World War II Airmen and the Cafe Tea Room

Bettys Café Tea Rooms are a Yorkshire institution. Founded in 1919 by Swiss immigrant, Frederick Belmont, the tea rooms now have over a million customers annually, consisting of locals and visitors alike.

Mirror etched with the signatures of hundreds of international airmen.Two of its locations are situated in the city of York, England. One very hot Sunday afternoon this July, I visited the St Helen’s Square location with two of my English friends for a meal – and a spot of tea, of course. Inspired by the splendor of the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, the 1930s art deco setting is truly impressive. However, it was the signatures of hundreds of international airmen etched into a mirror (purportedly with a diamond pen or, perhaps, ladies’ diamond rings) that really caught my attention. For instance, the signature of “W. Quigley” of the 61 Squadron of the RCAF appears prominently at the top of the left-hand panel.

During the Second World War, ‘Bomber Boys’ – including Canadians – stationed near York frequented what was known as ‘Bettys Bar’ in the basement of this café tea room to exchange wartime rumours and news. Viewing their signatures on the mirror is a reminder that Bettys was the site of much speculative and emotive conversation (ranging from excitement and jubilation to dread and sorrow) and great displays of comradeship.

Russell McKay was a RCAF bomber pilot who frequented ‘Bettys Bar’ while stationed in Yorkshire. Several entries in his flying log book for 1944, which also served as his “mini-diary”, reveal the complexity of the interactions which transpired amongst the airmen who visited the basement bar:

“February 21, 1944
Surprise of surprises my crew was given today off. We lost no time heading for nearby York and our favourite headquarters off station, Betty’s Bar. It was the favourite rendezvous of all air crew from the many squadrons in the area and 6 Bomber Group predominated. It was a chance to meet old friends from training command days. It was good food, good drink, singing and merry making. Half-and-half English beer, a mild, watery liquid, was consumed in quantity by all. It gave our kidneys a thorough cleansing but it seemed mild compared to our stronger Canadian brews. I was saddened to learn of the many pilots and crews of operational training days already missing. ‘Gone for a Burton’ was the air crew slang, or vernacular of the day. A few more beers, our buddies were toasted and forgotten for now. We found a nearby dance hall packed to capacity by servicemen, girls and civilians. ….”

The Bettys Mirror, 1939-1945“April 24, 1944
Surprise of surprise, my crew given the night off. …. Into York for dinner, a movie and Betty’s Bar for drinks with a dance in the evening. ….

A day and evening in York is a real pleasure and break from our flying duties. Betty’s Bar seems to be an unofficial headquarters for air crew. It is a meeting place and to remain a short time one is bound to meet old friends from other squadrons. Sadly, the news is very bad as we hear of heavy losses throughout the group. The squadrons in early 1944 apparently are taking a terrific beating in the Battle of Berlin. …. We don’t indulge in much discussion on losses – only a remark now and then. ‘Bill has gone for a Burton on Mannheim’, ‘John crashed into a hill on return from Le Mans’ and so on. The names spoken are many. Can one finish a tour of ops?”

Despite the heavy loss of life, it was possible: Russell McKay completed his tour with the 420 Squadron based in Tholthorpe, Yorkshire in August 1944. He then trained and served as a flight instructor until his discharge in October 1945.

As well as serving as a tribute and a memorial, the mirror in Bettys Tea Room Café reminds us of the importance of fraternity for servicemen as they continued to face enormous change and uncertainty. For those airmen, such as Russell McKay, who were stationed near York during World War II, a visit to Bettys Bar was indeed a life line.

“Café Tea Rooms: Our Café Tea Rooms”, Bettys <>, accessed 29 July 2013.
“Café Tea Rooms: Our Café Tea Rooms: Bettys York”, Bettys <>, accessed 29 July 2013.
Russell McKay, One of the Many (Burnstown, Ontario: General Store Publishing House, 1989), pp. 9-10, 30, 59-60.

Wendy D. Churchill is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at UNB and a member of the Network for the Study of Civilians, Soldiers, and Society.

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