James H.McKenzie (1862-1952): Researching Writing Lives

After completing my eight thematic blog posts on James H. McKenzie, I have realized to the extent of how the written word has much power and influence. James’ words not only offer a snapshot of his personality but they also capture the essence of him as an amusement showman. I feel that James’ writing has really informed my own blogging writing style, as James throughout his memoir has an informative and entertaining writing style that makes you feel actively engaged in his stories. Once I was drawn into James’ recollections, I wanted to read on as every page in his memoir captures his humour and charm.

Image of my annotated copy of James H. McKenzie’s memoir.
‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’

To explore the enormity of detail in James’ memoir, I had the pleasure of working in collaboration with Sera Erin. Through collaborating I feel that we have been fortunate enough to explore extensively the history and stories that lead to James becoming a successful showman. I have found researching James’ life with Sera very fulfilling and enjoyable, as we have both been able to explore specific aspects of the memoir that we have found particularly interesting. Every week during the module we have been lucky enough to share our discoveries with one another and this has really helped me, in particular, consider what type of topics would be interesting to cover in the blog posts.

I feel that I have definitely had the chance to contribute to public history. I think James’ memoir has many hidden stories in its pages and throughout my blogs, I have had the chance to look at certain passages in great detail. In particular, the passage that James recalls learning to read and write in a circus caravan was a highlight, as it really painted a picture of how James even though he was deprived of a stable childhood, he was always determined to achieve his dreams and desires. James’ memoir is a very unique and original and I am glad that I have been able to make his rich and vivid recollections accessible to a wider audience.

Image of my ancestry.co.uk research. I managed to find out that ‘James McKenzie’ was James’ stage name and his birth name was James Horace Aylott.

James’ memoir is dedicated to his stage career, however, through exploring ancestry.co.uk I feel that I have been able to discover the other side of James as a family man. I have learnt that James’ was married to a woman called Mary and he had several children with her during his time with the travelling circus. I was surprised to discover through birth records that James and his wife had a child who was born in New Brighton on the Wirral. I did not realise to the extent of how reading and researching James’ life would allow me to discover information that locates him very close to where I live and a place that I frequent regularly.

Image taken from my Twitter account.

I have some previous experience of blogging, however, through focusing only on James’ memoir I feel that I have been able to hone my skills as it has given me a focus and direction for my blog posts. Using social media to share my blogs has really helped me improve and develop my posts, as I have been able to get in contact with fellow students as well as outside sources who have offered me advice and contributed to my research. The encouragement from peers on Twitter has been particularly useful as it has allowed me to improve my blogs while giving me the motivation to complete my blogs to the best of my ability.

I feel very privileged for being part of this collaborative research project. In my blogs, I hope I have captured James’ wit and charm and given his voice a new audience to entertain and thrill. James definitely has taught me never to give up hope, as even during the toughest moments in his life, James remained positive about the future. James throughout his memoir showed concern for the death of amusements, however, through exploring James’ fascinating life in my blog posts, I hope I have given James a new audience to inspire and entertain with his stories.


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

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