James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Habits, Culture & Belief

Habits, Culture and Belief


As far as McKenzie’s habits and cultures go, the gypsy way of life was what shaped him. He lived and breathed for travelling and the circus, and inhabited that environment for over 60 years. Even when he was not travelling with his menageries, he stayed within show business and became a stage manager for a number of theatres. Therefore, throughout his autobiography there are many excerpts involving his working life but not many that mention his private life.

Very few families could afford to have a life filled with leisure activities when James H. McKenzie was at the height of his career. Working and earning money was the top priority for many people, and McKenzie is a strange character in the way that he merged his career with his favourite pastimes, for example caring for horses, owning various animals (his ‘menagerie’), painting, sculpting etc. These activities were considered to be ‘manly chores’ around the house, but McKenzie skews this gendered identifier by living a life on the road and never really having a house. In her essay ‘Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960’, Joanna Bourke writes:

‘Masculine housework remained ‘manly’. Certain jobs were reserved for them: heavy water carrying, emptying spittoons, painting, using tools, work connected with wood or metal, carrying coal, and (in the days of flock mattresses) turning mattresses. Men and boys painted while womenfolk scrubbed and whitewashed.’ (94) (Note 1)

This passage compares to what McKenzie has told us in his autobiography about his leisure activities. He seemed to take great pleasure in creating artwork for the side of his caravan. This artwork is in the form of elaborate paintings, which serve the double duty as decoration and advertisement. They catch the eye of people passing by and serve to inform them of McKenzie’s travelling show. Bourke sees this recreational activity as ‘masculine housework’, but we can take it from a different perspective when the subject is a travelling showman. McKenzie doesn’t seem to have lived by ‘normal’ rules, and lived a full and varied life, so it can be assumed that he didn’t follow ‘normal’ patterns of masculinity as his domestic life was so unusual.







A photograph of typical travelling caravans: similar to what McKenzie would have used and decorated

James H. McKenzie did not appear to be a religious man. Religion is never mentioned throughout his autobiography, so it is safe to assume that he did not read the Bible or go to any church regularly. His childhood poverty and experiences could be to blame for this, as he saw a lot of distressing sights. Family members died, and his friend, Bob Cutler, was subject to an arson attack that left them both homeless. There is little wonder then that McKenzie felt there was no God for him, as this experience seemed to rattle McKenzie. The arson attack on his guardian Bob Cutler’s small house (which he describes as a ‘shak’) left them both devastated, with McKenzie’s Uncle Martin suspected of being behind the attack. The pair had had many run-ins with each other previously.

In the next passage, Joe (the Butler to McKenzie’s Mother’s brother) and Bob Cutler (McKenzie’s guardian) are discussing McKenzie’s Uncle and his devious ways:

‘[Bob] pushed the massive gates to enter, to find all the blinds down in the old house. He stood for a few moments deep in thoughts, no doubt thinking of old times… Wishing to speak to him quietly, [Joe] beckon’d Bob to come to the stables, where they were free to have a heart to heart talk over the whole affair, although the doctor had certified death as being due to heart failure, Joe and Bob definitely thought there had been some foul play.

Uncle Martin was just the man to use all his endeavours to manufacture a “hidden crime”, he was a reckless gambler with many associates, who would advise and assist him in all he did. Both Bob and Joe were aware of the quarrels concerning the old lady’s property, and as old friends of the family, was aware of how she had suffered through his neglect.’ (32)

This passage describes how Uncle Martin was well connected to other criminal people  This is the premonition that McKenzie mentions later on in his autobiography: ‘The shak had become a blazing inferno, Bobs premonition had been correct, Martin had threaten’d him more than once.’ (38)

Religion might not have played a large part in McKenzie’s life, but it is clear the superstitions and premonitions were taken very seriously. Nowadays ideas like these might be ignored, but back then hunches proved to be a successful way of sorting out people you could trust from people who were devious, with Uncle Martin being an obvious example of the latter.

Note 1: Bourke, Joanna. Working -Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960. Gender, class and ethicity. London, Routledge, 1994. p94.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.