Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth was born James Kay at Rochdale in Lancashire on 20 July 1804, to Robert and Hannah (née Phillips) Kay. His father was a cotton merchant. One of five children, he was baptized at Bamford Chapel, where he later taught at the boys' Sunday School. In the tradition of dissenting families, he was educated at Leaf Square Grammar School in Pendleton, Salford.
After schooling he worked in the banking house of Fenton, Roby and Cunliffe in Rochdale which was owned by a relative, his uncle, Joseph Fenton. In 1824 he enrolled at Edinburgh University, Scotland, to study medicine. At Edinburgh, Kay-Shuttleworth enjoyed a brilliant academic career, and also gained invaluable practical medical experience. He became the senior president of the Royal Medical Society for the 1825-26 session. He became Clerk of Wards at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, and he also studied anatomy in Dublin, Ireland. In both cities he observed the effects of urban poverty.
After graduating in 1827, Kay-Shuttleworth returned to Lancashire and settled in Manchester as a physician, lodging initially in King Street and then setting up permanent residence in St. Peter's Square. In 1828 he was one of the founders of the Ancoats and Ardwick Dispensary, in one of the poorest areas of the city. He was founding editor of the North of England Medical and Surgical Journal. During the cholera epidemic of 1832 he served as Secretary to the Manchester Board of Health and at Knott Mill Cholera Hospital on Deansgate. During this time Kay once more witnessed first-hand the grim living conditions of the urban poor, many of whom were cotton operatives. This experience prompted Kay to embark on a lifelong crusade for public health and education reform. He published several pamphlets on living conditions in Manchester, including the key text, The Moral and Physical Conditions of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832), which pre-dates the famous Friedrich Engels book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written during his stay in Manchester in 1842; and The Defects of Construction of Dispensaries (1834). These pamphlets were followed by several local initiatives of sanitary and educational reform.
Kay-Shuttleworth was a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and of the Manchester Mechanics Institute. He was active in political circles, supporting liberal causes, particularly the anti-Corn Law agitation. He supported the Reform Bill (1832), producing an anonymous pamphlet, A Letter to the People of Lancashire (1831), which demonstrated his Whig sympathies. From 1833-1834 he was instrumental in establishing the Manchester Statistical Society, the Manchester and Salford and District Provident Society, and the Manchester Medical Society.
At the same time as his involvement in these issues, Kay-Shuttleworth continued his research into the subject of asphyxia, publishing a major treatise on the subject in 1834, The Physiology, Pathology and Treatment of Asphyxia. This work later secured him the Fothergillian gold medal from the Royal Humane Society.
Kay-Shuttleworth's reforming activities in Manchester brought him to the attention of the government and in 1835 he was appointed as an Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, administering the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, a role which involved him in implementing the new Poor Law and managing schemes such as the government controlled labour migration. He later administered the [London] metropolitan district including Middlesex and Surrey. In 1838 he began to use a pauper establishment at Norwood, in South London, as a model school for the training of teachers and as means of demonstrating his ideas. He produced many important reports on the training and education of pauper children, including The Training of Pauper Children (1839), which established his authority in the field of pedagogy.
Kay-Shuttleworth developed a great interest in educational reform, particularly the establishment of a national education system. In 1839 he was appointed as the first Secretary to the Whig government's Committee of the Privy Council on Education which administered grants for public education. He also continued to work as the superintendent of metropolitan schools for pauper children under the Poor Law Board. In 1840, along with Edward Carlton Tufnell, he helped set up a private teacher training college at Battersea, the first of its kind, which later received public funds. He and Tufnell privately supported Battersea until 1843. The college was subsequently renamed as St John's College. In 1926, it merged with St Mark's College in Chelsea (the first Principal of which was the Rev. Derwent Coleridge), becoming known as the College of St Mark and St John.
Many of Kay-Shuttleworth's views on educational reform, such as the need for teacher training, a system of schools inspection, non-denominational religious education united to secular instruction, and the co-ordination of local and national educational expenditure, became the accepted wisdom in the coming decades, and he lived to see many of his ideas put into practice.
