Sarah Kemp, who was born in 1815 in Bowness on Windermere, had a hard life due to poverty. Her widowed mother was only too thankful to get her daughter into service with the local gentry. Sarah, who was a conscientious young woman, soon reached the height of her profession as a cook. She married Wilfred Nelson of Morland near Penrith in 1844, unfortunately marriage didn’t solve any problems for Sarah. Wilfred, who worked as a farm labourer and part-time grave digger, was unable to earn enough to support his wife and two children. Sarah, who worked hard taking in washing, made cakes and pastries for Lady Farquhar in her home at Dale Lodge in Grasmere.
A small cottage, known as Gate Cottage in Grasmere, became available for rent in 1850. Gate Cottage, which had been built in 1630 by public subscription, used to be the village school. However, as education was not compulsory at this time, it was only the village people who could afford the penny a day to send their boys to school. A new school was built nearby, once education became compulsory, to accommodate all the village children and the tenancy of Gate Cottage was taken over by the Nelson family.
Sarah was encouraged by Lady Farquhar’s French chef to make gingerbread at her new home. The Victorian tourists who passed the cottage would see Sarah, dressed in her white apron and shawl, sitting in her cobbled yard selling her produce of Helvellyn cakes, aerated water and more importantly her gingerbread. Fortunately, Sarah’s Grasmere gingerbread became well known and soon she was wrapping it in pure vegetable paper printed “None Genuine Without Trade Mark”. She also locked the recipe away in the local bank vault. Sarah then abandoned her parlour and hung a curtain across her kitchen to form a passageway from the door through to the small shop. She had now established herself as “Baker and Confectioner of Church Cottage, Grasmere”.
Sadly, both Sarah’s young daughters died of tuberculosis in 1869 and 1870. A few years later her husband, Wilfred, died. Sarah turned to her work, she even made gingerbread alphabets, covered them with thin horn to protect them and used these to teach the village children. Worn out by her hard work she died in 1904 at the age of 88. Fortunately, her secret recipe did not die with her as it was passed on to her great niece, who in turn sold it to Daisy Hotson, who later went into partnership with Jack and Mary Wilson.
Jack’s nephew and wife, Gerald and Margaret Wilson, bought the business in 1969. Little has changed in this small shop over the years – the cupboard used to house the school slates and the school coat pegs are still in place. Sarah’s curtain rod rests above the churchyard window where the Nelson family and William Wordsworth and his family lie buried. Fortunately, Sarah’s cool dark pantry is still used today, however, it now stores Kendal Mint Cake, Penrith toffee and fudge and homemade chocolate gingers.