Frances Southwell was born probably some time between 1827 and 1829 at Clifton, Gloucestershire, England. Her parents were Martha and John Southwell. On 24 October 1848 at Boyton, Wiltshire, she married Thomas Shayle George, who, like her father, was a solicitor. There were five children of the marriage. In August 1850, soon after the birth of their first son, Frances and Thomas left England on the Sir Edward Paget, arriving in Auckland on 18 December 1850.
It seems doubtful that Thomas's professional career flourished in New Zealand. In October 1852 Frances opened Wye Cottage Seminary, a co-educational primary school, in their home on Mount Eden Road, a sure sign that the family needed extra income. She also began publishing prose and poetry. An account of the voyage to New Zealand and of her new life, 'From a settler's wife', was published by Charles Dickens in his popular magazine, Household Words, in 1852. In 1855 a collection of her poetry, A shell from the south Pacific, was published in aid of an Auckland fund for the families of British soldiers killed in the Crimean War. Some of these poems had New Zealand themes. One poem, 'The ordination of ROTA, the first Maori deacon, St Paul's Church, Auckland, Trinity Sunday, 1853', was reprinted as an appendix to Mary Martin's book, Our Maoris (1884), where it was wrongly attributed to E. St George.
On 30 January 1867 Frances opened a school for 'young ladies' in Shortland Crescent. What happened to her over the next couple of years is not clear. In April 1868 Thomas died at Rock Island, Illinois, in the United States. His death notice in the Weekly News described him as late of Auckland and made no mention of a family. Possibly Frances remained in Auckland, for in 1874 she referred to the girls' school she had run in the city for the previous seven years. In any case, in 1870 she was in Auckland teaching and writing newspaper articles about girls' education. Her school had various locations in central Auckland in the early 1870s and was the largest and best known of private schools for girls from middle class families.
Frances Shayle George was an articulate spokeswoman for the cause of girls' education. She wrote letters to Auckland newspapers, published a pamphlet entitled Education of girls (1874), belonged to the Auckland Education Society and the Auckland Teachers' Association, and had influence with political leaders. Arguing that girls should be educated so that they could, if necessary, support themselves and their dependants, she attacked the practices of rote learning and teaching 'ornamental' subjects. She believed education board inspection of all schools was necessary to improve teaching standards and invited leading male teachers into her school to conduct examinations of teachers and pupils. She protested that the girls from her school were allowed to sit the Auckland Education Board examinations but could be awarded certificates of merit only, whereas successful boys were granted scholarships to continue their education.
In March 1874 Frances Shayle George proposed that the provincial council establish a central high school for girls. She saw teaching as a suitable female occupation and envisaged that the high school would be a training college for the women teachers of Auckland. Later in 1874 the local Education Act was amended to provide funds for such a school and in 1877 Auckland Girls' High School (the predecessor of Auckland Girls' Grammar School) opened.
Although she was a proponent of academic education for girls, Frances Shayle George did not support equal rights for women. She accepted the pseudo-scientific view that long hours of study were 'detrimental to female growth and healthy development' and that boys and girls required different kinds of education. In her opinion, woman was not to be educated to be the rival of man but to 'live the truest and highest life of which she is capable within her own particular dominion; to make her more self-contained, more self-reliant; to give her the option of a choice'. Her conservative views on woman's proper sphere brought her into conflict with Mary Colclough and other advocates of equal rights, but on the subject of educational reform they were united.
Frances Shayle George also had strong opinions on the need for moral training of children. She believed that young New Zealanders were growing up disobedient and lacking in respect for adults. She regarded religion as an integral part of education, asserting that 'National piety and national prosperity generally go hand in hand'.
After the mid 1870s little more was heard from Frances Shayle George. However, her contribution was not forgotten. After her death at Auckland on 8 September 1890, the New Zealand Herald published an obituary which recalled her 'good service in the cause of education' and her considerable literary talent.