Wearside Echoes: Making a mint out of sweets

George McCarthy of Sunderland has discovered that his grandfather Joseph Wiper invented Kendal Mint cake. He is seen here with a photograph of Joseph and one one of the many newspaper stories about him.
George McCarthy of Sunderland has discovered that his grandfather Joseph Wiper invented Kendal Mint cake. He is seen here with a photograph of Joseph and one one of the many newspaper stories about him.
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THE great-grandfather of a retired Wearside baker invented an energy snack beloved of adventurers – but it certainly didn’t make his family a mint.

Victorian sweet maker Joseph Wiper is believed to have stumbled on the recipe for Kendal Mint Cake by accident – selling the sugary bars at his five shops in Sunderland.

Although the sweets were hugely popular with 20th century adventurers and explorers, Joseph’s daughter Edith spent her last years living in one room at Monkwearmouth.

“I was told my great-grandfather Joseph sent my grandmother a sum of money every year, but that seems to have stopped when he died in 1930, aged 98,” said George McCarthy, of Pennywell.

“She lived in one room in Pilgrim Street and we lived two streets away, in Wayman Street. She was a little woman, with white hair. I don’t remember her having any money at all to speak of.”

Joseph Wiper, the son of John and Margaret Wiper, was born in Kendal in 1844 and grew up to become a confectioner. His great “invention” came in 1869 – by accident.

“Seemingly, my great-grandfather had been boiling up sugar to make glacier mints, but made a mistake and let the mixture boil too long,” said George, 80, who used to work for a bakery in Roker.

“Instead of becoming clear, the sugar turned cloudy and grainy. He was determined to sell it anyway, as it was ‘waste not want not’ in those days, and the result was Kendal Mint Cake.”

Joseph’s mistake soon brought a sweet taste of success.

By the late 1880s, his Mint Cake was “hugely popular” with holidaymakers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District – prompting Joseph to send weekly supplies by train to his North East shops.

“He had several shops in Sunderland during Victorian and Edwardian times, including three in High Street West,” said George. “I think he also had some in Newcastle and Shields.

“I haven’t a clue as to why my grandmother, who was Joseph’s oldest daughter, decided to move to Sunderland. Perhaps she was sent to help out with the shops and just decided to stay.

“One of Joseph’s sons, John, also lived in Sunderland, in Eldon Street. He got married at the Royalty Church, now part of the Royalty Theatre, and I think he was running the shops for a while.”

Joseph finally stepped down from the sweet business in 1910, retiring to British Columbia in Canada – where one of his sons opened a shop selling Mint Cake in Vancouver.

The future of his firm back home in Kendal was left in the hands of his great-nephew, Robert Wiper.

“It was Robert who continued to manufacture Kendal Mint Cake, and he went on to supply his first expedition in 1914 – Shackleton’s expedition to the Pole,” said George.

“This was the forerunner of many major expeditions to Everest and the Polar regions over the next few decades, with many of the adventurers taking a supply of Kendal Mint Cake with them.”

When New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepalse guide Tenzing Norgay became the first to conquer Mount Everest in 1953, they celebrated with a bar of the sweet snack.

“We sat on the snow and looked at the country far below us – we nibbled Kendal Mint Cake,” Hillary later recalled.

Although Kendal Mint Cake was now an established worldwide brand, the name of Wiper had all but disappeared from the streets of Sunderland by the time of the Everest celebration.

“When Joseph went off to Canada, I believe all of his shops in Sunderland were sold on to Maynards – which later became Trebor,” said George.

“But my grandmother, who had married a Glasgow-born clerk, remained in the town for the rest of her life. I still remember visiting her, although she died when I was quite young.”

Today, Kendal Mint Cake remains a household name, although the original Wiper’s business was sold on to a new firm in 1987.

“Family history on my mother’s side was always very secretive – she never told me anything about my ancestors, which is why I’m in the dark about so many things,” said George.

“Everything I know is from my research into official records over the past few years. One thing I do know first-hand though – our family never saw a penny of the Kendal Mint Cake fortune!”

l Do you have a family history or war story you would like to share? Write to Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland SR4 9ER or email: sarah.stoner@northeast-press.co.uk