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William James Shelley (1774–1815)

by Niel Gunson

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William Shelley (1774-1815), missionary and trader, was born on 29 May 1774 at Hanley, Staffordshire, England, where his family had long been associated with the local potteries. He was apprenticed to a cabinet maker at Leek, joined the Congregational Church in 1794 and volunteered as an artisan missionary to the (London) Missionary Society. He was one of the party which sailed in the Duff in 1796 with Rev. James Cover and was a member of the original mission to Tonga. When the Tongans killed three missionaries in 1799 he escaped and next year went to Sydney in the Betsy, in company with the Anna Josepha, navigated by Rev. John Harris. Shelley took up his residence with Rowland Hassall at Parramatta, commenced his own trade, and helped in the religious work of the settlement.

In March 1801 he left for England in the Royal Admiral in the hope of reopening the Tongan mission, but after arriving at Tahiti decided to join the mission there. He returned to Sydney to marry Elizabeth Bean, daughter of a free settler, which he did on 7 October and returned to Tahiti next month. While in the colony he impressed Samuel Marsden with the dangers to the mission of establishing a government colony at Tahiti and proposed that the pork trade should be conducted by the Missionary Society. Shelley was deeply impressed with the need of a ship to support the mission by trade and, being dissatisfied with the organization of the mission, determined to work independently. He returned to Sydney in the Lucy in April 1806, taking with him about forty gallons (182 litres) of rum made secretly at the mission still to use for barter. Soon he entered into a commercial arrangement with John Macarthur and Garnham Blaxcell, and engaged as supercargo in the Elizabeth, which had been bought to open trade in sandalwood with Fiji. However, Shelley sailed to Tahiti in the Harrington in January 1807. There he built the Halcyon, which he sent to Sydney with a cargo of pork, and in May he joined the Elizabeth, returning to Sydney in June and again in November, estimating that his own share was upwards of £1000. Convinced that a trading ship was essential if the mission was to prosper, and with plans to reopen the Tongan mission, he sailed for London in the Albion in November 1808, but he could not convince the directors that he was right, even though he had the help of Marsden, who was then in England.

Early in 1810 Shelley returned to New South Wales and next year opened a general store in York Street, Sydney. In August 1812 he was granted 400 acres (162 ha) at Cabramatta and a town lease at Cockle Bay, but early in 1813 he closed his business and sailed from Sydney in May as master of the Queen Charlotte. In the Tuamotus the ship was seized by Raiatean pearl divers, three men were murdered and Shelley narrowly escaped with his life. He recovered the ship at Tahiti and returned to Sydney in February 1814 with a large cargo of shells and 'as large a quantity of pearls as has ever yet been procured by a single vessel'. It was probably during this voyage that Shelley left a European artisan at Tongatapu preparatory to reopening the mission there.

Resettling at Parramatta, Shelley conducted Congregational services in his house and commenced work among Aboriginal people. He attempted to learn Aboriginal language, took some children into his own family and addressed Governor Lachlan Macquarie on 'the practicability of civilizing' them. He was invited to draw up plans and in December was appointed superintendent and principal instructor of the Native Institution at Parramatta, the first of its kind in the colony. However, after establishing the school, he died on 6 July 1815.

According to Marsden, with whom he was on intimate terms, Shelley was a man 'of very comprehensive mind'. Macarthur described him as 'respectable and intelligent'. Captain House found him an over 'busy' person, whilst to William Pascoe Crook, he was 'bustling and active', with his heart 'set on this world'. Macquarie described him as well qualified and a 'Moral, Well Meaning Man'.

Mrs Shelley continued the work of the institution, but despite Macquarie's interest it met with little success and was closed in 1826. Shelley's plans to reopen the Tongan mission were also abandoned, but later Mrs Shelley persuaded Rev. Walter Lawry to reopen it. She died on 20 September 1878. Two of their sons, William (1803-1845) and George (1812-1852), were among the pioneers of the Tumut district, taking their herds beyond the Nineteen Counties in 1829.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 6
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7-8, 10
  • G. L. Lockley, An Estimate of the Contribution Made in New South Wales by Missionaries of the LMS … Between 1798 and 1825 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1949)
  • Edward Robarts, Memoirs, 1824 (National Library of Scotland, microfilm copy (mfm M400), at National Library of Australia)
  • manuscript catalogue under William Shelley (State Library of New South Wales)
  • W. House, Transactions on Board of the Former Colonial Brig Norfolk at Otaheita 1801-02 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Shelley, William James (1774–1815)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Shelly, William James

29 May, 1774
Hanley, Staffordshire, England


6 July, 1815 (aged 41)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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