William Shaw was born in Glasgow on 8 December 1798, the 11th child of a sergeant in the North York Militia. After his father retired he became the charge of two of his brothers (both sergeants in the said militia) and became a soldier himself. His conversion to Methodism in 1812 may have hampered his army career and whilst serving in Ireland in 1815 he, with a large number of other soldiers, was discharged. He returned to England and became a local preacher in Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, setting up a day school in 1816 and marrying Ann Maw (1788-1854) on 30 December 1817. His marriage prohibited him from being ordained for ministerial work in Britain but not in her colonies and he therefore answered an advertisement to be the chaplain to Sephton's party of British settlers to South Africa. After some initial reluctance the MMS agreed and he was ordained on 25 November 1819 and departed for South Africa aboard the 'Aurora' in February 1820.
Shaw and the settlers arrived at Algoa Bay in April 1820. From there they travelled over 100 miles to the Assagi Valley and founded the settlement of Salem. Shaw preached to the settlers not only in Salem (where a chapel was built in 1821) but to the wider community of colonists (of many denominations) in an area covering c1,500 miles of the Eastern Cape. Grahamstown, although quite a small settlement at that time, became the administrative centre for his work and he founded the 'Yellow Chapel' there in 1821. However, whilst Shaw was preaching to the colonists he was also planning on how to preach to the Kaffir [Xhosa] tribes in the area. He suggested to the WMMS in London that a 'chain' of missions be built from the coast of Kaffraria to Natal & Delagoa Bay [Maputo Bay, Mozambique] to enable him (and others) to preach to the indigenous peoples. The first of these missions, Wesleyville, Shaw began in 1823 with Mount Coke following in 1825 and then Butterworth (1827), Morley (1829), Clarkebury (1830) and Buntingville (1830). In 1829 Shaw again took up residence amongst the colonists, although in Grahamstown this time, but still maintained overall control of the missions to indigenous peoples.
In 1833 Shaw returned to England and preached in Leeds. However, after 4 years he returned to South Africa (arriving March 1837) settling in Grahamstown with responsibility for the 'Albany and Kafferland District'. Under Shaw the Methodist mission continued to expand creating new chapels - including in Bathurst, Fort Beaufort and Port Elizabeth in the 1830s - as well as additional missions being added to his 'chain' (including Shawbury in 1839 and Palmerton in 1845), with others having to be rebuilt due to damage caused during the various conflicts that broke out. Throughout his period in South Africa Shaw often acted as an aid to communication between the colonial administration and the local indigenous peoples (and vice versa). In 1854 Shaw's wife Ann died and by 1856 his health had significantly deteriorated forcing him to leave in March of that year. The contrast of the Methodist mission (in what was commonly known as the Albany and Kaffraria district) between when Shaw had arrived and a few years after his departure is stark. In 1820 Shaw had 63 church members, no colleagues, no chapels and only a reserve of 10 pounds sterling. In 1860 there were 3 sub-districts comprising 51 circuits with 74 chapels and 183 preaching stations containing 36 missionaries, 96 assistants and a membership approaching 5,000 with an annual income of 3,500 pounds sterling.
As Shaw's health recovered he worked at the discretion of the missionary committee. In April 1857 he was part of a missionary deputation to Ireland. Upon his return he took up residence in Croydon, Surrey, where he worked on his revised translation of the New Testament into Kaffir [Xhosa], promoted missionary work and undertook some preaching locally. On 12 March 1857 he married again this time to Elizabeth Ogle (nee Shaw) at Liverpool Road Chapel, Islington, London. Although eager to return to South Africa his health prevented him from doing so and thus he began preaching in home circuits (for the best part of a decade) beginning in Liverpool (1860) followed by Bristol (1863), Chelsea (1865), York (1868) and Brixton (1869). In 1865 he was President of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference. However, his connection to the mission in South Africa remained strong and in 1860 he suggested to the missionary committee of the WMMS that an independent Methodist connexion be formed in South Africa comprising of five districts. The committee declined this advice on the grounds that such a connexion would not be fiscally self-sufficient. Just over twenty years later such a connexion was formed, partly based on Shaw's advice. Shaw became a supernumerary in 1869 and died on the 3rd (possibly 4th) December 1872 in Brixton, Surrey.
[Boyce, W B], Memoir of the Rev. William Shaw, late General Superintendent of the Wesleyan missions in south-eastern Africa (1874);
Davies, H, Great South African Christians (1951);
Findlay & Holdsworth, The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (vol 4, 1922);
Hammond-Tooke, W D, The Journal of William Shaw (1972);
Hewson, L, An introduction to South African Methodists (1950);
Sadler, C, Never a young man: extracts from the letters and journals of the Rev. William Shaw (1967);
Shaw, W, A letter to the Right Hon. the Earl of Aberdeen, K.C.B., one of His Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State, etc, on the subject of the late irruption of the Caffres, into the British settlement of Albany, South Africa (1835);
Shaw, W, A defence of the Wesleyan missionaries in southern Africa: comprising copies of a correspondence with the Reverend John Philip, D.D., an introduction and appendix (1839);
Shaw, W, The story of my mission in south eastern Africa: comprising some account of the European colonists; with extended notices of the Kaffir and other native tribes (1860);
Whiteside, J, History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of South Africa (1906).