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About the study

Like many others, I started looking at other instances of my surname in the hope of establishing links to my ancestry and break down a brick wall around 1800. I initially began with the name David Nelson searching (without much success) for references to my great great grandfather David Rae Nelson who seems to have worked for the East India Company's Civil Service in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. I progressed from there and since then, I have been working on several Nelson family trees and their descendants in England, Scotland, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Variant names

Of the many possible variants, the most common is probably Neilson, and many Neilsons changed their name to Nelson -€“ notably the family of book publishers Thomas Nelson from Edinburgh. Other spellings are Nelsen, Nelleson, Neleson, Nielson, Neilsen, Nealson, Nilsson, and Nilson, mostly suggestive of Scandinavian origins.

Name origin

The surname Nelson seems to be of early medieval English origin, and is a patronymic form of the Middle English given name Nel(le), itself coming from the Old Gaelic Irish personal name Niall. This was adopted by Norsemen in the form Njall or Njal, and was brought to England by Scandinavian settlers and introduced by them to the north of England and East Anglia where they settled. Other sources are those brought by the Normans after the Conquest of 1066 in the form Ni(h)el or Nigel, often Latinised as Nigellus.

Hence the Domesday Book of 1086 has references to Nigels in Hants, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Yorks, Notts and Lincs; to Nigellus in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hants, Berks, Wilts, Devon, Cornwall, M'sex, Bucks and Northants; and there is a Robertus filius Nigelli in Beds, Willielmus filius Nigelli in Bucks, Cheshire and Lincs, and a Eudo filius Nigelli in Suffolk.

Patronymic forms of the name appear regularly towards the end of the 13th Century usually as Neilson or Nelleson, but there are references n several internet genealogy sites to an "Alice Nelson" towards the end of the twelfth century. These hold that on 7 Jun 1184 Richard Fitz-Robert de Lathom born around 1172 at Lathom House, Ormskirk, Lancashire, married an Alice Nelson born 22 May 1146 in Chelsea, London at the Chapelry of Lathom. He was confirmed Earl of Lathom on 31 Mar 1184. Sir Richard was travelling with his wife, Lady Alice to visit her family in Chelsea, England. They were caught in a flash flood while trying to ford a creek just a few miles from their destination and were drowned. It was several days before their bodies were found and returned to the Chapelry of Lathom for burial on 6 May 1220. Many sites have her born in Chelsea, Yorkshire which does rather cast doubt on the accuracy of this source.

The Ne(i)lsons of Craigcaffie (Scotland), are said to have traced their descent from Neil, Earl of Carrick, who died in 1256. (Contributions towards a Nelson Genealogy by William Nelson, 1904).

In England, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the name appears quite often in the North and East of England. In the Hundred Rolls of 1273 we find a Nel Fawkes and John fil. Nel in Cambridgeshire, and an Adam Nel in Oxfordshire. Similarly there is a Roger fil. Nigelli and Robert fil. Nigelli in Lincolnshire, an Alan fil. Nigelli in Norfolk and Thomas Nel in Essex.

Given too that the patronymic name means the son of Nell, there are a "Nelle the Grave" , "Nelle de Wynter" , "Nelle the Forester" and "Nelle de Thornley" all recorded in the Wakefield Court Rolls of 1274. Hence we read "€In Hyperum (Hipperholme) Jordan de Schakeltonstal, Nelle de Wynter John Luvekyn and William son of Elkoe de Schakeltonstal, accused of taking a stag, remain under the surety of Sir Richard de Thornhyll until the next Court at Wakefield."€ At "€Soureby (Sowerby) It is presented by the forester that Nelle del Thorneleye had two stray sheep among his own sheep, and that he delivered them without license He comes and denies it. Let an inquisition come at the next Court."€ Again in Sowerby "€John de Miggele took three cow-pastures of the Earl's at Sourby, paying 10.5 marks therefor this year he finds these pledges namely William the Grave and Nelle the Forester that he will faithfully, well and safely keep the Earls beasts and cattle in the same way as others have done before him, and will faithfully present attachments."€ And finally at Wakefield, "€An inquisition was granted by the Earl to Michael de Helistones [to Richard son of Thomas, Robert the Grave, Ivo de Werloweley, Nelle the Grave, and William the Grave. The inquisition is ordered to come at the next Court at Wakefield.”

That the name is patronymic is shown by the entry of a Thomas, son of Nelle in the Wakefield Court Roll of 10 Aug 1275. "Sandale (Sandal Magna) - Richard the Grave of Rastrik, because he ordered Thomas son of Nelle, Thomas de Thornhill, and Adam S... for the use of the Earl at Rastrik, without license..., they are amerced at 2S..." (Court Rolls of The Manor of Wakefield: Vol. 1 1274-1297.)

