Mary Berry

Culinary queen and Great British Bake Off judge Mary Berry traces her roots in Norwich, finding tales of entrepreneurs, workhouse poverty and Victorian scandal...

Mary Berry

“I love what I do,” says Great British Bake Off judge Mary Berry as she explains why she’s still working at an age, 79, when most have retired. She also believes strongly that our genes help make us who we are and her father, she says, was a man of “enormous energy”.

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But from whom did her dad inherit this energy? Trying to answer this question, Mary’s journey into the past concentrates on her father’s forebears. “I think they would have been a respectable family,” says Mary. “They would have gone into the traditional jobs, and the girls would be groomed for marriage.”

That’s not quite what Mary discovers as, after stopping off to visit her brothers in Bath, she heads to East Anglia to begin her research. The first forebear she meets is her great-great grandfather on her grandmother’s side of the family, baker Robert Houghton, born in Norwich in 1798.

“I can really say there’s baking in my family,” says a delighted Mary. More than this, Robert was a successful businessman. Robert supplied bread both to the workhouse and to those who had to seek outdoor relief. This generated huge revenues, but the hours were long and the work was hard.

Just how tough Mary learns when she visits the School of Artisan Food near Mansfield and tries her hand at making bread as her forebear might have prepared it.

She also hears about a whiff of scandal surrounding Robert, when those receiving free bread complained about its quality. Might having been a parish councillor helped Robert both get his contracts and keep criticism at bay? Perhaps, but Mary is still “full of admiration” for Robert’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Next, Mary turns her attention to her grandfather’s side of the family. Here, there’s a shock in store. Records reveal that Mary’s great-great grandmother, also named Mary, had four illegitimate children, perhaps because she was partner to a man who was unable to marry. Two of the children died young. Having lost a son herself, William who died in an accident, Mary feels this loss keenly.

More shocks follow. Mary’s father, Christopher, was a printer and publisher, seemingly a well-to-do man. However, in 1811, he was declared bankrupt. He kept his printing press, but doesn’t seem to have been much of a father and may even have deliberately abandoned the family. His wife and six of his eight children were forced to enter a notorious local workhouse where “beds and bedding swarmed with vermin”.

Yet Christopher clearly had an income, because he was ordered to pay 20 shillings a week towards their upkeep. Three of his children died in the institution. Mary continued to live with her father, but it seems unlikely she had much respect for him. When her children came along, she didn’t name them after Christopher, the custom at the time. Instead, she named two of her sons for her lost siblings.

As for Mary, the 1851 census shows her as a stay maker, someone who made corsets. The two of her sons who survived became, respectively, a carpenter and a printer. Edward, Mary’s great-grandfather was with her when she died at the age of 70.

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“In a way, I think that’s a happy ending,” says Mary. She finishes by visiting her grandparents’ graves. She’s not sure whether her own character owes more to Mary’s indomitable spirit or Robert Houghton’s drive, but she’s tremendously proud of both.