Unsavoury truth about Nigella's family is revealed

As the "domestic goddess" Nigella Lawson is among the select few television chefs to have influenced the nation's eating habits. Now the daughter of the former chancellor has come across an aspect of her otherwise illustrious family's past that may prove difficult to digest.

Lawson is the latest public figure to have her ancestry examined for television and the study of the family tree reveals a criminal past. She discovered that a member of her family, which founded the famous Lyons empire, came to England as a fugitive from justice. The revelation about Lawson, 49, comes in the latest instalment of the popular BBC1 show probing public figures' ancestry, Who Do You Think You Are?

Researchers for the programme discovered that her great-great grandfather on her mother's side, Coenraad Sammes, was a convicted thief in his native Amsterdam. He was caught stealing and dealing in lottery tickets and was sentenced to prison. He fled the Netherlands, before an appeal be heard, and took his family to London in 1830.

Lawson admitted she was surprised by the revelation but was nevertheless proud of her family. She said: "You can't really imagine a worse start than having to flee a country because you're going to be put in prison and yet it was the impetus that was needed.

"It doesn't really matter whether he was a persecuted innocent or a complete no-good nick, that's sort of irrelevant. What matters is that things turn on such small accidents of fate. When the moment of fate happens, suddenly a whole family moves in a different way. What my family history teaches me is that you make your own life. How you start off is not how you need to end up."

Sammes changed his name to an anglicised version, Coleman Joseph, and to avoid capture he persuaded his young daughter Hannah to take the name Ann. It was Ann who met and married Barnett Salmon, the founder of the J Lyons company. The business, which started selling tobacco in the East End of London, expanded to include tea-shops, restaurants, hotels and supermarkets from 1898 until the late 1970s.

"The tobacco company grew and it was this success that funded the catering business, which took off pre-First World War" said a BBC spokeswoman.

Lawson also discovered that her maternal grandfather, Felix, bore a similarity to her husband Charles Saatchi. Felix opted out of running the family business in order to become an art buyer and was also, like Saatchi, notoriously shy of the limelight.

Lawson's family have lived in West London for generations but because her family are Jewish she knew her roots must lie abroad. She had thought that her family had "exotic" Iberian-Sephardic roots. But archivists said she descended from the lower-class, cattle-dealing Jews from Germany and eastern Europe. "I think it's difficult not to be interested in my past," said Lawson. "I think it's something to do with age. I think probably that I wouldn't have been interested 20 years ago. Maybe when you have children you see somehow there's a structure and you're part of that structure."

Related revelations

Jeremy Paxman

The Newsnight presenter broke down in tears on camera when he was confronted with the impoverished background of his great-great grandmother. Paxman visited the tenement block where Mary McKay lived with her nine children. The presenter's paternal grandfather was orphaned when his parents died of tuberculosis.

Ian Hislop

The Private Eye editor discovered that his paternal grandfather fought in the First World War. David Murdoch Hislop was sent to the front line in 1918. Inspired, Hislop went on to present his own TV series, Not Forgotten, about the the 1914-18 conflict.

Colin Jackson

The former world champion hurdler found out that his great-great-great grandfather was a slave. Although born in Cardiff, Jackson, now a TV sports pundit, knew that he was a descendant of Jamaican immigrants. A genealogist in the country told him he was the great-great-great grandson of Adam Wilson Senior, who was the property of the Greenmount plantation and slave-owner Valentine Dwyer in the 19th century.

Barbara Windsor

The actress discovered she was a distant relation of the artist John Constable. The mother of her great-great-grandfather, Golding Deeks was related to the artist. She defied the wishes of her mother by investigating the history of her parents, Rose and John Deeks. Her maternal grandmother had been on stage in the East End of London, and her great-grandmother had held the licence at a local pub.

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