James H. McKenzie (1862 -1952): The Gypsies

“I strolled away not knowing where, but content to realise that I was free to go where I pleased”

James H. McKenzie pg. 72

James H. McKenzie was a traveller by nature and the road was his home. He did not stay anywhere too long and was always ready to move on. After running away from the circus in his late teens, after his uncle came searching for him, James found the gypsies – a new set of friends.

James came across the gypsies at an encampment situated in a small field which was surrounded by a copse (a small group of trees). He remarks in his autobiography that this place struck him as real gypsy village, filled with caravans and colour and people all living as one. The land in which it was situated was owned by the gypsies themselves and was a place that James quickly saw as being very homely and a safe place for him to be.

A Gypsy encampment in Essex (19th century).

“Hello Chavy, Have you left the circus?”

James H. McKenzie, P. 72

On arrival into the gypsy village, James came to realise that he already knew the gypsies and they also knew him in return. These gypsies had been involved with an old circus of James’ years back and had followed the circus in their journey around the country. They had also sold the leader a horse. Between the circus paint on his face and their past together, the gypsies already knew that James was a performer.

Because of this they were very friendly and sent him towards the old lady to seek permission to stay. She agreed and they took him in. They washed the circus paint off his face and fed him well that night and all nights that followed during his stay. James was embraced by the gypsies and the old women would mother him. She refused any payment from him and he writes that for two weeks “I had a mother.”

“When they do make friendships with anyone it is very sincere

James H. McKenzie P. 74

He ended up staying for two weeks, before eventually leaving, only to return a little later before the pantomime season. He became a gypsy once more and remained one for a long while. James remarks in his autobiography that the gypsies were great friends to him and he was surprised at how welcome they had made him feel. He knew they cared deeply for him and was grateful for this.

London Nomads, c. 1876-77, from John Thomson, Street Life in London (1877-8)

The gypsies had heavily ornamented caravans. They had leased land for their horses to graze, and were big horse dealers. They also had goats, which provided them with milk. The gypsies had wealth, but they were never open about it, never ones to wear shiny jewels or flash their money around. They were simple folk the Gypsies, their only aim was to entertain. In their ownership they had a dancing booth and two fiddles. Four of the gypsies told fortunes. Their acts made them very popular at the fairs.

The gypsies depended on each other only and provided for themselves. A close nit community who let very little people in. However although not a gypsie they took James in easily, who came to feel at home with them. He was deeply loved by the group, they enjoyed his company and ever wanted him to leave. However James did eventually leave them behind, one early morning, without a word to anyone, he grabbed his bag and left.


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

Other Reading 

Mayall, D. (1988). Gypsy-travellers in nineteenth-century society. Cambridge u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Pr.

Nostradamus, G. (2013). Consult the Oracle. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Oldbaileyonline.org. (2019). Communities – Gypsies and Travellers – Central Criminal Court. [online] Available at: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gypsy-traveller.jsp [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019].

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