Oh Happy Day
Carmen Callil explores her roots in a book that is a miracle of research and whose writing is fuelled by righteous anger – a story of Empire, migration and the poverty and injustice of nineteenth-century England
In this remarkable book, Carmen Callil discovers the story of her British ancestors, beginning with her great-great-grandmother Sary Lacey, born illegitimate in 1808, an impoverished stocking frame worker in Leicestershire. Through detailed research, we follow Sary from slum to tenement and from pregnancy to pregnancy. We also meet George Conquest, a canal worker and the father of one of Sary’s children. George was sentenced – for stealing a piece of hemp – to seven years’ transportation to Australia, where he faced the extraordinary brutality of convict life. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Brooks and her father John, a silversmith, travel across the seas from Lincolnshire to escape the Workhouse and life as a skivvy.
But for George, as for so many destitute and disenfranchised British people like him, Australia turned out to be his Happy Day. He survived, prospered and eventually returned to England, where he met Sary again, after nearly thirty years. He brought her out to Australia, and they were never parted again.
Carmen Callil not only reclaims from obscurity the lives of these ordinary men and women who were sent to Australia as convicts or domestic servants, but also draws telling parallels for our own times. Oh Happy Day is a moving story of poverty, social injustice, Empire and migration.