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.
The navy put him in command of 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 French coast.
Washington took over command of the Dover of 44 guns.
He escorted the Gibraltar regiments (the 29th and 56th Regiments of Foot) to the newly captured citadel of Louisbourg in Cape Breton.
Washington captured the French frigate la Renommée of 30 guns after a fierce engagement. For two weeks he towed the dismasted frigate to Plymouth.
He captured, after a three-hour battle, the privateer Jean Frederic of 22 guns from Saint-Malo.
Washington took command of the accommodation sloop Swift of 8 guns until his frigate Renown (previously 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, a wealthy landowner and local politician.
Washington took command of the Renown. His younger brother Thomas Shirley served aboard as a midshipman.
He sailed for the Leeward Islands.
He patrolled out of the Port Royal station in Jamaica.
He was transferred to the Viper of 14 guns by Admiral Townsend, Commander of the Port Royal Station, switching commands with Capt. Smelt, who went to the Renown.
The admiralty admonished Admiral Townsend and reassigned Washington 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 at the Deptford shipyard.
He was appointed to the Mermaid, a 24-gun frigate, a 6th rate and newly recommissioned.
Washington 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.
Washington sailed the Mermaid along with the Success of 24 guns and the Siren of 24 guns, transporting the surrendered French troops to Louisbourg. On the way, they stopped at St. John Harbor to attack a French fort which the French burnt and abandoned before retreating upriver.
He arrived in New York transporting personnel.
Washington 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 submitted plans for an 18-gun snow for use on Lake Ontario in defense of Fort Oswego. The plans were accepted by William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling, who ordered its construction near the fort. She was built, named the Halifax, but they never fitted her out with cannon. The French captured the Halifax during the fall of the fort and renamed her the Montcalm. Lacking sailors, they used her as a transport. When the British attacked Fort Frontenac in 1757, they forced the Montcalm ashore with artillery, and the French burned her.
Washington arrived in Boston from Halifax, Nova Scotia with news of the siege of the Louisbourg fortress and sinking of French ships.
He departed with Massachusetts Colony Governor Shirley, a relative, for Halifax and then for England. The ship fired a 15 gun salute to Castle William in Boston harbor. The Mermaid sailed accompanied by Shirley’s newly-built schooner Nautilus as a tender. After he returned to England, Shirley was transferred to the Monmouth of 70 guns.
He engaged the French ship Temple in the Caribbean bound for Martinique and captured her. She contained two statues, St. John the Divine and St. John the Baptist, that he gave to St. John’s Cathedral in Antigua.
Washington submitted to the navy a draught of a 40-gun ship to be considered. It was rejected.
On Sept. 5th, a ship chandler in Boston accused Washington Shirley of wasting his time, making fraudulent charges in his account billings, building a schooner (Nautilus), and charging the outfitting costs to the Mermaid.
Washington captained the 3rd rate, Duc D’Aquitain of 64 guns, formerly a French East India ship and now part of Admiral Anson’s Fleet.
He was commissioned to captain the newly launched 3rd Rate, Temple of 70 guns, under Admiral Hawke’s Channel fleet.
Positioned in the van of the fleet, the Temple engaged le Juste in the Battle of Quiberon Bay which defeated the French invasion fleet. Washington “distinguished himself on this occasion in a very conspicuous manner.”
He attended the murder trial of his brother, Laurence, the Fourth Earl Ferrers. Laurence Shirley shot and killed his land steward with a pistol. Washington, as a defense witness, tried to prove his brother’s innocence as due to a family history of insanity. The House of Lords found Laurence guilty after a much-publicized trial.
He succeeded his brother’s title as the Fifth Earl Ferrers with his wife Anne becoming a countess. Washington left active duty in the navy to run the estate businesses.
His brother was hanged, anatomized, and the body displayed to the public. Laurence was the last nobleman executed in England.
Washington took a seat in the House of Lords as the 5th Earl Ferrers and moved into the family manor at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, England.
He made accurate observations on the transit of Venus across the sun, designed and built a Venus transitorium device, and studied navigation and ship construction theories.
Washington 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 in London.
By a patent of letters, King George III granted Washington the family estates which had been forfeited by his brother’s felony.
Planned by the famed American colonial architect Peter Harrison, Washington began extensive alterations to the Staunton Harold manor.
Washington’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.
Washington’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 because of the ambiguity of his sex. He also loaned money to Washington 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.
The navy promoted Washington to Rear-Admiral of the White.
He was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Blue.
They made him a Vice-Admiral of the White.
Casanova, visiting London, was surprised that Washington was not ‘dishonored’, or ostracized, as a result of his brother’s crime. By that time, Washington had become an earl, a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Grand Master of the Masonic Order in England, a Member of Parliament, a county deputy lieutenant, and a naval vice-admiral. All accomplished after his brother’s conviction and demise.
Washington died at Chartley Manor Place, Staffordshire, England, the ancient home of the Ferrers family
He was buried at Staunton Harold.
In 1786, Washington’s wife Anne traveled after her husband’s death throughout Italy 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). He inherited the title as the 4th Earl Ferrers in 1745 and on September 16, 1752, married Mary Meredith of Henbury, Cheshire. They separated and were divorced by Parliament decree in 1758.
Robert (born July 20, 1723, and died April 17, 1787) was 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 Calvinist rector in Ireland. He became the Countess of Huntingdon’s chaplain (his Aunt Selina and a noted Methodist supporter) 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 on March 30, 1773, Mary Elsegood of Norwich, and then a second time on November 6, 1809, Anne Hele of Plymouth.
Shakespeare commemorated Washington’s ancestor, 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.