Oh Happy Day: Those Times and These Times by Carmen Callil

‘The story begins with Sary, as it must, because she was the first to leave.’

Ms Callil’s search for her ancestral roots takes her and us on a journey through the British Empire, through poverty, transportation, and emigration to Australia.

Ms Callil starts with her great-great-grandmother, Sary Lacey.  Born in 1808, illegitimate, Sary became a stocking frame worker in Leicestershire.  But increasing industrialisation will reduce the number of jobs available and will drive wages down.  Sary moves between slum and tenement, from one pregnancy to the next.  The father of one of Sary’s children is George Conquest, a canal worker.  George is convicted of theft and is sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.

For George, Australia is his ‘Happy Day’.  He eventually returns to England and meets Sary again, after almost thirty years.  Together, they travel to Australia.

In another thread, John Brooks (a silversmith) and his daughter Mary Ann (one of Ms Callil’s great- grandmothers) travel to Australia to escape the workhouse.

These are circumstances, lives and occupations that are Dickensian.  Sweated labourers, made paupers by industrialization, doomed to live in poverty.  Some (not all) of those transported to Australia were fortunate enough to find an opportunity for (at least relative) prosperity.

Ms Callil’s research turns names into people and shows the reality behind the stories that authors such as Charles Dickens explored in their novels.

If you are interested in social history, in exploring some of the lives behind our history, then I recommend this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith