James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Life & Labour


Life and Labour

James H. McKenzie was orphaned at a very young age, and was bandied from one relative to another. This resulted in a lack of formal education for him and put him firmly in the poverty-stricken working class. He received an education of sorts when he joined the circus, and managed to work his way up to a respectable status during his adult years.

At the age of 11, and when living with his ‘poor Aunt’, James McKenzie saw the opportunity to get a full-time job working on a ‘Mud Field’, which is the practice of picking out large pieces of debris so that the leftover material can get melted down into bricks. The notion of having a job and earning a respectable wage made McKenzie very proud; he relished not feeling ‘a burden’ on his poor family.

‘I strolled into one brickfield and saw them making bricks, when a man said to me “do you want a job kid?” I naturally said yes, for to earn some money I thought a grand thing.’ (49)

‘Most essential material for making bricks, and the ashes to burn the bricks in the Kilns. The job I had to do was to pick out the old tins, and big items so that they could seive the rest.’ (50)

This was a hard laborious job, but McKenzie was glad he could contribute to his Aunt’s income as he gave his full wage packet of 8 shillings to her, who thanked him greatly. She gave him a shilling for pocket money in return, but he soon realised that a shilling would not get him to and from work for a whole week, so he managed to negotiate a two shilling pay rise after his first week! This shows an enormous sense of pragmatism on his part, which indicates strongly to us that he had a high level of innate intelligence. This natural intelligence would have served him well when he was receiving his home-schooling from the gypsy family, as he would have been able to take in the new information quickly and efficiently.

In the following quotations, McKenzie is describing his sense of freedom at running away from home, and the kindness shown to him by the gypsy family that informally adopted him:

‘I had a feeling of freedom that is difficult to explain, and nothing to restrain me ploding on- I was able to go my own way, and thus appealed to me, and I had not been caught [running away].’ (56)

‘How would you like to work for me, and live in one of those “houses” on wheels [said the head of the gypsy family], I accepted the offer I had found “My Friendly Showman”, they pityed my orphanage. This was the commencement of seventy one four years of show life and the stage, and a satisfaction of my wanderlust.’ (58)

Towards the end of his career, he distances himself away from the travelling menageries, moving on with the times. His ‘wanderlust’, or love of travelling, had been satisfied and he could finally settle down in one place for an extended period of time. He associated himself more with the theatre and eventually became a stage manager. He coordinated popular plays in both Manchester’s Hippodrome and Liverpool’s Beehive, and managed a Japanese play in Cardiff called ‘The Geisha’s Revenge.’

‘I stage managed for some time, there, when a Japanese play arrived one monday morning. It have arrived in Cardiff Docks direct from Japan. I had managed some peculiar shows, but this one was the greatest novelty of any!’ (257)


Manchester Hippodrome circa 1900


Working as a stage manager provided McKenzie with many amusing incidents  which he writes about at some length during his autobiography. This was clearly a rewarding chapter in his life, and he seemed to enjoy the chaos of life concerning the stage.

The next lengthy passage is about a play that McKenzie staged, and all the trials and tribulations that go with having a stressful job:

‘The Geisha Girl danced very gracefully our conductor managed well with the extempore music.
From the start of the play the acting was vigorously dramatic the Geisha Girl stabs the villian an hideous fellow, with an horrible mask… So ended a day and night, to my knowledge the only real Japanese Play that I know of performed in England, had it been produced in London, no doubt it would have been a novelty, but Cardiff at that time impossible. I had all the effusive thanks from the Jap proprietor for my services and after the first night they played to empty houses’ (260).

This section is interesting for many reasons. The variety of McKenzie’s life is clearly on display here, as he is mixing with exotic and interesting people from all walks of life. To have a large part in staging the first ever Japanese play to be shown in the UK must have been very exciting for him. It also shows just how far his informal education with the gypsy family has taken him, because his is comfortable with using a large vocabulary to get his story across.

As with most of his autobiography, McKenzie doesn’t mention the name of the theatre that he worked in during his time at Cardiff, which is frustrating as a reader. He is simultaneously open about his past and yet also secretive, though this may have been unintentional.

His anecdotes about life as a stage manager prove to be an entertaining read, and show that although he had a tough start to his life with him being a poor, impoverished  orphan, he went on to make a successful name for himself and live a full and varied life.

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