Everything you wanted to know about Doodson family history

A brief history of the Doodson name

The Doodson name appears to have originated in the North West part of England, specifically in the area just south of Bolton in Lancashire. Although there are pockets of Doodsons in other parts of Britain, many of these can trace their family history to forebears who lived in places like Kearsley, Farnworth. Radcliffe, Leigh, Boothstown, Pendlebury, as well as Liverpool, Glossop, Barrow-in-Furness and North Cheshire. For more information, read on…


The earliest certain references to the surname Doodson date back to the late 1400s, in Farnworth, Lancashire. As far as I can tell nearly all Doodsons prior to 1800 lived in the North West of England, in or around today's towns of Bolton, Radcliffe and Bury. Efforts of a number of genealogists have tracked present-day Doodsons back to brothers James (b,1568) and Thomas (b1570) Doodson, who lived in Kearsley and Farnworth respectively. These two village names come up time and again in the parish and census records, and essentially this area close to Bolton and Bury in Lancashire is the home of the Doodson name. Practically all branches of the Doodson family can be tracked back to a village or hamlet in a rectangle between Westhoughton and Radcliffe, just south of Bolton. Some branches moved a little way, as there are records from the early 1800s of Doodsons living in the Toxteth Park area of Liverpool and in North Cheshire near Warrington.

However, for some reason the Doodson name crops up in odd places during the 18th century and after. For example there were a family or two in Buckenham in Norfolk throughout the 1700s - no record before, no record after. 

During the industrial revolution there was quite a lot of movement, but still mostly in the same part of England - though some Doodsons managed to get to America and one unfortunate Peter Doodson was even transported to Tasmania (then called Van Deimen's Land) - see below for more detail. But generally Doodsons moved from the "golden rectangle" to Manchester, Glossop (on the edge of the Peak District to the East of Manchester) and North Cheshire, following the railway system as it was built.

Doodson vs Dootson

The area just South of Bolton is also where people called Dootson originate - in some villages there were Dootsons, whereas in others only a mile or so away there were only Doodsons. Here are some interesting examples from the 1841 census (from a few years ago - revisions to the accuracy of transcription probably mean the numbers in current versions are different):

  • Doodson: total in England = 132; total in Farnworth = 42; total in West Houghton = 0; total in Pilkington = 14
  • Dootson: total in England = 233; total in Farnworth = 0; total in West Houghton = 74; total in Pilkington = 3

I've summarised the geographical distribution of the two surnames in the 1841 census in a PDF file - click at right to see it.

I guess that at one time the two names were the same - they sound pretty similar, and at the time the censuses were taken in 1841 chances are that some people called Doodson were written down as Dootson and vice versa. It might just be that the census-taker in Farnworth thought it sounded more like Doodson, whereas the one in West Houghton thought it sounded like Dootson! Some families even appeared to accept the change of surname from Doodson to Dootson - some individuals were christened as Doodson but marriages or deaths recorded as Dootson. Strangely I've not found any doing the opposite! This causes quite a lot of confusion when trying to trace individuals or families from one census return to another. Since Dootson is more common (though not by much) oftentimes when census returns are transcribed from the census forms to computer databases the name Doodson becomes Dootson, or even stranger - how about Doodwow or Goodson?

The industrial age - what did Doodsons do for a living?

This area of Lancashire was important for textiles from the Middle Ages, with hand weaving of cotton, calico and silk common in the area. The Industrial Revolution hit the area in the early 1800s, and many steam-powered cotton mills were opened. Accompanying the mills were many small coal mines and bleach works, as well as canals and railway lines. This part of England was one of the most densely provided with railways and waterways, to bring raw materials to the mills and to take away finished product to the cities and ports (Manchester and Liverpool in particular).

Doodsons were involved in all these industries - early in the 1800s there were farm workers and hand loom weavers (both cotton and silk), but these became coal miners, cotton mill workers, bleachers and railway workers as the big mills took over. In the family trees on this site you'll find that each branch tended to be either mostly cotton workers or mostly coal miners. Although there were no female coal workers there was lots of work for women in cotton mills, so you often see the men as miners, the women (and children, of course) as mill-workers. One family remained in farming even to the latter part of the 1800s, owning a large farm near Warrington. The industrial revolution was accompanied by a population explosion, and many Doodson families were large by today's standards, with up to 10 children. Not all survived to adulthood of course, and many children were sent to work in mills from as young as 11 years old. Even as late as 1900 pre-teens were working full time in cotton mills.

Work (or crime) took Doodsons all over England

As I mentioned above, some Doodsons moved away from this very small area - to Toxteth Park in Liverpool, to Glossop in Derbyshire, Handforth in Cheshire and Elland in Yorkshire. In some cases they went to work in more cotton mills (e.g. in Glossop), but the branch that moved to Liverpool were watchmakers, jewellers and dock workers, and the Handforth branch were butchers. Quite a few of these moved back to the home rectangle, and the spread didn't extend far outside of the North West of England by the end of the Victorian age.

The most involuntarily travelled Doodson in the 19th century must have been Peter Doodson (b.1801 or 1804), who was transported to Tasmania in 1843, for a fifteen year stretch. He was found guilty of burglary at the Liverpool assizes, but also had been guilty of larceny before, so maybe that explains the tough sentence. The journey to Tasmania in that period was in itself quite a dreadful experience, but poor Peter didn't survive long when he got there, just five years. He was hired by one W. H. Degrave in Hobart, but Peter died in December 1848 "accidentally killed by the flywheel of Degrave's steam engine".

But there were other Doodsons that appeared to have gone to Australia voluntarily at around the same period, when British people were encouraged to emigrate to Australia and New Zealand - see page about Australia.

The 20th century and beyond

Although there is still a definite concentration of Doodsons in the North West of England, there has been quite a dispersion, in particular to eastern Australia, where quite a few families settled in New South Wales. There are Doodsons in the USA. One unusual family in Canada originates from a settler who actually changed his name to Doodson, for reasons that are lost in the mists of time!

The development of the Internet has made it far easier to track down people called Doodson. Many references are to Mike Doodson, who has been a correspondent on motor racing (F1 in particular) for many years. Others are to Arthur Doodson, who did pioneering work in tide prediction and whose works are still used in modern oceanography. There's an insurance company, that used to be called Arthur Doodson Ltd (no relation to the oceanographer Arthur Doodson.  This company is now simply called the Doodson Insurance Group), and many other Doodsons. Facebook, the social web system, has literally hundreds of people called Doodson, from all over the place.