Shelley Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Shelley Surname Meaning

The name “Shelley” appears to be locational in origin.  The word is said to have derived from the Old English word scyf or “shelf,” a ledge or plateau, and “ley”, a field or clearing, and describes someone who lives at such a place.

The name is thought to have originated in Essex.  There is in fact a small hamlet called Shelley near Chipping Ongar in the county.  A manor of that name has existed on the edge of Epping Forest since pre-Domesday times.

Shelley Surname Resources on The Internet

Shelley Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Sussex) and from Ireland (Cork) and Germany
  • to America, Caribs (Jamaica), Australia and Singapore

England.  Shelley as a surname in England seems to have had three different starting points:

  • Kent and Sussex
  • Essex
  • and Staffordshire

Kent and Sussex. A Shelley name in Kent can be traced to the 1380’s and the Shottys manor house in Knockholt near Sevenoaks.  They must have been a family of some substance.  You can still find a Shelley’s Lane there today.  Later on, the family moved to Hall Place in Bexley where they lived until early Elizabethan times.

There were ties by marriage to Sir Francis Walsingham, a political force at the time, at Chislehurst nearby.  Henry Shelley from there set sail in 1609 on the Sea Venture in a mission to rescue the New World colonists at Jamestown.  The party didn’t succeed in their venture as the vessel got shipwrecked off Bermuda.  But Henry Shelley did leave his name to one of the beautiful beaches there.

Shelleys in Sussex were recorded in Rye in the early 14th century.  Thomas Shelley was knighted for his services to King Richard II, but then lost his head (literally) when the King was deposed. From his brother William came:

  • John Shelley, MP for Rye in 1415
  • a later John Shelley, mercer in London, who established his estate in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire
  • and another John Shelley who in 1474 was able to secure the marriage of Elizabeth Michelgrove and thereby bring the extensive Michelgrove estates near Arundel under his control.

For three centuries thereafter, the Shelleys were landed gentry in Sussex, with various branches in West and East Sussex. The branch in East Sussex, which later moved to Avington in Hampshire, included the black sheep of the family, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Michelgrove Shelleys were buried in Clapham church.  In 1772 Sir John Shelley composed a loving epitaph to his wife which is to be found there.  However. by the turn of the 19th century, they appeared to have frittered their inheritance away (Sir John was described by his wife Lady Frances as “a gamester and a horse-racing nobleman of not too obvious a reputation”).  Most of their estates in Sussex were sold.

Essex.  Essex was another area for Shelleys.  Richard Shelley, born in 1611 in the village of Bulmer on the Essex/Suffolk border, was the forebear to successive generations of blacksmiths in the area.  A line from there may have gone to Uriah Shelley who married in 1754 in the village of Rivenhall southeast of Braintree.  Today Rivenhall has the largest concentration of Shelleys in the county.

Staffordshire.  Staffordshire was a third.  Shelley Potteries, in business from the 1750’s until recently, has been a well-known name in Stoke.  Of more local interest was the Shelley beer in Hilderstone.  John Shelley was gamekeeper to Sir Richard Arkwright of Cromford in the late 18th century and James Shelley a charcoal dealer in Trysull near Wolverhampton in the mid 19th.

Ireland.  There are Irish Shelleys as well, but from very different roots. Sealbhach (pronounced “shallvig” or “shallvee”) was an ancient local chieftain in the Cork area. His kinsmen were known as O’Sealbhach.

When the English invaded Ireland, they could not pronounce or spell the Irish surnames and consequently many got corrupted. Names such as Shelvey and Shelley appeared. And the Shelley name has continued in and around Cork since that time.

Patrick and Mary Shelley were tenant farmers in Templemore, Tipperary in the 1850’s.  Their eldest son Patrick emigrated to Australia in 1868 and settled in Queensland.  Other sons departed for America (upstate New York), William arriving there in 1872 and John and Martin some years later.

