by James Brannan

Page from a family photo album showing my grandfather as a baby and his parents Thomas and Wilhelmina Brannan (about 1880)

For information on the name BRANNAN (with variants including Brannam, Branham, Brinham, Brenham, Brannon) see below:

1) The name and its origins

2) My Devonshire ancestors

3) My London ancestors

Internal Links:


1) The name and its origin

BRANNAN is certainly a name of Irish origin and can be found in most books of Irish surnames. Edward MacLysaght, in his definitive work entitled "The Surnames of Ireland", mentions two distinct families: MacBrannan (Mac Branain) of north Connacht (Roscommon) and O'Brannan (O Branain) of Fermanagh. In both cases he says that the spelling "Brennan" is now often used. Under Brennan, however, McLysaght says that Brannan can also be a more recent anglicized form (instead of Brennan) in Fermanagh. This somewhat contradictory theory about anglicized forms (Brennan or Brannan depending on location) is confirmed by John Grenham in his book "Clans and Families of Ireland". During a visit to Roscommon a local person told me that Brannan was the old spelling of Brennan used more in country areas and a study of gravestones seemed to confirm this. It must be said that there are very few people with the name Brannan today in Ireland but Brennan, on the other hand, remains a very common name. MacLysaght states that Brennans are descendants of four unrelated septs, besides being a spelling variant of Brannan in the north (the original Irish spelling of most "Brennans" was in fact "O Braonain" - with a different etymology to that of the "Brannans"). There are many Brannans today in the USA who are generally descendants of immigrants who left Ireland at a time when spellings still varied (and the anglicizing of names complicates things further!). Therefore, in my opinion, the ancestors of present-day Brannans could be from one of the O Braonain (Brennan) "septs" (including the kings of Ossory), as well as (more obviously, according to the historians) from the O/Mac Branain (Brannan) families of Roscommon, Fermanagh and Monaghan. As these various families began to emigrate and spread throughout the world, the spelling obviously underwent further metamorphosis, depending to some extent on the local accent - hence such variants as Brannam (Branham) and Brennam (Brenham) as well as Brinham (see further on). I am not saying however that all these families are necessarily related and some could even be variants of other names. It is interesting to look at the mesages in the Genealogy Forums (started in 1997), mainly written by people in North America, on the following surnames (which are said to include all obvious variants):

Books on Irish Surnames

The most famous Brannan in the US is undoubtedly Sam Brannan, a Mormon pioneer and a founder of San Francisco (see "Sam Brannan, Builder of San Francisco" by Louis Stellman, 1996). His father Thomas Brannan had emigrated to Maine from Waterford, Ireland in 1775. Sam Brannan's arrival in San Francisco in 1846 on the ship "Brooklyn" was commemorated there a couple of years ago - I had the privilege of attending the 150th anniversary celebrations in July 1996 when a replica of the ship arrived in the harbour and a plaque was unveiled nearby. Sam and his son are buried in San Diego cemetery - more information can be found by following the links below.

