In the north of England, Bettys Cafés1 are famous — indeed, they are celebrated. Well-known people such as Alan Ayckbourn, Jilly Cooper, Alan Titchmarsh, James Herriott and Ian McMillan have all sung the praises of Bettys. and Alan Bennett has namechecked the Harrogate café in one of his wonderful plays.
Bettys is celebrated because it’s good: “the nearest thing that Yorkshire can do to produce one of those lovely continental pastry shops … But more than that, it caters for the northern appetite, which is very, very important, and offers value for money. High tea –- that is a very northern thing. And it’s getting better and better — their cakes are lovely and it is very well done. It is elegance at its best –- you have your little tea strainer, your pot, your lovely cake stand and I think it is beautiful. The staff are very courteous and it suits the smart town of Harrogate.” 2
But who was Betty? My family was closely involved in the creation of the cafés in their early days (there are now six of them, all in Yorkshire), but since no-one seems to know about this let me tell you what I can and who I think Betty actually was.
According to the official version of the story Frederick Belmont, a baker and confectioner, arrived as an emigré from Switzerland in 1919 speaking little English, and somehow found himself in Bradford. He liked the Yorkshire countryside and decided to stay and start his own shop in Harrogate, which became the first Bettys. Since then it has gone from strength to strength. So the tale goes, but in fact Mr Belmont had a partner: my grandfather, who bore the illustrious name of John Smith.3
How this began I know only in bits and pieces from what my mother told me. She was proud of having been involved in the formative years of Bettys and often boasted about it. To her it was always ‘our firm’. She had spent her childhood in the village of Laycock, where my grandfather had a small farm and owned the village bakery. He probably had other business interests in the area too. By all accounts he was a very kind chap, a good man to do business with. He was certainly very kind to me as a child. Anyway, at some point he met Freddie Belmont and they evidently hit it off, becoming partners soon afterwards. To him Mr Belmont was ‘Binkie’ by analogy with the theatrical impresario Binkie Beaumont who was well-known at the time. Binkie Belmont married a local girl who was known to them as Bunny. Binkie and Bunny.
As Bettys prospered the Smith family moved into a spacious house in Harrogate, where my mother spent her teenage years. She told me that she accompanied her father on scouting expeditions for new premises for Bettys and, once they were established, helped out as a waitress and in the kitchens during the school holidays. Among her effects after her death I found a bound carbon-copy of the original Bettys recipe book, which she used from time to time when making cakes etc. in later life. She kept this in her bedside cabinet and obviously regarded it as very precious.
The Smiths were good friends with the Belmonts as well as business partners, taking several holidays together in Switzerland before the war. On the walls of the house in Harrogate were pictures of the Swiss lakes and mountains — tinted photographs in gilt frames, as was the style of the time — and various souvenirs. One of these particularly delighted me as a child. It was a carved wooden match-holder in the form of a hollow tree-stump with a wolf beside it, a momento of Berne. This eventually came down to me, and it sits on my mantelpiece now.
My mother was very bright, and on leaving school she went to London to work in the Civil Service — but war was looming and the family wanted her back home, so she returned to Harrogate and trained and worked as an accountant, marrying my father during the war and having me when the war was over. My sister followed four years later. We lived first in Wakefield and then in Leeds, and made frequent visits to Harrogate to visit the family there.
On one of these visits I was taken round the Bettys factory by my grandfather — I’d have been 4 or 5 at the time — to see the cakes and sweets being made. Great to have a grandpa with a chocolate factory! but those were less indulgent times and at the end of the tour I was allowed to help myself to just one sweet.
From the same period I also recall a gathering at my grandparents’ house in Harrogate, where I was presented to the assembled Bettys clan. Mr Belmont and his wife were there, of course, and some others too, probably relatives of theirs. My main memory of this is of the ladies present, who all seemed to be dressed in black and lace in a very old-fashioned style, but what really fascinated me as a gawping child was their wobbly double-chins. Too many cream cakes, perhaps! My apologies to their memories.
My grandfather had married a young woman named Elizabeth Gill, a teacher in Keighley. According to family legend he had courted her by walking five miles to chapel every Sunday in the hope of having a few moments with her after the service, then walking the five miles home again afterwards. To him she was Betty; to my mother she was Mum; to me and my sister she was Nana. I can’t be sure, but my mother insisted that she was the Betty after whom the original café had been named, and in the absence of other plausible candidates I think it quite likely.
Sadly, my grandfather died suddenly in 1951 at a relatively young age . There was no-one then to take over from him, as his son (my Uncle Ray) was committed to farming and the outdoor life, while my mother was now married to a clergyman and busy being the minister’s wife, and of course a mother to me and my sister. So the Belmont family bought out my grandmother’s share of Bettys and our connection with the firm ended.
My mother was very regretful about that. The settlement gave us a little nest-egg, certainly, which probably paid for my education, but in later years she would sometimes say ruefully that if my grandfather had lived longer I would have had a secure future with the firm. I wasn’t so sure that I’d have wanted that or been very good at it so I tended to keep quiet at these times, and since Bettys seems to have been extremely well run since then I think it has worked out fine, though I’m sorry that my grandfather has been written out of the firm’s official story when he did so much for it.
As for Betty herself, I have been greatly amused by the speculation as to what she was really like — there has even been a book about her 4 — but I can tell you what our Betty, my grandmother, was like. She was not at all the buxom, rosy-cheeked lass that some have imagined her to be, but a tall, slender, extremely intelligent and sophisticated woman. Photographs of her taken in the 1920s show a very cool presence, elegantly gowned and hair shingled.
She occasionally smoked Du Maurier cigarettes, a rather superior brand, and spoke fluent French. She was very kind and generous, though she would stand for no nonsense, and she was modest, never wanting any publicity as the ‘real’ Betty. She would have considered that vulgar.
I knew her well, as she came to live with us after my grandfather’s death and continued to do so until her own death many years later, and I came to love her dearly. When I was young she helped me with my homework and let me watch cartoons on TV, which my parents disapproved of. When I was a music-mad teenager I built a super-powerful hi-fi from kits and bits of wood that I salvaged from here and there, but the one thing I couldn’t make was a turntable. Nana kindly stumped up for a very good one, and the completed sound system annoyed the neighbours for years afterwards.
My last memory of her is from Christmas 1967, when the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was first aired. She had a colour TV in her room and we had only a black-and-white one, so the whole family gathered in Nana’s room to watch it in colour. When it was done she said “Well, I didn’t think much of that.” A blunt Yorkshirewoman to the end.
1 The name was originally Betty’s but the apostrophe was dropped somewhere along the way.
2 Quotation from a comment by Frances Atkins on the Bettys website: https://www.bettys.co.uk/timeline
3 No connection with the brewery of that name. My family were all staunch Methodists.
4 Who Was Betty? A Whimsical Collection of Tall Stories edited by Samantha Gibson (2011)