John Shinn (1837-1925): Habits, Belief and Culture

John Shinn introduces his two predominant habits of painting and playing music  that became an everyday occupation during his childhood. Despite growing up in a working-class family, Shinn’s habits did not reflect the typical working class pleasures as they revolved around his desire to better himself.  Involving himself in such creative activities offered him the opportunity to broaden the stigma behind the working class. Shinn instead provides us a different account of childhood – an ambitious one that breaks away from the confinements of the workshop.

I used to practice in the workshop by the light of a candle at the end of the day after work was done which afforded me great pleasure and satisfaction and occupied my time and mind” (Shinn, 18).

Illustration of children drawing in the Victorian era.

Shinn’s interest in both music and drawing rescued him from the hardships of his childhood. As Ross McKibben points out in his study, The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain, 1880–1950, ‘Non-vocational interests rescued workers from inanition of factory labour’ (McKibbin, p.140). Starting this habit from a young age moulded John into the determined and inspirational man he became. It started off as something to distract him from the hard labour and family struggles which then developed into a successful growing music business. From the moment Shinn stumbled across a second hand piano left in his father’s house, it became a part of his life routine. After working horrific hours in the workshop, he always managed to find time to practice music or paint and draw.

Prior to his musical interest, Shinn speaks of how ‘passionately fond’ he was of drawing and painting. He tells us that he spent much of his time drawing when he could get paper and paints to work with, but ‘our distress at that time made this a great difficulty’ (Shinn, 10). Due to his working class background, as discussed in my Life and Labour post, Shinn found it hard to pursue his habit and passion. Any money Shinn received went towards purchasing ‘paints or pencils to draw and paint’ (Shinn, 10).

Painting of women drinking in the Nineteenth Century

As his parents rented out their home to many tenants, Shinn became familiar with the habits and culture of the time. He speaks of Bethan, a woman who rented a room, pointing out that she ‘was a great gin drinker, a habit very common with many old ladies at that time’ (Shinn, p.7). Incorporating other habits of the time offers an interesting comparison into the diversity of different lifestyles in the Nineteenth Century.

Percy Vere’s habit and passion for collecting cars, as discussed in Jess White’s ‘Habits, Belief and Culture’ post relates to Shinn in some respect. Although they are born in different centuries, both Vere and Shinn explore more innocent and exciting habits that they maintained through their determination. Vere, like Shinn, speaks of his determination in his memoir;  ‘Hard work and perseverance paid off in the end and it was worth it.’ (Vere, 20). Shinn also mentions his own hard work and perseverance, ‘it has only been done by… perseverance and constant hard work’ (Shinn, 20). Despite being born in different centuries, these two authors share similarities in their intriguing habits and consistent hard work.

Discussing Shinn’s innocent and creative habits as opposed to the more rebellious and violent ones continues to contribute towards his fascinating character.

Works Cited:

McKibbin, R., 1990. The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain, 1880–1950. Oxford: Clarendon 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.

White, J. “Percy Vere (H.V.Smith (b.1913): Habits, Belief and Culture’ [Accessed 20th April]

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