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Arthur Shirley (1886–1967)

by Marilyn Dooley

This article was published:

Arthur Shirley (1886-1967), actor and film producer, was born on 31 August 1886 in Hobart and registered as Henry Raymond, eighth of thirteen children of Henry Shirley, civil servant, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Morton. He was baptized Arthur, educated at a Catholic school, and employed with George Adams's Tattersall's lottery and then as a junior solicitor's clerk. Stage-struck, he went to Melbourne, haunted managements and in 1905 secured a three-line part in Sweet Nell of Old Drury with Nellie Stewart. He toured with William Anderson's company, appeared in 'Bland' Holt's melodramas in 1907 and played with Lilian Meyers at the Theatre Royal, Hobart, where he was variously billed as 'H.', 'R.', or 'A.' Shirley. After touring the backblocks (1909-10), he worked in 1911-13 with the companies of George Marlow, Beaumont Smith and George Willoughby. At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, on 22 December 1913 he married Ellen Newcomb Hall, a singer from New Zealand; they had a son before separating in 1920 and eventually being divorced in 1940.

Unable to pay a debt of almost £23, Shirley had been declared bankrupt in December 1913. Next year he was involved in litigation with Willoughby. He won romantic leads in two silent feature films, as Dr Henry Everard in The Silence of Dean Maitland (directed by Raymond Longford) and in the title role in Cosens Spencer's The Shepherd of the Southern Cross. Both films opened on 13 June 1914. The former was a success, the latter a failure. Leaving in June with his wife for the United States of America, Shirley was contracted to Hollywood's Kalem and Universal companies. He was 'over six feet [183 cm] tall, blue-eyed and handsome', with 'matinée-idol looks'. His films included a melodramatic, two-reel western, One Man's Evil (1915), Bawb O' Blue Ridge (1916), The Fall of a Nation (1916)—in which he played a soldier—and Branding Broadway (1918) with William S. Hart.

Shirley settled in Sydney in April 1920 with grandiose plans for his own company, including an American production team and 'full equipment such as lights, cameras, printing machine and laboratory outfit'. He styled himself 'the Big Australian' and set up a film studio in a property at Rose Bay. Under the slogan 'Moving Pictures Made in Australia for the World', he began to produce an ill-fated feature, 'The Throwback', which was beset by financial problems. Following court action against his cinematographer Ernest Higgins, Shirley was unable to pay costs and was declared bankrupt in 1925. He attributed his insolvency to Higgins's 'hatred, spleen and malice'. The film was never completed.

Returning to the stage as Steve Gunn in The Sentimental Bloke (January 1923), Shirley gained financial backing from Pyramid Pictures Pty Ltd, a Melbourne syndicate, for another foray into film-making. His best-remembered and best-regarded cinematic effort was a remake of a popular stage melodrama, based on the detective novel by Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Melbourne, 1886). Playing the chief suspect Brian Fitzgerald, Shirley also directed, produced and wrote the screenplay. The commercial success of the film, released in 1925, enabled him to write, produce and direct another feature, The Sealed Room (1926), in which he again took the lead.

In 1927-30 Shirley was based in London. Failing to gain releases for his films in Britain, he tried in 1928 to establish a new production company in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). From 1930 he spent four years at Hollywood. Conveniently believing that his wife was dead (although he had been sued for maintenance in London in 1929), he married Frances Clayton at Hollywood in 1934; her previous marriage had been annulled. He returned alone to Sydney that year. His plans to make more films came to nothing. In 1940 he adopted a son, who supported him. Three years later, standing as an Independent, Shirley unsuccessfully contested East Sydney, Eddie Ward's seat in the House of Representatives.

By 1965 Shirley's main interest lay in archaeology and ancient Egypt. Survived by his adopted son, he died on 24 November 1967 at his Rose Bay home and was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • G. Shirley and B. Adams, Australian Cinema (Syd, 1983)
  • Theatre (Sydney, Melbourne), 2 Aug 1909, 1 Sept, 1 Oct, 1 Nov 1911, 1 Jan, 1 Feb 1913, 1 Mar 1915, 1 Feb, 1 Nov 1916, 1 Oct 1918, 1 Apr, 1 Sept 1919, 1 June 1920, 1 Dec 1921, 2 Aug 1926
  • Motion Picture News (New York), 22 May, 7, 14 Aug 1915
  • Picture Show, 1 May, 1 July 1920, 1 Jan, 1 June, 1 Mar, 1 Dec 1921, 1 Feb 1922
  • Everyone's, 4 Feb 1925, 26 Jan, 2 Feb 1927
  • Film Weekly, 14 Oct 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Feb, 2 July 1925, 27 July 1928, 14 Nov 1929, 5 Nov 1935, 19 Feb 1936, 4, 6 Sept 1937, 14 May 1941
  • bankruptcy files, nos 19775 (1913) and 24837 (1925) (State Records New South Wales)
  • film and stills collections (National Film and Sound Archive).

Citation details

Marilyn Dooley, 'Shirley, Arthur (1886–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Shirley, Henry Raymond

31 August, 1886
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


24 November, 1967 (aged 81)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.