James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Politics, Protest & Class


Politics and Protest

Travelling Community

James McKenzie’s political life is different when compared to other working class authors. He was never part of radical demonstrations and did not join any group for working class men’s rights. But indeed, he stood up for any social reform when living his life on the road. As a result of not having anywhere to live with no family to support him, his ‘wanderlust’ became his priority and his adoptive family, a group of travelling Gypsies, became his central focus when dealing with working class legislations.



 A group of travellers

It was ‘during the nineteenth century that Gypsy communities became more established and identifiable. Regular encampments could be found in Lock’s Fields in Walworth, and in Battersea, Notting Dale and Wandsworth. This period also saw the development of the classic technology of Gypsy travel in the form of the distinctive caravan, which replaced benders and tents in the first few decades of the century.’ (1) The advancement of technology would have undoubtedly helped the Gypsies’ living conditions and their status as a real group of people, which would have been a boost to their confidence.

Moveable Dwelling Bills

Experiencing a life on the road with the travelling community, McKenzie felt he finally belonged with people who wanted to look after him. He had an idea that wanted he to join the circus, which luckily, is how the Gypsies went about their business. Gypsies have however, been discriminated against during the time when McKenzie first joined them because of their class and ethnicity . Discrimination is something that McKenzie was sadly used to, even as a youngster. In his adult life he wrote about his distaste at the discrimination and the bills that were passed which would decrease the freedom of the travelling Gypsies:

‘Long before the Showmen Guild was founded, this bill was introduced and passed the first Reading. At that moment I could not see this necessity of a Bill of that kind for it was helping to destroy the freedom of the Road.’ (158)

His personal offence at this bill highlights how close a topic this was to McKenzie’s heart. He clearly feels that new discriminatory laws would adversely affect the lives of his fellow travellers. The most destructive political act that McKenzie opposed was the Fairs Act of 1871. This led on to the Moveable Dwelling Bills during the late 1890s, and its aim was to regulate gypsy life.

‘This Bill was […] upon the showmen concerning the morality of them, which was completely wrong. For the whole community gypsies included, a most exclusive class for all they all inter-marry and for them to be in any way accused of the Fair’s morality was nonsense!’ (158)

The Fairs Act was a petition to abolish travelling fairs as they were seen to be immoral and unnecessary, so it is understandable as to why McKenzie would get so offended about it. After the Fairs Act, the Moveable Dwelling Bills were empowered by the government to regulate the Gypsies. David Mayall describes it as the government wanting to bring what was regarded as the ‘lowest dregs of society within the educational and sanitary laws [and] it was hoped they would be taught, loyalty, honesty, industrious habits and faithfulness, converting them to members of society. Improving the moral and physical condition of the Gypsies would lead, ultimately, to their social absorption.’ (2) This included the regulation of the shows, tents, caravans that McKenzie was part of and that his livelihood depended on.

Being part of this community, McKenzie fought for their right to be part of what was considered ‘normal’ everyday society. As a result, the Showman’s Guild was introduced as well as the Van Dweller’s Association, with George Sanger as a representative:

‘With Lord George Sanger on the chair he had compelled the author of the Bill to come to this meeting in the Royal Agricultural Hall, to explain why he had instituted this Bill. Howls of the crowd for it was not necessary in no way (It was the greatest meeting of travellers ever!)’ (161)









Agricultural Hall

McKenzie and his fellow travellers felt indignant at the interfering nature of these bills and felt they were of little value to the Gypsy communities. The Showmen’s Guild however, was seen as a union for the Gypsy community to come together and show their strength:

‘The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, as it became known, was recognised as the trade association of the travelling funfair business and acquired the right to stand as representatives for the business at both local and national levels; a position it still occupies to this day.’ (3)

As the Showmen’s Guild was formed to oppose Moveable Dwellings Bills, showmen begin to become a distinct group from other Travellers or Gypsies. They branched off on their own and began to form their own identity. This was an indemnity that McKenzie was proud of, but he never forgot his traveller roots, and in the end, McKenzie acknowledged that his life belonged within the travelling community. He stayed out of politics as a result of previous childhood convictions mainly, and because of his class and home life. But his true feelings and emotions lay with the people he regarded as family; the travelling community. With them he gained an education and a career, and most importantly, he found his identity and life to live. He could not let class consciousness bring it down.

(1) The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913, Communties – Gypsies and Travellers, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gypsy-traveller.jsp, 24/04/13

(2) David Mayall, Gypsy Travellers in Nineteenth Century Society, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p138

(3)The Showman’s Guild, National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, http://hri.shef.ac.uk/fairground/guilds.html, 24/04/13

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