Again, a 'Willelmus filius Nele' is found in the York Subsidy Rolls of 1301 (City of York Lay Subsidy: 30 Ed.I, 1301)

The first record of the full Nelleson name seems to be "John Robert Nelleson" dated 1324, mentioned in the Wakefield Court Rolls of 1324, and then eight years later there is an "Adam Nelleson" recorded at Sowerby in the Court Rolls of 16 Oct 1332. "Adam Nelleson surrenders an acre and a rood in Warley which are demised to Alice wife of Roger de Hertleyrode to be held likewise; entry fine 18d."€ (Vol. 3 1331-33 ed. by Professor S. Walker)

A Gilbert Nelleson appears in the Lay Subsidy Roll of Preston Patrick in the Barony of Kendale also in 1332. (Records relating to the Barony of Kendale: Vol. 2 1332 Subsidy of the fifteenth, in Preston Thomas. Lay Subsidy Roll, 195, 1a.)

And In the rolls of 1338-40 two more records of "Adam Nelleson" . "Warley: Adam Nelleson gives 12d to the lord for leave to take half an acre from the lord's waste in Werlouley to hold to himself and his heirs following the custom of the manor; rent per annum 2d"€ and "€œAn inquiry finds that Adam Nelleson detains from Alice del Eves a buckle worth 14d, an axe worth 2d, and 9d of silver."€

A Thomas Nellson appears in the Poll Tax records of Howdenshire in 1379. In the similar records for Yorkshire are the names Nell de Hage, Elias Neleson, Robert Nellson, Ricardus Nelleson, Dionisius Nelle and Alicia, servant of Nele.

A William Neleson was Sheriff of York in 1495 and is recorded in the Rolls of Parliament for 1503 in Henry VII's reign.

Two Catholic priests called Nelson were executed for their faith in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I at Tyburn in February, 1578. The first, Blessed John Nelson, born 1534 Skelton, Yorkshire was ordained as a Jesuit in 1576. On his execution day, he refused several Protestant ministers after meeting family members. Taken to Tyburn and allowed to speak before the bystanders, who were mostly hostile in the historically Protestant London, he refused to ask pardon of the Queen and asked any Catholics in the crowd to pray with him as he recited several common prayers in Latin. He was hanged and cut down alive, his heart cut out, then quartered. He was beatified on 29 December 1886 by Pope Leo XIII. The second martyr was a Jesuit student, Blessed Thomas Nelson, who was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Other Nelsons were seamen out of the port of Whitby in Yorkshire in the 19th century and there was also a long-established family of Nelson clergymen at Hilborough in north Norfolk which produced Horatio Nelson, the English naval hero. Another branch of this family resided at Holme House on the coast.

The name is quite common in the United States. Joseph Nelson, born in England in abt. 1599 was an early emigrant to America, embarking from London on the ship Plaine Joan bound for Virginia on 15 May 1635 aged 26. ("xv Maij 1635 - Theis under-written names are to Virginea: imbarqued in the Plaine Joan, Richard Buckam Master, the pties having brought Attestacon of their conformitie to the orders & discipline of the Church of England -€“ Joseph Nelson 26 years"€).

Thomas Nelson, born abt. 1601 in Cottingham in Yorkshire, embarked in 1638, aged 37, from nearby Hull on the ship John of London bound for Salem, Massachusetts. (Blodgett & Jewett's 'Early Settlers of Rowley Massachusetts' passenger list transcribed by the Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild.)

Nelson has been a popular first name for boys in both the 19th and 20th centuries, no doubt due to the influence of Admiral Lord Nelson. There are Nelson Rockefeller, Nelson Piquet, Nelson Eddy, Nelson Riddle, Nelson Rockefeller, Nelson De Mille and possibly the best-known holder of the first name - Nelson Mandela, the first president of South Africa to be elected in fully representative democratic elections.

As well as being the name of numerous famous people, the word Nelson is used in conjunction with some obscure, interesting activities. It is used in cricket as a superstitious term applied to team or individual scores of 111, 222 etc, and is thought to refer to Lord Nelson'€s lost eye and arm. It is thought that bad things happen on that score and as a result, umpire David Shepherd made popular the practice of raising a leg from the ground on a Nelson in an effort to avoid ill fate, and in doing so provoking crowds to cheer in support.

Also in sport, the Nelson is used in wrestling to refer to a grappling hold where one or both arms are used to encircle the opponent'€s arm under the armpit and are then secured at the opponent'€s neck. This term dates back to the early 19th century; when Admiral Lord Nelson used strategies based on surrounding the enemy to win the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Trafalgar.

Historical occurrences of the name

Families being researched:

Horatio, 1st Viscount Nelson from Norfolk 1758-1805. The hero of Trafalgar and the Battle of the Nile during the Napoleonic Wars.

Arthur Nelson, the Clown King 1816-1860. One of his public stunts was directly responsible for 89 deaths in the Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge Disaster of 2 May 1845.

David Nelson, VC 1886-1918. Irish recipient of the VC, died of wounds in France.

