Guide to North East Surnames: N

North East Surnames: Nesbit to Noble

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Nesbit surname

Durham and Northumberland surname

This surname derives from a place-name that means ‘nose bite’ from the shape of a piece of land. Places of this name include Nisbet near Jedburgh; Nesbit near Doddington in Northumberland and Nesbit near Castle Eden in County Durham. The name is sometimes listed as a Border Reiver surname.

Variations of the surname occurred in a number of different forms in the 1881 census and nearly all of these forms were most prominent in Northumberland and County Durham. The most common forms in the census are Nesbit and Nesbitt of which there were respectively 935 and 829 in Great Britain in 1881. In County Durham there were 276 Nesbitts and 152 Nesbits whereas in Northumberland there were 407 Nesbits and 164 Nesbitts.

The forms Naisbet(t), Naisbitt and Naisbit were much rarer variations on the spelling and in these forms were most numerous in County Durham compared to other counties. There were 176 Naisbitts; 141 Naisbetts and 48 Naisbits in County Durham and none of these variations were of any particular note in other counties. Variations such as Nisbitt, Nisbit, Nesbett and Nesbet were much rarer still, occurring in small numbers mostly in Scotland.

A Thomas de Nesebid of Sedgefield and Thomas Nesebet of Gateshead are listed in the 1575 Visitation of Durham which lists the principal gentry of the county.

Neville surname

Northern baronial family in times past

Not a particularly common name and broadly spread across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century the Nevilles were undoubtedly the most important and most powerful barons in the County of Durham and Yorkshire and in the north in general.

Originating from Neville-Seine-Maritime in France, from which they took their name, they came to England at the time of the Norman conquest when a Henry de Neville commanded William the Conqueror’s fleet. The Nevilles intermarried with a powerful Saxon family called the Bulmers, took the Bull’s Head as their emblem and became the Lords of Raby and Brancepeth.

The stump of Neville's Cross
The stump of Neville’s Cross near Durham © David  Simpson

At the Battle of Nevilles Cross, near Durham City on 17th October 1346, Ralph Neville of Raby Castle led the English army in their famous victory over the Scots and became the first layman to be allowed burial in Durham Cathedral. His son John Neville, also buried in the cathedral donated the famous Neville Screen for the great building in 1375.

On Neville’s orders, the beautiful ornamented screen was shipped to Newcastle in sections and then brought to Durham by cart.

Perhaps the most famous Neville of all, though not directly connected with Durham was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who was known as ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ because of his influence over whether Edward IV or Henry VI wore the English Crown. Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, Yorkshire was the family seat of this powerful Neville family member,

Middleham Castle
Middleham Castle in Wensleydale was the home of Warwick the Kingmaker © David Simpson

The power and influence of the Nevilles in Durham came to a dramatic end in 1569 when the Nevilles, along with the powerful Percy family of Alnwick in Northumberland, plotted to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I in what came to be known as the Rising of the North. The rising failed, the Nevilles fled into exile and all their Durham properties were confiscated.

In the 1881 census there were 5,178 people called Neville in Great Britain and the surname was unevenly distributed across the country. It was notable in Lancashire where there were 520 individuals and in the midland counties of Staffordshire where there were 354 Nevilles and Warwickshire where there were 219. Other than Lancashire, in the North there were 281 Nevilles in Yorkshire; only 83 in Durham and 23 in Northumberland. In Scotland there were 186 with another 46 in Wales. Others were spread unevenly across the rest of England.

Read more about the Neville barons and earls in our Hall of Fame.

Nevin and Nevins surnames

Northumberland surnames

Both of these names were listed by Henry Guppy as surnames in Northumberland. Nevin is the most numerous of the two, occurring 608 times in the 1881 Great Britain census, being most numerous in Lancashire where there were 185 individuals. In Northumberland there were 98; Yorkshire 63; Durham 47; Cumberland 8 and in Scotland there were 114. The remaining 93 were spread across the midlands and south. Remember that Northumberland was a much smaller county in terms of population than Lancashire (see population notes at the foot of this page).

The variation Nevins occurred 197 times in the 1881 Great Britain census, being most numerous in Northumberland where there were 45 individuals; in Lancashire there were 41; Durham 34; Yorkshire 27; Cumberland 1 and in Scotland there were only 7. Others were spread across England. Rare variations such as Nevan, Nevans, Neven and Nevens also showed a strong northern distribution in the census. All of these surnames including Nevin and Nevins are ultimately Gaelic in origin and mean ‘little saint’.

Newton surname

Widespread surname well represented in the North

A name described by Henry Guppy as having a disconnected distribution across the country probably as it has independently derived from different places called Newton of which there are several in the North. Guppy thought the surname was best represented in the northern half of England.

