John Shinn (1837-1925): Life and Labour

I have been through it all so that I can speak from experience, the life of the working in those days was indeed very hard, and one cannot be surprised that the workers at the present time, are both troublesome and dissatisfied” (Shinn,p.1)

Coming from a working class family, John was born with the burden of deprivation but he soon managed to create his own opportunities through his musical talent and determination.  Shinn’s memoir offers an insight into the strong and determined character he was, regardless of his class. He dedicates his memoir to the hardships of his life and labour as his purpose was to provide a ‘brief and rough sketch’ into this. From joining his father in the workshop to graduating from University of Cambridge, Shinn had worked hard all his life.  Labour was a huge part of his life as it drove him to become the successful organist he had dreamt of being ever since his first touch of a piano.

Victorian children in the workshop, similar to the life of labour John worked.

Shinn started working from the age of 10 alongside his father in the cabinet trade. The long and tiring hours were just a small obstacle for Shinn as he managed to make time after work to practice his music. He mentions the general conditions during his childhood; ‘labour was very badly paid for, and the hours of labour were very long. ‘ Shinn discusses how he felt about the working conditions he experienced in the 19th Century. Although he ‘never much liked the cabinet work’, it was his ‘living at that time’ (Shinn, p.29). He learnt to cope with the awful conditions of the workshop in order to help finance his family.

1840-1850 was the most distressing time of the 19th Century’ (Shinn, p. 9). Shinn mentions that during this period large numbers of people were in ‘great distress’ and there were many riots taking place. It is possible that Shinn here is mentioning the Chartist Movement that was most active during 1838-1848. The ultimate goal of the Chartists…was ‘to seek by every legal means to place all classes of society in possession of their equal, political, and social rights’ (British Library). As Shinn speak of in various chapters of his memoir about the poor conditions of the workshop, it appears he is sympathetic towards the motives behind this movement.

I gradually drifted into the cabinet trade which I never liked but there was nothing else to be done, but to remain and do my best and see what the future brought forth.” (Shinn, p.22).

University of Cambridge 1890-1900 where John attended.

So what did the future bring for Shinn? Success. Starting from his first organ appointment when he was 13 at Trinity Chapel,  Shinn continued to work in the church for many years, but he did not get a salary. However, this did not stop him. Shinn persevered in his career as an organist, earning himself  ‘A salary of six pounds a year for which I was very grateful as I found this money most useful at that time’ (Shinn, p.25). His salary and career continued to increase.  At 26, Shinn was earning £25 a year which allowed him to consider leaving behind the cabinet trade. (Rose,2001)

There came the time when Shinn would have to compromise balancing both the cabinet and music business. After being in the cabinet trade for 15 years, Shinn was tired of this career and believed combining the two ‘could not be carried on well together at the same time’ (Shinn, p.28).  Passion outweighed money and Shinn decided to start up his own music business as he tell us:

I started in a small way at first as my capital was very limited, for some time it was very slow and hard uphill work, but in time it gradually (but very slowly) improved. It was a great struggle to live and make ends meet.” (Shinn, p.25)

Shinn’s fascinating success made it to the local newspaper, ‘South London Press’ in 1879.

Yet again, Shinn was not defeated.  His shop on Holloway Road in London eventually became a profitable business where he composed and sold music for Sunday Schools as well as tutoring pupils.  With much hard work and perseverance I made fair progress this I kept up for some years and thus my musical knowledge increased’ (Shinn, p.20).  His knowledge increased so significantly that Shinn went on to graduate from the University of Cambridge. His success made it to the local newspaper in 1879 which shared his achievements. Coming from a working class background and being tied down from childhood labour brought out the determination in Shinn.

It is clear to see just how hardworking and determined Shinn was throughout his life. He spent much of his life trying to better himself and exceeded the limitations he faced due to his working class back ground. Making the decision to leave behind the cabinet trade and pursue his musical career exemplifies just how inspiring Shinn is.

Works Cited:

Rose, J. (2001) The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven, CT: 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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