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The Origins of the Names Qualtrough, Qualter and Qualters by J. Linton (September 1983)

I originally became interested in the name Qualters when I started to trace my family history and found that my father's mother's maiden name was Qualters. In attempting to find out more detail about this family I accumulated quite a bit of information about Qualter; Qualters and Qualtrough families, and having traced the line back as far as I could, I became interested in the origin of the name. This article sets out what I have learned. As in family history, I shall start with the present (known) and work back (into the unknown).

In its simplest sense, the origin of the above names is from MAC WALTER meaning "son of Walter" After initially being pronounced with equal emphasis on both parts (as in the Scottish pronunciation), the emphasis on the MAC was gradually dropped so that it became slurred and more like MM-QUALTER. Finally the MM was dropped and the present form remained. This description however omits much interesting detail and what follows is an attempt to paint the picture more clearly, but it must be remembered that much is conjecture and opinion.


This is the least complicated to deal with and so I shall start here. From work done by myself and, more importantly by Mrs. E. Barlow of Matamata, New Zealand, this name, when traced through families, leads back to the Isle of Man. There appear to be no surviving variations of the name, the occasional certificate found bearing the name QUALTRO or even QUALTERTHROUGH being the attempt at its spelling by an official. The name had taken its present form by the late 17th or early 18th Centuries. Thus, working back through parish registers, etc., it is possible to trace family lines back to the second half of the 17th Century, although, as ever, some lines present particular problems which may never be overcome.

Moving further back in time, we have to rely on the occurrence of the name in documents and here I must use 2 experts in this field A.W. Moore (ref. 1) and J.J. Kneen (ref. 2). They list the following variations, Kneen listing sources as well as dates.

Mac Qualtroughe (1430) Qualtrough (1430) Mac Walter,

Mac Whaltragh, Water (1511) Mc Qualthrough (1521) Quatter

(1602) Qualteraugh (1634) Qualtroh (1651) Qualtragh (1654)

Qualtrough (1660) Coltrough (1670) Qualthro (1675) and

Qualteragh (1698)

Reference to the parish registers enables the area in which the name was most common (and possibly originated) to be determined. In fact it was very common in the southernmost part of the Isle of Man, in the parishes of Rushen, Arbory and Malew, and is uncommon elsewhere. (Moore asserts 'In the parishes of Rushen and Arbory half the population is called either Qualtrough or Watterson, and in the parish of Malew one-fourth').

This reference to Watterson introduces another variation of the name. Watterson or Waterson, a corruption of WALTER-SON, is another form of MAC WALTER. In the Middle Ages, WALTER would have been pronounced 'WAUTER', hence its corruption to WATTER, etc. The same sources as previously list these variations

Watersone (1422) Watterson (1504) Water, Waterson (1511) and Walterson (1547)

Looking at the parish of Rushen, there were approximately 100 Qualtrough and 400 Watterson baptisms in the 18th Century while in the 19th Century, up to 1882 there were approximately 200 Qualtrough and 800 Watterson baptisms.

An interesting aside concerns the deaths by drowning recorded in Rushen Parish Registers (ref.3). Between 1740 and 1820 some 65 individuals of this parish were recorded as having been drowned while at sea or fishing. Of these, 16 were Wattersons, none were Qualtrough. Later in the 1851 Census of Rushen, only one Qualtrough was recorded as a fisherman whereas 36 of the Wattersons were sailors, fishermen, wives of seafaring men, or widows of seafarers. Or again, between 1849 and 1869, 52 Wattersons (male and female) married at Rushen, 17 Watterson men being seafaring, as were 31 of the Watterson fathers. Why the Qualtroughs were for the most part landlubbers, while the Wattersons were seafaring is a puzzle. The locals would probably say 'the sea was in their blood'. In any event, the association of Wattersons with water makes an amusing coincidence

Thus far we have traced the name back to MAC QUALTROUGHE or MAC WALTRAGH or similar variation. This was the form in the 15th and 16th Centuries. According to Kneen (ref. 2), prior to this period the MAC was not used so the name would be WALTERAGH (in Irish, UALTARACH). I have not yet been able to discover when the MAC would have been added but it was certainly between the 12th and 15th Centuries. Its use arose naturally as the population increased and further means were required to differentiate individuals.

We are now back to the name WALTERAGH. The Manx termination

-AGH (in Irish -ACH) was often added to Gaelic names (and foreign names also) to indicate family or clan. Thus WALTERAGH means 'the clan of the WALTERS', or, more simply, 'the WALTER family

It is probably a mistake to think of a split between the Qualtrough and Watterson families. For several centuries there would be free movement between the two, with one family adopting Watterson to show its 'Englishness' , while another would adopt Qualtrough to show its Celtic origins. Since there was little changing after the 17th century, there is little chance of tracing back a Qualtrough family and finding a link with a Watterson family. For family history purposes the two names are separate

Moving further back we can now examine the origin of the name WALTER or, in Ireland, UALTAIR. This name was a favourite with the Normans, and was introduced by them into England at the time of the Conquest of 1066. According to E.G. Withycombe (ref. 9), the name occurs in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as WALTER(I)US and G(U)ALTER( I )US.

The Normans took the name from the Old German WALDHAR, a compound of VALD meaning 'rule' and HARJA meaning 'folk'. In other languages it has taken the form Walther (German), Gautier (French), and Galtieri (Italian) - recently a very topical name in the Falklands War (many Italians emigrated to Argentina).

Again according to E.G. Withycombe, there was a corresponding Old English name, WEALDHERE, but this was never common. Thus, over a period of a thousand years, one version of the name Walter can be traced from the southern part of the Isle of Man back to the European Plain at the time of the Dark Ages.