Sam Brannan 1819-1889

2) My Devonshire ancestors

James Brannan c. 1705-1778

However, I have yet to trace my Brannan ancestors back to Ireland and to establish a link with Sam's family. My direct line goes back to Exeter, Devonshire, with the first definite record of an ancestor in 1727: the marriage of James Brannan and Elizabeth MITCHELL, my great great great great great grandparents, at St Sidwell's. It seems that James' mother was called Grace but her 1728 will was one of those destroyed in Exeter during the last war. His father may well have been Edward - a possible baptism entry in 1705 is unfortunately not totally legible, but an Edward Brannon (sic), weaver of St Sidwell's, is mentioned in the Exeter Quarter Sessions of 1699. The parish registers of St Sidwell's Exeter however reveal the next few generations of the family. The spelling varied considerably: Brannam, Branham, Brenham, Brinham, Brannon, Brennan, Brennon, Brennam, Brannen, etc. However, when signatures first appear on the marriage register, from the 1750s, they signed their names "Brannan". In Exeter, several members of the family appear to have been in the sergeweaving business. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the wool and serge trade was very important between Devon and Ireland, and this could explain why the Brannans may have emigrated to Devon. In the previous century there were imports of manufactured wool products from Ireland but the Exeter manufacturers petitioned Parliament for exclusivity. An Act of 1698 put an end to such industry in Ireland which simply exported raw materials from that time on. It seems possible that the Brannans could have been Irish weavers who saw emigration as the only solution. The Exeter wool and serge industry however steadily declined during the second half of the eighteenth century with the collapse of export markets and the appearance of machinery and mills, often further afield. Hoskins refers to a poor family called "Brenham" who were obliged to apprentice their two young sons to a factory at Twerton, near Bath, in 1796. When the mother had second thoughts, the Corporation of the Poor threatened to stop her family allowance and so she allowed them to go. A few Brannans remained in Exeter into the nineteenth century: a weaver called William Brannan and a printer called John Brannan are shown on the 1803 militia list for St Sidwell's. The 1851 census for St Sidwell's has just two Brannan families, including Abraham Brannan, retired shopkeeper. By the end of the 19th century the family appears to have died out in Exeter.

There is a remote possibility that a family called Brannan or Brennan may be of Westcountry rather than Irish origin, because similar Celtic syllables are not unknown in Devon and Cornwall. There are places in Devon called Brentor, Brendon and Branscombe, not to mention the local saint, Saint Brannock (who gave his name to Braunton, although the origin of this name is supposedly connected with Brecknock in Wales). Donn's 1765 map of Devon shows a farm called Brennan near Bradworthy (since renamed Brendon). Sabine Baring-Gould, in his "Book of Devon" (1899) records a fairy-tale called "the ravens of Brennan", on Dartmoor, pointing out that "Brennan is what is marked on the Ordnance Survey as Brinning, a lonely spot south of Moreton Hampstead". He adds in a footnote that "Bran" is Cornish for a crow. MacLysaght, in his "Surnames of Ireland" confirms that "Bran" has the same meaning in Irish - raven. Ronald Branscombe (see explanations on his home page via link below) has told me that "Bran" is indeed a well-documented Celtic personal name and that in Welsh it can also mean "black" (i.e. the colour of a crow!). The Irish name Brennan, on the other hand, as stated above, is derived from "Braon" meaning sorrow. I have failed to find any Brannan or Brennan families in Devon before 1699 (except for a "stray" Joane Brennan, married 1651 at Hollacombe), suggesting that neither forms were ancient Westcountry names. So if my ancestors did emigrate from Ireland to Devon, then the pre-emigration spelling could be either Brannan or Brennan (or their Celtic forms), which means they could have been descendants of a number of unrelated Irish families and any further research in this direction should prove difficult.

Some of the descendants of James and Elizabeth Brannan have remained in Devon until more recently with different spellings of the surname - the "-am" and "-ham" endings must have corresponded to the local accent. One branch of the family settled in Brixham as fishermen and/or mariners and adopted the spelling variant of "BRINHAM". Another branch settled in Barnstaple and adopted the spelling "BRANNAM". They became famous for a local pottery - for more information click below.

