Henry Shirley was born in 1902 in Staffordshire, England, the youngest of 13 children. His family emigrated to Auckland in 1906. He was educated at Ponsonby School and won a scholarship to Auckland Grammar. On leaving school, Henry Shirley worked as a clerk but then became ambitious to become a professional musician. To do this, he took jobs playing the piano for silent movies before working his passage to Britain as a ship's musician. He studied the piano while he was there, attained his L.R.A.M. and kept himself going by taking jobs in the music industry.
On his return to NZ in 1926 he studied piano with professor Moor-Karoly. After his marriage in 1929 Henry and his wife went to Vienna and London where he continued his studies and again worked as a pianist, composer, conductor and arranger. He returned to NZ in 1939 and worked in broadcasting, at the same time building up an extensive teaching practice.
During the 1940s Henry won prizes for his piano compositions in the competitions run by Charles Begg. He also wrote several songs and his Concerto in F minor for piano and orchestra. At this time, Henry organized the re-launch of the Auckland Competitions and formed the first Guild of NZ Composers. He organized the approach to the Auckland City Council which led to the development of the first Auckland Festival. Henry also served on the Board of the New Zealand Registered Music Teachers Association.
Henry Shirley's biography Just a Bloody Piano Player was published by Price Publications in 1971. He died in 1976.