Ozzie Nelson 1906-1975. American entertainer, husband of Harriet 1909-1994 and father of David Nelson actor and Ricky Nelson singer.

Oliver Nelson 1932-1975. American jazz saxophonist, composer, and bandleader.

Sir Alexander Abercromby Nelson 1826-1885. Deputy Adjutant-General in Jamaica responsible for putting down the Morant Bay rebellion, ordering the trial of George Gordon who was subsequently hanged in 1865. Later Lieutenant-Governor of Guernsey.

Sir Thomas James Nelson 1826-1885. Solicitor to the City of London 1862-1865, he conducted litigation that secured the freedom of Epping Forest. Grandfather of Ernest Nelson, killed in WW1.

Prince Rogers Nelson b. 1958. American Musician - the Artist formerly known as Prince.

Thomas "€œScotch Tom"€ Nelson 1677-1745. Arriving in America at the beginning of the 18th century, he was the first Virginian of the Nelsons, one of the First Families of Virginia and grandfather of Thomas Nelson jnr. 1738-1789, signee of the American Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1780-1861. Edinburgh book publishers.

William Nelson 1750-1834. Montreal teacher and father of Wolfred Nelson 1791-1863 Canadian Patriot, Robert Nelson 1794-1873 Canadian Patriot, and grandfather of Henry Horace Nelson 1821-1863 inventor of Nelson'€™s Inhaler.

Willie Nelson b. 1933. US guitarist and country singer, as well as an author, poet, actor, and activist. Wrote song 'Crazy'.

George Nelson 1800-1870. Leeds Iron founder and father of Dr. Henry Nelson 1814-1899 and grandfathers of Capt. Robert Henry Nelson 1853-1892, explorer with Henry Morton Stanley in Africa and John Alfred Scott Nelson 1846-1933.

John Wood Nelson d. 1846. West India Merchant and slavery administrator. He was Edward, Lord Harewood's London agent for Barbados plantation records.

John Nelson 1801-1872. Boot maker and grandfather of Sir Arthur Edward Nelson 1875-1950 KCIE, OBE, Governor of Central provinces and Berar in India.

John Henry Nelson 1800-1847. Sligo-born portrait painter and bust-sculptor. His Venus Attiring life-size sculpture received mixed reviews.

John Neilson of Corsock d. 1666. Noted Covenanter, executed in Edinburgh after being tortured with the "€œboot"€.

Richard Alexander Nelson 1764-1820. Secretary to the Royal Navy and father of Robert Nelson 1798-1895, East India Co. Judge who resigned over the issue of Idol worship..

Francis Justin Nelson 1821-1872. East India Co. Colonel.

David Nelson 1844-1893. War Office fortifications draughtsman and son of David Nelson the chief engineer of the Danish Royal Yacht Slesvig.

Frederick David Nelson 1833-1901. Indo-European Telegraph supervisor and my great grandfather.

Capt. Philip Nelson of Maryport 1822-1883. Liverpool merchant, ship-owner and builder, one-time partner of White Star liner Titanic'€™s Ismay.

Capt. Thomas Bullock Nelson 1829-1884. Master mariner, drowned at sea.

Dr. David Hume Nelson 1812-1897. Scottish-born Birmingham doctor and father of 3 children dying of typhoid over 3 consecutive days in 1844.

David Nelson 1806-1870. Manager of Carlisle and Cumberland Bank.

David Nelson 18060-1863. Cheltenham grocer.

Edmund Gudgeon Nelson 1820-1857. Norfolk gentleman with ancestry shared by Horatio, Lord Nelson.

George Brooke Nelson 1804-1881. Leeds solicitor.

John Nelson 1759-1805. Southwark wharfinger.

Matthew Thurlow Nelson 1791-1864.Norfolk gentleman with ancestry shared by *Horatio, Lord Nelson*.

Peter Nelson b. 1787. From Marsden, Lancs, the town later re-named Nelson after Horatio.

Richard Nelson From Mawdesley, Lancs. One of the earlier English Nelson families -€“ Nelson of Fairhurst. Descendants also link to family of Horatio, Lord Nelson.

Richard Nelson b. 1850. Yorkshire tailor.

Thomas Marsh Nelson 1817-1884. London-based architect and town planner.

Thomas Nelson 1777-1857. Leeds, Briggate whitesmith and brass founder.

William Magson Nelson 1820-1894. Journalist and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Name frequency

Frequency of surname in UK

  •  1881 - 14506, ranked 280
  •  1998 - 22489, ranked 227
  •  2012 - 24232, ranked 217, 528 per million

Frequency of surname in USA

  •  1880 - 69250, ranked 47, 1385 per million
  •  1990 - 402894, ranked 39
  •  2012 - 412236, ranked 40, 1528 per millionM/li>

Frequency of surname in Australia

  •  2012 - 8208, ranked 145, 502 per million

Sources: University College London (UCL)
U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division