Belfast Telegraph

Mary Portas opens heart on her parents who crossed the divide in Northern Ireland

By Gail Walker

Mary Portas, the woman famous for her determination to revive the UK high street, has revealed how her parents came from Northern Ireland.

In her brilliant new memoir Shop Girl, Portas discloses how her Protestant father and Catholic mother, Sam and Theresa Newton, left the province for London shortly after they married - a union that had caused deep upset to her mum's relatives.

"Religion was so ingrained in my mother that she once went to the cinema and absentmindedly genuflected as she walked down the aisle to her seat," writes Portas (54). "Growing up a Catholic, she was taught to pray each night, attend church every Sunday and regard the local priest as the God's earth-bound embodiment.

"Her family was appalled when she married a Protestant from the wrong side of Belfast and never quite forgave my dad for whisking Mum to a new life in England."

Her dad, Sam, had grown up just off the Falls Road and after arriving in England had worked as a bus conductor "before talking his way into a job as a sausage salesman".

Clearly proud of his determination to make something of himself, Portas goes on: "Disciplined and hard-working , he then got a job at Brooke Bond (tea company) that paid enough for him to get a mortgage on our three-bed terraced house. But that was Sam. Other people might live in council houses, but he made sure to buy his own. To everyone around him, he was a leader, a go-getter and not a man you crossed."

Portas' mother, Theresa, was one of eight children brought up on a farm in the Northern Ireland countryside.

"Her father worked the land by day, then played the violin and read poetry at night, so the love of learning was in Mum's blood," recalls Portas. "She aspired to something more, just like Dad, and while he moved us up in the world through hard work, her job was to ensure that one day we'd make the most of ourselves through education."

Portas is one of five children - she has three brothers, Michael, Joe and Lawrence, and a sister, Tish.

Interestingly, she says that her mum, who had red hair, green eyes, pale Irish skin covered with freckles and wore pencil skirts and jackets nipped in at the waist, was five years older than her father and didn't have her first child until her mid-30s.

"(That) must have been considered geriatric for a first-time mother in the 1950s," writes Portas. "She was in her forties by the time I was born in 1960, but looked 10 years younger and her exact age was an eternal mystery. She never discussed it and there was only one response when we tried to find out. 'I'm old enough,' she'd say, with a smile."

Portas, of course, recently made national headlines after revealing the unusual circumstances that led to the birth of her third child, Horatio, with her civil partner Melanie Rickey, a fashion journalist with Grazia magazine. The couple chose Portas' brother Lawrence to be the sperm donor.

Talking to The Times about Horatio's birth, Portas said: "Lawrence was the first one there (with us) and he picked him up and it was just very emotional. He and I walked out into the sunshine holding him. I remember we were round the back of the hospital and I said to him 'thank you!' and he said, 'It's my pleasure', and we just held each other. That was it, you know? It's amazing. And now, when I look at Horatio, he is a complete mix of (Mel) and me. Of course, now I know that it could only ever have been Lawrence who was Horatio's father."

Portas, who has two older children, Mylo (21) and Verity (18) with her ex-husband Graham Portas, a chemical engineer, is one of the world's foremost authorities on retail and is credited with transforming Harvey Nichols department store into a modern fashion powerhouse. She is also founder of the communications agency Portas and became a household name through shows such as Mary Queen of Shops and Mary Portas: Secret Shopper.

But it is her Belfast father whom she credits with first igniting her love of all things retail, when as a child she'd accompany him on his trips as a Brooke Bond rep round local shops. She realises the stores are "places where people chat and collect news, exchange gossip and advice... and even as a six-year-old, I know there is a world enclosed in the four tiny letters of the word 'shop'".

Understandably, however, her feelings towards her father become more complex after tragedy engulfs the Newton family in 1977 when her mother dies from meningitis. Her heartbroken dad remarries six months later, making Mary, then 16, and her younger brother Lawrence, 14, homeless. All their childhood possessions are sold. Then, nine months later, her father dies of a heart attack, leaving everything to his new wife. As she takes in the news of his death, the young Portas reflects that "in so many ways, Dad had been lost to us long before". Poignantly, her book is dedicated "to Mum", with the simple inscription "How lucky was I getting you".

  • Shop Girl: A memoir by Mary Portas, Doubleday, £16.99 is out now

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