Washington Shirley was born on May 26, 1722, the second son of Lawrence Shirley (died 1743) and Anne Clarges Shirley, fourth daughter of Sir Walter Clarges, of Alton, in the county of Hertford.
He entered the navy and passed through the ranks of midshipman.
Washington passed exams and was assigned to the Deptford of 60 guns and patrolled off Ushant.
He was made a second lieutenant.
He commanded the Hawk, an 8-gun sloop of war.
He was promoted to first lieutenant.
He was promoted with the highest credit and reputation to post captain aboard the newly commissioned frigate Fox of 28 guns, a 6th Rate, that cruised the coast.
Washington commanded the Dover of 44 guns.
He escorted the Gibraltar regiments (the 29th and 56th Regiments of Foot) to Louisbourg.
Shirley captured the French frigate la Renommée of 30 guns after a fierce engagement. For two weeks he towed the demasted frigate to Plymouth.
He captured, after a three hour battle, the privateer Jean Frederic of 22 guns from St. Malo.
Washington took command of the accommodation sloop Swift of 8 guns until his frigate Renown (la Renommée capture) was readied for sea.
He married Anne Elliot at St George’s, East Stonehouse, Devon, England. She was born in 1723 to John Elliott, Esq. of Plymouth, Devon.
Washington took command of the Renown. His younger brother Thomas Shirley, served aboard as a midshipman.
He sailed for the Leeward Islands.
He was at the Port Royal station in Jamaica.
He was transferred to the Viper of 14 guns by Admiral Townsend of Port Royal, switching commands with Capt. Smelt going to the Renown.
The admiralty reassigned Shirley back to the Renown.
He departed on the Renown from Port Royal, Jamaica.
The Renown arrived in Spithead, England and the ship’s crew was paid off.
The Renown was surveyed at Plymouth and put into ordinary on the Hamoaze.
He was appointed to the Mermaid, a 24-gun frigate, a 6th rate and newly recommissioned.
He remained on the Mermaid the entire year.
He was in Boston aboard the Mermaid and posted an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette:
“Whereas his Majesty’s ship Mermaid, under my Command, is intended for a Convoy for the several Vessels on this Expedition, and it is generally imagined that she may be of great Service, if I can get Seamen sufficient to man her. These are to give Notice to all those brave Seamen that are willing to serve his Majesty King George, on board the said Ship for the Time of the expedition, that they will repair on Board her, or to my House in Hanover Street, that they will meet with the best Treatment, enter into immediate Pay, receive all fitting Encouragement, and, if they demand it, be discharged at the End of the Expedition. Given under my Hand at Boston, the 31st March 1755. Washington Shirley”
Having manned his ship, he left Boston and joined the expedition under Vice-Admiral Boscawen against the French and Acadians, taking part in the Battle of Beauséjour.
He sailed the Mermaid with the Success of 24 guns and Siren of 24 guns to St. John’s Harbor to attack a French fort which the French burnt and abandoned as they retreated upriver.
He arrived in New York transporting personnel.
Shirley was assigned to convoy the transports removing the Acadians from Nova Scotia to Connecticut.
After the transports did not show up he sailed the Mermaid from Annapolis Royal.
He arrived in Boston along with the sloop Hornet of 14 guns.
Washington arrived in Boston from Nova Scotia.
He departed with Massachusetts Colony Governor Shirley, a relative, for England and fired a 15 gun salute to Castle William in Boston harbor. The Mermaid sailed with Shirley’s newly-built schooner Nautilus as a tender.
He returned to England and was transferred to the Monmouth of 70 guns.
He engaged the French ship Temple in the Caribbean bound for Martinique and captured it. It contained two statues, St. John the Divine and St. John the Baptist, that he gave to St. John’s Cathedral in Antigua.
Shirley captained the 3rd rate, Duc D’Aquitain of 64 guns, formerly a French East India ship and now part of Anson’s Fleet.
