Kemp


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The Middle English and German word kempe was a status name for a champion, a professional fighter or jouster who engaged in single combat on behalf of others.  For example the King's champion at his coronation had the duty of issuing a general challenge to battle to anyone who would deny the king's right to the throne.  The Norfolk word "kemper" is a term for an old warrior who has seen many a battle.

The surname spelling began as Campe or Kempe and later gave way to Kemp.

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England.  Fred Hitchin-Kemp in his 1902 book A General History of the Kemp and Kempe Families of Great Britain stated that the Kemp name was mainly to be found in the eastern and southern counties of England.  Early sightings of the name were:
  • Edmund Kempe in Norfolk in 1099
  • Alan Kempe in Suffolk in 1273
  • and Ralph le Kemp in Sussex in 1296.  

SE England.  Ralph Kempe who lived in the early 1300's and held the Olantigh manor near Ashford was the earliest known ancestor of the Wye Kempes in Kent.  Two famous descendants were John Kemp, the 15th century Archbishop of Canterbury, and his nephew Thomas Kempe, Bishop of London.  An account of the time read:

"I met with two great men of this name, John Kempe, born at Wye in Kent, Archbishop of York and afterwards of Canterbury.  He died a very old man in 1453.  The other was Thomas Kemp, his nephew, who was consecrated Bishop of London in 1449 by his uncle the Archbishop."

Sir Thomas Kempe died in 1607 and he was the last of the family to live at the manor. 

Will Kempe, a comic actor on the London stage at the time of Shakespeare, is believed to have been related to him. The Kempes intermarried with the nearby Digges family and some of them were to cross the Atlantic to America. Other Kempes moved to Lavethan in Cornwall and to Slindon in Sussex.  A later descendant was the property developer Thomas Read Kemp who built Kemp Town in Brighton in the early 1800's before fleeing his creditors and dying in France. 

East Anglia.  Another notable Kempe family began in East Anglia with Nicholas Kempe in the early 1400's.  They resided at Spains Hall at Finchingfield in Essex and at Cavendish in Suffolk.  Their numbers included the 16th century judge George Kempe.  William Kempe the mute died at Spains Hall in 1628; while Robert Kempe was supposed to have been knighted by Cromwell on the steps of the house in 1641 (Cromwell's home in Huntingdon was but a short distance away and Stephen Marshall, Cromwell's favorite preacher, was the incumbent at Finchingfield).  This Kempe line died out in the 1750's.

John Kempe and Margery Brunham married in King's Lynn, Norfolk around the year 1393.  It was Margery Kempe who became famous - writing The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language.  The book chronicled her pilgrimages to various holy sites in Europe and Asia, as well as her mystical conversations with God. 

Kemps were local gentry at the small village of Gissing near Diss in Norfolk, starting with Robert Kempe in the early 16th century.  For generations the bulk of the population there were Kemp family tenants.  The last of these Kemps, Sir Robert Kemp, died in 1936.

Cornwall.  There was also a Kemp outpost in Cornwall, dating back to the 1500's at Lavethan.  James Kempe, the son of Nicholas and Joanna Kempe, was born at St. Gerrans in 1637.  The American politician Jack Kemp was said to have been of Cornish origin.

Scotland.  Kemps in Scotland are thought to have a similar meaning but be of Viking origin.

"It appears that a branch of Norwegian settlers with the name Kemp first settled in Scotland in the Orkneys but later moved to safer ground on the mainland and further south as the Vikings began their forays and invasions into the area."


They were to be found in the Black Isle in eastern Rossshire, near Inverness in the Highlands.  This isle was a hotbed of Jacobite activity in 1745.  After the defeat at Culloden many Kemps emigrated.  Some Kemps in Rossshire may have been English ironworkers at Gairloch.


America.  Edmund Kempe had married Mary Digges in Kent and they were in Virginia by 1653.  Their son Colonel Matthew Kemp was a Virginia colonial politician, a Speaker at the Virginia House of Burgesses. 

Robert Kemp was a Quaker from Yorkshire who came to Maryland in 1664.  He married and secured a tract of land called Bolton in Talbot county.  His son John was the first of five father-to-son John Kemps that lived and worked on the Bolton farm.  Kemp descendants were to live on the property for nigh on two hundred years

Edward and Ann Kemp came to Groton, Massachusetts from Norfolk in 1658 and Ebenezer Kemp of this line fought in the Revolutionary War.  Afterwards Ebenezer moved his family to Gorham in Maine. 

German Kemps.  Kemps in America are mainly of English origin.  Conrad Kaempf (Kemp in America) came to Philadelphia with three of his sons from Germany in 1733 and made for the German community in Frederick county, Maryland.  Some Kempes/Kemps arrived from Germany in the 19th century and a few also from Sweden.

Bahamas.  Kemps were one of the families that left Charleston, South Carolina for the Bahamas in 1776 to start a new life there.  They were to be found on the island of Eleuthera.  Some later emigrated to Canada.

South Africa.  
Kemps in South Africa are as likely to be of Dutch as of English origin:
  • Pieter Kemp arrived in the Cape in the early 1700's and his family settled at Stellenbosch. 
  • Dr. Johannes van der Kemp was a Dutch missionary who came to Port Elizabeth in 1803 and left what is now called the Van der Kemp Memorial Church. 
  • and Jan Kemp from the Eastern Transvaal was a commando leader against the British during the Boer War. 
John and Anne Kemp from Sussex were among the 1820 British settlers and James and Martha Kemp from Kent arrived on the Eastern Cape sometime in the 1830's.  They were brother and sister and had apparently left England because Mary was bearing an illegitimate child.  Joshua Kemp was father of the first board of commissioners in Port Elizabeth in the 1840's.  South African Kemps were covered in M.V. Hall's 1995 book Kemps of the Border.     

Australia.   Anthony Kemp
had come out to Australia in 1795 as part of the NSW Corps.  He was one of the key participants in the Rum Rebellion that removed the existing governor of the colony and established an interim military government.  He later settled in Tasmania and became a successful merchant and farmer there.

Charles Kemp was one of Sydney's early successful businessmen.  He had arrived with his parents from London in 1825 and rose "from obscurity to eminence and influence."  He had started out in newspapers and expanded into banking, insurance and railways. 

New Zealand.  James and Charlotte Kemp, missionaries from Norfolk, were very early arrivals in New Zealand.  They came to the Bay of Islands via Sydney in 1818 and helped found the Church Missionary Society station at Kerikeri.  The Kemps lived on until 1860 in their mission house, the present Kemp House, into which they had moved in 1832.  In 1974, the house, the oldest existing building in New Zealand, was presented to the nation by their great grandson Ernest Kemp.

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John Kemp
was a 15th century English cardinal, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lord Chancellor of England. 
Edward Kemp was an English landscape architect, one of the leaders in the design of parks and gardens during the Victorian era. 
Jack Kemp was a star American football quarterback who became a Republican politician in the 1970's.  He was the Republican running mate in the 1996 Presidential campaign.

Select Kemps Today
  • 30,000 in the UK (most numerous in Hertfordshire)
  • 17,000 in America (most numerous in Texas) 
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

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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
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Burke Ford Lloyd Rhodes Wolfe
Bush Goldberg McIntosh Sharp Woodward
Carr Goodman McLaren Sheehan Yates
Carson Gordon McMillan Sinclair York

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