James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): An Introduction

“You will want this man in a year or two”

James H McKenzie, The Autobiography Of A Circus Showman, Pg 185

The Autobiography Of A Circus Showman is a 55,000-word, handwritten memoir written by James H McKenzie himself about his life. The memoir is 338 pages long, and covers not only McKenzie’s 72 years of showbiz, in which he worked as both a performer and a painter, but also includes the lonely younger days of this 19th-century well-loved entertainer. McKenzie wrote this in his 90th year of life, just before his death. This showcases that even after all those years of entertaining, James still had a passion for performing to a crowd – the reader.

I decided to research and write about this particular author because I felt this was a story that needed to be explored further. I hope that with my research I can bring more awareness to James’ story and allow others to learn about the brilliance that was this circus performer’s life. To do this to my best ability, I took on the help of Taylor Liddell, who will be working alongside me and writing accompanying blogs to mine. By doing this, we will be able to cover more ground and discuss more themes

When it came to researching our chosen author we had a bit of a struggle. To begin with we only had access to the second part of McKenzie’s work, which meant we were missing a huge part of his life, the most important part. We did not know what the first part included, but we sensed it included recollection of James’ life before the circus, and an explanation of how he came to join the circus. We felt this part would have been very beneficial for sensing who the real McKenzie was.

However, we did not let this stop us. Taylor and I began our research straight away, dividing the reading fifty/fifty. Taylor started with the beginning of the second part, whereas I started my research sixty pages in. Although this reading was difficult at first, as the writing was handwritten, small and hard to understand, with time we came to appreciate James’ way of writing and this allowed us to read more quickly.

From my first section of reading, I came to discover a lot about James and his circus life. It is clear that although his life was magical in a sense, and James loved every minute of the performing, it did have its downsides. All the travelling that came with his job meant he was always on the move and never formed any real relationships, besides ones with the people who worked alongside him. There were a lot of strange men and individuals on the road as well, which meant that a lot of his encounters at the time came with a risk of being injured, robbed or worse killed. In this section, we also learn of his grandparents, the people he loved the most, especially his grandmother who was a fortune teller. We learn of their deaths and how this impacted McKenzie’s life. James also describes how hectic life was in the circus, where he was surrounded by ‘freaks’, as well as a variety of animals, which included snakes, including two fourteen-inch pythons, which are accidentally released one cold winter month.

Later on, the archivist of the Burnett Collection managed to locate for us Part 1 of his autobiography. This section of his book was a lot more organised, with even an index included at the start. The writing was also a lot more readable. Having this part of the book was very useful to us, and it brought with it a real insight into James’ world. From this section, we came to learn a lot about the poor orphaned boy, who was passed along from one family member to another. From the slums of London to the mansions of Kensington to the slums again. Here we finally get real information on his beloved grandmother, who cared so deeply about him and contrasted greatly with his self-obsessed money-hungry uncle who took him in reluctantly after his mother’s death. We learn from this first part how talented James truly was. He was hardworking and generous, and that made everyone around him love him. From the very start of his performing life, it was obvious James had the potential to be a great talent, and he took this, and ran with it. He built “shows from a small show to a Dickens’ Gallery” and James never let his past pull him down, and instead used it to his advantage. He put everything into his shows, and he made the circus his second family, the family full of friends, that he got to choose.



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

Other Reading 

Agnew, J. (2011). Entertainment in the Old West. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family from the1820s to the 1920s. London:  Alan Lane, 1982

Davin, Anna. Growing up Poor: Home, School and Street in London 1870-1914. Cambridge: Polity Press, London: Rivers Oram Press, 1996

Kotar, S. and Gessler, J. (2011). The rise of the American circus, 1716-1899. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co.

Loxton, H. (1997). Golden Age of the circus. Smith-mark publishers.

Strange, Julie-Marie, ‘” She Cried a Very Little”: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working-Class Culture, c. 1880-1914’, Social History, 27 2, 2002, 143-61

Biographical entry


Taylor’s Blog


Taylor’s Introduction Blog

Victoria and Albert Gallery – The First Circus


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