In the 1881 census there were 23,602 people of this name in Great Britain with a strong representation in the North. There were 3,995 in Lancashire; 3,646 in Yorkshire; 1,307 in Durham; 552 in Northumberland; 284 in Cumberland and 108 in Westmorland. Scotland was home to 640 and many others were spread across the midlands and south. There are numerous places in England called ‘Newton’ from which the surname may have derived.

Nicholson surname

Mostly a Northern surname

A name that Henry Guppy as being associated with the northern half of England and especially Cumberland and Northumberland followed by Durham and the adjacent parts of Yorkshire. The related name Nixon (see below) he determined to be most common in Cheshire and Northumberland. The Nicholson surname is also relatively frequent in the Armagh and Tyrone areas of Northern Ireland.

Also occurring in the form Nicolson (without the ‘h’), the surname is included as a Scottish clan name and seems to be of Viking origin. Its presence in Scotland is sometimes attributed to Anders Nicolassen who commanded a force of Vikings working for the Norwegian king Haakon IV, who were defeated in a naval battle off Largs in the Firth of Clyde in 1263. In 1266 Nicolassen served as a Norwegian envoy who signed the Treaty of Perth, ceding the Hebrides to Scotland and it is said that Nicolassen subsequently settled in Scotland.

Nicholson is a well-established surname in North East England. Mayors of Hartlepool in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries included a Roger Nicholson in 1588; a Thomas Nicholson in 1621, 1623, 1631, 1635, 1639 and 1641; and a James Nicholson in 1711 and 1724. James Nichoslon was MP for the City of Durham in 1708.

The seventeenth and eighteenth century Nicholsons of West Rainton in County Durham are a significant part of the ancestry of our late queen, Elizabeth II. A Jean Nicholson (also sometimes using the spelling Nicholsen) was the dowager Countess of the late 8th Earl of Strathmore.

Click on the image below to see the full family tree.

Lyons Royal family tree
Part of the Royal family tree (click on the image to open in full)

CLICK on above image (then zoom in) to see family tree © David Simpson

Nicholson was the 11th most numerous name in Westmorland in the 1881 census. It was 17th in Cumberland; 33rd in Northumberland and 36th in County Durham but did not make it into the top fifty names for Yorkshire; Lancashire or Cheshire.

There were 25,505 people of this name in the 1881 census of which 4,904 resided in Yorkshire; 2,806 in Lancashire; 2,786 in Durham; 1,615 in Northumberland; 1,514 in Cumberland and 494 in Westmorland. Scotland was home to 5,693 Nicholsons. Others were spread across the midlands and south, notably in and around London. There were only 137 people of this name in Wales.

Nixon surname

Border Reiver family surname

A Northern and Borders surname meaning ‘son of Nick’, Nixon occurs 9,165 times in the Great Britain census for 1881 of which only 497 reside in Scotland. It is predominant in the northern counties of England with 1,470 in Lancashire. There were 855 in Cumberland; 823 in Yorkshire; 790 in Northumberland; 734 in Durham and 71 in Westmorland. Remember that Lancashire and Yorkshire were much bigger counties in terms of population than Cumberland and Northumberland so in proportional terms Nixon was much more significant in those two English Border counties. Nixon was in fact the 32nd most numerous name in Cumberland in the 1881 census.

A John Nixon was a prominent figure in Newcastle’s civic affairs in the mid fifteenth century being mayor of the town in 1464, 1466 and 1468. A John George Nixon was mayor of the city of Newcastle in 1931 and a Mary Nixon was mayor in 1997.

One group of Border Reivers of the name Nixon were associated with a sixteenth century bastle house built just within the entrance to Housesteads Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

Bastle house at Housesteads
Bastle house at Housesteads © David Simpson

The Nickson variation of the surname occurred 895 times in the 1881 census. Again they were most numerous in Lancashire where there were 575 plus another 115 in nearby Cheshire but the surname only occurred in tiny numbers in the other northern counties with 34 in Yorkshire; 4 in Durham and two in Cumberland. Scotland was only home to 3 people of this name and a small remaining number of Nicksons lived mostly in the south east.

Noble surname

Border Reiver family surname

A surname with strong Border, Scottish and Northern roots. Cumbria, Fermanagh and parts of North East England are also a home to their numbers. A notable Noble is the Cramlington-born comedian Ross Noble. The surname literally means ‘noble’ or ‘well-known’.

In the 1881 census there were 12,473 people with the name Noble in Great Britain of which 2,743 lived in Scotland and 5,028 lived in the six northern-most counties of England. In the North of England their numbers were Yorkshire 2,501; Lancashire 1,013; Durham 766; Cumberland 307; Northumberland 299 and Westmorland 142. Others were distributed across the midlands and south including 1,664 in London, Surrey and Kent.

The number of Nobles in the smaller, less populated counties of Cumberland and Westmorland is proportionally more significant than those in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Noble was just outside the top fifty names for the county of Westmorland in 1881.

