Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Shirley (1849–1922)

by E. N. Marks

This article was published:

John Shirley (1849-1922), educationist and scientist, was born on 11 August 1849 at Dorchester, England, son of John Shirley, sergeant in the Grenadier Guards, and his wife Una, née Reynolds. Educated at St Werburgh's School, Derby, he trained as a pupil-teacher in the Curzon-street National School, Derby, and at the Saltley Training College, Birmingham, until 1869. In 1870-77 he taught at Bishop Ryder's Boys' School, Birmingham, meanwhile graduating B.Sc. from the University of London.

One of a band of British teachers recruited by the Queensland Department of Public Instruction as capable of training local teachers, Shirley and his wife Emily, née Day, whom he had married at Birmingham on 11 July 1874, arrived in Brisbane on 20 May 1878. On 1 June he became head teacher of the Roma State School, then district inspector west of Maryborough on 1 January 1879 and senior inspector in 1909. In 1914 Shirley was appointed first principal of the Teachers' Training College, Brisbane. For many years he edited the Education Office Gazette and, for eighteen years, lectured in botany, physiology and geology at the Pharmacy College.

His success as an inspector was helped by his personal charm, cheerfulness and tact. From 1879 he annually undertook 'between 4000 and 5000 miles (6500-8000 km) of riding', allowing 'full opportunity for the study of natural sciences'. His work in the northern district comprised 'two-thirds of Queensland, from Gladstone to the Gulf'; he then covered the south-western district from the Darling Downs to Cunnamulla and later the Moreton district with a break, in 1900-04, at head office. A recurrent theme of Shirley's annual reports urged the development in children of 'wondering at nature' and their powers of observation. He considered 'habits of neatness, politeness and cleanliness' more important 'than the imparting of facts'. In 1897 he spent a week compiling a drill book.

Shirley was secretary in 1904 of an educational conference at which a new primary-school syllabus was planned; it included the new subject, nature knowledge. After it came into force in 1905 he found that in some country schools 'it was possible for pupils, teacher and inspector to make a short excursion during dinner hour to a scrub or running creek or road cutting'.

From 1886 Shirley served for thirty-three years on the council of the Royal Society of Queensland; he was twice president and active in its field naturalists' section. In 1898 the premier asked the society to compile a Queensland catalogue of scientific literature for the Royal Society of London's international catalogue of scientific literature committee. For twelve months Shirley spent most of his leisure time compiling the record. The chairman of the catalogue committee described it as 'a most admirable piece of work' and asked for 100 copies. Shirley was general secretary of the 1895 meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and local secretary for many years.

He helped to found the Field Naturalists' Club in 1906 and was its president in 1908. Taking part in its longer excursions, he was especially fond of the rainforests on Tamborine Mountain and in Lamington National Park. Shirley published lists of plants and land shells from the park. His special interests were lichens and Mollusca. In 1886-88 he assiduously collected lichen flora, had new species described by specialists and supplemented them by exchange. His most important publication was The Lichen Flora of Queensland (1890), most of it having been first published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland.

Awarded a D.Sc. by the University of Sydney in 1912, Shirley was appointed honorary conchologist to the Queensland Museum that year. He spent Saturday afternoons and holidays creating order in the collection, but resigned in 1914, frustrated by the absence of authoritative literature. After he was appointed salaried conchologist in 1920, he revised and rearranged the collection until his retrenchment in 1921. His published lists of Mollusca described few species. His own collection was donated to the museum in 1973.

Still agile at 70, Shirley was an imposing figure, six feet (183 cm) tall, well-built and handsome, with a 'Dresden China' complexion, thick curly hair and a moustache. He was an able speaker and versatile writer, a well-liked and highly respected man. Acacia shirleyi and Eucalyptus shirleyi were named after him. He died in Brisbane on 5 April 1922, and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife, three daughters and one son survived him; another son was killed at Gallipoli.

Select Bibliography

  • Reports of the Secretary for Public Instruction, Votes and Proceedings and Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1879-99, 1904-13
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, 15, 1900, p i, 31, 1920, p 21, 34, 1922, p I
  • E. N. Marks, 'A History of the Queensland Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of Queensland from 1859 to 1911', Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, 71, 1959 (1960), p 17
  • Queensland Naturalist, 3, 1922, p 87, 18, 1968, p 92
  • E. N. Marks, ‘Seventy-five years of natural history’, Queensland Naturalist, 24, 1983, p 6
  • Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, 24, 1986, p 1
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 5 Apr 1922
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Apr 1922
  • Queenslander, 15 Apr 1922
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library).

Citation details

E. N. Marks, 'Shirley, John (1849–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 August, 1849
Dorchester, Dorset, England


5 April, 1922 (aged 72)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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