal both Lake Hillman, and the Hillman River named for him. In the USA a prominent union leader was Sydney Hillman with east European origins, and the large Hillman Fastenings Company is a major and successful industrial concern. 

Hillmans had humble origins, and generally have stayed that way!

Distribution of the name

The British Surname Atlas, based on the 1881 Census, indicates a strong focus for the name at that time in Sussex, Surrey, Kent and London, with a further broad arc from Devon, through Somerset, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. There is a light scattering of the name by this time across much of England south of Yorkshire. Illman alone is firmly restricted to the counties of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and the London area at this time.

Prior to this we have as yet no such country-wide survey to consult. The few pre-1600 records indicate earlier occurrences in Norfolk especially, together with Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Devon, Suffolk, Kent, Dorset, Essex and London. Later records predominate in the south east and the west country like the 1881 Census map.


A large number of records of Hillmans and variants of the name have been amassed from numerous sources. However, this has not been systematic and there are large numbers of records still to be collated and analysed. I am willing to search what I do have for other people's interests - but do not expect miracles - Hillman is quite a common name - there were 2,575 in the 1881 Census alone! I have, so far, taken my own line back to Thomas Illman, born about 1690 in West Grinstead.