The Story of Bettys Tea Rooms – A Yorkshire Institution

The story of Bettys doesn’t begin in Yorkshire but in Switzerland. In 1885, Anna Maria Bützer gave birth to a son, Fritz. Her husband, Johann, was a miller and master baker and they lived in a mill in Lindenbach near Bern.

Tragedy seemed to surround the life of young Fritz. His mother died when he was still a baby and a few years later a fire at the Bützers’ mill left Fritz and his older sister Ida orphaned. While Ida was raised by relatives, they had no room for five year- old Fritz. As was the Swiss custom, he returned to the village of the ancestors where he was fostered to a local farmer who pledged to provide food and shelter and send him to school. In practice, Fritz spent much of his childhood working as an unpaid farm labourer.

As soon as he was old enough, Fritz left his foster home. He trained as an assistant baker and then travelled around Switzerland and France learning to be a confectioner and chocolatier. Then, in 1907 he decided to seek his fortune in England. On his arrival in London he realised he’d lost the address of his destination. All he could recall was that the place he was heading for sounded like ‘bratwurst’ (German for sausage). A helpful local put him on the train to Bradford. On arriving in the Yorkshire city, he found work at a Swiss-owned confectioner, Bonnet & Sons.

He eventually settled in the spa town of Harrogate by which time he’d changed his name to Frederick Belmont and styled himself as a ‘Chocolate Specialist’. It was in Harrogate that Frederick’s luck started to change. Looking for lodgings, he fell in love and later married his landlady’s daughter, Claire Appleton. In July 1919, with the financial support of Claire’s family, the first Bettys opened for business. It was not long before Bettys became well known in Yorkshire for its excellent service, elegant surroundings and delicate continental cakes.

During the 1920s Bettys expanded, opening a purpose-built bakery to supply new cafés in Bradford and Leeds. These were thriving cities that had flourished through industry and Frederick opened his Tea Rooms in prime locations to attract shoppers and businessmen. Bettys boasted ‘royal and distinguished patronage’, tempting customers with lavish window displays, live music from violin virtuosos, chic function rooms and catering services much in demand for wedding receptions and private parties.

But by 1937 Frederick had set his sights on a new goal. During the 19th century York had become the confectionary capital of Britain, as the home of Terry’s, Rowntree’s and Craven’s. Frederick decided to join them, somewhat brazenly opening premises directly opposite the long-established Terry’s café in St Helen’s Square. Visitors to Bettys York today may be surprised to discover that during the second world war it was famous for something other than tea and cake – its bar.

A few years before war broke out, Frederick had managed to secure a liquor licence, opening a cocktail bar on the ground floor and a further bar in the basement. It was to prove a smart move and during the war years Bettys Bar – affectionately referred to as ‘The Dive’ – became popular among servicemen, many of them Canadian bomber boys, stationed at the airbases surrounding York. Some of them left a permanent reminder of their visit by inscribing their name onto a mirror, which still hangs in the basement café. Families of those who served in the war and serviceman who were stationed in the area still visit Bettys to search the names on the mirror.

In 1942 the café was hit by an incendiary bomb but escaped major damage thanks to the quick actions of an off-duty van driver who was acting as a fire watcher that night. More drama followed a year later, when the army tried to requisition Bettys. They reconsidered after Frederick explained that Bettys was providing 20,000 meals and beverages per week, making a valuable contribution to the war effort. The army quickly withdrew their request.

In 1952 Frederick died and Victor Wild, his nephew, became Managing Director at just 29 years old. Over the next decade Victor stabilised the business and helped it adapt to the more experimental mood and changing tastes of the era.

Then, in 1962, an overheard conversation changed the business forever. Miss May Carter, the café manager in Harrogate, heard some businessmen discussing the fact that C. E. Taylors & Co – a Yorkshire based café chain and local tea and coffee merchants – was being put up for sale. Victor was tipped off, and very soon he made an offer of the asking price. Bettys became Bettys & Taylors. The purchase enabled Bettys to open a new café in Ilkley, in premises that has previously been a Taylors Kiosk. And in 1976 Taylors’ Café Imperial on Parliament Street in Harrogate became a Bettys Tea Rooms – a much needed larger premises for the business and the prized corner location that Frederick Belmont himself had coveted for many years.

The 1970s signalled a decisive change of direction for Bettys. In 1971 Bettys Tea Rooms opened in the North Yorkshire market town of Northallerton, and soon after the Tea Rooms in Leeds and Bradford closed. Bettys was now a business of the town and country, not the city.

Of course, though Frederick was Swiss, he made his home in Yorkshire. He was a blend of the Dales and the Alps. If he could visit today, he may be amused to find that his collection of Spindler marquetry pictures that once hung on the walls of his den at home are now proudly displayed to visitors to Bettys in York and Harrogate. And he’d certainly enjoy seeing the newer additions to the collection, especially since that would also entail visits to Ilkley and Harlow Carr – Bettys Tea Rooms that didn’t even exist in his time.

The Belmont Room in York, on the other hand, would be entirely familiar. It would take him back to the journey on the Queen Mary passenger liner that inspired its design. We hope it would make him happy to find that it looks no different today than it did when it first opened in 1937. Mostly though, we think he’d feel proud. Proud that the little café business that he founded on 17th July 1919 is still here, 100 years later, bearing the name ‘Bettys’ over the door.

John Darby, Yorkshire Blue Badge Guide