Well-known author records tales of criminality, drunkenness, abuse and poverty in Harborough

It is inspired by an interesting backstory from the author, Dame Carmen Callil

Monday, 30th November 2020, 12:03 pm
Well-known publisher, writer and critic Dame Carmen Callil with her book, 'Oh Happy Day - Those Times and These Times'.
Well-known publisher, writer and critic Dame Carmen Callil with her book, 'Oh Happy Day - Those Times and These Times'.

Tales of criminality, drunkenness, abuse and poverty in Market Harborough have been recorded in an historic book by a well-known publisher, writer and critic Dame Carmen Callil.

The book, titled 'Oh Happy Day - Those Times and These Times', records an alternative record of the town during the 19th century - and is inspired by an interesting backstory from the author herself.

"I first spoke to Carmen three years ago," said Len Holden, secretary of the Historical Society.

"I asked her why she joined Market Harborough Historical Society when she lives in Chelsea in London.

"In a slight Australian accent she stated “I’m writing my family history and they were criminals from Market Harborough.'"

The book tells the story of several branches of her family the Conquests, the Allens and others hailing from parts of Leicestershire including Harborough.

Their lives were not easy - the 1830s and 1840s were a wretched time for the poor.

There was no welfare state and relief from poverty relied on charity or the workhouse, a grim edifice which separated families.

The Harborough workhouse which used to stand on the Leicester Road, now occupied by St Lukes Hospital, was regularly ‘home’ to the Conquest family.

Carmen describes the mental and sometimes physical brutality of the regime which had a particularly malicious man in charge.

When George Conquest objected to his treatment and that of his family he was accused of being a trouble maker and appeared in court.

Talking about the book, Len added: "Court appearances and prison were not new experiences in this unequal world for the Conquests and Allens.

"Work was sporadic and often difficult to come by and evictions were common when rent went into arrears. Petty theft, pilfering and poaching were some ways to bolster income, relieved by bouts of drunkenness and occasionally violence.

"The story of Carmen’s family, however, is not that of unrelieved gloom for George was eventually convicted of theft from the canal and sentenced to transportation to Australia.

"His experience on the hulks and then a 151 days journey by ship to what eventually became Melbourne, led to a new and indeed

prosperous life in this convict colony.

"The story is refreshing because it reveals the hardships and tribulations of ordinary folk. She cleverly puts into context their experiences with the social and economic circumstances of the time. This is a riveting read not couched in academic jargon and a worthy contribution to our local history."

The happy end to the story is that 20 years after arriving as a convict in chains George made enough money to fund the passage to Australia of many of his siblings and his wife Sary.

Carmen founded Virago Press in the 1970s, the feminist publishing house which became world renowned. From 1985 to 1991 she was a member of the Board of Channel 4 Television.

In 1996 she chaired the Booker Prize for Fiction and was a judge in 2011.

The book is available from Quinns Bookshop Tel: 01858 432313 and Kibworth Books Tel: 0116 2791121.