James Shelley was born on 3 September 1884 in Coventry, Warwickshire, England. His father, also James, was a potter turned policeman; his mother, Ellen Walton, was a weaver's daughter. From this artisan culture – which he cherished – young James took his lifelong handiness: his astonishing skill with pencil and paint, with wood and metal. Parental opposition doomed early ambitions to be a professional artist or an architect, but James's strong attachment to English literature, to drama and to the visual arts could not be curtailed. At 14 he lectured publicly on Michelangelo; three years later he produced, and played leading parts in, several Shakespeare plays.
Educated through state and church schools and pupil-teaching, in 1904 Shelley entered the University of Cambridge where he read modern and medieval languages. Graduating in 1907 with a pass degree, he set out to surmount his failure to gain honours. He turned to schoolteaching, first in Heanor, Derbyshire; then between 1908 and 1910 he was crafts tutor and assistant master of method at Chester Diocesan Training College, an Anglican teacher-training college for men. More significant were his three years as an assistant lecturer in education at Victoria University of Manchester as the protégé of J. J. Findlay, the principal channel through which child-centred continental educational theory entered Britain. Shelley revelled in these intoxicating novelties. Most of his later educational work in New Zealand would draw upon Findlay's ideas.
Art and drama continued to obsess Shelley. He lectured widely on these and other subjects. He forged mutually admiring links with actors at Manchester's Gaiety Theatre, the centre for provincial England's theatrical avant-garde. He staged, and starred in, well-received student productions that pioneered difficult plays: Browning's Luria at Chester, Ibsen's Brand in Manchester. His production of John Masefield's The tragedy of Pompey the great was admired by the poet.
On 28 December 1910, at Coventry, James Shelley married Mabel Winifred Booth, his childhood sweetheart. She was a teacher, and the niece of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. In March 1913 their only child, Paul, was born. One year later, through Findlay's sponsorship, Shelley became professor of education and philosophy at Hartley University College, Southampton. War then intervened. Volunteering as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps, Shelley saw brief service at Passchendaele (Passendale) in 1917 as a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. Invalided to Britain with wounds, from 1919 he played a key role in establishing the new army school of education.
In November 1919 Shelley resigned his Southampton chair, and the chance to found a 'people's university' in army education, to take the new chair of education at Canterbury College in New Zealand. He arrived at Christchurch in July 1920 with the government's promise that he would be empowered to reorganise and revitalise schooling through radically reformed teacher education. Unwisely believing New Zealand's contemporary reputation as a social laboratory to be valid, Shelley, in his inaugural lecture, denounced current schools as obstacles to real education. This uncompromising manifesto for a liberal, child-centred education cheered embattled local progressives, but terrified powerful individuals and institutions.
Chief among these was the Department of Education. Resolute hostility from that quarter, and inter-collegial politicking in the federal University of New Zealand, caused the government to renege on its promises within six months. Shelley taught his college courses but turned his formidable creative energies in other directions. He lectured everywhere, and to everybody, giving at least 1,000 one-off extramural lectures in 16 years. He also engineered a progressive revolution in New Zealand's school-building design, insisting on the importance of allowing fresh air into the classroom. These were small victories in a greater defeat. Beyond casting New Zealand undergraduate education courses in a general rather than a professional mould, he signally failed to influence the direction of national educational policy.
Nevertheless, the brilliance of Shelley's lecturing style attracted a band of students who later remade New Zealand's education system. The most important of them, C. E. Beeby, set the liberal agenda at the heart of the education system when he became director of education in 1940. As colleagues at Canterbury College from 1923 to 1934, Shelley and Beeby pioneered applied psychological initiatives, from mental testing, through industrial psychology to guidance and counselling. Others of Shelley's graduate students became educational innovators: Maxwell Keys in vocational guidance, Geoff Alley in rural library services, Crawford Somerset in rural adult education.
Appointed director of Canterbury College's extension work in October 1920, Shelley was forced to co-operate with the economist J. B. Condliffe, who directed the college's Workers' Educational Association courses. For Condliffe, WEA courses were dour, dogged events, inching towards distant goals. Shelley's new and vastly popular WEA courses on drama (and, later, on psychology) were colourful and exhilarating. He pioneered WEA summer schools, drawing crowds – largely female – each summer to camp in rural Canterbury. When Condliffe left Canterbury College in 1926, Shelley took sole control of the college's extramural programmes. He made highly effective use of scarce resources: circulating adult education material around rural districts after 1925; supporting Geoff Alley's perambulating rural library from 1930; and organising WEA lectures to prisoners, WEA Education Weeks and drama courses in tiny settlements.
Offering his time and money to anybody who needed assistance, and constitutionally unmercenary (to an extent that penalised his family severely), Shelley ruthlessly exploited others' resources. Fellow members of the Rotary Club of Christchurch found themselves stumping up money again and again to support his ideas. The Carnegie Corporation of New York had funded New Zealand WEA work from 1928; from the late 1920s, as economic depression and obdurate hostility to Shelley from conservative Wellington politicians and bureaucrats obliterated other funding possibilities, it became the key funder for his adult education initiatives – to the intense displeasure of North Island academic politicians. By 1935 his empire of rural library, education and drama initiatives had two focuses: the Canterbury WEA, and the Association for Country Education, a Carnegie-engineered liaison between Shelley's Canterbury rural education and drama work and the University of Otago's home science extension services. This empire needed sensitive government. An incompetent administrator, Shelley rarely provided this. His relations with Canterbury WEA activists, in particular, often proved stormy.