Nicholas Brannan 1751-1812

Sergeant Major and Innkeeper

From Exeter, my ancestors moved around quite considerably. Their departure from the city in the 1780s corresponds to the decline of the traditional sergeweaving industry - those who had been trained as weavers and woolcombers were being replaced by machines. Two sons of James and Elizabeth Brannan, Abraham - a sergeweaver - (who married Elizabeth HOWARD of Exeter) and Nicholas (who married Ann AYEARS of Exeter), eventually settled in Bideford in North Devon. They were both sergeants in the North Devon Militia, defending the English coast against the French, even before the Napoleonic wars. They would march along the south coast as far as Dover and back in the 1780s and 1790s, as shown by the militia records in the Public Record Office. They took their families with them - Abraham had a son christened in Falmouth, Nicholas had daughters christened in Brixham and Maker. Some of their children also served in the militia and worked their way up to the postion of sergeant, including Nicholas' son Mark who was a woolcomber by trade and ended up as the Master of the North Devon Yeoman Cavalry Band (as recorded on his tombstone in Bideford churchyard). During the period when the North Devon militia was disembodied (1783-93) Nicholas Brannan lived in Hartland (N.W. Devon) and when he retied from the militia in 1797 he moved to Bideford where he ran and later acquired an inn on the Quay, at a time when Bideford was a thriving port. This inn, according to family tradition, could have been the inn that featured in Charles Kingsley's "Westward Ho!". Kingsley called it the "Ship Inn" - there is now a fish and chip shop appropriately called "The Rose of Torridge" (once the Newfoundland Inn) - but later tax records suggest that he was in fact the innkeeper of the inn to the right of it on the quay, now called "The Kings Arms". It was then called the "Blue Anchor", until about 1830, and has kept its present name ever since. However, some works on Bideford state that the "Blue Anchor" was a former name of Kingsley's Inn, so there is some confusion here. The Quarter Sessions records show that Nicholas served for a while as Quay Master. Nicholas made a will, of which the Estate Duty copy has survived (NDRO) - he left one shilling to each of his children and the inn to his widow Ann Brannan, who is shown as the owner in an old Pigot's Directory (about 1825) which can be found on the web.

Conduit Lane, leading off Bideford Quay between "Rose of Torridge" and the King's Arms. Nicholas Brannan was reprimanded at the Quarter Sessions for leaving his brewing utensils here in 1798

Thomas Brannan 1784-1868

Tailor and Coastguard

Norman font at Hartland, Devon, in which Thomas Brannan was christened in 1785

My great great great grandfather Thomas Brannan was born in Hartland, Devon, in 1784 (he was christened under the spelling "Brinham"), and the family seem to have followed the father (Nicholas) as he moved around with the militia. Thomas himself served in the militia at an early age as a drummer boy. After the family moved to Bideford in 1796, Thomas married Mary MARTIN (daughter of Edward MARTIN, a maltster and local church organist) in 1807 and began a career as a tailor but it obviously didn't suit him! He did a number of jobs - fisherman and innkeeper - before deciding, in 1821, to sign up for the new Coastguard Service (his service records can be found at the PRO). He set off with his family to different stations around England and Wales: Caernarvonshire, Pembrokeshire, Dorset, Sussex and finally the Isle of Sheppey (Kent), where he was stationed the longest, at Leysdown and Warden Point (famous for its cliff erosion - the parish church has since disappeared into the sea!). At Fleet, Dorset, he must have been witness to the tidal wave that swept over Chesil Beach and the village of Fleet in November 1824 - the remains of the old church can still be seen today. The coastguards' main task at that time was to combat smuggling, which meant patrolling at night. Thomas remained at the lowest rank of boatman and retired in 1852. He went to live in Hoxton (Shoreditch), where two of his sons had already settled, and his wife died just a few years later. From 1855 to his death in 1868 he was looked after by his granddaughter Grace MARSHALL. In 1862 he painted a scroll with the words "Remember Me" which still exists today. He was buried with his wife in Nunhead Cemetery (south London) in the nonconformists' section which was cleared of its gravestones in the 1980s (fortunately, I found the stone before the clearance and have a photograph).

Mark Brannan 1820-1862

Builder and Joiner

House in Honestone Street, Bideford, where Mark Brannan was probably born in 1820

Thomas' son Mark Brannan was a builder and carpenter. He was born in Bideford, Devon in 1820 and after travelling with his parents to various coastguard stations around the country, he returned there as a young man (by 1841) to work with his cousin Edward Martin WHITE, who was to become Mayor of Bideford in the 1860s. In about 1845, however, Mark decided to join his brothers John, Robert and Thomas and seek his fortune in London. It seems however that he could have decided to leave Devon for a more romantic reason... In 1846 he married a domestic servant called Mary Ann FOUND who was working in the Old Kent Road. Mary Ann was from Bucks Cross, on the road from Bideford to Hartland. It's probable that they had known each other in Devon, maybe through the Bible Christian Church - they got married in Marlborough Chapel (Congregational) in the Old Kent Road. They settled in Newington, South London, and the family remained in the same house (Ralph Place/Street) for about 35 years. Mark apparently had a bushy beard and never shaved in his life! He fathered five daughters and one son before succumbing to consumption at the early age of 42 and his wife Mary Ann was to die of bronchitis at 62. Quite a contrast to the longlivety of the family back in the far healthier climes of North Devon where Mary Ann's sister lived to 80, her father 89, and her grandmother Joanna (née FOLLY) died at the ripe old age of 96!

