James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): The Rise and Fall of Novelty Acts – Writing Lives

James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): The Rise and Fall of Novelty Acts

“One would infer that all these old time amusements are as dead as mutton, but they were the fun of the fair, which the rising generation don’t realise not having seen them”

James H. McKenzie (164)
Gambling in country fairs appeared in various forms, including horse racing and boxing booths.
Source – pixels.com

Throughout the entirety of his memoir, James McKenzie implores his readers to see how the attraction of the circus was seeing the novelty of its performances. To be able to see a show that had the ability to engage and inspire an audience with something completely new and original. James recalls fondly in his memoir that an audience is ‘willing always to be fooled provided you fool them well’ (163). There is sense from his words that circus folk took pride in their ability to translate their ideas and talent into something that was able to entertain an audience.

Before the introduction of mechanical automatons and instant forms of amusement, such as gamble machines, people naturally were ‘satisfied with yells of laughter’ (164). James’ words hint towards the frustration of many circus folks during the turn of the century, as suddenly for them the old-time amusements that were at the heart of circus life were being replaced with ‘another angle’ of amusement, gambling because ‘there [was] more money in it’ (164). There is a sense from James’ words that he blamed the introduction of mechanical features for the decay of the circus, as they not only made circus folk redundant from their way of life but they stripped ‘any novelty’ (170) and amusement that was a defining spectacle of the circus.

“quick money gadgets flooded the amusements, destroying all the fun of the fairs!”

James H. McKenzie (170)
The Royal Aquarium hosted many novelty acts in the time that it was open to the public. Only through acts such as the great Zazel did the ‘success of the place’ (218) continue.
Source –

James recalls how before the turn of the century, showmen could exhibit at an array of venues and how there were in turn more opportunities for shows and exhibitions to reach a diverse audience. Vanessa Toulmin states that ‘the Victorian era was the golden age of the showmen, who adapted and incorporated the latest novelties and attractions in an increasing array of venues to capture the attention of the show-going public’ (113).

However, by the beginning of the twentieth-century James recalls in his memoir how quickly circus entertainment fell out of favour, as places known for showcasing and exhibiting circus amusements were being torn down, as a result of the ‘march of time in new amusements’ (217). James notes how during his exhibition at the Royal Aquarium it became clear that novelties were dying out, as the enormous building was ‘virtually empty day after day’ (217). James states how he could remember seeing many of the ‘latest novelties’ at the Royal Aquarium in the ’80’s and 90’s’ suggesting how places of old amusement began to fall into decadence once new amusements became more popular.

The Royal Aquarium only stood for twenty-seven years before it was deemed inadequate for purpose and demolished. There is a sense that James was disappointed to see a building of such magnificence be reduced to rubble, as he states in his memoir that some of the great artists of the time would ‘never be seen again’ (218). James words hint towards the reality that many members of the performing community faced during the turn of the century, as while the amusement industry grew with theatres and cinemas, the old ways of amusement died out and were forgotten leaving novelty performers without an audience. James further states that any ‘great sights of the past that drew London [ to the Aquarium], are history’ (218). There is a sense from James words that novelty performers would be perceived as things of the past, as while time progresses ‘sights’ of true entertainment would be forgotten and deemed as a thing of the past.


‘James H. McKenzie’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:473

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

Toulmin, Vanessa. (2006). ‘CURIOS THINGS IN CURIOS PLACES’:, Early Popular Visual Culture, 4:2, pp 113-137, DOI: 

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