America.  Although Shelley is an English-origin name, there are more than twice the number of Shelleys in America than in England.  An important factor has been the anglicization of foreign names by immigrants either on their entry into the United States or with the next generation.  German names such as “Schille” or “Schelle” became Shelley in America.  So at times did the Irish “Shealy.”

An early arrival was Robert Shelley who left Nazeing in Essex on the Lyon for Boston in 1632.  However, most Shelleys headed for Virginia and the Carolinas.

Virginia.  Walter and John Shelley were early arrivals into Jamestown.  Walter died of fever in 1619.  But John, who came later, survived the climate and the Indian uprisings and became a settler.  There were Shelleys too in Surry county.  Phillip Shelley died there in 1704.  His descendants moved to Edgecombe county in North Carolina.

North Carolina and Tennessee.  There are records of Shelleys in North Carolina by the 1720’s and in east Tennessee (which was formed out of North Carolina) by the 1780’s. James Shelley settled in Gap Creek, Tennessee. His descendants later migrated to Missouri and Arkansas.

Nathan Shelley was born in Guilford county, North Carolina in 1746 and died in Jefferson county, Tennessee in 1816.  His grandson Jacob Shelley headed south to Talladega county in Alabama in the 1830’s and Jacob’s nephew, Charles Miller Shelley, was a Confederate general during the Civil War.  After the war, Charles moved to Selma where he was a town builder and became active in state politics.

South Carolina.  More Shelleys came to South Carolina.  William Shelley was an early arrival (the 1776 Roster of Revolutionary Soldiers showed that he was drafted from this area).  Serious settlement of what is now called Marion county did not begin until the war was over and the Indians had dispersed. The 1786 tax rolls listed William and Joseph Shelley as smallholders. And Shelleys have been farming this land ever since.

Shelleys also moved northwest to what is now Barnwell county. A Luke Shelley is listed in the 1790 census. He died in 1823, making a gift on his death-bed of his two slaves to his grandson.

Descendants of these Shelleys migrated first to Georgia and then to SE Alabama. This settlement, called Tumbleton, began in the 1890’s when Reuben Shelley and his family purchased land six miles northeast of Headland. Shelley’s garage, first erected in 1921, is still a prominent local landmark. And a Reuben Shelley is the mayor of present-day Headland.

Pennsylvania.  There was a cluster of Shelleys from German Mennonite roots in Pennsylvania.

Daniel Shelley uprooted his wife and four children from Lancaster county to settle in the 1770’s in what is now called Shelley’s Island on the Susquehanna river.  Here they formed a self-contained community.

These Shelleys were apparently prolific. Daniel himself was said to have had four wives and eighteen children. The Shelley cemetery on the island, overshadowed now by the Three Mile Island nuclear plant nearby, contains close to a hundred gravestones of this remarkable family buried there over the 18th and 19th centuries.

Another Shelley line came from German Dunkard immigrants into Pennsylvania.  Adam Schillig, “that well-known Dunkard,” was in Guilford county, North Carolina by the 1770’s.  His sons became Shelleys.  Peter Shelley and his family settled in the Cumberland mountains in Kentucky in the early 1800’s and among their descendants were:

  • Michael Shelley, born in 1815, who took the Oregon Trail west in 1848
  • and PM Shelley, born in 1852, who became a cattle rancher in New Mexico.

Heading West.  Shelleys were to be found in Iowa from the 1840’s Michael Shelley arrived there from Ireland in the 1860’s. His daughter Kate Shelley achieved national renown in 1881 for alerting authorities about a potential train catastrophe.  Fame, sadly, brought her no reward. Fifteen years later she was listed as destitute and with the added responsibility of caring for her aged mother and invalid brother. Belatedly the railroad stepped in and looked after her over the rest of her life.

Michael Shelley and his wife Sena went over the Oregon Trail with a team of oxen and milch cows in 1848. They made it to Oregon, settling in the Willamette valley. Sena died there in 1861. But Michael lived onto 1894.  Michael’s father George, who embarked on the journey in 1852, never made it. He succumbed to cholera while crossing the Platte river.