3) My London ancestors

Thomas Brannan 1852-1881

Accountant and Commercial Traveller

My great grandfather did not follow in the footsteps of his ancestors - he wasn't a weaver, a potter, a tailor, a farmer or a coastguard. He chose the career of accountant, and found a job as a clerk with the Singer sewing machine company (in 1879 he is described as a "commercial traveller" but later reverted to the more sedentary occupation). His father died when he was just 10 and he was living in Newington (S. London) with his mother and five sisters. Then he met Wilhelmina ROBERTS from Ampthill in Bedfordshire, who had come to stay with her sister near the Old Kent Road. After their marriage in 1878 in the bride's parish, they settled in Peckham where my grandfather was born the year after. The next part of Thomas' story is tragic. For a reason that remains unknown, he decided to leave for the USA in late 1880, obviously intending to settle there. His wife was already pregnant with their second son and returned to Ampthill where she gave birth in December. In March 1881 she was back in London with her sister Emma THACKWAY. In the meantime Thomas had found his way to Philadelphia and was hired as a bookkeeper for a Turkish bath establishment. Every day he would drink from a Vichy water fountain there and after a month or so he contracted lead poisoning from the new lead piping that had just been installed - at least that's the story he told the doctors. He was admitted to Pennsylvania Hospital in March 1881 and after two months of pain and suffering he died on May 17. In the meantime, his wife and children had decided to come and join him - it seems that the family had intended to settle permanently in the USA. They arrived on the ship Scythia from Liverpool to New York on May 12. They just had time to reach Philadelphia and may have seen Thomas before he died 5 days later (although according to family tradition they arrived too late). They subsequently returned home to London. I traced the medical case history of my great grandfather in the records of Pennsylvania Hospital. The cemetery (Lafayette) where he was buried no longer exists but the burial registers can be consulted in the local archives.

Pennsylvania Hospital
Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia - America's first hospital founded by Benjamin Franklin. My great grandfather died here in 1881.

Thomas Sydney Brannan 1879-1960

Thermometer Manufacturer

My grandfather Thomas Sydney Brannan thus travelled to Philadelphia and back at the age of 2. After his father's death, his mother decided to leave him to be brought up by his aunts who lived in East Dulwich. When he left school his aunts wanted him to become a tailor. However, like his great grandfather, tailoring obviously wasn't his cup of tea. He became the assistant to Mr Macdonald, a Dulwich manufacturer of scientific instruments, until he decided to set up his own business. Thus the company of S. Brannan and Sons - Brannan Thermometers - was founded in 1912. Sydney, as he was known, started by working in a spare room in his house in Chesterfield Grove, Dulwich (he bought the house in 1908 for 280 pounds). In the early days the work consisted of engraving clinical thermometers. His business took off during the First World War when the army placed some large orders. He was later persuaded by his wife to find a separate workshop and there was a factory at Forest Hill up until 1973. The firm has of course changed considerably since 1912 but is still trading, under family management, from a plant in Cumbria. My grandmother Ethel Annie de Jersey RENOUF (1882-1969) was very proud of her Norman-French ancestry - her father emigrated from Jersey in 1875 (more information on JERSEY page). Sydney and Ethel Brannan had four sons: Martin, Sydney, Victor and Leslie. Martin Brannan (1909-1994) was awarded the O.B.E. for his work as chairman of the employers of the British fire service.

Wedding in 1906 of Thomas Sydney Brannan to Ethel Annie De Jersey Renouf