North East Surnames beginning with:

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Historic counties of Great Britain and Ireland
Historic counties of Great Britain and Ireland showing the six northern counties of England © David Simpson and England’s North East 2021
Note on the populations of English counties in 1881

When comparing figures for individual numbers of a surname in 1881 it is important to be aware of the actual population of each of the Northern English counties. As you can see from the figures below, 500 individuals with a particular surname in Westmorland would be proportionally much more significant than 500 people of the same surname residing in Lancashire. You might well describe such a surname as a ‘Westmorland name’ but the numbers would not be significant enough to describe it as a ‘Lancashire surname’, at least not as defined by the 1881 distribution. The 1881 northern county populations were as follows:

  • Northumberland: Population 434,658. The county included Newcastle upon Tyne, Wallsend, North Shields, Tynemouth and Whitley Bay and a mining district in the south east of the county including the port of Blyth. As well as indigenous Northumbrian surnames, ‘Border names’ are often abundant in this county, occasionally taking on a form that is distinct from similar Scottish surnames.
  • Durham: Population 869,130. The county included Sunderland, Gateshead, South Shields, Jarrow, Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees and Hartlepool. Numerous small mining towns and villages lie across the county between these major centres of population and like the industrial centres were often the home to surnames that originated in Northumberland and North Yorkshire as well as home-grown in County Durham.
  • Yorkshire: Population 2,895,049. This county included the iron town of Middlesbrough on the south bank of the River Tees in the north east corner of the county as well as ‘West Riding’ towns like Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Halifax, York, Huddersfield to the south. Most of the population of Yorkshire was and still is focused upon the urban and industrialised south west of the county where there is a close relationship in terms of surnames with neighbouring Lancashire across the Pennines. The far south of the county around Sheffield is also very populous. The rural East Riding along with the city of Hull may have a close relationship with neighbouring Lincolnshire. From a North East point of view many of the surnames we describe as ‘Durham and Yorkshire’ are almost always specifically focused upon North Yorkshire and south Durham, though often stretching across the whole of Durham in distribution.
  • Cumberland: Population 251,520. The main centres in this county included Carlisle and the industrial coastal towns of Whitehaven and Workington. As in Northumberland, ‘Border surnames’ have a strong influence here, often originating from or stretching into Scottish counties of the western borders, notably Dumfriesshire.
  • Westmorland: Population 64,204. This was a relatively small and rural county in terms of population. Characterised by small market towns and farming villages, it has its own distinct surname distribution. Along with Cumberland it is now part of Cumbria.
  • Lancashire: Population 3,466,597. This highly populated county included Liverpool and Manchester as well as major towns such as Bolton; Preston; Burnley; Oldham, Rochdale and a number of mill towns. The historic county also stretched into the south Lakeland area in what is now (along with Cumberland and Westmorland) part of Cumbria. The industries of Lancashire were a great draw for immigration from Scotland; Ireland and Wales, particularly in the nineteenth century.
  • Cheshire: We occasionally include details of surname distribution in Cheshire (its population in 1881 was 644,895) where relevant, though surnames in Cheshire and indeed Lancashire and to some extent West Yorkshire often take on a distinctly different character and pattern of distribution to surnames in the other northern counties. Welsh surnames are also quite significant in Cheshire given its location on the Welsh Border. In fact some suburbs of the city of Chester are located within Wales.
  • Counties of the Midlands and South: In addition to the six northernmost counties plus Cheshire, there were a further 32 other counties in England as follows: Bedfordshire; Berkshire; Buckinghamshire; Cambridgeshire; Cornwall; Derbyshire; Devon; Dorset; Essex; Gloucestershire; Hampshire; Hertfordshire; Hertfordshire; Huntingdonshire; Kent; Leicestershire; Lincolnshire; London (Middlesex); Norfolk; Northamptonshire; Nottinghamshire; Oxfordshire; Rutland; Shropshire; Somerset; Staffordshire; Suffolk; Surrey; Sussex; Warwickshire; Wiltshire and Worcestershire.
  • The South East: Of these other English counties, London and some of its neighbouring counties were particularly populous as of course they still are. There were just short of 3 million people in Middlesex (London) and additionally in Surrey there were 1.4 million people. In Essex there were more than half a million people and the population in Kent (996,770) was just short of a million. Such a populous region as the South East often inevitably includes Northern surnames that have gravitated southward but rarely do these surnames have any proportional significance within the population of the South East.
  • Scotland: The total population of Scotland in 1881 was 3.4 million, focused primarily on the central lowland belt stretching from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
  • Wales: The total population of Wales in 1881 was just over 1.5 million and focused upon Cardiff, Swansea and the industrial mining valleys of the south.

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Introduction to North East surnames

Border Reivers

Guppy’s surnames

North East Notable People


Border Reiver Surnames of the Anglo-Scottish Border. Poster Print.


North East England History and Culture