In 1842, after the unsuccessful courtship of Helen Kennedy from the wealthy Manchester cotton family, Kay, by now a conformist, married Lady Janet Shuttleworth, the heiress of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. He adopted the surname Kay-Shuttleworth on the royal license of the marriage. Their first child, Janet Elizabeth was born in 1843, followed by Ughtred James in 1844, Robert in 1847, and Lionel Edward in 1849. This marriage joined the family of Kay with those of Shuttleworth and North. Janet Shuttleworth (née Marjoribanks), mother of Janet, the Gawthorpe heiress, was married to Frederick North, the Liberal MP for Hastings, after the death of her first husband Robert Shuttleworth.
In 1848, Kay-Shuttleworth collapsed at work, and in 1849 he resigned from the Privy Council Committee due to ill health; he was subsequently made a Baronet. He continued to take an active interest in all aspects of social reform, producing many pamphlets on a variety of subjects. He worked to improve his wife's estate at Gawthorpe, employing architect Charles Barry to design the renovations to Gawthorpe Hall in 1851-1852. Not long after the birth of the fifth Kay-Shuttleworth child, Stewart Marjoribanks, in 1851, Janet Kay-Shuttleworth moved to the Continent on the grounds of ill health. She settled at San Remo in Italy with her eldest child Janet Elizabeth, her two youngest sons, Stewart and Lionel, and the family governess, a Polish woman named Rosa Poplawska.
A subsequent recovery of health allowed Kay-Shuttleworth to return briefly to the sphere of politics when in his Letter to Earl Granville, K.G., on the Revised Code of Regulations (1861), he attacked the code of regulations for government grants to elementary schools which Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrook, had introduced. After the passage of the Reform Bill in 1867, he produced his Memorandum on Popular Education (1868), which continued his attack on the Revised Code. Forster's Education Act of 1870 firmly established public elementary education, and Kay-Shuttleworth listened as his son, Ughtred Kay-Shuttleworth devoted his maiden speech in the House of Commons to the bill. His last foray into the world of politics was in 1870 when he made an unsuccessful effort to enter parliament, standing as a Liberal for North-East Lancashire.
In later life Kay-Shuttleworth turned his hand to literary endeavours and he wrote two novels: Scarsdale, or Life on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Border Thirty years ago, (3 volumes, 1860), and Ribblesdale, or Lancashire Sixty Years Ago (3 volumes, 1874). A third historical novel, Cromwell in the North, 1648, A Story (9 volumes), and his autobiography, To review the sources of the chief impulses which have governed a life without egotism (1877), both remained unpublished at his death in 1877. He befriended the writer Charlotte Brontë, unsuccessfully offering her husband a living at Habergham Parish Church, whilst the first vicar, the Rev. Edward Arundel Verity was absent. Kay-Shuttleworth introduced Brontë to writer Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote her biography after her death.
During the years of the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861-1865), Kay-Shuttleworth become involved in the administrative work of relieving the sufferings of cotton operatives. He acted as Vice Chairman of the Central Relief Committee in Manchester, at Lord Derby's instigation. He was also active in the reform of local grammar schools in Giggleswick and Burnley in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and in 1864 he was appointed a governor of the endowed school at Giggleswick. He also endeavoured to improve the education of middle-class girls.
From 1870-1873 he served as a member of the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science. His interest in politics continued, with him contesting unsuccessfully, North East Lancashire in the 1874 election as a Liberal.
Janet Kay-Shuttleworth died in 1872 and was buried in Soden, Germany. Ughtred, as the eldest son and heir, moved into Gawthorpe Hall while Kay-Shuttleworth moved to another part of the estate, Barbon Manor in Westmorland. Janet Elizabeth inherited her mother's villa and property in San Remo, Italy. James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth died in 1877, aged 73 years, at his home, 68 Cromwell Road in Kensington, London. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
Sir James Phillips and his children did not hyphenate the Kay-Shuttleworth name; this was adopted by the family in later years, and is now the accepted form.