James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Home and Family – Writing Lives

James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Home and Family

“There was another crash that day, and I heard of it when I arrived home. It was a railway disaster and both of my parents are killed. I was an orphan”

James H. McKenzie pg. 2

James H. McKenzie was surrounded by people for all of his life. Many of these people were blood related, but the majority were not. However all were, in James’ mind , family. In this blog I will be covering some of his blood relative.

Image of the first railroad opened in England in the year 1825

At a young age James lost both his parents in a railway crash. This quickly made him an orphan. From then on he moved to live with his grandmother, who owned and lived in a ‘slum’ with her old servant. When she died, he was moved to his uncle’s, who lived with his wife, in a mansion in Kensington. Although his aunt loved him, his presence caused financial issues, and therefore James was no longer wanted at the home and he was moved out to another family member’s house who took pity on him due to his orphaned state. James’ living arrangements from then on were very peripatetic. He was moved from one place to another, never able to settle down for too long. His life consisted of being handed off from one family member to another, forced to live with whoever would take him. These times were unsettling for James and therefore eventually in his teens, after having enough,he decided to run away. From here he found his calling, and his new family, the circus folk.

“It is very strange that old people sometimes die simultaneously”

James H. McKenzie pg. 11

In the years that followed his parents’ death, James was dealt with another blow. Both his grandfather and grandmother, who although separated at the time, passed away within a short time of each other.

Hanfstaengl, E. (1871). The Teller. [Oil].

James was not especially close to his grandad and spent little time in his company, but he still thought greatly of him. His granddad had a good education, he was well educated about medicine and owned a shop which was filled with things. He enjoyed going to the pub, the Blue Anchor, he loved the company of it, and he loved getting drunk, or at least tipsy each night. He was partial to a pint, and this sometimes got him in trouble but it never stopped him.

James on the other hand was very close to his grandmother. He was taken in to live with her after his parents died and so she became like a second mother to him, and a deep bond was formed. James’ grandmother came from a good Scottish family, she had class and surrounded herself with antiques and good furniture. She beheld an elegance that felt out of place in the slums and many around her looked at her strangely for her eccentricity. But she made her money telling fortunes and everyone who came to her admired her. James also loved his grandmother and all that she represented. He knew how much she cared for him and the people around her. She spoilt him and gave him the freedom to do anything he wanted, out of sadness that he had lost so much so young.

James only met his Grandpa a handful of times. On their first meeting, he took him on a steamboat to London The day after their last meeting he was dead, lying among his rubbish on the shop floor. His death was at first seen as a consequence of a robbery, but later his money was found and no one was quite sure why he had died. However, no matter what the cause was, the after-effect was still the same: James was broken.

For James to lose his Grandmother was heartbreaking for him. She had been struck down by a ghost illness and there was not a long time before it took her to her death. James was there when it happened, smothered into Rebecca the servant’s breast, who wept for her mistress. James simply paralysed by his emotions. This image stuck with him for the rest of his life.


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 

Murdoch, L. (2006). Imagined orphans. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Mayall, D. (1988). Gypsy-travellers in nineteenth-century society. Cambridge u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Pr.

Nostradamus, G. (2013). Consult the Oracle. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Seabrook, J. (2018). Orphans: A History. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Strange, Julie-Marie. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, c. 1870-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Ying, Lee, Masculinity and the English Working Class: Studies In Victorian Autobiography and Fiction London: Routledge, 2007.

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