Kenneth Mackenzie (Bookseller)

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Kenneth Mackenzie (Bookseller)
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Gairloch in Wester Ross
Died21 January 1928
Alma materHighland Schools
  • Bookseller
  • Publisher
  • Scholar
  • Abigail Mackenzie (mother)

Kenneth Mackenzie (1879 - 21 January 1928) was a bookseller, publisher and scholar, best known as the proprietor of his eponymous bookshop in Baghdad, Iraq. At the time of his death in 1928, according the the Baghdad Times, "there was no better-known British resident in Iraq, and none was more widely esteemed".[1]

Early Life

Mackenzie was born in the village of Gairloch in Wester Ross, in the North-West Highlands of Scotland in 1879.[2] No birth certificate survives, but census records show that his mother was Abigail Mackenzie, and he grew up at Tagan Farm, Gairloch.[3] His mother was widowed early, and so was brought up by her alone alongside his two sisters, as well as two orphans adopted by his mother.[4] The family were forced to leave Scotland after their farmland was hit by a terrible flood, a friend later recalled: "they lost everything, he and they stood on a rising knoll and saw all their livestock and worldly possessions swept away - had the water risen a little higher, they must have perished!"[4]

The Mackenzies moved to London, settling in Camberwell.[5] Mackenzie had received a good education in Highland Schools,[1] and though he was still young he felt a responsibility to provide for his family.[4][1] Having ambitiously applied for and been laughed out of several prospective jobs, "he tried the Army and Navy Stores, where through his persistence he gained a footing".[4] He started work there in the Book Department,[6] and contemporary accounts suggest he immediately took well to bookselling, providing much sought counsel to loyal customers. One old friend recalled how "an ordinary visit to the bug book department of the London Army and Navy stores was apt to turn into an agreeable and profitable adventure if the help of a certain young, alert, reddish haired man could be secured... His knowledge of the right book on every subject seemed as unfailing as his good humour and patience."[6]

Bookselling Career In London

In 1911, Mackenzie was living at 15 Berber Road, Wandsworth with his two sisters, a niece and a cousin; he was now aged 32 and head of the family.[7] By this time, he had established his own business and bookshop, The Book Lover's Resort in Kensington, and he employed his niece, Evangeline Adelaide Mackenzie, as his bookseller's assistant.[7] The shop was described by a contemporary as a "snug little shop, brimful of books of the most beguiling kinds."[6] All surviving accounts of the enterprise describe the shop as a literary and commercial success.[1][6]

Mackenzie was a part of a vibrant group of Highlanders living in London in the years before the war, in both a social and scholarly capacity. He was a "notable Gaelic scholar, deeply read in Scottish history and folklore,"[1] a contributor to the Folk-Song Society's journal on the subject of traditional Highland song, and was the author of a Gaelic play that was popular among Highlanders living in London. It was described as "a merry little dramatic sketch of life in the Western Highlands, introducing old songs, customs and dances of those parts."[6] An obituary in the Ross-Shire Journal noted that "he took a keen interest in Highland Societies in the Metropolis, and his stalwart figure, in Highland dress, was notable at Highland Gatherings."[8]

Mackenzie was well known too for his generosity; one reminiscence following his death recalled his "kind heart" and how "he scattered favours with both hands".[9] He is noted as an advocate for the Women's suffrage Movement, and took out advertisements in pro-Suffrage publications to support the cause.[10] When war broke out in 1914, an advertisement in Votes for Women (newspaper): "Dinna forget to send light reading and games to our wounded heroes. Kenneth Mackenzie, the Suffragist Bookseller, West Kensington, has made up several parcels from 2s. 10d. upwards, and delivers them to Military and Naval Hospitals throughout the country."[10] Less than two months later, however, "with an aching heart Mackenzie at once and for ever closed down a prosperous business - built up with infinite care and loving pride during the course of thirteen years - in order to join a Highland regiment."[6]

Mackenzie joined the Seaforth Highlanders on the 7 November 1914.[11] He served in France, and received the Victory Medal (United Kingdom), the British War Medal, and the 1914–15 Star.[11] He was severely wounded in service, and was treated at the Orthopaedic Hospital in Baschurch, Shropshire, where it took months for him to recover. During his recovery, he wrote extensively to his Highland friends in London, with one recalling that "during the months of suffering and slow convalescence his active mind triumphed over bodily infirmity."

