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Sarah Kemp was born in Bowness-on-Windermere in 1815, the year of Waterloo. She had a hard life, as a child she knew poverty, and her widowed mother was only too thankful to get her daughter into service with the local gentry. But Sarah was a diligent young woman and she soon reached the height of her profession as a cook.

In 1844 she married Wilfred Nelson of Morland near Penrith, but marriage didn't solve any problems for Sarah. Wilfred worked as a farm labourer and part-time grave digger, but he was unable to earn enough to support his wife and two children. Sarah worked hard taking in washing and making cakes and pastries for Lady Farquhar, in her home at Dale Lodge in Grasmere.

Around 1850 a small cottage known as "Gate Cottage" then became available for rent. Gate Cottage had been built in 1630 by public subscription as the village school. Education was not compulsory at this time, and it was only the village folk who could afford the penny a day to send their boys to school. Once education became compulsory a new school was built nearby to accommodate all the village children, leaving the Nelson's to take over the tenancy of the property.

Left: A postcard of Gate
Cottage taken in about

The cottage remains
largely unaltered today.

At her new home, Sarah was encouraged by Lady Farquhar's French chef to make Gingerbread. As the Victorian tourists passed by, they would see Sarah donned in her white apron and shawl sitting out in her cobbled yard selling her wares of Helvellyn cakes, aerated water and most importantly her Gingerbread.

Sarah's Grasmere Gingerbread became renowned, and soon she was wrapping it in pure vegetable parchment printed "None Genuine Without Trade Mark". The recipe was locked away in the local bank vault. Sarah abandoned her parlour, and hung a curtain across her kitchen to form a passageway from the door through to the diminutive shop. Sarah had now established herself as "Baker and Confectioner of Church Cottage, Grasmere".

In 1869 and 1870 tragedy struck when both Sarah's young daughters died of tuberculosis. And a few years later Wilfred died. She turned to her work, even making gingerbread alphabets, then covering them with thin horn to protect them, and using them to teach the village children. She died in 1904 at the age of 88 worn out by her hard work, but fortunately her secret did not die with her.

Above: Sarah in 1892
working in her kitchen.
Note the large cupboard -
the cupboard used to keep
the school slates, and is
still in place today.

The recipe passed to her great niece, who sold it to Daisy Hotson, who later went into partnership with Jack and Mary Wilson. In 1969 Margaret and Gerald Wilson, Jack's nephew, bought the business. Over the years little has changed in this tiny shop - the school coat pegs are still in place, and so is the cupboard used to house the school slates. Sarah would still feel at home in her kitchen, her curtain rod rests above the churchyard window where William Wordsworth and his family lie buried, as well as the Nelson family. Her cool, dark pantry is still in use, though nowadays it stores Kendal Mint Cake, Penrith toffee and fudge and home-made chocolate gingers. It is a step back in time - Margaret remembers pushing on the hands of the clock in the village school, so they could escape a few minutes early to run to "The Gingerbread Shop" to be first to buy a penny bag of broken pieces which were then sold in aid of Doctor Barnado's Homes. That clock, bought for two-shillings and sixpence, now ticks away in the shop and points an accusing finger at Margaret for her childish pranks as it occasionally slips a few minutes.


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