John Shinn (1837-1925): Respectability and Improvement

I often wonder how I have been able to attain my present position, but it has only been done by… perseverance and constant hard work  and careful saving which has never ceased” (Shinn, p.1)

John Shinn is a fascinating author who offers continuous inspiration throughout his memoir surrounding the hardships and struggles he has faced. Respectability and improvement are recurring themes found in Shinn’s memoir which he had gained by his ‘constant hard work and careful saving.’  His determination rewarded him with a certain respectability that was acknowledged when Shinn passed his music exam ‘without a failure’ (Shinn, 40) at Cambridge University. Throughout his memoir, Shinn consistently strives towards self-improvement that allows him to better both himself and family.

Holloway Road 1910, the street where John opened up his music shop.

As Shinn takes us on a journey into his life, he never fails to mention the reason behind his success – perseverance. Even when entering the workshop at 10, Shinn always worked to the best of his ability. This may not have been his ideal career, but he continued to work in order to help out his family. When his father’s business was struggling, Shinn had ‘to give my own parents a little help’ (Shinn, p.17). During his childhood, he would put his family first  in the attempt to better their struggling financial status.

Through his hard work Shinn soon improved his status. Initially, his capital was very ‘small’, however his financial situation soon became stable. From working hard in the workshop from a young age to opening his own shop, Shinn explores the concept of social mobility. His salary therefore slowly began to grow and he found himself earning £25 per year at Trinity Chapel. This amount of money was a significant help to him as saving this up allowed Shinn to purchase his own shop and pursue his musical passion.

In the study, Recent Findings of Research in Economic & Social History,  Andrew Miles concludes that ‘the rate of social mobility in nineteenth and early twenty-century England increased steadily’ (Miles, p.4). It is clear that Shinn who had embarked on a journey of social mobility had begun to erase his previous working class background. Miles further points out that, ‘A study of almost 500 texts and abstracts sampled from Burnett, Vincent and Mayall’s anthology of working-class autobiography…involved at least one major shift in employment’ (Miles, p.3). Shinn’s memoir echoes Miles’ observation as he experienced ‘one major shift in employment.’ After being in the cabinet trade for fifteen years, Shinn decided to leave this career behind and pursue music. Taking this plunge eventually worked for Shinn evident through his musical accomplishments.

All this made it very hard work for me, but it paid in the end… I did this to increase my income” (Shinn, 30). 

This memoir provides an account into how Shinn breached the working class boundaries attached to him. Instead of accepting any potential limitations, he persevered and saved his earnings to provide stability for both his family and career. As readers we embark with Shinn on his personal journey of self-improvement and social mobility during the Nineteenth Century.

Works Cited:

Miles, A. 1996. Social Mobility in Nineteenth-Century England. Recent Findings of Research in Economic & Social History.  [Accessed 1 Apr. 2017]

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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