Select Browning Surname Genealogy

Browning started out as the Anglo-Saxon first name Bruning, probably a nickname, from the Old English brun meaning “brown.”  As Norman names were introduced, the use of Bruning as a first name gradually faded out.  Still, Bruning de Cestretona was recorded in Cambridgeshire in 1086 and Brunyng Dypres in Sussex in 1296.   Early examples of Browning as a surname were Hugo Bruning in Norfolk in 1198 and William Brouning in Cambridgeshire in 1291.

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England.   Browning’s origin as a surname looks to be clearly in the west country; although the Browning numbers in the southeast, in particular in Kent, now rival or surpass those there.

West Country
.  The Browning family of Gloucestershire dates from about 1300, and maybe earlier.  John Browning of Leigh w
as active in local politics and was elected MP for Gloucestershire three times in the late 1300’s.  His direct line seems to have ended about 1460. 

Still, the Browning name did continue at Cam and Cowley in Gloucestershire in the next two centuries.  It also extended into neighboring Somerset, appearing at East Quantoxhead and Watchet in the 1600’s.

The earliest recorded Browning in Dorset was John Browninge at Bere Regis in 1550.  Robert Browning died at Pentridge in 1746.  He was the first known ancestor of Robert Browning the poet.  The line went to:
  • Thomas Browning who held the lease of the Woodyates Inn and was for many years the churchwarden at Pentridge
  • Robert Browning, the poet’s grandfather, who in 1769 left Dorset for London where he worked at the Bank of England for over fifty years.  He married into the Tittle plantation family of St. Kitts in the West Indies.
  • Robert’s younger brother William meanwhile had been drowned in the West Indies in 1781 while serving with HMS Sybil at the naval anchorage in Antigua.
  • and Robert Browning, the poet’s father, who renounced the family’s slaveholding and worked for the Bank of England in London.
Margaret Tittle was said to have had a mixed race ancestry.  Both her son Robert Sr. and Robert the poet were dark-complexioned, which raised eyebrows.  According to one account, Robert Sr. - on visiting the family plantation in St. Kitts - was made by the church beadle to sit with the “colored” people rather than with the white.  The two poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were married in secret in 1846. 

.  Kent has many Brownings as well, although there is a lack of evidence of any early presence there.  One family line has been traced back to the marriage of Matthew Browning and Susannah Smith at Whitstable in 1737.

The Browning instrument makers were thought to have come from Kent.
  They included the brothers John and Samuel Browning, the latter who went into partnership to form the nautical instrument makers Spencer & Browning in 1778.  However, it was John’s great grandson John Browning who became the best-known of these Brownings.  His speciality was spectroscopes and his were considered by the 1870’s to be the best in England.  He later produced optical instruments.

Scotland.  There was a small enclave of Brownings in Lanarkshire, centered around Avondale.  Gavin and Ann Browning left there in the early 1840’s for Canada.  They settled in Lambton county, Ontario.  Their son Robert later moved south to Nebraska.

  Brownings were prominent at an early stage in America’s history.  Three books covering these Brownings were:
  • Edward F. Browning’s 1908 book Genealogy of the Brownings in America
  • Clint Joyce and Cecil Houk’s 2000 book Browning Family History
  • and Dr. Jess Browning’s 2015 book Captain John Browning: A Family History.
Captain John Browning was a prominent early settler and tobacco grower at Jamestown.  He had arrived there with his family on the Abigail in 1621 and was recorded in the Muster of Inhabitants in Virginia in 1624.  Thomas Browning, also from Gloucestershire, meanwhile had arrived in Old Rappannock county with his wife Hester around the year 1656.  Their son John later made his home in Cecil county, Maryland.  This was the other significant Browning southern line.

One line via Captain John’s son William led to Francis and Elizabeth Browning of Culpepper county, Virginia in the 1730’s.  Some of their descendants were later to be found in Greene county, Georgia and then in Arkansas.

There was the line as well via George Francis Browning in Kentucky in the early 1800’s and found in Louisville.  This line led to:
  • Pete Browning, known as the Louisville Slugger, who was a baseball star in the 1880’s
  • and his nephew Tod Browning, a film director who pioneered horror movies in Hollywood in the early 1930’s.
Edmund Browning also came out of Culpepper county.  His son Jonathan, born in Tennessee in 1805, was the forebear of the famous Browning gun-makers.  Jonathan, the inventor of the repeating rifle, first set up his gun-shop in Quincy, Illinois.  There he converted to the Mormon faith and in 1852 made the long trek to Salt Lake valley.  His son John Moses Browning, born in Utah, worked with his father there and later founded the Browning Arms Company.  Credited with over 120 patents for firearms, John Moses made the name Browning synonymous with guns.

William Browning was a soldier with the First Fleet that arrived in Botany Bay in 1788.  He stayed in Australia, first working for the NSW Corps and then farming in the Seven Hills area.  William and Nancy Browning were bounty immigrants from Devon who came to Sydney in 1840.  William was a shepherd and found work in the Lismore area where they were said to have been the first white settlers.

Select Browning Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Browning Names

John Browning
was three times MP for Gloucestershire in the late 1300’s.
Robert Browning
and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning were widely-read Victorian poets.

John Moses Browning
was the late 19th century firearms developer who founded the Browning Arms Company in Utah.
Tod Browning was a Hollywood pioneer of horror movies in the 1930’s

Select Brownings Today
  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 16,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 4,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 1,000 surnames.

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