The chance to pioneer educational change had not been New Zealand's only attraction for Shelley. He saw local high culture as a clean slate on which he could make a distinctive mark. This ambition was connected with his hopes for educational reform. Shelley declared that education was no mere technical enterprise, but the relentlessly discriminating pursuit of the good life, and the arts must lie at the heart of this. He used money from the Rotary Club and from the absurdly genteel but well-heeled Society for Imperial Culture (Christchurch Branch) to pursue these obsessions.
Shelley dominated Christchurch dramatic circles. In 1921 he founded the Canterbury College Drama Society, in 1928 the Canterbury Repertory Theatre Society. Through these bodies, and weekly play-readings at Canterbury College, he introduced modern writers and put a generation of actors, directors and production staff through a rigorous training.
Shelley tried to dominate the visual arts equally completely, and almost succeeded. For many years he lectured on art history in the Canterbury College School of Art, capturing the devotion – and moulding the attitudes – of a generation of students. Rita Angus was one from a horde of (mainly female) admirers. Shelley's detailed and careful critical judgements on Christchurch exhibitions in the Lyttelton Times set new standards for New Zealand art criticism. Fully up to date with current British criticism, he was the first local critic to appreciate modernist styles and the first to celebrate the work of Frances Hodgkins and R. N. Field. He played a full, subversive part in local art politics, constantly seeking to puncture the complacency of the Canterbury Society of Arts. Under his goad, in the early 1930s Christchurch spawned a briefly flourishing New Zealand Society of Artists, committed to guild organisation and modernist aesthetics. But the social cachet of Christchurch visual arts defeated him, and the CSA pursued its blithe, fashionable, philistine way.
Exhausted by overwork and frustrated by isolation from progressive intellectual circles in the northern hemisphere, in 1931–32 Shelley took a Carnegie travelling fellowship to the United States. In this year he published his single book, Poetry, speech and drama, a school text directed at teaching the reading and appreciation of English poetry and drama. He returned to New Zealand determined to encourage a local version of Ralph and Helen Lynd's pioneer sociological community study, Middletown. This took shape as Littledene – written by a former Shelley student, Crawford Somerset.
Shelley now sought new challenges. At a late stage he lost the chance to establish the Carnegie-funded New Zealand Council for Educational Research in Wellington: that opportunity went to C. E. Beeby. Then, in late 1935, the Labour government's election offered glittering possibilities. With several of his former WEA students now holding cabinet office, on 26 August 1936 Shelley found himself appointed New Zealand's founding director of broadcasting. For the next 13 years he threw his huge energies into this single task.
Contemporaries thought Shelley's Wellington time a declension from his great days in Christchurch; but hindsight shows him to have been a success at broadcasting, welding a national service from the patchwork of local stations he inherited. Until 1943 he had to run in double harness with Colin Scrimgeour who controlled commercial broadcasting. The two loathed each other. Each had his cabinet patron: Michael Joseph Savage for Scrimgeour and Peter Fraser for Shelley. With Savage holding the broadcasting portfolio, Scrimgeour's position was secure, but Savage's death gave Shelley the advantage. He combined the two radio services after Scrimgeour's 1943 sacking (in which Shelley seems to have played no part), bringing welcome – if short-lived – political and organisational peace to New Zealand broadcasting.
As with education, Shelley made radio a means to wider liberal ends. Under his guidance, broadcasting became New Zealand's principal cultural patron. He founded the New Zealand Listener as a medium for well-informed discussion and criticism. Local drama benefited vastly from his interest, with Bernard Beeby recruited to enhance the number and quality of radio drama productions. But Shelley's most lasting cultural legacy to broadcasting concerned music. Heavily involved in planning the 1940 centennial celebrations, he used this opportunity to lay the foundations for a national symphony orchestra. Wartime stringency then intervened; but on 6 March 1947 the National Orchestra (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) gave its first concert. Other efforts proved less successful. Shelley laboured for years to see new headquarters constructed for the National Broadcasting Service; they would contain a conservatorium to train musicians and actors. Foundations were dug but the project was then abandoned.
Shelley went to broadcasting in challenging times, and his own faults increased the difficulties. Still a notably inept administrator, he despised party politics and rule by accountants: hardly a good mixture for Wellington in the 1940s. A freethinking political radical, he was hobbled by rules preventing 'contentious' material from being broadcast. Just as his first major plans for broadcasting matured, war – followed by shortages connected with postwar reconstruction – saw many plans curtailed. Then, on 2 October 1948, Mabel Shelley died. Melancholic by nature, James was thrown into deep depression. He resigned his post in 1949 and sailed for English retirement two months later. His friends in government arranged a knighthood to acknowledge what he had done in 29 years' sojourn in New Zealand.
Initially deeply miserable in retirement, in 1951 Shelley returned to New Zealand to visit his son. On the boat back he met Mary Willmott. Though separated in age by a generation, they married at Ashford, Devonshire, on 5 April 1952. This second marriage was happy, bringing Shelley serenity until his death in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, on 18 March 1961.
Shelley was the most famous academic in New Zealand during his Canterbury days, a household voice in wartime New Zealand when he insisted on reading the main evening news bulletin, but his fame was fading when he died. Today he is almost completely forgotten; yet his mark is everywhere in New Zealand. Music, drama, education and broadcasting still bear his imprint. The civic culture which Shelley was pivotal in creating and promoting has been beleaguered as a result of political and social changes; that much of it survives is a testament to the enduring strength of his legacy.