Who was Betty? The woman who inspired Bettys' tearooms in Yorkshire

Illustrator Emily Sutton pencils in a chat with Jo Haywood – but will she be drawn on the identity of the woman who inspired Bettys' tearooms?

Betty must have been a very busy woman. She was an actress, an heiress, a doctor’s daughter and, when time allowed, the Queen Mother. She might well have been a fat rascal too, but sadly we shall never know.

The truth is that, more than 90 years after she gave her name to a famous chain of Yorkshire tearooms, no one has the first clue who Betty actually was.

And so we have Who Was Betty?, a new book of whimsical tales by famous names with strong county connections aimed at raising in the region of �40,000 for the Yorkshire Rainforest Project, a long term campaign by the Harrogate-based Bettys family business to save an area of rainforest the size of Yorkshire.

The collection is filled with stories, poems and cartoons penned by the likes of Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Jilly Cooper, Alan Titchmarsh, Ian McMillan, Joanne Harris, Kay Mellor, Jack Shepherd, Philippa Gregory and Barbara Taylor Bradford.

The foreword is by Prince Charles, founder of the Prince’s Rainforest Project; Bettys’ family member Jonathan Wild provides a stirring tale; and there is even an anonymous contribution, slipped stealthily under the door by an unseen rascal.

Every page is illustrated in a pleasantly idiosyncratic retro style by young North Yorkshire artist Emily Sutton, whose interest in mid 20th century artists shines through in her work.

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‘Bettys got in touch with me after seeing my work on my website,’ she said of the happenstance start to this unusual partnership. ‘My style fitted in with the traditional look they wanted for the book. And I think they liked the fact that I actually live in the county and understand what it’s all about.

‘I was very much aware of Bettys tearooms – I’ve grown up with them I suppose – and I had a fairly good idea about their style so I felt comfortable with the project from the start. I had always assumed though that there was a real Betty and that her back-story was known. I was completely won over when I realised there was a mystery involved.’

The writers have provided lots of different takes on the mystery, and some even have elements of truth in them. But most are just highly entertaining tall tales shot through with Yorkshire wit.

Emily had to illustrate each chapter, breathing life into the characters and situations they revealed. A straightforward enough task, you might think, but there was an added complication.

‘I could never give too much away about Betty herself,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t draw her face-on or include too many details as I wanted to help her retain her air of mystery.’

In-keeping with the fundraising purpose of the book, it has been printed on recycled paper with environmentally-friendly inks.

Which is all very worthy, but doesn’t answer the key question still on everyone’s lips: who the heck was Betty?

‘Oh gosh, I haven’t got a clue,’ said Emily. ‘Maybe it will remain a mystery forever. I’d quite like that.’


Betty’s biography

Here are a few ideas about Betty’s background from people who didn’t know her at all but have wonderfully vivid imaginations.

Ian McMillan, the Bard of Barnsley: ‘I dreamed about her and in my dream she was everywhere in Yorkshire and beyond, and the flour on her fingers was turning to gold. And the sultanas were jewels: rubies, diamonds, cherries. And then I woke up and ate a Fat Rascal.’

Broadcaster, writer and gardener Alan Titchmarsh: ‘It is a little-known fact that Betty was my mother. She baked the most wonderful cakes and scones, brewed a fine cup of tea and smiled sweetly at all she served. The trouble is, her real name was Bessie.

‘She hated it; said it was only ever given to cows and fire engines. As a result she cajoled the local sign writer into adjusting the name over the shop to ‘Bettys’ rather than ‘Bessies’.

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn: ‘The truth is there was no such person as Betty. ‘Betty’ was dreamt up by the Tea Room’s first public relations officer in 1922, one Josiah Candlewick, who created the mnemonic Best Ever Tasty Teas Yet which, because of lack of space on the caf�’s original frontage, was immediately shortened to BETTY.’