William Shirley was the son of William and Elizabeth Godman Shirley, and was born on 2 December 1694, at Preston Manor in East Sussex, England. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge then read law at the Inner Temple in London. In 1717 his grandfather died, and he inherited Ote Hall and some funds, which he used to purchase a clerkship in London. About the same time he married Frances Barker, with whom he had a large number of children. He was called to the bar in 1720. Although his inheritance had been substantial (about £10,000), he cultivated an expensive lifestyle, and suffered significant financial reverses in the depression of 1721. The financial demands of his large family (he and Frances had eight children by 1731) prompted him to seek an appointment in the North American colonies. His family was connected by marriage to the Duke of Newcastle, who became an important patron and sponsor of Shirley's advancement. Armed with letters of introduction from Newcastle and others (but no appointment), Shirley arrived in Boston in 1731.
His early government jobs included that of surveyor and King's Advocate for New England. He was appointed a commissioner in the boundary dispute between Massachusetts and Rhode Island in 1741. During the later years of the contentious reign of Governor Jonathan Belcher, Shirley made common cause with Belcher's enemies to promote himself as a successor to Belcher. Assisted by his wife, who worked in England on his behalf, a group of New England interests opposed to Belcher succeeded in orchestrating Belcher's recall, and Shirley's appointment as governor in 1741. His early efforts to influence the financial policy of the legislature and induce them to grant him a regular salary were unsuccessful.
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