Shelleys Down Under

Shelleys also migrated down under, more so to Australia than New Zealand. Most have settled (according to the current distribution) in New South Wales.

Shelleys Down Under Today per thousand
New South Wales 0.27
Australia (average) 0.17
New Zealand (average) 0.08

For some reason, the Shelley name has been mainly attached in New South Wales to beaches; at Manly (near Sydney) and up the coast at Port MacQuarie and at Ballina near the Queensland border.

William Shelley and His Family.  The first Shelley to emigrate to Australia was William Shelley, a missionary from Hanley in Staffordshire who arrived there in 1800. Sydney was his base for various expeditions to Tahiti. He later settled at Parramatta and persuaded the English Governor to let him to found a school for Aboriginal children there. These children were forcibly removed from their families to tutor them in the Christian virtues. In time, the families demanded their children back and the school closed. This Aboriginal policy was pursued off-and-on by the Australian Government for another hundred years, but has been discredited. Shelley's mistake is what the text books call it now.

His first son William was born in Tahiti but died relatively young. His two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, both married but both suffered misfortunes. Mary married George Oakes who became a successful businessman (until he was run over by a street tram in Sydney). Elizabeth married the Rev. Daniel Draper. They were onboard the London which went down in 1866 in the Bay of Biscay. She and her husband, according to one of the survivors, led the prayer readings for the doomed passengers.

Two of the younger sons, George and Rowland, became pioneer ranchers in the Tumut region along the upper Murray river. Rowland, it appears, was a bit of a land-grabber. And perhaps a bit of a braggart as well (he claimed he was a direct relative of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Other Shelleys in Australia.  The next Shelley to appear in Australian records was a John Darley Shelley, described as a newcomer to the country and a gentleman.  In 1829, he was bound over for violent conduct against the Governor General on the steps of St. James's Church in Sydney.  He could have escaped with a fine.  But he was unable to raise the £300 surety and was sent to Darlinghurst jail.  There was much tut-tutting in the local press of "a person of respectable condition being committed to the common jail for the want of sureties."

Other Shelley sightings in Australia prior to 1860 are sparse, a few convicts here and a few settlers there. Joseph Shelley was transported from England on the Hebe in 1820. He secured his release in 1834. William Shelley, who migrated in 1839, settled in Goulbourn, NSW.

The thirty years after 1860 were the years of Australia’s “Long Boom” and represented a big growth in immigration. Many of the Shelleys in Australia date from these times. And most of these Shelley immigrants headed for New South Wales.

In the early 1900's, the Shelley name in Sydney became synonomous with lemonade and ginger beer.  This business was actually started by an Irish immigrant John Sheehy who had changed his name to Shelley.   Although the family sold out their business in the 1960's, some of their descendants have remained active in  bottling, this time with mountain-fresh spring water.


Consider now a twentieth century tale. It relates not to Australia, but to Malaya at the fag-end of Empire; and to two sons of that colonial era, Rex Shelley (born in 1930) and David Shelley (born in 1933). David was of English stock, Rex of that small mixed race Eurasian community of English fathers and local mothers. Both were youngsters in Singapore in 1942 when the Japanese invaded. David got out on one of the last ships to leave the colony; Rex did not.

David's subsequent life in the UK was apparently happy and settled. He studied dentistry at Guy's Hospital and established a practice in Cornwall. With his bushy beard, tendency to mumble and wicked sense of humor, he soon acquired the status of "a character." Throughout his life he maintained his love of fishing, sailing and old wooden boats. Invariably, all boating activity was concluded with a pint and a yarn at the Fisherman's Arms.

The Japanese occupation and the subsequent struggles for independence marked Rex's life. He studied as an engineer and then worked for a trading company. His Eurasian background gave him a singular perspective on life and culture in Singapore. This included a strong ear for the vernacular. In his sixties, he wrote a witty guide, Sounds and Sins in Singlish, and embarked on a career as a novelist. His novels re-create that time of his youth. In these books, a sense grows of being part of a community in which people have complex and known pasts, are related to each other, and act upon each other in subtle ways.