Then there were the Mormons.  James Bowyer Shelley, his son Thomas, and their family of fourteen from Staffordshire sailed from Liverpool in January 1851.  Thomas Shelley kept a journal of the nine month voyage via packet ship, steamboat, and wagon-train to the new Mormon settlement in Salt Lake valley, Utah.  He wrote in his diary:

“We entered into the valley on October 3. I saw Brother Brigham for the first time and rejoiced much that I had been counted worthy to be gathered with the Saints of God.”

Other Shelley converts followed, some settling in Utah and others spreading the Mormon faith elsewhere in the West. The small town of Shelley in Idaho was named after its first settler, John F. Shelley, who moved there from Utah in 1885.

Caribbean.  The Shelley name appeared in Jamaica.  Seba Shelley was a harbor master at St. Ann in the 1820’s.  He and his brother Raymond owned plantations and were granted compensation after emancipation in 1834.

Australia.  The first Shelley to emigrate to Australia was William Shelley, a missionary from Hanley in Staffordshire who arrived there in 1800.

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.

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.”

Singapore.  There were two Shelley youngsters – Rex born in 1930 and David born in 1933 – who were in Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1942.  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.   Their lives followed completely different directions.

Shelley Family History in Sussex

My own Shelley family line is in Sussex on the south coast of England.  The first traceable in this line was Thomas Shelley, born around 1690, who lived in the village of West Firle under the shadow of the eminent Gage family.  His son John worked as a secretary to this family and then found employment as a Riding Officer, chasing around the countryside in search of smuggled contraband.

There then appears to have been a decline in family fortunes until the early 1800’s when they resurfaced as country tailors in Alfriston, another Downland village.  There were boom times here for a while.  But times got harder and Charles Shelley, the eldest son, left to seek his fortune in Brighton.

Life was even harder here.  Living in a slum, he lost his wife and four of his five children to cholera in the early 1850’s.  He did recover, remarried, and his surviving son Charles prospered as a property agent in the booming Brighton housing market of the 1880’s.  This Charles then started a coal merchant business which was carried on by two further generations of Shelleys.

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Shelley Surname Miscellany

The Michelgrove Shelleys.  The Michelgrove Shelleys were buried at Clapham church in Sussex.  In 1772 Sir John Shelley composed the following loving epitaph to his wife which can still be found there:

  • “Here Lyeth the Body of Wilhelmina Shelley
  • Who departed this Life the 21st of March 1772
  • Aged Twenty three years.
  • She was a pattern for the World to follow:
  • Such a being both in form and mind perhaps never existed before.
  • A more dutiful, affectionate, and Virtuous Wife,
  • A more tender and Anxious parent,
  • A more sincere and constant Friend,
  • A more amiable and elegant companion;
  • Universally Benevolent, generous, and humane;
  • The Pride of her own Sex,
  • The admiration of ours.
  • She lived universally beloved, and admired;
  • She died as generally revered, and regretted,
  • A loss felt by all who had the happiness of knowing Her,
  • By none to be compared to that of her disconsolate, affectionate, Loving,
  • And in this World everlastingly Miserable Husband,
  • Who has caused this inscription to be engraved.”

The Voyage of the Sea Venture.  Henry Shelley was a passenger on the Sea Venture that departed London for Jamestown in 1609 in order to rescue the colonists there.  The ship was shipwrecked off Bermuda.  The following is the official account of what happened.

“The Sea Venture sailed as part of a flotilla of nine ships commanded by Admiral Sir George Somers. The intended destination was Jamestown, Virginia.

On 2 June, the Sea Venture, flagship of the “Third Supply” (six ships and two pinnaces); departed London. On 23 July, a hurricane at sea separated the Sea Venture from the other vessels. After four days, she began taking on water. Land was sited and she wrecked between two reefs off the shores of Bermuda on 28 July 1609.  All of approximately 150 passengers safely made land.

