Born in London, he was educated at Harrow School and Christ Church College, Oxford. He became an MP in 1826, and almost immediately became a leader of the movement for factory reform. He was largely responsible for the Factory Acts of 1847, 1850, and 1859, as well as the Coal Mines Act of 1842 and the Lunacy Act of 1845. One of his chief interests was the welfare of children, and he was chairman of the Ragged Schools Union and a keen supporter of Florence Nightingale.
The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in Piccadilly Circus, London, erected in 1893, was designed to commemorate his philanthropic works. The Memorial is crowned by Alfred Gilbert's aluminium statue of a nude, winged archer. This is officially titled The Angel of Christian Charity, but has become popularly known as Eros. The use of a nude figure on a public monument was controversial at the time, but the statue has become a London icon and appears on the masthead of the Evening Standard.