James H. McKenzie (1862 -1952): An Introduction

“I am in conversation with them; my circus and show stories, amused them, no matter where ever I have been these stories of mine always attracted interest”.

James H. McKenzie, ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’ , Pg 153.

James H. McKenzie’s words stand as a true testament to the life and career of an accomplished individual. Even when out of the spotlight, James’ passion for entertaining people with his humour and charm is undoubtable. Over the course of his 55,000-word memoir entitled ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’, James invites his readers to relive an astonishing life that spanned from the mid-Victorian period to postwar Britain. In its entirety, the handwritten memoir is 338 pages long, and much of this is dedicated to exploring James’ astounding 74 years in the entertainment business, while other parts are devoted to his childhood and the events that led to him joining the travelling circus. Although James wrote his memoir towards the end of his life, it is apparent that he still knew how to entertain an audience, as his writing not only offers heartfelt and touching accounts but provides intriguing and humorous stories of events that took place in his life.


Above is an image of the frontispiece to James H. McKenzie’s memoir. Here he lists the many vocations that he became associated with during his seventy years in show business.
Source – ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’

The length of James’ life drew me to his memoir, as over his 90 years he would have been one of the first to experience first hand the development of the circus from humble country fair beginnings of novelty acts to the introduction of automation rides during the turn of the century that brought drastic change to the way circuses entertained their audiences. By exploring James’ memoir, I want to put James’ voice centre-stage and by doing this bring more awareness of the challenges that he faced over the course of his life. Although James joined the show circuit in his late teens, his early life was consumed with loss, poverty and uncertainty, as in Part 1, McKenzie states that he found out one day that both his parents were killed in a tragic railway accident in the Kensington district of London.

“There was another crash that day, and I heard of it when I arrived home. It was a railway disaster and both my parents are killed. I was an orphan”

James H. McKenzie pg 2

It is clear from reading his memoir that this moment impacted his life profoundly, as he always felt like he was the unwanted orphan boy. The years following his parents’ deaths are equally unsettled as he recounts living with his fortune teller grandmother who owned and lived in a slum in Chelsea. Although this is a happy period in his life, this moment is only temporary as he had to experience both his grandparents’ deaths before being placed in the care of his reluctant uncle who despised him and was only motivated by the money he could gain from the estates of the family. It is apparent at this point in James’ memoir why he became so accustomed to travelling and why he chose to pursue a career in the circus which is renowned for constantly changing and evolving.

19th-century topographic map of the districts of Battersea and Chelsea. Throughout McKenzie’s memoir, he recalls a childhood, in which he travelled back and forth across the original Battersea Bridge, as he was passed into the care of different relatives following his parents’ tragic deaths.
Source – www.visionofbritain.org.uk

The second part of the memoir explores noteworthy moments during James’ time as a travelling performer. It delves deeper into the reasons why James decided to run away and become part of a travelling circus. In particular, it shows how joining the circus gave him the opportunity to discover a second collective family in the circus community. Although James highlights some unsuccessful beginnings in show business, including his inexperience in handling and feeding rare species of animals in his miniature zoo, he looks back on these times with fondness and acknowledges his willingness to experience and try every aspect of the business.

Throughout his long tenure in the business, he explores the evolution of circus sideshows, from “freaks” and “illusionists” to the introduction of mechanical tractions such as the “riding machine”. He further indicates how one of the main reasons he was given the opportunity to become a member of the travelling circus was because of his “craftsmanship”, and throughout he gives an insight into how he was skilful in many different trades, such as painting and modelling. Even though James was inexperienced at first, he embraced his new life wholeheartedly and with as much enthusiasm possible and dedicated the majority of his life to becoming an established and successful showman in his own right. James would have been very nostalgic reminiscing about his experiences, as he lived an incredible life. He even admits that the events in his life “[are] like reading a novel, but truth is stranger than fiction, we are told!” (P 35). Throughout the other posts, I hope I can undercover these truths and with the support and dedication of Sera Erin, I hope we can give you an informative insight into the true incidents of James’ life with the authenticity and charm of his own voice and writing.

Bibliography:

McKenzie, James H. ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, 1:473

‘James H. McKenzie’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:473

See also Sera’s introduction post

Next Post: Purpose & Audience

Further reading –

Assael, Brenda. The circus and Victorian society. University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Beaven, Brad, Leisure, Citizenship and Working-Class Men in Britain, 1850-1914 . Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005

Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Routledge, 1994.

Cross, Gary and John K. Walton. The Playful Crowd. Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY, Columbia University Press, 2005

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363

Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70

Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. Pelican Books, 2015.

Strange, Julie-Marie. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, c. 1870-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981.

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247

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