Fosters in England, Scotland and Ireland

Those who have studied the origin of surnames believe that recent clusters and distributions of a particular name gives us a lot of clues as to where the name actually originated. People do move around. But not so much or so far as you may think over generations.

In 1891, there were 41,000 Fosters in England.  The table below shows the main counties where they were to be found.

Fosters In England in 1891
London 10%
Durham   6%
Staffordshire   6%
Nottinghamshire   4%
Elsewhere 40%

As this table shows, the Foster name was mainly to be found in the north of England.  Yorkshire has the largest number.  But if the survey were to be taken two hundred years earlier and included Forsters as well as Fosters, then Durham (and more specifically the ancient realm of Northumberland) might well have come out on top.


The Forster family held the great castle of Bamburgh off the coast of Northumberland for over five hundred years, starting in 1191 when Sir John Forster was granted its custodianship.  The Forster line continued uninterrupted through this period.

Border skirmishes, and at times real warfare, shaped these Forsters' lives.  Most were warriors, earning their knighthoods from the battlefield.  Many were fiery and with a tendency to fight at the least provocation.  Their principal physical characteristic was reddish-brown hair.  At home, they were regarded as the most prolific clan in the border counties and left over the years many thousands of descendants in their wake.  They were also known for their taste for high living.

The most eye-catching of these Forsters was Sir John Forster.  He was still fighting in his seventies.  Sir Walter Scott described him in full charge as follows:

"We looked down the other side
And saw some breasting ower the brae
Wi' Sir John Forster for their Guyde
Full fifteen hundred and mae."

Sir John sired many children, both legitimate and illegitimate.  On his death at the grand old age of 85, he blew one third of his estate on a pre-arranged funeral feast.     

Tom and Dorothy Forster were the last of the Forster dynasty.  Despite their skirmishes with the Scots, these Forsters felt closer to them than to distant London and its new German king.  Consequently, Tom Forster raised troops in support of the 1715 Jacobite Revolt.  However, they were defeated near Preston and Tom, after having been captured, ran away to France where he died.  Dorothy's ghost is said still to be around.

Many Forsters left the borders.  Some had settled in Galway in Ireland.  Roger Forster, who had fled south in the 1530's after a border skirmish with the Kerrs, ended up in Hertfordshire.  His family prospered there.   His son Sir Thomas Foster, entombed in St. Mary's church in Hunsdon, became a Chief Justice in London; as did subsequent Fosters from his line.  

Forsters in Tynemouth date from the early 1600's.  After the Jacobite debacle, more Forsters settled there or in that Geordie town, Newcastle, or went west into Cumberland.  The 1829 Carlisle trade register lists nine Forsters (as well as seven Fosters).  John Forster ran the local bank.  However, the bank failed in 1836 and the family had to sell up their Morton Manor home.


The earliest Foster sightings - in the mid sixteenth century - seem to be in Ribblesdale (Brackenbottom) in the Yorkshire dales.  In the 1620's, William Foster set up horse mills at Langcliffe near Settle to ground corn for malt for his own inn there and to sell to neighboring innkeepers.  There were also Fosters in Wensleydale who later moved south to Slack near Hebden Bridge; and at Holme upon Spalding Moor in the East Ridings and later at Atwick on the coast.  Fosters were farming land at Ravenfield near Rotherham in the 1650's.  But the Foster presence in Yorkshire really becomes much more noticeable in the nineteenth century, mainly as mill owners.

Joseph Foster's mill at Horbury near Wakefield was the scene of a Luddite attack in 1812 by impoverished craft workers who had lost their jobs as a result of mechanization.  They composed a song whose first verse ran as follows:

"Come all you croppers stout and bold
Let your faith grow stronger still,
Oh the cropper lads in the county of York,
They broke the shears at Foster's mill."

Later, John Foster, who was born near Halifax, married well and built up his Black Dyke Mills at Queensbury, a hilltop village between Bradford and Halifax.  He prospered and bought a castle in Lancashire. 

Another mill owner, William Forster (from Quaker roots in London), set up his stall in Bradford.  Forster Square in the center of Bradford was named after him.  He entered politics as MP for Bradford and later became the Chief Secretary for Ireland under Gladstone.  This was at the time when home rule was on the agenda (unfortunately for him as he was opposed),

Foster's mill near Hebden Bridge was the place where one of the most prolonged strikes in the cotton industry occurred.  It started in July 1906 and lasted for almost two and a half years.   By now, the workers were backed by a trade union and it was their support, plus various self-help schemes, which helped to keep the strike going.  Eventually the funds ran out and they did go back to work.  However, the cotton industry was in a decline by then and the mill itself only lasted another ten years before it was pulled down.


