John Shinn (1837-1925): The Musical Journey to Success

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).

Music was John’s life as he devotes his memoir to his musical journey and fascinating success. As Shinn had consistent determination to strive towards his musical ambitions, I feel a post dedicated to his achievements and music effectively sums up the character of John Shinn.

Music is the predominant theme in Shinn’s memoir.

It all began when Shinn’s father ‘came into a possession of violin which he gave to me as I was fond of music’ (Shinn, p.18) in 1845. Shinn would have been just 7 years old when he was first introduced to a musical instrument. He purchased a cheap tutor as well as teaching himself after the tiring work hours.  Following this, Shinn experienced his ‘first touch of a piano about 1847.’ Growing up in working class conditions could have limited Shinn to broadening his musical knowledge. However, he broke any boundaries and luck was on his side when his father was given an old cabinet piano from a friend. As the piano was of easy access, Shinn would teach himself, similar to the violin and soon became confident with this instrument.

Over the years Shinn’s determination and talent grew. During his time at Sunday School with his brother, the organist Mr Dury offered Shinn to play the organ once a week. He writes, ‘this was great help to me’ (Shinn, p.26).  His success continued to flourish as he was then given the opportunity to play during the week as well as Sundays. Following this, Shinn then had his first ‘real appointment’ on ‘Dec 19th 1858’ at St Peter’s Church in London. Remembering these specific dates and details  illuminates Shinn’s passion towards his musical career.

Shinn advertising his business to any pupils wanting to learn music.

Evaluating his success after several years allowed Shinn to leave behind the cabinet trade he had known all his life and focus solely on music. ‘I took a small house and shop in the Holloway Road Islington, which I opened for the sale of music and musical instruments’ (Shinn, p.34). Researching into this author further, I discovered various newspaper articles and advertisements that show his success (see my Life and Labour post). There is another particular advertisement Shinn placed in the South London Press (Saturday 19 May 1883) for pupils seeking a musical tutor. After gaining such talent and invaluable knowledge, Shinn desired to share this with many pupils willing to learn music.

Teaching, either as a full time occupation or a supplement to other forms of professional work, was another major avenue for the aspiring musician” (Russell, p.281)

Reading Dave Russell’s seminal study, Popular Music in England 1840-1914: A Social History,  offers an insight into the world of music during  the period of Shinn’s  life. He points out that ‘choirs and bands offered endless opportunity for basic sociability, and sometimes more’ (Russell, 272).  As Shinn started off in a choir at Sunday School which led to his organ success, he was provided with the opportunity for ‘sociability’ and to exceed his working class background. Leaving the furniture trade and teaching music ‘was another major avenue for the aspiring musician’ that served in boosting Shinn’s music career. Music ultimately provided Shinn with the social mobility platform that allowed him to better himself and his future family.

Christ Church where John watched some of the greatest organists play.

Watching George Cooper and Samuel Noble play the evening service at Christ Church was ‘one of the greatest treats’ (Shinn, p.31). It is fascinating that George, an influence for Shinn, is featured in the Dictionary of Composers for the Church in Great Britain and Ireland where Shinn is also included. To be mentioned in the same book of acknowledgement would be a very proud moment for Shinn if he had lived to know this.

It was mentioned in various papers that Shinn also played at Crystal Palace in 1865 for a children’s concert. This is a particular location he mentions in his memoir when observing the London culture around him. He describes it as ‘a very beautiful building.’ When in the cabinet trade, he built a stand to exhibit glass at the Great Exhibition on May 1st 1851′ (Shinn, 28). From creating a minor piece amongst many fantastic collections to performing a concert there is yet another incredible achievement. His knowledge and talent grew incredibly, so much so that Shinn found himself graduating with a music degree from the University of Cambridge. Publishing such events to the city highlights his extraordinary intelligence.

In taking a survey of my life 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 and difficulties I have had to content with through my whole life” (Shinn, p.44).

Shinn writes poignantly about music and his passion oozes from chapter to chapter. When reading his memoir, I could feel the excitement in his tone when discussing certain moments of his life. It seems he was so proud of the journey he had made that he has to mention every little detail about his first moment with the piano, to his promotion of organist at St Judes. Music continued to run in Shinn’s family as his son Frederick George Shinn became a famous organist who produced several books on music. Discovering this shows further supports the positive role model that Shinn must of been to his family.

Although frequent mention is made of the hard times of his childhood Shinn offers glimpses rather than detail, and concentrates instead on his musical career” (Burnett et al)

As Burnett et al points out in Shinn’s autobiography entry, music dominates Shin’s memoir. His journey summarised started from ‘ran own business selling music and musical instruments (1864-1); church organist (1850-1915); music teacher.’

Shinn was a determined and aspiring man who reached his goal of musical success. Ultimately, his success sparks the idea that the working class should not be penalised for their background, they are just as capable as any other class. Starting off as a voluntary organist to excelling in his musical degree at University of Cambridge, John really is a role model for us all.


Works Cited:

Russell, D., 1997. Popular Music in England, 1840-1914 Manchester: Manchester 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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