The Book Shop, Baghdad

Following the war, the newly formed Iraq Education Department decided to open a government bookshop in Baghdad and appointed Mackenzie to run it.[1][6][8] The success and popularity of the bookshop has become legendary.[1] Its extreme early popularity saw the premises move to the Sarai, and its time there is best described by the following passage from the Baghdad Times:

"It was crowded throughout the day with British and Iraqi book-lovers, whose purchases ran into tens of thousands of volumes, written in many languages and dealing with a vast variety of subjects. Mackenzie was the presiding genius; his advice was sought by grizzled brigadiers and earnest subalterns requiring the latest works on military tactics; by students of Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Persian and Hindustani, and European languages; by civil administrators, seeking inspiration from the administrative experiences of other lands; by countless Iraqis, desiring to acquire a smattering of European literature in the shortest possible space of time; and by a legions of novel-readers, who perhaps outnumbered all the others."[1]

The Bookshop was generally quoted as the most efficient Government institution in the new Iraq,[1] and the fame of Mackenzie spread throughout the country and the rest of the Middle East.[6] It quickly became known as "The Best Bookshop East of Suez".[1] Mackenzie's genius was not merely an enthusiasm for books, but he was a pioneer of book distribution, utilising both desert motor mail and air mail to ensure new titles reached his bookshop at the earliest opportunity.[8]

In 1926 the Iraqi government decided that it was not entitled to carry on trading concerns in competition with other Baghdad bookshops, and so put the bookshop up for auction.[1] Mackenzie allegedly offered far in excess of any other potential bidders, and so did not have to part with his bookshop.[1] With sole ownership Mackenzie added a publishing arm to the business, issuing Dorothy Mackay's Ancient Cities Of Iraq in 1926.[12] The book was an English language travel guide aimed at British tourists visiting the archaeological sites of Iraq. A second book, The Constitutional Law Of Iraq by C. A. Hooper, was published by Mackenzie in 1928.

Death and Legacy

On the evening of Saturday 21 January 1928, Mackenzie was taken ill at the bookshop. He was unconscious when he arrived at the hospital and never regained consciousness, dying peacefully two hours later.[1] The cause of death was recored as an attack of apoplexy.[1] The funeral took place the following day, and was attended by a large gathering of mourners in spite of its immediacy. The High Commissioner was present, as were representatives of every Ministry and Government Department. The service was conducted by Wing Commander the Rev. G. H. Collier, the Principal Chaplain of the Royal Air Force in Iraq and a close friend of Mackenzie's. The pallbearers were all members of the Baghdad Caledonian Society and the newspapers noted that among Baghdad's Scottish community "there was barely an absentee".[1] Mackenzie was also a Freemason, a member of Lodge Baghdad and Lodge Iraq and had held office there as a Senior Dacon. The Baghdad Times concluded their obituary by saying the the depth of his family's grief "can be gauged by the grief of the whole of Iraq at the passing of Kenneth Mackenzie".[1]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 "The Late Mr. K. Mackenzie". Baghdad Times. 24 January 1928.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. 1881 Scotland Census. Parish: Gairloch; ED: 8; Page: 6; Line: 23; Roll: cssct1881a_103237.
  3. 1891 Scotland Census. Parish: Gairloch; ED: 2; Page: 1; Line: 12; Roll: CSSCT1891_18.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Autograph Letter Written By Edith Hipkins to Lucy Broadwood on the death of Mackenzie, 4 February 1928
  5. Census Returns of England and Wales, 1901. Class: RG13; Piece: 497; Folio: 37; Page: 7.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Broadwood, Lucy E. (16 March 1928). "Some Reminiscences Of Kenneth Mackenzie". The Ross-Shire Journal.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Census Returns Of England And Wales, 1911. Class: RG14; Piece: 2238.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Mr Kenneth Mackenzie, Baghdad". The Ross-Shire Journal. 27 January 1928.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  9. Autograph Letter Written By Edith Hipkins to Lucy Broadwood, 20 February 1928.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Kenneth Mackenzie, the Suffragist Bookseller". Votes For Women (newspaper). 18 September 1914.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. 11.0 11.1 UK, British Army World War I Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920
  12. Mackay, Dorothy (1926). The Ancient Cities Of Iraq. Published By Kenneth Mackenzie, The Book Shop, Baghdad, Iraq.

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