Turning to this form of the name, by following back family lines, we can identify two separate branches

(a) The Irish Qualters
(b) The Manx Qualters

(a) The Irish Qualters

Because we are dealing with people who have their own ideas and lead their own very individual lives, it is always dangerous to generalise. However, there is sufficient number of people involved to make the following statements very good guidelines but certainly not hard and fast rules.

Families whose name is Qualter or Qualters and who are of Roman Catholic background, will find their family history leads back to Eire, in fact to Connacht, an area in the western part of Ireland which is now covered by the counties of Galway, Sligo, and Mayo. Here, according to one authority (refs. 4,5,6 and 7) Qualter is a curtailed form of Mac Walter (Irish Mac Ualtair) which forms a branch of the Burke family. To quote in detail from E.A.E. MacLysaght (ref. 5):

"The name Burke (and its variations) came to Ireland at the time of the Anglo Norman invasion in the person of William de Burgo (called William the Conqueror by Irish analysts), who succeeded Strongbow as Chief Governor. In 1179 vast estates in Connacht were granted to the de Burgos, or Burkes, but beyond sporadic ravaging, they did not, properly speaking, possess the territory until the next generation when it was regranted to Sir Richard de Burgo by Henry III. It is unlikely, of course, that all people of the name Burke are descended from one man, but rather are probably also descended from relatives and retainers, etc., who followed their hero.

"The Burkes became more completely hibernicised than any other Norman family. They adopted Brehon Law and proclaimed themselves chiefs after the Irish fashion, thus forming several septs, one of the minor branches being the Mac Ualtairs."

By the process already described, this eventually took the form Qualter.

This brings me to the problem of the name Qualter and Qualtrough originating in two locations. In his dictionary, P.H. Reaney (ref. 8) asserts that 'Qualter, Qualters, and Qualtrough (are) Manx names for Mac Walter.' From correspondence I have had with the University of Sheffield, it would appear that Dr. Reaney judged this from the form of the surname, believing that only in the Isle of Man did the Mac become curtailed to 'Q'. This leads to the conclusion that the Irish Qualters had an ancestor who came from the Isle of Man

This may be the case, but it is my opinion that we have here an example of parallel development and this for the following reasons -

(1) Nowhere in the Isle of Man parish registers does the name Qualter or Qualters appear (see Morman I.G.I.)

(2) Goodwin, in his genealogical study of Manx families makes no reference to the name Qualter(s) (correspondence between the author and the Manx Museum)

(3) Moore (ref. 1) makes no reference to Qualter(s) and does not include it in his Index of Surnames which includes names now obsolete

(4) Similarly, Kneen (ref. 2) makes no reference to Qualter(s)

(5) In his book (ref. 4), MacLysaght lists Qualter, Quilkin (from Mac Uilcin), Quinn (from Mac Cuinn), Quinnelly (from Mac Coingheallaigh), and Quish (from Mac Coise) as examples of Irish names which, he says, have no connection with the Isle of Man but which nevertheless have curtailed the Mac

(6) It is not too difficult to imagine similar developments occurring in Irish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic when the two areas are so close geographically and the two tongues so similar

Thus I consider that we have two separate lines, with Roman Catholic Qualters from Eire and Qualtrough from the Isle of Man.

(b) The Manx Qualters

Remembering the dangers of generalisations, families whose name is Qualter or Qualters and who are of Anglican or Protestant background, will find their family history leads back to the Isle of Man

In fact this branch (of which I am a member) is descended from one individual - Edward Qualtrough, a blacksmith, who was baptised on April 16th 1796 at Rushen, Isle of Man and who died late in 1884 in Liverpool. To go further back in tracing their name, members of this branch should refer to the notes I have already made on Qualtrough

Looking at the life of Edward in more detail we find that on June 11 1821 he married Elizabeth Hughes of Mostyn (Flint) at St. Nicholas Church, Liverpool. Edward was baptised and married as a Qualtrough and both he and his wife died as Qualtrough. Of the nine children whose baptisms I have been able to trace, all were baptised as Qualtrough (1822 to 1836) bar one, the last, who was registered in 1840 as a Qualter. At least five of the children went on to marry, four as Qualter, the only daughter whose marriage I have traced being married as a Qualtrough. Of the five deaths of children that I have been able to trace, four died as Qualter (one of the sons reverted to Qualtrough when he died - possibly the father was the informant, as the son's wife had died earlier.) By the next generation, i.e. the grandchildren of Edward, the name Qualtrough had disappeared completely.

This raises an interesting family history point. Having found the marriage of one of my ancestors as a Qualter, I searched in vain for a Qualter baptism. Then I discovered a Qualtrough family having children of the same christian names and ages as 'my' Qualter family. The missing link had been found, and a whole new area of research opened up.

The reason for the change from Qualtrough to Qualter is not known. The five individuals whose marriages were traced, all signed with their own hand, one with a particularly florid signature. John Qualter, the eldest son, went on to be a founding member of a company which is now known as Qualter Hall and Co.Ltd., part of the Matthew Hall group of Companies. But that, as they say, is another story. The family did not appear to be illiterate with the change occurring because of clerical errors, and in any case, it happened too frequently. It was a deliberate decision. Possibly it was done to simplify the spelling and signing. Perhaps there was a deeper meaning.

Initially, the change was from Qualtrough to Qualter, but by 1880 all baptisms had changed to Qualters. Again it is not known if there was any significance in this minor change.

And here the story ends for the present. I would be grateful for any corrections, additions or comment on this article for doubtless much remains to be added to the Qualter/Qualtrough saga.


1. MANX NAMES A.W.Moore 
3. 'Dead from the Water"
Vol. IV No.2, April 1982, pp.26-28, plus correspondence
With the author R. Sellwood 
5. IRISH FAMILIES E.A.E.MacLyssaght 

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