James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Education and Schooling


Education and Schooling

The issue of education seems to be a sensitive subject for our author. He does not appear to have recieved any official form of education. He was extremely poor, had recently been orphaned and lived with his Grandmother, who it seems did not take any interest in educating her grandson, so there is little wonder he did not recieve a formal education. McKenzie says himself that the ‘The School Board was in its infancy-1874’ which helps explain why he managed to slip under the radar. Add to this the fact that McKenzie is only six years old when he should be getting an education, it can be understood that he would be more interested in playing with friends, rather than going to school: ‘My home was in one of the worst districts of London, and my playground was on the banks of mud, phased with a crowd of other boys and girls of all ages, Schooling was not so…(compulsory)…strict…those times’.(1, parenthesis by author)

It was indeed only the start of the Elementary Education Act, as pictured below. As David Vincent describes, in relation to the working classes: ‘Elementary Education could be regarded as an outstanding example of successful cooperation between private philanthropy and public intervention.'(1)


A School Board Meeting in 1871. BBC Primary History, Victorian Britain: Children at school

However, for McKenzie, living in various places with a number of different family members did not help his situation. McKenzie was unable to settle in one place and this put pressure in his life to recieve any formal education. However, as he got older, he did have a desire to learn when living with his uncle. Maybe a desire to get away from the clutches of the psychological and physical abuse that he had recieved from his uncle led to this yearning for knowledge: ‘I passed my time in the stable,[…] in the attic looking at the pictures in the old books, till Joe found me to take me to meals.’ (19)

Despite the fact that the school boards had not been fully established, McKenzie was nearly sent to school by his uncle. McKenzie ran away from home rather than gain an education, which could be in defiance of the fact that his uncle wanted to send him away to boarding school: ‘Bob why dont you send the boy to school.’ (23A) Boarding schools during this time had notorious reputations, but were not as bad as Ragged Schools of the time.

It is only later on, after running away to join the circus that McKenzie realises his dire situation in not being able to read or write. His tone comes across as ashamed throughout the text. McKenzie felt the need to explain why he had not still recieved any form of schooling and writes:

‘That shifting to one relative to another created a feeling I would like to leave all relations.’ (49)

‘I had never been sent to school! The Board schools were just being talked about, so I could neithe read nor write, through being an orphan and being bandied about to one relative to the other, this retarded my education. I think wanderlust was born in me, and a taste of the open country egg’d me on, and I wanted to keep away from my relatives. I felt I had enough of them, one sick the very poor.’ (54)

James H. McKenzie finally learnt to read and write when he ran away with a family of Gypsies and joined the circus. In the end it took his self motivation, coinciding with his lust for travelling, to recieve an education from his adoptive family on the road: ‘I shall always remember this good old man for he taught me to read and write his Caravan was the School Room.’ (86)


Typical Gypsy encampment, circa 1870 (above)

The previous passages clearly show the reader that his home-life affected his education. His ‘shifting’ from one place to another made certain that he never had the opportunity for a formal education as there was little time for him to be enrolled or get settled. Maybe this uncertainty in his levels of education helped produce his ‘wanderlust?’

All in all, McKenzie had a fraught relationship with the idea of education and schooling. He was aware that the educational systems in place during his childhood were not the best that they could be yet his lack of a formal education was a source of shame during his adult years. It would appear to us that he was a innately intelligent man, which comes across in his autobiography. He might not have gotten the grades in a classroom setting, but his many years of life on the road helped him gain a vast knowledge that cannot be taught from books.

Joanna Bourke, in her essay, Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960 explains: ‘The passive acceptance of a middle-class ideology of domesticity does not explain the popularity of domestic education amongst working-class girls and women. For them domestic education was a way they actively sought to redefine their status as women withinthe household.’ (2)

This passage can be applied to the experiences of James H. McKenzie during his formative experiences with education. Although our author obviously differs from the subject of Bourke’s essay as he is male, the comparisons are still clear. He sought to change his economic status through gaining an education, and learning to read and write was the first step. His education might have been an unusual one, but as we can see from the very existence of an autobiography, it was a successful one. He was not willing to passively accept his lot in life and strived to make a success of himself. Even though he had some rich relatives he still experienced abject poverty, and it was these experiences coupled with a desire to learn (stemming from his shame in having no formal education) that allowed our author to lead such an exciting life.


(1) (Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Cultue: England 1750-1914. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1989; p53)

(2) (Bourke, Joanna. Working -Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960. Gender, class and ethicity. London, Routledge, 1994. p68)

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