James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Home and Family

Home and Family


James McKenzie had a very complex home and family life. Orphaned at the age of 6, he did not experience the comfort in being in a secure family home. McKenzie does not elaborate on any memories of his parents before their death, but instead recalls his early life growing up with his Grandmother in the slums of London near Kensington, over Battersea Bridge. Even though he lived with his Grandmother only a short time, he seems the most happy throughout all of his childhood.








Battersea Bridge: (Old Chelsea Bridge 1881)

The death of his parents is written about in an unemotional way by McKenzie:

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

I was taken to my grandmother, and there I made my home, she lived with an old servant companion, and they kept themselves strictly apart from their neighbours in this terrible slum, which incidently she owned.’ (2)

Despite living in the slums, his Grandmother in fact came from a wealthy Scottish background. This, sadly, only lasted until her marriage to McKenzie’s Grandfather.  McKenzie described their marriage as “unfortunate”, so unfortunate that their wealth evaporated:

‘She had come from a good Scottish family but according to rumour she had made an unfortunate marriage and had been left by her husband. They had been apart for many years. Her home appear’d to be a relic of a good one, for it was furnished with expensive antiques totally out of keeping with the slum surroundings.’ (2-3)

As his Grandmother still wanted to keep her heritage sacred, she did not let her present obscure her past. She remained acquainted with the rich from the other side of Battersea Bridge in Chelsea, even though the poor amongst her did not like it. She even kept her own servant, Rebecca.








History of Chelsea, in Kensington. Britain through time.

It was through the 1850s to the 1880s that Kensington was growing into a affluent suburb. However, it was affluent for the growing economic landowners who could afford their own builders and architects. Unfortunately for McKenzie and his family, the growing economy for Chelsea did not reach the slums and McKenzie still had to work and play around the Mud Lark. (1)









The ‘mud-larks’ was where both boys and girls would walk around knee deep within the mud around the London Thames to retrieve anything they think they could sell to earn a bit of money.


McKenzie’s Grandmother was the only member of his immediate family that he seemed to have truly loved, but even so, McKenzie’s nature towards family had been tainted throughout years as a result of neglect. Various family members did not want to take care of him, so throughout the reflections in his writing, he comes up with his own reason as to why his Grandmother was so nice: ‘My Grandmother was very kind to me, which may have been prompted by the great grief at the sudden death of my parents in such tragic circumstances.’ (3) Maybe, if it was not for her death, McKenzie might have stayed living in the slums quite happily if it was within her company, and could have possibly missed out on the fantastic life he led.

It is in fact, when describing his Grandmother’s death that McKenzie acknowledged how he truly felt. Within his memoir he rarely describes any emotions about anything or anyone, but it is when recalling the memories of his Grandmother that we are able to see another side to him: ‘It is very strange that old people sometimes die simultaneously. It was but a few months after the death of my grandfather, my Grandma had a burst of illness and dies, an upsetting matter to me.’ (11) This revelation is a great one for McKenzie, as his is unemotional throughout the rest of his writing. To admit to feeling upset at his Grandmother’s death shows how much she meant to him.


McKenzie’s relationship with his Grandfather was brief. He was a highly educated man, but only used this in his later profession as an antiques dealer. After separating with his wife (McKenzie’s Grandmother) he became a drunk and started to associate with ‘underworld dealers’ around London. Whilst putting all his time and energy into his shop and travelling over London to acquire new dealings, the Grandfather did not give McKenzie the time of day; he was invisible to him, and his attitude towards his young grandson was one of frustration and anger:

‘I was to be taken by Rebecca to see my grandfather whom I had only seen on one previous occasion, for as already mentioned, he had not lived with his wife for many years. We arrived at his shop situated in a dingy alley. It was a dirty shop with smashed windows and […] abounded everywhere, and as we opened the door a bell announced us. Sitting in an old armchair was my relative, pondering over a large volume which he […] through enormous glasses… “What do you want?” To which Rebecca replied, “I thought you would like to see your young grandson, so I brought the boy along.” His answer was a grunt.’ (4)

Despite his neglect from his Grandfather, McKenzie did have underlying respect for him. The tragic circumstances of his Grandfather’s death had been an anxious memory for McKenzie, and coupled with losing his parents in a tragic way only added to this. His Grandfather died in mysterious circumstances, and despite how he was treated by him, McKenzie did not hate his Grandfather but rather found him intriguing:

‘On the day following my visit, he was found dead in his shop, sprawled […] rubbish around him. A rumour was circulated in the district that no money was to be found, but later his sons took charge of the premises and discovered his hoard in the chimney accesses in the kitchen. That was the end of my relative.’ (10)

Again this is a relatively unemotional account of another family member’s death, but it seems that death is not something to be hysterical about for McKenzie, and the stoicism and pragmatism are required.

