The Redknapp Family History Part 1; Origins, Redheaded Merchants on the Thames

Origins of the Redknapp Name


The name Redknapp, (also spelled Redknap, Rednap and Rednup) is derived from the colour Red and the old English “cnaep” or “knap” meaning a hillock or brow of a hill, but also a 15th century slang word for “head” as in “the knap of the case” for the head of the house. So “Red Knap” could either mean someone who lived on the “red hill” or much more likely, the person with the “red head”, and given the colouring of a number of bearers of this name the likely derivation is fairly obvious.

Although there had been one instance of the name being spelled with two “p”s in the late 1700s, and various spellings with one and two “p”s and an “e” on the end in mediaeval  times, this Redknapp family’s original name was spelled Redknap with one “p” for the whole of the 19th century, and only acquired the extra “p” as a standard spelling at the beginning of the 20th century when many names in working class families became fixed in their spellings.  This was because from 1870 an act of parliament brought in compulsory schooling for children, and so all children (who actually went to school) were taught to read and write in Great Britain from that point on, and so would spell their name the way they first saw it written by an adult, their school teacher, that school teacher would spell the name however they felt like spelling it unless they were aware of how the local vicar would spell it in the Parish Registers, and that particular way of spelling the name would stick going forward, more of less unchanged to the present day.

Origins of the Family

Harry Redknapp’s branch of the family are most likely descended from Redknaps who were Mercers in late Mediaeval London.  Mercers were high status traders, the word being derived in English from the Old French Mercier (ultimately derived from the Latin Merx – trade goods, the same root as Merchandise).  There were a number law disputes naming London Redknaps in various court cases over trading and trade goods, a long tradition that would carry on down through the generations, this and indeed the origins of the nickname Red-Head (Red-Cnaep) was undoubtedly a notable identifier of the Red Headed English RedKnaps  amongst the dark headed French Mercers they competed with.

It’s not hard to see where a link with trade in London turned into a link with the transportation of trade along London’s River, and Harry’s branch of the family were part of an extended family of Thames Watermen and Lightermen (Watermen rowed boats to carry people on the Thames, and Lightermen specifically rowed “Lighters” which were large flat bottomed barges) living on both banks of the Thames both on its western reaches of the “Surrey Side” and London, and on the central and Eastern regions of the “Middlesex Side” depending on the availability of work.  their work was essential to the maintenance of the passage of goods and people through London before bridges and roads of the Victorian era started to devalue them.

King’s Watermen


The Redknaps were not just any Rivermen, they were The King’s Watermen, chosen to row the Kings barge to transport him and the Royal Family along the River on State and more mundane occasions.  It is likely that this connection runs back to their days as Mercers, perhaps they were tradesmen to the nobility, and the Riverbourne line of the family that formed Harry’s line profited from the association.  They received uniforms every two years, and, as members of the Royal Household, were exempt from tax (that would surely strike a chord with Harry Redknap?).  Despite this the Thames watermen were known for the foul language and irreverence, even to the Royal Family, so much so that it was said that one of the reasons that Handel was commissioned to compose his “Water Music” for the coronation and procession on the Thames of George I was to drown out the abuse and foul language heaped on the Royals by the Watermen.  To the extent that comments that would have been treated as treasonous on land, were treated with humour on the Thames, as the watermen were incorrigible and beyond redemption.  Their language was labelled “Water Language” and was infamous in London.

The Redknaps rightly used this prestige to run a good business building boats on the Thames, transporting people as Watermen, and goods as Lightermen.  They fought hard for their rights, some times more than metaphorically, and ended up in court on one occasion for having a brawl with some land owners who took exception to them taking up passengers from their land, the cockney boatmen rolling on the bank and falling into some of the boats whilst grappling with their wealthy opponents.

