Select Riley Miscellany

Here are some Riley stories and accounts over the years:

Rileys in Lancashire in the 1881 Census

The following were the main towns and parishes in Lancashire with the largest number of Rileys in the 1881 census.  The main concentration at that time was in east Lancashire.

East Lancashire





Major Urban Areas


West Lancashire

Some Rileys in Accrington in the 19th Century

The directory of 1818 gave the name of James Riley, a calico printer at Broad Oak.  He went on to reside at one of the houses at Breg Hebble on his marriage.  He died there at the ripe old age of ninety years, having brought up a family of six sons and three daughters.  He always wore a silk hat and tail coat.

James set up a timber yard and five of his sons were to work there (his eldest becoming a schoolmaster).  James’s youngest son Joseph was a born musician and nothing pleased him better than to visit some neighbor’s house where he would entertain them on a piano or harmonium.  His very soul was in the music that he played.  “His music now is silent” was an appropriate epitaph on his memorial card.

The Riley Motor Car

Riley's founder William Riley had remained resolutely opposed to diverting the resources of his bicycle business into motor cars.  So in 1903 three of his sons pooled resources, borrowed a necessary balancing amount from their mother, and established a separate Riley Engine Company in Coventry.  They successfully produced engines for several years before coming out with their first Riley motor car in 1913.

Riley motorcar sales grew rapidly in the inter-war period.  The Riley Engine Company produced 4-, 6-, and 8-cylinder engines, while the Riley coachbuilders constructed more than a dozen different bodies.  Riley models at this time included:

  • Saloons: Adelphi, 'Continental' (Close-coupled Touring Saloon), Deauville, Falcon, Kestrel, Mentone, Merlin, Monaco, Stelvio, Victor
  • Coupes: Ascot, Lincock  
  • Tourers: Alpine, Lynx, Gamecock
  • Sports: Brooklands, Imp, MPH, Sprite
  • Limousines: Edinburgh, Winchester.
Their sports cars became popular for racing at Brooklands in England and le Mans in France.

By about 1936, however, the business had become overextended, with too many models and too few common parts, with the Coventry factory having become outdated.  Riley was then rescued and taken over by William Morris and became part of the Nuffield Group. 
Although production subsequently moved away from the Midlands, the Riley name and its motto (as old as the industry, as modern as the hour) survived until 1969.

The Riley-Bolten House in Maryland

The Riley-Bolten House, known locally as Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a historic home located at North Bethesda, Maryland.  
Isaac Riley was an early owner of the house, the center of his 3,700 acre plantation.  He married there in 1818 to Matilda Middleton while he was acting as a guardian to Matilda's younger brother.  Isaac was 44 at the time and Matilda 18.

In 1795 he had acquired a six-year old slave named Josiah Henson
on whom, over the years, he came to rely.  In 1825 Riley fell onto economic hardship and was being sued by his brother-in-law.  In desperation he begged Henson to help him out and Henson agreed and did so.  

Afterwards Henson tried to buy his freedom.  
 He offered his master $350 which he had saved up and a note promising a further $100.  Riley, however, added an extra zero to the paper and changed the fee to $1,000. Cheated of his money, Henson fled to Kentucky and then escaped to Canada after learning that he might be sold.  

Henson’s autobiography,
 The Life of Josiah Henson Formerly a Slave, was the model for Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Life of Riley

The term “life of Riley,” meaning living a life of luxury, was American in origin and probably dated back to the early 1900’s. 

The phrase cropped up as “life of Reilly” in the military during World War One.  In a letter from Sergeant Monzert of the American Expeditionary Forces 'somewhere in France,' an extract of which was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 26, 1918, he wrote that he and his pals were 'living the life of Reilly.'  

Theories exist as to its origin, for example from James Whitcomb Riley’s poems in the 1880s depicting the comforts of a prosperous home life.  But the Irish connection does appear the more probable.  After the Reilly clan had consolidated their hold on county Cavan in Ireland, they started to mint their own money.  Their coins, called "O'Reillys" and "Reillys," became synonymous with a monied person.  A gentleman freely spending was therefore "living on his Reillys."  

The phrase gained national significance with The Life of Riley, a radio sitcom of the 1940’s starring William Bendix which later became a long-running TV series in the 1950’s.  The initial script cast Bendix as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California.  His frequent exclamation of indignation - "What a revoltin' development this is!" - became one of the famous catchphrases of the 1940’s.


John Riley in Australia

John Riley’s grasp on the Riley surname was tenuous at best.  His mother Susannah Nairn had married Edward Reilly in London in 1784 (she had marked her name with an “x” on the wedding certificate) and they had had one son together, Thomas Riley, born around 1788.

Three years later Susannah was caught and subsequently accused and convicted of stealing ten muslin handkerchiefs.  She was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.  By this time husband Edward and son Thomas would seem to have disappeared from her life.

She departed to Australia on the Kitty in April 1792.  Whilst on board it was recorded that Susannah was delivered of a son during the journey.  In fact John Riley was born on the ship in Sydney harbor in November 1792 as the convicts were waiting to disembark.  Who the father was is not known.  It was clearly not Edward Riley and may instead have been one of the inmates at Newgate jail where she had been imprisoned.  But Susannah continued to use the Riley name and was so listed in the convict muster of 1806.

In 1793 Susannah had in fact married another man, a fellow convict Robert Wells who thus became John’s stepfather, and they made their home in the Parramatta district.  Was this a marriage of convenience?  When she died in 1814 Robert soon took up with another woman.

In comparison with Susannah’s turmoil, her son John Riley went on to have a rather stable life in Australia.  He married Catherine Lattimore in 1814 and they raised six children. 

Their eldest son John took up with a woman named Catherine Becket around 1840 and lived with her for the next forty five years.  They apparently never married, although they may have had as many as fifteen children.

James Riley Stabbed on Stage in Melbourne

James C. Campbell was the stage name of James Riley.  He had an unfortunate stabbing while onstage in September 1859.  Bell’s Life in Victoria reported as follows:

"A singular accident occurred on Monday night.  The piece being played was The Flowers of the Forest.  In one of the scenes Cynthia, a gypsy girl, played by Miss O’Reilly, had a struggle with the wolf, Mr. J. C. Campbell, the latter trying to wrest a poinard from her grasp.  In the encounter Mr. Campbell was severely wounded on the left thigh.

It is almost impossible to say how the accident occurred and even those persons sitting in the front seats did not observe that any wound had been inflicted until their attention was drawn to it by the cries of the wounded man.  Several of the spectators from the front seats then rushed on the stage and found that Mr. Campbell had fainted.

An examination at once showed that he had been stabbed slightly below the left groin.  Dr. Dempster was sent for and his examination of the wound proved that though the knife had penetrated to the femoral artery, it had glanced off without severing it. 

Miss O’Reilly who had been expressibly shocked by this most untoward accident was, with the rest of the performers, very assiduous in her attentions to the wounded man.”

Miss Kate O’Reilly is thought to have been related to J.C. Campbell aka James Riley, being either a sister or a cousin

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