Two pinnaces were built during the following nine months, the Deliverance and the Patience. These vessels sailed on to Virginia on 10 May 1610, leaving two men behind. On 19 June 1610, Sir George Somers volunteered to return to Bermuda aboard the Patience for supplies for the struggling colony of Virginia. He arrived in Bermuda, dying there in November of 1610.  Captain Matthew Somers returned to England aboard the Patience with his uncle’s body. Three men were left on the islands to hold the claim.”

Shelley Potteries.  The Shelley pottery business was started around 1748 by Randle Shelley at Longton near Stoke.  The Shelleys produced their own earthenware and decorated the plates and dishes made by Josiah Wedgewood. Although two of the family, Thomas and Michael, were to achieve some renown as potters, their business failed.  They were declared bankrupt in 1798 and forced to sell their factory.

In 1865, Henry Wileman became a partner in what was then Foley Potteries, eventually became its sole owner, and proceeded to enlarge his factory.  He hired Joseph Shelley as a sales representative. Shelley became his partner in 1872, and, when Wileman retired, Shelley became its sole owner  He kept the “Wileman” company name until 1925, although the goods were marked “Shelley” from 1910.

Joseph’s son, Percy, joined the business in 1881, and had a great desire to strengthen their export business and improve quality. He built his own bone grinding mill, which was unheard of, and had the animal bone ground to his specifications – using only cattle bone, which had the best quality of all.

Shelley Potteries went out of business in 1966.  But the Shelley name still lives on in Longton.  For a brief time, Shelley’s Laserdome in the town was the heart and soul of the 1980’s rave scene in the northwest. More importantly, the Gladstone Pottery Museum was built on the site of the original Shelley pottery works. Here, the records and works of Shelley and other local potters are preserved.

Reader Feedback – Shelley from Germany.  I’m trying to find out more information about my 4th great grandpa Jacob Shelley.  I found out he’s from Germany – Hesse or Darmstadt – but no more clues.

Kody (

Shelley’s Island in Pennsylvania.  How did Daniel Shelley from a Mennonite family come to be plotting against the American Revolution?

Papers lodged in the Pennsylvania state archives suggest that he was implicated in the plot.  The ringleader apparently was the Rev. Daniel Batwell, an English-born local minister.

In the summer of 1777, he and two fellow conspirators were ferried across the Susquehanna from Prunk’s Tavern in Newberry to Shelley’s Island.  There they met with Daniel Shelley at his fieldstone house and hatched the plot to blow up the York city magazine where the firearms and gunpowder of the Continental Army were stored.

What was Daniel Shelley’s role?  It is not clear.  But the plot was foiled when two of the conspirators had too much to drink at Prunk’s Tavern one night and spilled the beans.  Daniel was arrested and imprisoned in Carlisle.  He secured his release after he agreed to turn state’s evidence and, apparently, join the Continental Army.

Daniel returned to Shelley’s Island and sired more children.  A family story has it that, after he had buried wife number three, he stood at her graveside, cast his eyes upward, and exclaimed: “Oh, Lord, must I marry again!”  He did.

Plaque on the Grave of Kate Shelley.  The following plaque is to be found at the Sacred Heart cemetery in Boone, Iowa:

“Here is a deed bound for legend; a story to be told until the last order fades and the last rail rusts.

On the night of 6th July 1881, Kate Shelley, then a girl of 15 years, crossed the Des Moines river bridge at Moingona Iowa, in tempest and flood and prevented a C. and N. W. passenger and express train from plunging into rain-swollen Honey Creek where two men had died when a bridge collapsed under their locomotive.

Her heroism saved the train and those aboard and led to rescue of survivors from the Honey Creek disaster.”

Reader Feedback – Shelleys in North Carolina in Kentucky and Indiana.  I have hit a brick wall looking for my 5th great great grandmother Mary Polly Shelley who was born in 1781 in Guilford Co., North Carolina and died in 1850 in Marion Co., Indiana.  She lived in Bourbon Co., Kentucky from 1800 to about 1825. She had four children.

I need to know her maiden name and her spouse’s first name. She lived in North Middletown in Bourbon Co.

