The Long Boats.

Did our Founding Fathers Captain the Long Boats in Europe's Legendary Times? Wilbert Keiller shares his findings in the quest for surname origins.

In Three Keels....

The origin of KEELER as an occupational name takes its derivative roots from the 'Pilot of a Long Ship' as Green records, 'In three keels ... these Jute's landed at Ebbsfleet in the Isle of Thanet.' Stillingfl also wrote, 'The Angles or Saxons ... came hither in three Keels or long Boats at first.' Whether all Pilots, or Captains, of these ancient keels were identified as 'the Keeler' before the advent of surnames is problematical. They may as readily have been known by their father's name, or, a personal nickname indicative of some notable characteristic. There is, however, just as much likelihood some were known as, or 'surnamed,' 'the Keeler,' as such occupational nomenclature gave rise to many of the surnames we are familiar with today. To know with certainty whether members of today's Keeler families descend from these 'Keelers' of the Long Ships, short of genealogical tracking, would be difficult to ascertain and to prove. Recorded evidence available for genealogical research before the 13th Century is regrettably scarce. What is certain, however, is the ancient custom of handing down occupational skills from father to son within the same family. This tradition was in most cases jealously guarded for these skills were the economic life-blood of families.

The River Keels.

The argument is supported by the pattern of family distribution revealed in Origins Discovered? published in the last issue of the Keeler Newsletter, results which would have held little surprise for Canon Charles Bardsley who, concerning the Keeler surname, wrote 'The surname is found on the East Coast, just where one would expect it.' His expectation was based on the occupational origin of the surname as one who navigates a keel.' The Keels to which Bardsley refers were not the Long Boats but River Boats, that according to Heslop, were 'used in the east of England from the Tyne to the Norfolk Broads.' The earliest record of a 'Keeler' in this context dates from 1322. The term, I must emphasise, is not to be confused with a 'keel' on a boat, or a 'keeler' as in 'yacht,' for both these words have a different etymology.

It is not unreasonable...

It is not, in my view, beyond reasonable probability that some members of the River Keel families remained within the seafaring industry from early times, adapting their seafaring skills to river navigation. There are many variables and no certainties, but the possibility if not the probability remains, especially for those families who descend from the river 'Keelers,' and those who still bear the Keeler name today. Kentish Rivers. There is little doubt the name Keeler as a surname deriving from the families of the River Keels extended further south than the Norfolk Broads mentioned by Heslop. These Keels also sailed the Thames, the Medway and the river of Dover ~ the River Dour. In surety we can say in the words of Shakespeare; 'Many shippes, keiles, cogges, and botes ... haue heretofore had their franke passages ... vpon the saide riuer.'

The Keel family.

In the days of the River Keels, Keeler families did not always live in local villages for Ruskin writes: 'Keels are ... house and home to the Keel family.' Families, of course, grow and not every son could continue to follow in his father's occupation. These sons and daughters left the Keels to work the land but they continued to work from, and live in, villages close by the rivers and their ports. From these villages their descendants eventually dispersed throughout the county, country and eventually abroad. These were the sons of 'the Keelers' from whom we descend, and for many, whose name we bear today.


Interestingly, the Celtic variation Keiller means 'dwellers by the water' and reflects a not dissimilar origin. While we must still allow for the validity of other origins of the surname in some cases we must conclude that the Survey reported in Origins Discovered? supports the contention of the name Keeler as 'makers, owners or navigators of Keels' on England's East coast and tantalisingly hints at a more ancient origin born of The Long Boats. Perhaps all of English decent ~ Angle, Saxon, Jute ~ owe their ancestors safe arrival on the shores of England to the skill of the Keelers!


1.Green , Making England, i:28, 1881. 2.Stillingfl, Orig. Brit. v.313, AD1685. In this context 'Keel' renders the Old English céol in the O E Chronicles a.1000 [an.449.Laud MS] the term first appearing in Gildas c. AD525, De Excidio Brit. xxiii. The word was common and Teutonic in origin from the Old Saxon kiol (ship). Rendered céol in Old English the term is also found in Old Norse as kjóll. 3.The Anglo-Saxon term céol (keel) is known to have been adopted for personal names as evidenced in the name Céolfrith. 4.This was the case even into modern times. For the importance of these skills on the waterways in Kent see The River Medway by Howard Biggs, The Lavenham Press, 1982, p 117f. 5.Bardsley, A Dictionary of English & Welsh Surnames, Heraldry Today, London, 1901. Reprinted Gen. Pub. Co. Inc., Baltimore, 1980. 6.See R.O.Heslop in N. & Q. 9th Ser. VII. 65-6. Ref. Oxf. Dic. 658. 7.'Et omnes...seruientes in bargiâ qui dicuntur kelers...vinient quolibet anno ad Natale domini in festo sanctorum Innocentium apud Whiteley' Tynemouth Chartulary MS 1f. 68. AD1322. 8. The word cannot be connected with the Old Norse Kjol-r (Keel) from which is derived the word for a boat's Bilge-Keel i.e. fin-Keel. Due to the influence of Scandinavian, English and French, or of all combined the Dutch and German Kiel along with the English Keel has, since the 16th. Century lost its original sense of 'ship' and acquired that of 'Keel' i.e. Bilge-Keel. This erroneous connection was most likely made by identifying with the analogy of Latin 'carina' used for both 'ship' and 'Bilge-Keel.' Ref. Oxf. Dic. p. 658. 9.See note 6 above. 10.The River Dour derives its name from Dubris (Waters) AD425. The name evolved to Dofras AD696, Doferum c. AD1000, Dour AD1586 and is regarded to have dated from at least the Bronze Age.Ref. Kent Family History Society Journal. Vol.8:1, p.320. 11.Act 23 Hen.VIII, c.18. AD1531-2. 12.Ruskin, Fors Clav. VI:395. AD1876. 13.My Grandfather, William Keeler, arrived in New Zealand from Kent on board The William Davie on 12 April 1874 a century before the first (1975) surname survey. 14.Compare, Keillor Burn running three miles south-east to the river Eden in Fifeshire, on Scotland's East Coast. 15 Viz. The makers or users of 'keelers,' a 'tub' originally used for draining or cooling especially in dairying.

Copyright 1997 by Wilbert J. Keiller.

Keeler Archives

This article first appeared in The Keeler Newsletter Vol.1 Issue 2.