John Shinn (1837-1925): Reading and Writing

Shinn hardly mentions any details about reading and writing in his memoir. Instead, he dedicates it to his early childhood labour and musical success. I believe this is due to the purpose behind his memoir as his primary focus appeared to be about  his ‘hardships and trials’ experience throughout his life. He intended to leave an insight for us readers surrounding the conditions of the workshop.

This is a psalm book from the 1800’s which is similar to the book Shinn would read at Sunday School.

Shinn speaks briefly about how there was a substantial amount of people who were unable to read or write ‘during the first half of the 19th Century.’ Whilst attending Sunday School, Shinn mentions that ‘psalms were read not sung’ (Shinn,p.21).  Sunday schools taught children to read, so reading the psalms allowed them to practice their literacy skills. From 1830, the levels of literacy began to rise. As Shinn was born in 1837, this rise took place around his childhood. However, there was still a vast majority of children who were uneducated. Sunday schools for the working class was the only opportunity for children to improve their reading and writing skills.

Due to his frantic childhood and long hours in the workshop, there was ‘very little time for study or self improvement about this period’ (Shinn,p.23).  As a result of this, we are not given an insight to the impact that reading and writing had on his life. Shinn’s time was spent either working or practising music. When Shinn came across the piano stored in his house, he began to teach himself to read music. Following his musical success, Shinn went on to compose his own music.

Shinn’s new piece of music featuring in the local newspaper- The Graphic 1888.

He released a piece called “Captives of Babylon” as shown in the newspaper article I found announcing his work. In his memoir, Shinn speaks of a ‘new Cantata Calvary’ he was working on two years back (1820). He had hoped this would be one of his ‘best works.’ However, falling eye sight ‘compelled me to give it up… I fear that I shall never be able to complete it’ (Shinn, p.43). Shinn passed away two years after he wrote his memoir so whether he completed this piece of music remains a mystery.

Education therefore played a significant role in Shinn’s life. Whilst he does not focus on his reading or writing in great detail, we are informed that he did the best he could to gain an education. Sunday school was a crucial platform for Shinn as well as tutoring himself to read music.

Works Cited:

Brown, R., 2017. Literacy: revised version. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 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.

Sunday School Library Collection: A Brief History of the Sunday School Movement. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2017].

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