Rich Uncles and Poor Aunts

‘I had heard of wicked uncles, both were far from loveable persons. They did not appear to take the slightest notice of me. Their only thoughts seem to be focused upon the old lady’s jewels and money.’ (11)

After the death of his beloved Grandmother, McKenzie had to move and live with his Uncle in Kensington. Going from one extreme to another, McKenzie now lived in a mansion. However, he was not happy in his new home as (just like he was treated by his Grandfather) he was ignored and rather treated as a burden upon his new family members.

McKenzie describes his uncles as eccentrics, only interested in money. Both of his uncles hated him, mainly because any money that his Grandmother had earned she gave to her grandson rather than her sons. The only love McKenzie received in his life had made the rest of his family hate him all the more, explained here by McKenzie: ‘The curse of wealth had destroyed all love of their mother. This drove one later into an asylum another brother was already there, but the elder of the two who robbed the death room, married a rich old lady and eventually met a similar fate, in latter years I realized the horror of this.’ (13)

It is the irony of McKenzie’s life during his childhood that makes his story so powerful. The yearning for wealth from a working class family drove the male side of the family insane. Instead of going to work or trying to gain an education, their idea of a way of getting out of the slums was to marry a rich woman. This could well be another reason as to why McKenzie is determined to get away and live his life on the road, with no rules, regulations; just the freedom. McKenzie’s hurt is clear in the next passage, as is his disappointment in his relatives:

‘From that moment I became an unwanted child, I was bandied about from one relative to another, until one of them more courageous than others insisted that, that the rich uncle should […] a blood relation be responsible for the young orphan.’ (15)

McKenzie had received mental and physical abuse from his Uncle much to the dislike of his Aunt who loved him and wanted to take care of him. His Uncle wanted to be rid of him on more than one occasion, nearly sending him away to boarding school and quite a few times he sent McKenzie away to work with Bob Cutler, a family friend. It was as a result of his Aunt’s love that another tragic death occurred within the presence of McKenzie. After overhearing an argument between his Aunt and Uncle, his Uncle beat her, leading to her death. This horrific act was committed so that the Uncle could finally receive the money he thought was rightfully his.

Even at the tender age of 11, McKenzie knew he did not belong in the family. His experiences within a ‘family’ home were not what anyone would like to witness. After living a short spell within a rich home, McKenzie had a brief period living with yet another poor aunt:

‘I was once again in a slum with a sister of my father, of course an aunt, this was a large family, and they could little afford an extra one, but pure sympathy of my orphanage compell’d them to make a home for me…that shifting from one relative to another created a feeling I would like to leave all relations.’ (49)

After much consideration and growth, McKenzie was determined to leave all family members behind and set about on his own. He exercised the ‘Wanderlust’ that had been consuming him for a while, and set off to start the rest of his life.


Bob Cutler

‘Bob Cutler was a very old friend of my father, of my new aunt; who had a great deal of property and was a confidant of the family. He leased a field from them along the side of the thames, and built a […] bungalow, it was a rude affair. Bob was a quaint fellow, an antiquarian somewhat a recluse, a learn’d man.’(20)

Bob Cutler was a family friend since before James McKenzie was born. Being sent to live and work with Cutler, McKenzie at this point lived in the house on the marsh for a few months in a secure environment. Even though Cutler was not rich, he was kind and become the father figure McKenzie never had. Cutler took McKenzie to local fairgrounds and circuses which set about his ambition for the future. He even saw Cutler as a role model, as an antiquarian like his Grandfather; McKenzie was influenced by Bob Cutler’s ambition in his work and determination to do better for his life, not mention having great admiration for the actual antiques Cutler had at the time.

‘Without doubt I was in the best part of the Victorian age, when antiques and knick-knacks were fashionable and left an impression on me which in later years I used to an advantage, this started my little latent talent with which I made a living in later years on the stage.’ (23)



It is clear that life’s experiences shape our actions, as David Vincent explains in Bread, Knowledge and Freedom “The growing sensitivity to the development of the child was a means not only of reaching a more satisfactory understanding of the auto biographer’s personality, but of focusing attention on the relative significance of the two fundamental experiences of every working class child, his education, in the general sense of the term and perhaps in the form of institutional schooling, and his life as a child labourer.” (Footnotes, 2)

In terms of home and family, McKenzie’s autobiography is a fantastic documentation of this when he looks back over his own life. Because of the cruelty and poverty faced as a youngster, McKenzie became determined to make a success of his life. His dysfunctional family and home life enforced the belief that ‘getting away’ would be the answer to his problems, which resulted in the expansive and amazing career that undoubtedly was the reason for the whole autobiography.


(1) Virtual Museum, The History of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 1998-2006, http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/vmhistory/general/vm_hs_p10.asp, page 10, 15/04/2013

(2) Vincent, David, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, A Study of Nineteenth Century Working Class Autobiography, London, Europa Publications Limited, 1981 pp.89


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