Select Cole Surname Genealogy

Cole in the old English nursery rhyme Old King Cole has ancient origins.  It is thought to refer to a king known as Coel the Old at a time soon after the Roman occupation of Britain.   The first verse runs as follows:

"Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three."

The song was first recorded in the early 18th century.

However, Cole as a surname has different origins.  One root is the Old English cola, meaning "coal," and was probably originally a nickname for someone who was dark-complexioned or "coal-black."  In some cases Cole may have been a pet name for Nicholas.  Both Cola and Cole were recorded as personal names in the Domesday Book.   Its first appearance as a surname was a Randolpihi Cole in the Hampshire Winton rolls of 1148.  The patronymic variant Coles, or "son of Cole," was not seen until the 16th century. 

Some German Kohls became Coles in America, although kohl here means cabbage or cabbage-seller rather than coal.
  As did some Scots and Irish McCools.

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Select Cole Ancestry

England.  Cole began as a west country name. 

SW England.  Several ancient places of Cole can be found in the counties of Wiltshire and Somerset.  The earliest incidence of the Cole surname appears to have been in Cornwall, at Travenna near Liskeard.  The Rev. Thomas Cole, minister at Landewednack, was said to have been 120 years of age on his death in 1683.

The Coles in fact were one of the largest landowners in the southwest - Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset - until the early 1600's.  The first of this line appears to have been William Cole of Hollisleigh in 1243.  The Coles of Slade date from the early 1400's.  Sir John Cole of Devon fought with Henry V at Agincourt. Margaret Cole was Sir Francis Drake's grandmother; and her father John was grandfather to Sir Walter Raleigh. 

The leading counties in terms of Cole numbers by the 19th century were Devon, Gloucestershire and Hampshire (the Coles spelling was more popular in Somerset).  James Edwin-Cole's 1867 book The Genealogy of the Family of Cole covered the Coles of Devon and their later spread across England and into Ireland.

London.  There were also Coles in and around London.  A Cole family was seated at Twickenham in Middlesex for several generations, dating back in parish records to 1584.  A monument was erected to them in Petersham church in 1624.

  William Cole, a professional soldier, came to Ireland in 1601 in search of his fortune.  He was appointed Governor of Enniskillen and was mainly responsible for the building of the town.  His descendants, ennobled as the Earls of Enniskillen, were to remain at Florence Court there until the early 1900's.  Many were then among the early English settlers in Kenya.

America.  Early Coles came from England to New England.

New England.  Eunice Cole, better known as "Goody Cole," was the only woman convicted of  witchcraft in New Hampshire.  She was whipped and spent much of her time in prison between 1656 and 1671.  On her death in 1680 it was said that a stake was driven into her body "in order to exorcise the baleful influence she was supposed to have possessed."

Robert Cole from Suffolk came to Massachusetts with Winthrop's fleet in 1630 and later moved onto Rhode Island.  His son Nathaniel migrated to Oyster Bay on Long Island in 1665.  These Coles intermarried with the family of another early settler, Thomas Townsend.  Hewlett Townsend Coles and his son Alexander were sea captains in the early 1800's.  Their correspondence has been preserved in The Coles Family Papers.

Another Cole family account is Joseph Curtis's 1909 book The Descendants of Elisha Cole.  Elisha had been born on Cape Cod in 1719.  He moved with his wife to upstate New York in his twenties and built a log cabin and grist mill in what was to become Putnam county.  The Cole family maintained this mill for the next hundred and fifty years.

Virginia.  The prominent Coles family of Albemarle county, Virginia came originally from Wexford in Ireland in the early 1700's.   The following was a description of Colonel John Coles of this family:

"Colonel Coles was a genial, horse-loving, hospitable Virginia gentleman of the old school.  In recounting his blessings he would speak with pride of the ability of his sons, adding - like the French poet Martial - that he was glad his daughters were not too learned."
Edward Coles, cousin to Dolly Madison, was private secretary to Presidents Jefferson and Madison. Surprisingly for a Virginia plantation owner, he released his slaves and removed himself to Illinois where he was elected Governor on an anti-slavery platform.

Canada.  The story of George Coles was one of the tragedies of the Confederation era.  Coles, born on Prince Edward Island in 1810, was poor for much of his life.  Eventually, by dint of hard work, he managed to build up a business as a brewer and distiller. Then a great fire swept through Charlottetown, burning down Coles' properties. The fear that further calamity might come gripped Coles' mind to such an extent that he abandoned public life and went into seclusion, eventually going insane.

  The Coles retail dynasty began when the first George Coles arrived in Victoria in 1854 to work in the goldfields.  His son George started a butcher's shop and went on to open a number of country stores in rural Victoria.  The next George bought and sold various businesses from his father before opening his first store in Melbourne in 1914.  Expansion to more stores occurred after World War One and Coles grew to be one of Australia's largest supermarket chains.

Select Cole Miscellany

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

Select Cole Names

Sir William Cole
was the forebear of the Coles of Enniskillen in Ireland.
George Coles founded in the 1920's with his brothers what was to become the Coles Group shopping empire, the largest chain store group in Australia.
Nat King Cole was a popular American singer of the 1950's and 60's.

Select Coles Today
  • 60,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 69,000 in America (most numerous in California) 
  • 30,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)  

Select Surname List

Chambers Hammond 
Andrews Chandler Hayes Morrison Stone
Arnold Cole Hodgson Norman Sutton
Atkinson Cummings Howe North Tate
Barclay Cunningham Hunt O'Leary Thorpe
Barry Dickinson Innes O'Reilly Townsend
Beattie Dillon Irvine Oliver Underwood
Beck Dodd Jeffries Payne Unsworth
Bentley Doherty Jennings Penn Vance
Bernstein Duncan Kemp Pennington Venables
Bird East Kerr Pettigrew Walton
Boone Edgar Knight Phelan Watkins
Brady Emerson Lawrence Quigley Waugh
Branson Everett Leary Quirk West
Brooks Faulkner Levine Regan Whelan
Buck Fettiplace Levy Reilly Whitney
Burke Ford Lloyd Rhodes Wolfe
Bush Goldberg McIntosh Sharp Woodward
Carr Goodman McLaren Sheehan Yates
Carson Gordon McMillan Sinclair York

For other surnames check the select surname list where there are to be found the history and genealogy for more than 800 common and notable surnames in the English-speaking world.