Select Riley Genealogy

The Riley name has both English and Irish origins.

In England the surname is locational, from the hamlet of Ryley at Altham near Accrington in Lancashire.  The name derived from the Old English rygh leah meaning “rye clearance.”

In Ireland the O'Raghailligh sept was the most powerful sept of the old Gaelic kingdom of Breffny in present-day Cavan and surrounding counties.  O'Raghailligh became O’Reilly and Reilly in Ireland.  But Reilly on its travels, in particular to America, often became Riley

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EnglandLancashire was the origin of the Riley name in England and Lancashire accounted for almost 40% of the Rileys in England in the 1881 census.

LancashireIn the 1881 census the Riley name was still mainly concentrated in towns and villages in east Lancashire along the Calder river and Ribble valley.  An early spelling was Ryley:
  • Richard Ryley was born in Whalley in 1597 and died there in 1637 (the spelling, however, was Riley for the Rev. Thomas Riley, a Whalley minister who died in 1631).  
  • while William Ryley, a Lancaster herald who lived around this time, was thought to have come from the Accrington area.  His son John, born in London, was a Court portrait painter in the later 1600’s.  His spelling varied between Ryley and Riley.
In the parish registers of Newchurch in Rossendale, the Riley name was almost uniformly spelt Rilay until the mid-1700’s.

The earliest Riley references were in Accrington.  A Riley family settled at Fearnihalgh, later Hillock Farm, in the early 15th century and it became one of Accrington’s most important farms.  High Riley Cottages, built in the 1600’s, was an early landmark of what was then still a farming community.  When cotton mills arrived in the 19th century, Rileys remained prominent in Accrington.  John Riley was a Justice of the Peace in the 1890’s and made his home at Arden Hall.  Edmund Riley, once a fishmonger, built the Post Office Arcade in the town in 1896.

“The Post Office Arcade, a covered walkway comprising 17 premises, was one of the first shopping arcades in the country.  However, the venture was not a commercial success as the shops proved difficult to let.”

Burnley-based Riley Brothers, a family-run haulage business established in 1906, went bankrupt in 2016.

There was a Riley outpost in west Lancashire, in Fylde parish near present-day Blackpool.  John Riley married Margaret Hesketh in Poulton le Fylde around the year 1710.  Rileys from nearby villages at Freckleton and Kirkham were to be found from the mid-1700's. 

Meanwhile Rileys in Liverpool and Manchester included Irish Reillys.  There
were more than 200 Rileys in the 1851 Liverpool census who gave Ireland as their country of birth.  James Reilly was born in Liverpool of Irish parents in 1825 but as James Riley married Hannah Wovenden in Manchester in 1851.  He was by trade a cabinet maker.

Elsewhere.  Rileys extended across the Pennines into Yorkshire and southward to Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire.

Rileys were present at the Riley House Farm in Eyam, Derbyshire from the 17th century and possibly earlier.  They later spread to the Derby area.  The Eyam population was largely wiped out by plague in 1665 and the area is now most noted for its Riley graves.

Rileys appeared in a court case in Stoke near Coventry, Warwickshire in 1516.  In the home of William Riley, John Riley was hit by clay being thrown from a tile house and died of his injuries.

There were also Rileys at Foleshill nearby.  William Riley was a butcher there in the early 1800’s and later Rileys were weavers.  William Riley of the next generation was an early cycle manufacturer in the 1890’s.  His four sons – Percy, Victor, Stanley, and Allan – introduced the first Riley motor car in 1913.

Ireland.  Reilly (or O'Reilly) is the 10th most common surname in Ireland.  But the variant spelling Riley is rarely to be found there.  There were only 15 Rileys in Griffith's Valuation of the mid-19th century and fewer than 200 in Ireland today.    

America. Most Rileys in America are probably of Irish origin.  They may have been Reilly in Ireland.  But shipping records suggest that 30-40% of the Reillys that came to America adopted the Riley name, either because they chose that spelling or that was what the immigration officer wrote down.  The expression "Life of Riley" probably came out of the Irish American community.

Rileys in Maryland.  The Riley presence from Ireland started early here.