As in Yorkshire, so elsewhere in England.  There was no Foster aristocracy and little landed gentry.  One Foster gentry family in Berkshire did date back to 1493.  Sir Humphrey Foster of Aldermaston Hall was its local squire in Elizabethan times. 

Fosters can be found in the Colchester court rolls of the fourteenth century.  Five Fosters were caught up in the Essex witchcraft trials of the late sixteenth century.  Further north, in Ipswich in Suffolk, a William Foster was on the other side.  He was the local magistrate who hounded deviant priests during the bloody reign of Queen Mary.  Fosters in Ipswich and in neighboring villages can be traced to the 1550's.  Later on, the eighteenth century saw Foster merchants in Norwich and in Biggleswade (Bedfordshire); the nineteenth century the rise of self-made men in industry.

In Worcesterhire, Henry Foster had moved to Stourbridge from Nantwich in Cheshire in the 1740's.  His son, James Foster, was an early ironmaster there and the company that he built, John Bradley & Co, became one of the largest iron manufacturers in the Midlands.  The firm stayed under hs family's contol until 1913. 

At that time, Worcestershire was sometimes jocularly known as Fostershire, but for a different reason.  The name came from the fact that no fewer than seven brothers from a Foster family in Malvern played for the Worcestershire county cricket club, three of whom captained the club at some point.

In Lincolnshire, Fosters ran a brickworks and a foundry and engineering business in Lincoln in the mid nineteenth century.  The latter company, William Foster & Co, developed the first fighting tank during World War 1.

But there was one exception to the pattern.  This account cannot really be complete without narrrating the extraordinary story of Lady Elizabeth Foster and her offspring.  She was not born a Foster; but married one.  After they had separated, she became one of the most notorious courtesans of the Regency age. 

Her legitimate son, Sir Augustus, was - under the patronage of the Duke of Devonshire - a diplomat in Washington in the early days of the new republic.  This assignment ended with the War of 1812 and, later in his life, he became depressed and killed himself on Brownsea island in Dorset.  His son Vere Foster, born into wealth and privilege. saw at first hand the effects of the potato famine in Ireland and then devoted the rest of his life to the problems of the Irish poor.  He gave most of his money away and died almost penniless.

From some bad works come good!

And Scotland and Ireland

The story in Scotland and Ireland takes us back to the Northumbrian Forsters where there are more links than with the English Fosters.

Scotland.  A Forrester clan was established near Stirling by the thirteenth century.  There have been suggestions that this family was connected with the Norhumberland Forsters.  But this may be more conjecture.  Unlike in England, the Forrester name has tended not to be contracted to Forster or Foster.

Scottish Name Distribution in 1841
Forrester/Forester                       65%
Forster                                       5%
Foster                                       30%

Perhaps the Scots preferred their "r's" more than the English.  The main exception appears to be in Fife.   The name Foster can be found in Dunfermline from 1600.

Ireland.  There were stronger Forster links between Northumberland and Ireland.  Forsters were to be found on the west coast at Galway from the fifteenth century.  They were landowners.  A number held the office of mayor or sheriff of Galway.  Galway today has a Forster Street and a Forster Court Hotel.

Inter-marriage with the Blakes, one of the so-called "original tribes of Galway," created the Blake-Forsters who were prominent in the social life of Galway in the nineteenth century.  However, perhaps the most notable of this family was the splendidly named Charles Ffrench Blake- Forster, who achieved much in his short life.

The Forsters in Fermanagh, by contrast, came originally from Scotland.  John Forster of Edinburgh was one of the original Scottish "undertakers" granted land in Ulster.

Forsters in Dublin date from an early time.  The name Robert Forster appears in a 1489 document relating to the merchant's quay on the river Liffey.  These Forsters became over time one of the well-connected and well-to-do families in Dublin.  Their numbers included Sir John Foster, the last Speaker of the Irish Parliament before its dissolution in 1800.   Forster had by then become Foster.  The same transition was also occurring in Galway. In Beagh, for instance, the names recorded at that time were two Foresters, six Forsters, and eight Fosters, suggesting how, unlike in Scotland, the name was contracting. 

Fosters as Fosters were to be found in Louth to the south of Dublin from the time Samuel Foster arrived in the 1660's, supposedly as a "mower of hay."   He became a tenant farmer at Dunleer.  His grandson, Anthony Foster, prospered in the legal profession and established himself and his family in Collon.  And his son, John Foster, became Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early nineteenth century.  The Fosters briefly owned Cabra Castle which has recently been renovated as a country house hotel.

Today the Foster name is quite common in Ireland.  Foster and Allen, the country music combo, is probably the most popular example.