John was introduced to the workplace at a young age in the cabinet trade with his father and brother. It was common for children to be sent to work and boys would often work alongside their fathers in order to follow their trade. Working class families would rarely spend time together at home as the father and sons would usually work long hours to provide financial stability. Whilst his long working hours may have prevented precious family time, Shinn dedicated his spare time to painting and drawing.
My father’s business fell always almost to nothing and from that time we gradually drifted into distress and trouble and during the next fifteen years we suffered very great privations and hardship in every way” (Shinn, p.9).
Home and family life fluctuated for Shinn and we see the ups and downs he experiences growing up. His father’s business went from successful to drastically failing which had its impact on John, meaning he would have to help out more. This curtained his childhood . Alongside the failing business, Shinn’s father also experienced a nervous breakdown for about three years. This meant John would have to look after him: ‘when at home I frequently had to sit with him in the bedroom while my mother was engaged with other domestic work’ (Shinn, p.15). John’s mother, like many women in the 19th century, was confined to the role of housewife. As his father’s business rapidly declined, Shinn remembers his childhood as stressful. Their home came under possession three times. He grew up in a large house with sixteen rooms which were rented out. He discusses the visitors who rented out the rooms in much detail, sometimes more than his own family. Perhaps this oversized family home prevented that warm family atmosphere.
Julie-Marie Strange suggests that working-class autobiographers focused on everyday activities in order to convey their childhood emotions: ‘The reflective quality of life writing enabled adult children to impose, or illustrate, affective frameworks on the mundane features of their past’ (Strange, p.35). John Shinn certainly cast light upon the ‘mundane features’ of his childhood which involved hard labour and the struggle for food. In reflecting on his family’s struggle -‘we were totally short of both food and clothing’ (Shinn, p. 15).
John goes on to admit his strong attachment and sense of duty to his parents:
One thing I shall always regret that when my parents were getting old, and were in need that my own circumstances prevented me from giving them more assistance, but I did what I could” (Shinn, p.44).
Although Shinn rarely discussed family time, this remark from his concluding chapter gives us a glimpse of a more family oriented and emotional man.
As the years progress, we follow John on his journey into his own home and family life. His first encounter with his wife was at the choir where they both sang. We see the domestic role featured again as Miss Ward stayed at home whilst John worked hard with his own music shop. He states that his ‘success in life at that time was to a great extent due to her careful thought and good judgement for which I have been grateful’ (Shinn, p.38).
Shinn fails to show his emotional side as he skims over briefly his relationship with Miss Ward. David Vincent suggests that many working class autobiographies have ‘incidents and states of emotion (that) are described in stilted and unspecific language which transmits only a limited sense of the personalities involved or the relationship which existed between them’ (Vincent, 228). Through Shinn’s memoir, we are given only ‘a limited sense’ of his love life and family life as he portrays a more reserved and ambigious account. As readers, there remains a certain mystery to us regarding Shinn and his more personal life.
John tends to focus more on his upbringing and childhood life rather than discussing his own family. Researching into John (baptized George) has led me to discover more about his family as he does not provide much information. His wife’s name was Ann Margaret Ward and they had six children. It is interesting that throughout his memoir John does not mention any of his children. His son, Frederick George Shinn, followed in his father’s footsteps and became ‘Honorary Secretary of the Royal College of Organists. Organist at this church 1893 – 1950.’ Shinn became a positive role model for his children from his musical success. While Shinn’s autobiography lacks detail about his family life, it is clear from his brief comments that he cared for them in action as well as in words.
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
Strange, J. 2014.Fatherhood and the British Working Class 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976. [Accessed: 28th March 2017]