Introducing John Shinn (1837-1925) – Writing Lives

Introducing John Shinn (1837-1925)

Born in London, 1837, John Shinn provides an intriguing insight into his life through his memoir ‘A Sketch of My Life and Times.’ It is fascinating that Shinn, who came from a poor and deprived background, grew up to become a talented organist playing regularly in various churches in London. After researching into this author, I have found Shinn in the . This revealed that John actually went by the name George Shinn which is further supported by birth records. George was born on the same day, date and location. As his father was named John as well, it is highly likely that he was born George, but referred to as John after his father. This interesting and valuable piece of information is just one aspect of John which drew me into exploring him further.

Birth and Baptismal records of George Shinn.

The form of the memoir provides an intimate personal experience for the writer which is then passed on for the readers to engage with. As a reader, you begin to feel as though you are on a journey with Shinn, experiencing his ‘hardships’ as well as his triumphant achievements.

I don’t think I ought to be dissatisfied with the social position I have attained and the progress I have made considering the many hardships & difficulties I have had to content with through my whole life” (Shinn, 44)

Insight into John’s memoir and his challenging handwriting!

The journey Shinn embarks on is an inspiring one. Growing up and working in the cabinet trade, at the young age of 10 from 8am-7pm, to opening his own music shop, Shinn was able to better his own life. For many years, John was ‘sent into the workshop to occupy my time.’ He was disinterested in this trade, but it was part of Victorian childhood to slave away in workshops from such an early age. This was just the start for Shinn. He moved on from the furniture trade to becoming an organist at various churches. He remained in London all his life.

Throughout his memoir we are informed of the various movements John takes around the city. We are provided with many detailed events of his life and he touches upon many interesting themes. These include education, labour, social mobility, and even friendships. Shinn mentions several friendships throughout his life and one in particular with his close friend John Taylor lasted an amazing 70 years. It is these little remembered details which makes you feel more connected to the author.

My education was entirely lost” (Shinn,17)

              Smithfield Market in 1837

Having been deprived as a child, and drifting into ‘distress and trouble’ (Shinn, p.9) the lack of education made things worse for John. His parents were unable to send John to school. However, education was not accessible so John began to read books which allowed him to make some progress. But the cabinet workshop became central to his childhood and there was little time to focus on education.

The loss of education pushed Shinn to strive for a life that would better himself in the hierarchical society he found himself. With his father’s business suffering, John felt much pressure to help out with the family income. Any spare time John could find, he started to dedicate to musical instruments. The predominate discussion in his memoir is dedicated to his musical career and the passion he discovered for music. It all started with the violin. He would practice after the exhausting work hours, but it was something John desired to learn. His musical knowledge and passion spiralled, he found himself now learning how to play the piano. Practice paid off for John and after joining Trinity Chapel Sunday school and he found himself playing the organ during Sunday service.

Image of an organ in the 1800s.

His memoir entices the reader and you are left craving more about the author. As you immerse yourself in Shinn’s life, you begin to feel a sense of pride for him as his perseverance enables him to achieve things that break the stereotypical portrayals of working class people. Shinn regularly mentions the importance he felt surrounding education and the loss of it during his youth. However, whilst difficult at the time of his youth, this struggle started to vanish. Towards the end of his memoir, in 1889, Shinn passed his exams for a Mus Bac Degree (Bachelor Degree in Music) at Cambridge University. To come from a struggling working class background, to passing ‘satisfactory without a failure’ (Shinn, p.40), is something quite incredible.

John repeats himself throughout his memoir. Two particular words he echoes are perseverance and persistence. These two words sum up the author and it is these two attributes that allow him to excel in life.


Works Cited:

Humphreys, M. and Evans, R. (1997b) Dictionary of composers for the church in Great Britain and Ireland. London: Mansell Publishing.

Shinn, John. ‘A Sketch of my Life and Times’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:622.

622 SHINN, John, ‘A Sketch of My Life and Times’, MS, pp.46 (c.7,500words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood. education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), p.187-92. Brunel University Library.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.