The Astley Connection?

Annie Astley Bell or Annie Mary Hartley?

I’m not sure where to start her but I’ve always wondered why my brothers and I, and many of the male cousins had ‘Astley’ as one of our middle names. In fact, my cousin Damien asked me the same question recently at my nephew’s wake. The answer, as they say on Facebook, is complicated. A simple account of the Astley connection was given by distant cousin John Grayling to my cousin Hamish MacLarenback in 2008. John explained how his grandfather was born Henry Bell in Accrington, the son of William Henry Bell (described as “architect and surveyor”) and his wife Priscilla Hargeaves. Henry was one of eight children, also including: Annie, William, Ralph, James, Bertha, Florence and Mabel. According to John’s mother, Henry’s parents were not well off so four of the children were brought up by a wealthy aunt Mrs Astley: these were Annie, James, Henry and Mabel.

According to John, Annie (picture above) married my grandfather Albert Birtwistle when she was still Annie Bell. As far as he knows, all four chidren bought up by their Mrs. Astley kept the name Bell on its own until his grandfather Henry and all his family took the extra Astley name in 1917. It seems Annie reflected her up-bringing by naming her second son (my grandfather) James Astley. From what I understand from a subsequent email from John to Hamish, it’s not known who ‘Aunt Astley’ was yet. At the same time, all that is known about the Bell family is that the great great grandfather “came down from Scotland”. We do know, however, that the Henry Bell  above who changed his name to Astley-Bell, married Mabel Fielding and had 3 children. He also became Guild Mayor of Preston in 1921 and ran the Preston Mills of Birtwistle & Fielding that were owned by my great grandfather Albert Birtwistle.

This all seems to make sense although there are a couple of problems with this account. Firstly, it appears that William Henry Bell married a Priscilla Hartley rather than Hargreaves and the marriage records of my great grandfather Albert Birtwistle seems to suggest that he married an Annie Mary Hartley rather than Annie Astley Bell:

Marriages at the Church of St Leonard
in the Parish of Balderstone
Marriage: 22 Sep 1881 St Leonard, Balderstone, Lancashire, England
Albert Birtwistle – Full Cotton Spinner Bachelor of Osbaldeston & Great Harwood
Annie Mary Hartley – Full Spinster of Witton (Parish of)
Groom’s Father: William Birtwistle, Cotton Spinner
Witness: James Astley; James Porter
Married by Licence by: W.Haslewood
Register: Marriages 1838 – 1900, Page 47, Entry 94
Source: PR3072/1/1

I have a theory that Annie Mary Hartley was the illegitimate daughter of Priscilla Hartley. In the 1861 census, there’s an Annie Mary Hartley aged 3 living with her Victualler grandmother Ann Hartley at the Navigation Inn in Blackburn. Anne Hartley’s daughter Priscilla is also living there unmarried aged 25.  Now maybe Annie Mary Hartley was the daughter of her uncles Ralph, John, William or even the illegitimate daughter of her aunt Mary, but it seems more likely she was the daughter of Priscilla.

According to an email to cousin Hamish from Debbie Hughes,  it seems Priscilla Hartley (b: 1836 Blackburn) married William Henry Bell (b:1828 d:1885) in 1863 Fylde, Lancs. If Priscilla was born in 1936 this would tally with her being 25 in the 1861 Census. She would have been 27 when she married William Henry Bell … and possibly 22 when Annie Mary was born.

According to Debbie, William Henry Bell and Priscilla Hartley had the following Children:

Albert William b: 1864 Blackpool
Ralph b: 05/11/1865 Accrington
James Cunliffe b:1867 Accrington
Henry* b: 1870 Accrington
Berth Ann b:1872 Accrington
Florence Sarah: b:1874 Accrington
Mabel Priscilla b: 1876 Accrington

There’s no mention of an Annie although Debbie Hughes had heard of her back when she was in contact with cousin Hammish in 2008, but didn’t know where she fitted in. I looked at Debbie Hughes’ family tree last night and she now seems to have Annie Mary Hartley as the daughter of Priscilla Hartley and unknown father, which is the same conclusion I’ve come to. I’m trying to contact Debbie to see whether she has any sources like a birth certificate or whether this is based on deduction from the census records.

