Sunday 17 February 2019

A Tale of Time, Cakes and Travel, or how Bettys came to Harrogate, by Penny Dolan

This is Harrogate, and a queue lines up under a glass shop-canopy that protects them from the brisk, damp Yorkshire weather.

These patient people are waiting for a table within Bettys Tea Rooms where, served by waitresses in starched pinnies, they intend to enjoy morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon tea in a genteel, well-heeled style. Meanwhile, at the shop counters, everyday customers can call in and buy bread, cakes or pastries, or a wide range of tea, coffee and chocolate confectionery.

Like The Stray, the stretch of open grassland that runs round part of Harrogate, Bettys is part of the local tourist industry that likes to offer an image of a stylish spa town, still flaunting the somewhat faded flag of its early twentieth century elegance.

Across the town centre, the antique shops and rare booksellers are few, the plate-glass store-fronts stand empty, the trendy restaurants have come and gone and the town hall has been sold off for luxury apartments so in some ways, Bettys represents a kind of permanence in Harrogate. This is, I feel, a suitable state of affairs as Bettys - the company – reaches its hundredth birthday this year.

Unlike poor Patisserie Valerie and her too-many premises, Bettys has always held tight to her Yorkshire roots and limited the number of its cafes. There are, even now, only six: on Parliament Street in Harrogate; at Harlow Carr Gardens, Harrogate: in Ilkley and in Northallerton; at Stonegate in York and also at St Helen’s Square in York, which boasts an interior inspired by the famous cruise liner, the Queen Mary.

As in all traditional stories, Bettys begins with a poor orphan child, born in 1885. though not in Yorkshire. 

Little Fritz Butzer, the son of a miller and master-baker, was born in Switzerland, His mother Ida died when he was an infant and not long after, fire destroyed his father Johann’s mill. Although his older sister was adopted by relatives, Fritz, only five-years-old, was sent back to the family village to be fostered.

He lived with a farmer who, despite promises, neglected the boy’s care and education and used him as a farm labourer. As soon as possible, Fritz left the farm and went to work as an assistant baker. Over the next years, he worked his way around Switzerland and then into France, learning about confectionery and the skills needed to be a chocolatier.

Even so, how - given his next move - can he have learned so much within what must have been about eleven years? Because, in 1907, at twenty-two, Fritz set off for England, unable to speak much of the language.

Unfortunately – or fortunately - on reaching London, he’d lost the paper giving the address of his destination. All he remembered – says the story - was that the place sounded like “Bratwurst”, a kind of sausage so Fritz was put on the train to Bradford. As an area of Bradford is still called Little Germany, this may not have been as random a suggestion as it sounds and, besides, many were seeking work in the industrial towns of the North. Fritz was employed by Bonnet and Sons, a Swiss confectioner in the city, but he was clearly an ambitious young man.

He moved on to the prosperous Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate, an “Inland Resort” that catered for a variety of visitors, who came to stay for health cures, rest and relaxation, shopping and entertainment and – of course – indulging in the best of food and drink. Originally, the annual visitors came as a diversion during the late-summer Yorkshire hunting season but, by the twentieth century, Harrogate was an upper-class destination all year round. The town’s most glittering season came in 1911, when it was visited by Queen Alexandra and various members of European and German royalty. Offering elegant hotels, prestigious musical performances inside the gilded Kursall, both Winter Gardens and Valley Gardens as a place for sociable promenades, Harrogate was a busy enough place for the enterprising young baker to make his mark.

Fritz married Claire Appleton, his landlady’s daughter, and before long had wisely changed his name to the more anglicised Frederick Belmont. In the summer of 1919, financed by his wife’s family, he set up the first Bettys bakery in Harrogate and in the 1920’s, but the tearooms he established were in Leeds and Bradford.

Then, in 1937, rather boldly, Frederick Belmont chose York for his new venture. It was already the home of three famous Quaker chocolate companies - Rowntrees, Terrys and Cravens – and site he chose was in the heart of the city, directly opposite the Terry’s cafe in St Helen’s Square.

