James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Life Writing, Class & Identity

Life Writing, Class and Identity

According to Regeina Gagnier, there are six types of narrative working-class autobiographies: the gallows narrative, the commemorative storyteller, political or polemical narrative, true confession and therapeutically-motivated self-examination. (1) After researching James McKenzie’s autobiography and working on his life intently, we have come to an agreement that his memoir reflects that of a commemorative storyteller.

This narrative is commonly used by travellers or itinerant workers and is often nostalgic. His whole life is adventurous and event-driven, from being orphaned at the age of six, running away with the circus, to becoming a very successful stage manager, all over 70 years. He does not romanticise about his past but there are elements of pride about overcoming his poverty stricken background and becoming established in a world he has loved since being a child.

Even though McKenzie was not a political man, he shared his views associated with the travelling community, rather than the working-class community. His memoir does not concern the lives of all the community where he grew up in Battersea, Chelsea, but rather focuses on his own bildungsroman development, his own rags to riches story. The fact that he mention his childhood, however, gives us an idea of how viewed it. Not being educated, being passed from one family member to another, never feeling truly loved in a way shaped his personality and resulted to him wanting to create a life for himself on the road.

The End

‘In old age in those quiet moments your mind often wanders to the past, especially one who has a continuous life of travel, there are more incidents, than in the hum drum life of many. More to sum mate upon. I have wondered how I have surmounted them, from such a tragic beginning. The kindness in my early youth I received from the Show Folk, although a stranger in their community, my willingness to do anything […] of me, and my orphanage considerably assisted me.’ (336)

Class is rarely brought up in his 55,000 word autobiography. His descriptions are focused on his career and development as a circus showman, his travelling menageries and stage management. Overcoming his past living in the London slums, there is an element when looking back that he is truly proud of his achievements. He does not forget the loved ones who helped him along the way.

Victorian Entertainment






Victorian Entertainment for all classes

‘Then the memories of the stage in my younger day. The wonderful acting of great men, I was behind in some minor capacity. I saw Wilson Basset Irving and specially was behind with…[…] at Cardiff to open the new theatre.’ (337)

The fact that he calls his autobiography ‘Strange Truth: The Autobiography of a Circus Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man,’ adds light to the fact he wanted to share his achievements with the public rather than dwell on his class and where he was brought up.


Charles Dickens










Charles Dickens

Towards the end of McKenzie’s memoir, he again mentions Charles Dickens, ultimately, our author’s hero. Before being taught to read and write, McKenzie saw Dickens as an influence and afterwards, read many, if not, all of his books:

From the time, my old friend the Jester died, I remember his excerpts of Dickens in the Ring, and in many an old village waiting to open on the following day, he spent the evenings reading Dickens to me, when I could neither read nor write.’ (321)

Dickens’ influence is apparent throughout McKenzie’s lifetime. Growing up in a working-class environment, Dickens had a tale or two to write about in his autobiographical stories such as Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield. In more ways than one, McKenzie reflects Dickens’ protagonists, from being orphaned like Oliver Twist, to setting out to achieve his own great expectations like Pip. McKenzie even became his own version of Charles Dickens, a theatre lover, showman and performer. McKenzie and Dickens both saw the entertainment business as an escape from the dreary, everyday slums of London and helped many of the working-classes to escape it too.

After two Great Wars, still living in a caravan, on the East Coast near Germany, the life of travel and wander never left James McKenzie. Thinking before that he had dedicated his memoir to Charles Dickens, calling him “My Friendly Showman,” the friendly showman was in fact, McKenzie himself.


‘Providence once said “I’m to go on at Eighty Two, a bit further down the road!” Now 88!’

My Friendly Showman.” (338)


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

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