At the age of 20 Maolmordha Reilly from county Cavan departed London on the Bonaventure and landed as Miles Riley in Viirginia.  He received land grants in Rapahannock county.  His family story and descendant lines were recounted in Robert Riley's 1999 book The Colonial Riley Families.  

It was his son Hugh Riley who established the family presence in Maryland.   He was a carpenter by trade, also a farmer and land surveyor.  Over the years he acquired the skills and funding necessary to become a successful land speculator. 
  • one line via his son Hugh led in Maryland to Isaac Riley, a plantation owner in Montgomery county.  Among his slaves in the Riley-Bolten House (as it is now called) was Josiah Henson.  He was mistreated and ran away to Canada in 1830.  Josiah's autobiography served as a model for Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 
  • another line via his son Solomon led to the Carolinas and later Alabama.   This line was covered in L. Colson's 1985 book Riley Family History.
  • and a third line via his son Eliphaz led to Samuel Riley who fought in the Revolutionary War.  Afterwards he became an Indian trader and agent in Tennessee and was adopted as a chieftain of the Cherokee tribe.
Other Rileys of this family migrated to Kentucky and southern Indiana.

Bennet Reiley, of unknown origin, was married to Susanna Drury in St. Mary's county, Maryland in 1784 (the name was generally spelt Reilly and Riley during his lifetime).  His son Bennet, born three years later, adopted the Riley spelling. This Bennet joined the US army at the time of the War of 1812, fought in the war against Mexico, and then headed west, serving as the military Governor of California in 1849.  

German Rileys.  James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet of Indiana in the 1890’s, was probably of German origin.  Family tradition held that his great grandfather James had come to Pennsylvania from county Cork in Ireland.  However, this James, it appears, had been born in Pennsylvania, in 1765, and was the son of German immigrants Paul and Louise Reylandt.  Riley descendants moved from Pennsylvania to Indiana in the 1820’s.

Later Arrivals.  Many Reillys continued to take the Riley name on arrival in America.  Those who did in the mid-19th century included:
  • Edward and Catherine Riley from county Cavan who arrived in 1840 and farmed in upstate New York.  Their son Patrick was a pioneer of Custer county in Nebraska, arriving there in 1878.
  • Martin and Ellen Riley from Dublin who came in 1847 and settled in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.  Martin was a coppersmith by trade.  Their son Matthew prospered as a lawyer in Bessemer, Michigan. 
  • while Hugh and Ellen Riley left Ireland for Brooklyn, NY in 1853.  Their son P.F. Riley headed West and struck lucky as a silver miner in Montana.  
Some English Rileys did make it to America.  Jim Riley’s family had originally hailed from Warwickshire.  His father was a cotton merchant in Manchester when Jim was born.  Jim emigrated to San Francisco in 1876.  It was said that his ship sank in San Francisco harbor and that he lost all of his family silver he had brought with him.  Silver-less he did marry and settle down there.

Australia and New Zealand
.  The first Riley in Australia may well have been John Riley, born on the convict ship Kitty in November 1792 in Sydney harbor.

Alexander Riley, descended from Irish Reillys in county Cavan, had departed London for Sydney in 1803.  For a while he prospered there as a merchant and he did successfully introduce Saxon merino sheep into NSW in 1830.  But he died just three years later in London.

Other Irish Rileys, this time from Manchester – brothers Patrick, William and James - departed for Melbourne in 1851.  Patrick became a well-to-do land agent, but died at an early age in 1858.  James pursued a career in the theater under the stage name of James C. Campbell.  In 1859 James Riley aka James C. Campbell was accidentally stabbed during a performance.

Arthur Riley departed Accrington in Lancashire for Melbourne in 1881, married there, and then settled in Wellington, New Zealand four years later.  He established there a very successful design school

Select Riley Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Riley Names

John Riley was an English portrait painter at Court in the late 1600's. 
Bennet Riley was the military Governor of California in 1849.
James Whitcomb Riley
became known in America in the 1890's as the Hoosier poet.
William Riley
and his sons developed the Riley motor car that was popular in England in the 1920's and 1930's. 

Select Rileys Today
  • 41,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 48,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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