What’s interesting is that Annie Mary Hartley is living with (her brother?) Henry Bell at the house of her aunt Mary (née Hartley) and her husband James Astley in the 1881 census. Perhaps this is why our great grandfather was christened James Astley. I can’t find out where Annie Mary Hartley was living in the earlier 1871 census. Her siblings William A, Ralph, James and Henry Bell were living with their parents William H. Bell and Pricilla. The sisters Bertha, Florence and Mabel Bell hadn’t been born yet.  10 years later in 1881 census there’s only Albert W (probably same person as William A in earlier census), Bertha, Florence and Mabel still living with their parents William H. Bell and Priscilla. Ralph and James are boarding at Sandringham School in North Meols District of West Lancashire, and as mentioned Annie Mary and Henry are staying with their Aunt Mary. So maybe there is some truth to John Grayling’s story about some of the Bell Children living with an Astley Aunt and my guess is that it was their aunt Mary Astley (neé Hartley) as she doesn’t appear to have children. I’m also guessing that Annie Mary Hartley was known as Annie Astley Bell to avoid questions about her illegitimacy.

Granny B (Birtwistle) aka Annie Mary Hartley and Annie Astley Bell

6 thoughts on “The Astley Connection?

  1. Annie Mary Hartley was the daughter of Priscilla Hartley. She was born on 05/01/1858 at 52 Montague Street, Blackburn. No father named on the birth certificate. Annie’s marriage certificate (to Albert Birtwistle) has no father named either. As Priscilla didn’t marry William Bell until 1863, I suspect that he was not Annie’s father. But who knows?

    1. Mandy … many thanks for the update. Annie Mary Hartley was my mother’s grandmother. She knew her as Granny B. Are you related to the Hartleys or Bells.

      Best Justin

      1. Justin

        My connection is a distant one. Ann Hartley (nee Cunliffe), Priscilla Hartley’s mother, was my 3 x great grand aunt. Ann’s sister Betty Cunliffe was my 3 x great grandmother: Betty married William Grimshaw.

        So the Hartleys, Bells and Birtwistles are distant cousins.


  2. Mandy … thanks for getting in touch and I find the whole Astley, Bell, Hartley, Cunliffe story fascinating. From what I can work out I’m not directly related to Astley and Bells, but my great grandmother Annie Mary Birtwistle (née Hartley) did probably live with her aunt Mary and her husband James Astley.

    Annie Mary’s mother Priscilla did marry William Henry Bell though, although as you point out it’s unlikely that Annie was his daughter.

    Interestingly both Priscilla and William had mother’s who were Cunliffes but not sure if anyone has joined the dots between the two families.

    My cousin Hamish seems to have traced Priscilla’s Cunliffe grandfather as being John Cunliffe born about 1781 in Oswaldtwissle, Lancashire. He has William Henry Bell’s Cunliffe Grandfather as being called Henry, but doesn’t show where he’s born.

    Just wondered if you knew more.

    Best and cheers


    1. Justin

      Priscilla Cunliffe’s grandfather (and my 4 x great grandfather) was John Cunliffe born 1781 in Oswaldtwistle. He married Priscilla Riley at Church Kirk in 1805. Priscilla died in 1858, and in 1861 widower John was living with his widowed daughter Ann Hartley in Blackburn (Navigation Inn, Eanam). Priscilla Hartley and her daughter Annie Mary were also living there.

      John Cunliffe was the son of Henry and Betty (nee Grimshaw).

      I think that William Bell’s mother Mary Cunliffe was probably the daughter of Henry Cunliife of Blackburn – whose family were possibly from Great Harwood. They may be the banking family of Blackburn.

      I don’t know if there is a link between the Church/Oswaldtwistle and Blackburn/Great Harwood families though.


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