He was commissioned to captain the newly launched 3rd Rate, Temple of 70 guns, a 3rd rate under Admiral Hawke’s Channel fleet.
He fought in the Battle of Quiberon Bay which defeated a French invasion fleet. Shirley distinguished himself on this occasion in a very conspicuous manner.
He attended the murder trial of his brother, Lawrence, the Fourth Earl Ferrers. Lawrence Shirley killed his land steward with a pistol. Washington Shirley, as a witness for his brother, tried to prove his innocence due to a family history of insanity. The House of Lords found Lawrence guilty after a much publicized trial.
He succeeded his brother’s title as the Fifth Earl Ferrers with his wife Anne becoming a countess.
His brother was hanged, anatomized, and the body displayed to the public. He was the last nobleman executed in England.
Washington Shirley took a seat in the House of Lords as the 5th Earl Ferrers and moved into the family manor at Staunton Harold, Leichestershire, England.
He made accurate observations on the transit of Venus across the sun.
Shirley was made a deputy lieutenant of the County of Staffordshire, England.
He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society as recognition of his observations on the transit of Venus and for other mathematical investigations.
He was made Grand Master of England of the Freemasons.
By a patent of letters, King George III granted him the family estates which had been forfeited by his brother as a felon.
Planned by the famed American colonial architect Peter Harrison, Shirley began extensive alterations to the Staunton Harold manor.
Shirley’s earlier capture of a French ship that held rare birds taken from Guayana, South America and taken back to England for study, was credited to him in the third volume of George Edwards’ Gleanings of Natural History. Edwards also named one of the birds in honor of the captain.
Shirley’s friend and fellow freemason, the famous Chevalier D’Eon, stayed at the manor while fearing being kidnapped by other freemasons who resented D’Eon over becoming the junior warden of his lodge and over the ambiguity of his sex. He also loaned money to Shirley to remodel the Staunton Harold manor.
Parliament confirmed for Washington to reside at Staunton Harold and take over the family estates.
He began selling off other estates to finance his rebuilding of Staunton Harold.
He was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the White.
He was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Blue.
He was made Vice-Admiral of the White.
Washington died at Chartley Manor Place, Staffordshire, England, the ancient home of the Ferrers family
He was buried at Staunton Harold.
Washington’s wife Anne traveled after her husband’s death throughout Italy in 1786 with the Duke of Cumberland. She died at Hampton Court, Middlesex, on March 26, 1791. They had no children and the Ferrers title was succeeded in the earldom and estates by his brother Robert Shirley, the Sixth Earl Ferrers.
Washington had six sisters and nine brothers. Following is a list of the more notable siblings:
Laurence (born August 18, 1720 and hanged May 5, 1760) who married September 16, 1752 to Mary Meredith of Henbury, Cheshire. They separated in 1758. He inherited the title as the 4th Earl Ferrers in 1745.
Robert (born July 20, 1723 and died April 17, 1787) married December 26, 1754 to Catherine Cotton of Etwall in Derbyshire. He became the 6th Earl Ferrer in 1778 upon Washington’s death.
Walter (born September 23, 1725 and died April 7, 1786) was educated at Oxford and was a Calvinest rector in Ireland. He became his Aunt Selina, Countess of Huntingdon’s chaplain and married Henrietta Maria Phillips of Dublin on August 27, 1766.
Thomas (born April 6, 1733 and died April 7, 1814) entered the navy and was a midshipman on the Renown while his brother Washington was captain. He became a rear-admiral on June 1, 1791. He first married March 30, 1773 to Mary Elsegood of Norwich, and then a second time on November 6, 1809 to Anne Hele of Plymouth.
Shakespeare commemorated Sir Hugh Shirley in the words of Prince Hal; “The spirits of valiant Shirley, Stafford, Blunt are in my arms now.” [Henry IV part I, act V, scene IV]
Washington and his siblings were eighth generation descendants of King Henry VIII.