Educated St Edmund Hall, Oxford and London. Married in 1926. his daughter became the first and, at the time, the only girl in the school.
When Shirley took over the Headmastership of the King's School, Canterbury in 1935, bankruptcy was close: the school had debts of £40,000 - £60,000 and was making an annual loss of £6,000.
When Shirley was appointed, he had been headmaster of Worksop College fourteen years. Controversially, on being appointed Headmaster of the King's School, Canterbury, he persuaded the parents of about 30 Worksop boys to send them with him to Canterbury. This move is sometimes called the rape of Worksop and it resulted in Shirley's suspension from the Headmasters' Conference.
Shirley was known to the boys as "Fred" and his normal form of address to them was "m'dear".
One boy kept cigarettes in strictest secrecy in the breast pocket of his jacket. Shirley came up to him one day. "Keep 'em there, do you?" he murmured, tapping his breast pocket.
Shirley manoeuvred against Dr Hewlett Johnson, the "Red Dean". One year the dean put up a huge blue and white banner across the front of the Deanery which read "Christians Ban Nuclear Weapons". By way of riposte, some of the boys put up a banner on one of the school's buildings which read, "King's Ban Communists".
In 1936, Shirley persuaded the writer Somerset Maugham to visit and eventually to be a benefactor to the school. Maugham had savaged the school in Of Human Bondage. Shirley persuaded him that all schools of the 1880s had been more or less as barbaric. Maugham's ashes are buried in the Cathedral Precincts.
With public examinations being set earlier and earlier, Shirley founded King's Week as a means of keeping the school together. It is a remarkable festival of music, drama, exhibitions and other fringe activities, which is still an annual event.
Following Shirley's retirement in 1962, the school's Great Hall (which he had built) was re-named the Shirley Hall by Peter Newell, Shirley's successor as Headmaster. It was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. To the impertinent, it was known as "Fred's Shed".