Jean Hittle (

Reader Feedback – Shelleys in Arkansas.  My maiden name is Shelley. My father was born in Arkansas.  I have a handwritten and typed genealogy that when I search doesn’t make sense to me. Common names and some things match, others do not.  My parents attended a family reunion about 20 or so years ago in the midwest-Arkansas area.  I would love to be able to genealogically find my Shelley ancestry

Patricia T (

Reader Feedback – Shelleys in Jamaica.  I am trying to research Seba Shelly who was born around 1780 and died in 1853.

He was likely born in England.  His title was esquire and he was a penkeeper in Jamaica.  He owned two properties (Cottage Pen and Sans Souci) and enslaved people over the period 1810-1838.

He had several children during this time.  He eventually married in 1847 Catherine Winnicott.  She had a twin named Rebecca.  They were born in 1804 and their father was a blacksmith.  My great great great grandfather George Shelley was one of their children.  He was born in 1828 in Jamaica.  His sister Catherine Leevers Shelley (married name Guichet) was born in 1831.

It appears that Seba also had a brother Raymond who was also mentioned in the records.  He also had several children, one of them named Seba who was born in 1804.  The Gentleman’s Magazine in England reported in 1817 “the death from rapid consumption of Miss Shelly, niece to Mr. Tippetts, surgeon of Spital Square, and daughter of Seba Shelly Esq. of St. Annes in the island of Jamaica.”

It is possible that Seba remained in Jamaica after emancipation.  He died in Jamaica in 1853.

Judy Fairbanks (

William Shelley and the Native Institution.  The following is a chronology of events from the Australian Colonial Secretary papers:

“1814 December. Notice of establishment of school for Aboriginal children at Parramatta under a committee with William Shelley as principal.

1815 December.  Earl Bathurst approving of establishment of Native Institution.

1816 April. Twelve boys and girls to be selected from the prisoners of war of a punitive expedition against hostile natives.

1817 March. Accounts in favour of Mrs. Elizabeth Shelley as manager of the Native Institution.

1818 December. General order re annual conference with Aboriginal chiefs and tribes and encouragement for children to be put in Institution.

1820 January. Necessity for removal of the Native Institution from Parramatta and for suitable superintendent (by 1820, 37 aboriginal children had been received, six absconded, two died, one taken by father, and 28 completed their studies).

1824 January. Government and general order thanking the committee of the Native Institution and the Male and Female Orphan Schools for their exertions and relieving members of their duties in consequence of the need to model these institutions on new principles.”

The editors of a newly-published book, Great Mistakes of Australian History, said in their introduction that it was “an act of national immaturity” to approach Australian history simply as a series of achievements, without recognizing the “misjudgments, misconduct and missed opportunities” that were an inevitable part of any nation’s story.

A principal “character” in this book is William Shelley, the well-intentioned founder of the Parramatta Native Institution – the precursor of institutions and policies that led to the “stolen generations.”

David and Rex Shelley in Singapore.  They were youngsters in Singapore in 1942 when the Japanese invaded.  David was of English stock, Rex of that small mixed race Eurasian community of English fathers and local mothers.  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-created 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.

Shelley Names

  • John Shelley established the Shelleys as landed gentry in Sussex with his marriage to Elizabeth Michelgrove in 1474.
  • Sir Richard Shelley, a staunch Catholic from the Shelley Michelgrove branch, was active in several plots against Queen Elizabeth during the 1560’s.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, born into gentry in East Sussex, is one of the best-known English Romantic poets. His wife Mary Shelley (nee Godwin) wrote Frankenstein. 
  • William Shelley was a missionary from Hanley in Staffordshire who sailed to Australia in 1800. His school for Aboriginal children has now been described as Shelley’s mistake.
  • Percy Shelley reinvigorated Shelley Potteries in Stoke in the early part of the 20th century.
  • Jack Shelley of working class Irish roots was the mayor of San Francisco during the turbulent 1960’s.

Shelley Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in Essex)
  • 4,500 in America (most numerous in South Carolina).
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Shelley and Like Surnames

These are the names of some literary giants.  If you are interested in the name behind the literary figure, please click on the surname below.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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