Charles Mackay, the son of a navy lieutenant was born in Scotland in 1814. His mother died when he was young and so he was brought up by foster parents. At the age of sixteen he was employed as the private secretary to William Cockerill, an ironmaster based in Belgium. In his spare-time he wrote articles for the local newspaper.
Mackay returned to Britain in 1832 and for the next three years contributed to several newspapers. In 1835 he obtained his first permanent post in journalism when he was appointed as an assistant to George Hogarth, the sub-editor of the Morning Chronicle. Other journalists working for the newspaper at the time included Charles Dickens and William Hazlitt. Mackay eventually was promoted to the post of assistant editor.
In 1844 Mackay left the Morning Chronicle and became editor of the Glasgow Argus. While in Scotland he also contributed articles and poetry to the Daily News, a newspaper established by Charles Dickens in 1846. After four years in Glasgow, Mackay returned to London and joined the staff of the London Illustrated News the successful journal owned by Herbert Ingram.
In 1849 Henry Mayhew suggested to John Douglas Cook, the editor of the Morning Chronicle, that the newspaper should carry out an investigation into the condition of the labouring classes in England and Wales. Cook agreed and recruited Mackay, Angus Reach and Shirley Brooks to help Mayhew collect the material. Mackay was given the task of surveying the situation in Liverpool and Birmingham.
Mackay's poetry was collected together until the title Voices from the Crowd. Some of them were set to music by his friend Henry Russell. These were very successful and one songsheet, The Good Time Coming, sold over 400,000 copies. Mackay published his two volume autobiography, Forty Years Recollections and Through the Long Day two years before his death in 1889.