Their appointment to King’s Watermen was no doubt to some extent due to them being very active professional scullers as well as professional river workers.  They raced for purses of sovereigns and silver trophies, in front of Royalty, the gentry and the common mob, and were successful,  In 1831 winning a race held by Sir Wathen Waller the King’s Surgeon, and Baroness Howe at Pope House on the Thames receiving a silver cup in the presence of the whole of the Royal Family, including King William IV.  The family raced for money from at least the 1820s till the 1860s,  several generations of Redknaps representing the watermen on Twickenham at the Thames regattas.  this would have made them local celebrities and they would have hobnobbed much as top sportsmen would in the modern age with Royalty and the well to do.  Fortunes would have ben won and lost on the strength of their backs, and the speed and length of the pull of their oars.  This was in the days before the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, when the heroes of the Thames were men who sported Cockney accents and plied the river for a living,

Watermen were a litigious lot, given the opportunities for theft of cargoes, and cheating in boat races, and for scores to be settled.  The Redknaps were variously called as witnesses for disputed boat races, attacks on them in pubs (as in one Waterman saying to a Redknap “I hear you are saying that you are going to give me a good hiding?” before punching him in the face, as character witnesses against false allegations of theft from non-licensed watermen settling scores with the Redknaps licensed men.  But the Redknaps also had their more serious run-ins with the law, Enos (aka Enoch) Redknap was indicted for employing men who were not licensed Lightermen to transport Coals on The River, although he was not found guilty, but in 1815 he and an associate, along with a another Lighterman were prosecuted for stealing coal from a delivery on The Thames, The Lighterman was found not guilty, Isaac Moore, Enos’s Associate was found guilty and transported for 7 years, whilst Enos absconded and was never captured, although it looks like he continued to live in London and the environs.

The Story continues here :

The Redknapp Family History Part 2; Blackwall Taverns, Smugglers, and Jewish Ancestry?

If you would like your own Family Tree researched, and your Family Story written up, please contact for more details.

5 Replies to “The Redknapp Family History Part 1; Origins, Redheaded Merchants on the Thames”

  1. The origin of the double P in Harry’s branch is, according to my 90 year old aunt, because Harry’s granddad William added another to make the name sound less German during the great war. Note his brother, my granddad George, retained the correct Redknap, and there were only three years between them and would supposedly been at the same school.


    1. A fascinating piece of information Gavin, the sort of thing it’s always difficult for a Genealogist to find out as these things tend to go unrecorded. Obviously this was something that did happen, goes back to Scots dropping the Mac from their name when in England after the Jacobite rebellion to sound less Scottish, and some Irish families did the same with their “Mc”s and “O'”s, when in England during the troubles in the 18th/19th/20th centuries (My family like yours had two brothers who spelled their surname differently, one as O’Neil, and the other, my lot, as McNeil). The most famous cases of changing a name to sound less german are of course the Royal Family who went from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and from Battenberg to Mountbatten.

      Bt one point, I think you have the story the wrong way around? Looking at the birth registrations, it was George who kept the one “P” and William who had all of his children registered with two “P”s. George’s first daughter Emily was born in 1914 registered as Emily Redknapp, and all the other births followed the same pattern, so I think the reason is right, but the two brothers are transposed.

      Interestingly there were always the occasional spellings with two Ps, in the 1870s and 1880s, and some of the earliest spellings were with two Ps, But the German story fits exactly with the modern general name change.


      1. None of my fathers siblings ever spelt their names with two P’s. Might be worth looking into the original documents to see if that were the case (my subscription to a genealogy site has run out so I cant do that). Ive noticed that others on that site have incorrectly spelt names with two p’s simply because they think that Redknapp is the correct spelling.

        What’s remarkable is how fixed the family name is. Since the first recorded member of the family (John Redknape, 1337) a p or an e have come in or out, but generally its been absolutely fixed.


      2. I don’t doubt that was the case Gavin, however, how the children chose to spell their names compared to what their birth certificates showed are not always the same. In this case I checked the indices for each of the births, and they were spelled with a couple “p”, so I did go back to the original records.

        You have to remember that prior to the end of the 20th century, working class people could spell their names however they liked as there were virtually no joined up paper trails for them, so there were very few cross referenceable discrepancies that would show up, so if your Uncles and Aunts chose not to use the additional P it would have made no difference to their lives. Of course nowadays, you wouldn’t be able to do anything without all the doc exactly matching up – imagine trying to open a bank account or get a passport with a birth certificate that didn’t match your utility bill or other official forms!

        The world was a lot simpler 100 years ago.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s