James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Life & Labour – Part 3 – Writing Lives

James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Life & Labour – Part 3

“To be my own master, I felt that I had become a qualified showman”

James H. McKenzie (138)

Following the death of his close friend the Jester, James recalls a turbulent number of months, in which he was stricken with grief and forced to question in which direction he wanted to take his career . During this time of instability, James notes that he departed the circus for the stage, before undertaking a number of spontaneous jobs to earn a wage. He states that he rambled ‘from fair to fair working with all kinds of shows’ (133) and gained much ‘experience of show life’ (133) which informed his decision to independently become his ‘own master’. There is a sense from James’ voice that he had grown weary of the monotonous routine that he had experienced for the majority of his young adult life. He desired to be able to make his own decisions without having the worry of finding work every season.

James states that during a period of time working as part of a ‘hamming booth’ (133) was when he was awakened to the realisation that his hardworking and dedication was not being appreciated or noticed, ‘I drew my salary two shillings and hurried out, I had had enough, never to return’ (137). There is a sense that James was changed by his experiences, as after leaving the company of smaller side shows he became focused on pursuing a career that would allow him to make a name for himself as his own ‘master’ and showman.

“The roughing it with minor circuses and shows, had come to an end”

James H. McKenzie (138)
James exhibited numerous exotic animals during his time managing a menagerie, including a baby kangeroo.
Source – pinterest.co.uk
‘The Menagerie’ by Paul Meyerheim
Here you can find a collection of his work

following his departure from the company of smaller sideshows, James states that his actions could either result in a ‘win or bust’ (138) scenario. There is sense from James’ words that he was consciously aware of the risks that he faced for pursuing a career alone. He knew that he had one chance to break away from the constancy of routine, and only through embracing this change would he be able to rediscover his passion for show business.

James recalls how his first lone venture was not very successful, as he felt that he had rushed into a show that he did not have a comprehensive knowledge to manage. James states that he knew of a showman who ‘made a fortune’ (143) through displaying a menagerie of animals and this seemed like a reasonable and enjoyable way to make a living for himself. During his time managing a ‘miniature zoo’, James states that he ‘bought a collection of monkeys, porcupines, mongoose, some snakes and a baby kangaroo’ (143). James was driven by his ambition, as he wanted to take his audience on a journey of wonder through creating a show that would draw the masses in while making him a ‘good penny’ (143).

As well as the appeal of seeing rare animals, the menagerie functioned as a window into a different continent. as Helen Cowie explains, ‘part of the appeal of any metropolitan zoological collection lay in its potential to mentally transport visitors to the places from which its inmates originated’ (109). James wholeheartedly embraced the role of a guide to the animal wonders of the world. However, even though he made a ‘very good start’ (143) the moment of success was quickly eclipsed, as he ‘did not know how to feed [the animals] properly, so some died’ (144). Although James’ time managing the menagerie was problematic, he reminisces with great admiration for his courage at hosting this show, as it instilled a new sense of wisdom in him that would help shape his career.

“You can make a new show some how to finish the season.”

James H. McKenzie (144)
James like many other showmen took inspiration for their ‘Chamber of Horrors’ from real life criminals. Charles Peace was infamous for burglary and murder in the nineteenth century.
Source – pinterest.co.uk

The words of a fellow member of the show community encouraged James to continue with his dream of becoming a successful showman. James later recalls how this moment gave him the encouragement to not give up, as without a seconds thought he considered his skill of modelling and set his mind to constructing a ‘Chamber of Horrors‘ (144).

James focused on exhibiting the notorious criminal James Peace with his tools of burglary. He recalls how ‘he soon got on the road again to the next fair’ (145) and built his exhibition ready for the opening of the fair. He states how in a short period of time after opening ‘a crowd [was] inside’ (146) ready to watch his show. Although James throughout his career experienced moments of instability, there is sense from his writing that his wit and charm carried him through the toughest moments in his life. Humour played a profoundly important role in James’ life and he believed that this was an aspect of his character that gave longevity to his career.


‘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

Cowie, Helen. (2013). Elephants, education and entertainment: Travelling menageries in nineteenth-century Britain, Journal of the History of Collections, Volume 25, Issue 1, March 2013, pp. 103–117, 

Proof read by Sera – click to read Sera’s Home & Family [Part 2]

Previous Post: Life & Labour [Part 2]

Next Post: The Rise & Fall of Novelty Acts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.