Friday, 14 February 2014


Valentines Day 1945, John Ronald MACKENZIE, retired Superintendent at the Woolwich Arsenal, died at the age of 85. John was the son of Ronald MACKENZIE and Jessie INNES of Dingwall Scotland and the father of my maternal grandmother, Jessie MACKENZIE. I have recently requested a copy of his will and will share this as soon as it arrives. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966

There are a number of stories I grew up with surrounding John MACKENZIE and I think it is fair to say that it was these mysteries which started my interest in family history research. To date I’ve not been able to confirm or deny with any degree of certainty the validity of these tales, but I keep at them regardless.

The first of these was that he was a boilermaker in the merchant service and when he married Annie HAMILTON (10th February 1885) he gave up the sea. Apparently he explained later in life to his daughter Jessie that he did so as he believed it was no life for a woman to be married to a sailor. Now I know from his marriage announcement that in 1885 he was indeed a boilermaker and was attached to the SS Duke of Devonshire but I have not been able to find any trace of him so far in the Merchant Navy records on-line. From help I have received from one of the genealogy message boards I have been told that boilermakers were usually land-based and rarely went to sea. I can’t find John in the 1881 Census returns which is frustrating as this would give a pretty good indication of what he was doing prior to his marriage. Maybe he was a merchant sailor and was at sea at the time, I don’t know, but it is a puzzle that I keep coming back to in the hope that I will find confirmation either way.

The one story that Mum always wanted confirmed related to his time at the Woolwich Arsenal. Mum had always been led to believe that during WW1 he had played an important role in a project for the navy, possibly regarding submarines, and as a result he received some form of award or commendation. I have contacted various archives in pursuit of information but so far have drawn a blank. However, there are still a few more avenues to follow so I’ll keep you posted.

The final story I was told about John MACKENZIE is with regard to his two sons, William and Ronald. Apparently Ronald, the eldest, was a child musical prodigy who played lead violin with the Carl Rosa Opera Company by the time he was 21. Son William endured the horror of the trenches in France and then tragically died during the influenza epidemic of 1919. Oh dear. Not quite.

There WAS an esteemed Ronald MACKENZIE associated with the Carl Rosa, but sadly that was not my Ronald, although great uncle Ronald actually was a violinist (see earlier story). Great uncle William was in France in WW1 but returned to England, married and had children (more about William in August). According to William’s son, Alex, the reason William seemed to disappear from the family is that he did not approve of John MACKENZIE’s second wife, Florence PLUMMER, who he married in 1901. They had a “falling out” and William refused to go to his fathers house again.

John MACKENZIE (in hat) with Grandma Jessie (left) Florence (nee PLUMMER right) and children l-r are Peggy, Doris, mum and I think the boy could be Johns grandson Ronald although this is only conjecture based on age. Taken in the back garden at Shooters Hill. 

There are a few other reminiscences about John from both Mum and Auntie Pat that I’ll mention here.

By all accounts the second Mrs Mackenzie, Florence PLUMMER, was not someone that Mum and her sisters could warm to (sounds like they were in agreement with John’s son William). She and her subsequent daughters with John, Mabel Marion born 1903 and Irene Muriel born 1906, apparently thought themselves a cut above his children with Annie HAMILTON; Ronald, William and Jessie. I recall Mum telling the story of when Auntie Doris was a teenager she was invited to stay with Mabel and her husband during the school holidays. She was very excited to have been asked until she got there and realized that she was actually expected to fill in for their maid who was taking a holiday. When Grandma Jessie found out she was furious and put Auntie Doris on the next train home!

I heard from both Mum and Auntie Pat that Grandma Jessie was always nervous when he came to visit her as he was very strict about childrens behaviour. I think "seen and not heard" was the idea  and on Sundays they were not allowed to sew, play of knit but were only allowed to read quietly.

Later in life John lived with his daughter Mabel (May) and her solicitor husband in Petts Wood Kent but when he wanted to smoke his pipe he had to go down to the garden shed as May would not let him smoke in the house. 

Also from Auntie Pat is the story that John was a keen rose grower who exhibited at Chelsea. He met the Queen mother a few times and thought she was a lovely lady.

In all, John MACKENZIE has always fascinated me, probably because of all the stories I grew up hearing. I must admit though that the more I hear, the more I am unsure about how much I like him. He seems very stern and Victorian; keen to keep up appearances and not averse to changing facts to make himself seem more important.

Rest in Peace great-grandfather John!

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