John Shinn (1837-1925): Autobiography, Class and Schooling

   At the time of my school age my parents were very poor and in great distress and private schools were few and very expensive therefore my education was entirely lost which  has been to me the most greatest trouble but that was no fault of mine” (Shinn, 17).

Boy reading. Alexandros Christofis (1882-1953)

Shinn uses his memoir to reflect on the loss of his education that he suffered during his childhood. Whilst the upper class of the Nineteenth Century were able to take advantage of a higher quality of education through private schooling, the working class were deprived of this. Although education was not as accessible to him, John informs us that his mother would read ‘from the bible and other suitable books’ (Shinn, 18).  Religious education was a key part of teaching, for the working class: ‘the bible was the textbook used for learning to read’ (Larsen and Ferguson, 2017). Nevertheless, John had to be more focused on the workshop instead of  educating himself.

John attended Sunday school at Trinity Chapel in London which allowed him to also develop his musical talent. For many working class children, ‘only the Sunday schools offered opportunities for serious musical education, performance and composition, via hymns’ (Rose, 196). Sunday schools grew in popularity with increasing numbers of children attending.

In 1818, there were 425,000 children attending and by 1851 this number rapidly grew to 2,600,000 (Laqueur). Shinn is mentioned in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes as he discusses that ‘Poverty virtually barred John Shinn from formal schooling’ (Rose, 196). However, this did not stop John from becoming educated in music. He taught himself how to play the violin and piano. In his Sunday school lessons he was allowed to play on the organ. As his knowledge developed, John found himself playing the organ during evening services which led to him becoming the church organist at St Jude’s Whitechapel. If it was not for Trinity Chapel Sunday school John would not have had the opportunity to flourish as a music professor.

            All the education I got I had to get for myself” (Shinn, 44)

Although he was deprived of formal education, John persevered in educating himself with musical instruments. He would make time after his long and tiring days of hard labour to practising with the various instruments his father was given. Education may have been ‘lost’, but this was not an obstacle for John.

I have had many difficulties and trials to bear, the greatest trial has been the want of education” (Shinn, 44).

Painting of Trinity Chapel where John attended Sunday school.

John craved education. Throughout his memoir he continues to mention how important education is to us and how strongly he urged for it during his childhood. Reflecting back on his life, he states that ‘Seventy years back there were no board schools and private schools were very expensive and out of reach’ (Shinn, 44). Despite the lack of education during the early period of Shinn’s life, he was accepted into the University of Cambridge. This in itself speaks volumes regarding education. John had defeated the working class stereotype and excelled in his musical career. Evidently, the working class children of the time had the ability to shine intellectually, they were just limited in their opportunities to do so.

Works Cited:

Larsen, T. and Ferguson, E., 2017. When did Sunday Schools start? Available at: (Accessed: 19 February 2017).

Laqueur, Thomas Walter., 1976. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and English Working Class Culture, 1780-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rose, Jonathan., 2001. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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, 500 words). Brunel University Library. 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

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