The York Bettys flourished, and like all his other tearooms, would have prided itself on the quality of its offerings, the elegance of its catering, the impressiveness of its window displays, the superiority of its music and the luxury of the private reception rooms. Bettys was distinctive, and at at time when women could not meet away from home in pubs or bars, a valued female environment.

However, during WWII, Bettys in York took on a different character: a smart cocktail bar was installed upstairs and, away from the need for blackout, a bar down below the stairs. At that time, Yorkshire was home to many local air-bases and Bettys became popular with the bomber boys and the Canadian and American pilots. A framed mirror, where the airmen inscribed their names with a diamond pen, is still on show in the York tea-rooms. Not many of those boys would make a return visit to Bettys bar.

Nevertheless, throughout the war, Betty’s survived both bombs and the threat of army requisitioning. Did the supposed glamour of the local aircrews attracted the ire of the military? Or, behind the scenes, did the RAF high-ups defend Mr Belmont’s accounts of the number of meals he served, and the menus he simplified to fit rationing standards - and so keep their favourite Bettys bar open?

Eight years after the end of the war in Europe, Frederick Belmont died. His nephew, Victor Wild, took over as a managing director and oversaw the next decades. There were changes: although Bettys in Leeds became an espresso bar in the 1950’s, it did not survive the era of the mods and rockers and Bettys in Bradford closed too, bringing an end to the cafe in the industrial cities. It was followed by a time of expansion: in 1962, Wild heard that C.E.Taylors, the Yorkshire tea and coffee merchants, was for sale, Wild took action and Bettys became “Bettys and Taylors”. The Wild family remains involved in the company which, after trading for a century, flourishes online, through diversifying into Bettys Cookery School and cookbooks and publications, and, at an everyday commercial level, through the nationwide “Yorkshire Tea” and similar products.

Put together, the Bettys tale does read rather like a novel but there is rather a nice twist to the tale. When the new company was created, two establishments changed hands and brands. Over in Ilkley, the then-Taylor’s Tea Kiosk became another Bettys.

The other change was more significant: it fulfilled the dream Fritz Butzer had dreamed a hundred years before. The Imperial Cafe in Harrogate, which was then owned by Taylors, became a Bettys Tea Room, which is where, when a treat is needed, you can enjoy the most delicious cakes.

I must warn you that visiting Bettys is not at all cheap, but as a wise and rational friend once explained as we sat having a lovely, long and all too rare book chat. “Don’t think of the tea and scones as expensive. Just think of it as renting a table for a couple of hours.” And that, now and again, works for me.

As for the mysterious Betty? There are several ideas as to whom she might have been within the history section of Betty’s website - thank you for all the information -, but there’s also doubt as to whether she even existed. 

With Fritz’s own life-story being as full as this – an orphaned immigrant travelling through France, becoming a baker and confectioner on the journey and creating cafes up here in the North of England - maybe Betty doesn't really need a tale of her own, even for if this year is her hundredth birthday? 

Although it is very tempting to make another one up. . .  Once there was a young orphan girl . . ?

and, additionally, 
in my mind,
all those neat waitresses and waiters in their black and white uniforms,
and the busy shop staff
and all the Bettys-behind-the-scenes bakers,
and the workers and packers in the Taylors factory
deserve a very, very loud cheer and more too.
Hope they will be having a great and grand party sometime this hundredth year too!

And in response to any pedantic queries about the missing apostrophe?
Bettys doesn’t have one.  Officially.

Penny Dolan



Sue Purkiss said...

Well, I'm glad you cleared that up about the apostrophe! Lovely story.

Joan Lennon said...

I agree - that's a great story! Happy Birthday Bettys!

Susan Price said...

Great to know the history of Bettys. I've passed it often enough but never managed to get inside as it was always packed, with long, long queues.

Anonymous said...

I had not known any of that, so thank you very much for enlightening me!