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

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

“That shifting to one relative to another created a feeling I would like to leave all relations.”

James H. McKenzie P49

James H. McKenzie openly voices his weariness and frustration of being passed between relations in his childhood. Although James initially had a typical upbringing with his parents this was quickly upturned, as at the young age of six James’ parents perished in a rail accident in the Kensington district of London. Following the mention of the accident in his handwritten memoir, James never reveals any further insight into the accident or the qualities and character of his parents. Following this moment in his memoir, James recollects memories of an unsettled childhood in which he was passed between various relatives who he believed only felt obligated to look after him because he was an orphan.

Above is an image of the 1881 census of Robert Burger’s household. James H. McKenzie is referred to under his birth name James Aylott. The census suggests that James was one of three children who was employed by James Burger to undertake the role of cow-keepers.
Source – Ancestry.co.uk

After his parents’ deaths, James went to live with his fortune teller Grandmother, whom he was very close to and cared for greatly. However, this moment of stability was eclipsed very quickly, as his grandmother suddenly passed away following a short illness and he soon learnt that he would go and live with his affluent uncle Robert Burger. Although James goes to live in a mansion with his uncle and aunt, it becomes clear that James was unnerved by his uncle as he was present at the death chamber of his grandmother and was only interested in the wealth that he could gain from her valuables and possessions:

‘The curse of wealth had destroyed all love of their mother.’

McKenzie, P13

James further describes how he was referred to as ‘that brat’ and was ‘careful’ to keep out of his uncle’s way. In an 1881 census, James is described as a servant/assisting cow-keeper while living in the Burger household, which suggests that he was put to work once he was taken in by his uncle and that he was not treated as an adopted son by Burger but as a worker who could undertake laborious roles. James further details his uncle’s cruelty, as during his time as a cow-keeper he recalls the punishments that he was subjected to: ‘trying to lift me up by the ear! I had several of such experiences’ (21A). The tone of James’s voice can be heard when reading these lines of the memoir, as his resentment towards his uncle is made apparent. His writing here clearly justifies his desire to run away, as he was never able to settle in his new home and was often mistreated by his uncle.

There is a sense that because James was an orphan he was taken advantage of and as soon as he was invited to stay with his uncle and aunt, James became part of his uncle’s unpaid labour force. David Vincent explores how like many working-class children James was labelled for being an orphan and was forced to begin a ‘life as a child labourer’ (89).

“On my way home after seeing such a grand show, my resolution was fixed to run away!” P25A
James was greatly inspired as a child when visiting a travelling circus. From that moment on James desired to run away from life with relatives and embrace his desire to travel.
Source – loc.gov

James following the arrest of his uncle and the death of his aunt was passed between numerous relatives before he finally decided to run away to the circus. During his brief time working in a brick field, James recalls how he became gripped by wanderlust and decided to walk the open country to ‘keep away’ from his relatives. During his excursion, he met a travelling showman and was asked if he wanted to ‘live in one of those houses on wheels’ (P58), an offer he was delighted to accept. During his time in the circus James recalls how the travelling folk were like family, friends and even teachers to him, as they always looked after him and his best interests:

‘These old circus people were good teachers, they convinced you could do what you thought impossible.’

McKenzie, P68

James reminisces how being part of the circus satisfied his inner calling, as by travelling he knew that he was always in the company of like-minded people and had the space and time to hone his craft and develop his interests. The only time that James intentionally departs the company of the circus is when his uncle unexpectedly turns up. However, after a period of time on the run from his uncle, he finds the circus again and is reunited and embraced by them: ‘the old man took me in his arms, his wife came down and kiss’d me, the old friends soon crowded round’ (P81). James’s words emphasise the mutual care found in circus circles, as every member formed part of a collective family. Although James’s memoir does not include accounts about his wife, Mary Ann Westbrook, and the children that he brought up on the road, it is clear why James was comfortable living with them on the road, as he could be assured that they would be welcomed with the same kindness that he had experienced.


‘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

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

Vincent, David. (1981). Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, pp. 80 – 98.

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