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Syd's Coffee Stall, Shoreditch High Street

May 12, 2010
by the gentle author

This is Sydney Edward Tothill pictured in 1920, proprietor of the Coffee Stall that still operates, open for business five days a week at the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High St, where this photo survives, screwed to the counter of the East End landmark that carries his name. “Ev’rybody knows Syd’s. Git a bus dahn Shoreditch Church and you can’t miss it. Sticks aht like a sixpence in a sweep’s ear,” reported the Evening Telegraph in 1959.

This is a story that began in the trenches of World War I when Syd was gassed. On his return to civilian life in 1919, Syd used his invalidity pension to pay £117 for the construction of a top quality mahogany tea stall with fine etched glass and gleaming brass fittings. And the rest is history, because it was of such sturdy manufacture that it remains in service over ninety years later.

Jane Tothill, Syd’s granddaughter who upholds the proud family tradition today, told me that Syd’s Coffee Stall was the first to have mains electricity, when in 1922 it was hooked up to the adjoining lamppost. Even though the lamppost in question has been supplanted by a modern replacement, it still stands beside the stall to provide the power supply. Similarly, as the century progressed, mains water replaced the old churn that once stood at the rear of the stall and mains gas replaced the brazier of coals. In the nineteen sixties, when Calvert Avenue was resurfaced, Syd’s stall could not be moved on account of his mains connections and so kerbstones were placed around it instead. As a consequence, if you look underneath the stall today, the cobbles are still there.

Throughout the nineteenth century, there was a widespread culture of Coffee Stalls in London, but, in spite of the name – which was considered a classy description for a barrow serving refreshments – they mostly sold tea and cocoa, and in Syd’s case “Bovex”, the “poor man’s Bovril.” The most popular snack was Saveloy, a sausage supplied by Wilsons’ the German butchers in Hoxton, as promoted by the widespread exhortation to “A Sav and a Slice at Syd’s.” Even Prince Edward stopped by for a cup of tea from Syd’s while on his frequent nocturnal escapades in the East End.

With his wife May, Syd ran an empire of seven coffee stalls and two cafes in Rivington St and Worship St. The apogee of this early period of the history of Syd’s Coffee Stall arrived when it featured in a silent film Ebb Tide, shot in 1931, starring the glamorous Chili Bouchier and praised for its realistic portrayal of life in East London. The stall was transported to Elstree for the filming, the only time it has ever moved from its site. While Chili acted up a storm in the foreground, as a fallen woman in tormented emotion upon the floor, you can just see Syd discharging his cameo as the proprietor of an East End Coffee Stall with impressive authenticity, in the background of the still photograph below.

In spite of Syd’s success, Jane revealed that her grandfather was “a bit of a drinker and gambler” who gambled away both his cafes and all his stalls, except the one at the corner of Calvert Avenue. When Syd junior, Jane’s father was born, finances were rocky, and he recalled moving from a big house in Palmer’s Green to a room over a laundry, the very next week. May carried Syd junior while she was serving at the stall and it was pre-ordained that he would continue the family business, which he joined in 1935.

In World War II, Syd’s Coffee Stall served the ambulance and fire services during the London blitz. Syd and May never closed, they simply ran to take shelter in the vaults of Barclays Bank next door whenever the air raid sounded. When a flying bomb detonated in Calvert Avenue, Syd’s stall might have been destroyed, if a couple of buses had not been parked beside it, fortuitously sheltering the stall from the explosion. In the blast, poor May was injured by shrapnel and Syd suffered a mental breakdown, leaving their young daughter Peggy struggling to keep the stall open.

The resultant crisis at Syd’s Coffee Stall was of such magnitude that the Mayor of Shoreditch and other leading dignitaries appealed to the War Office to have Syd junior brought home from a secret mission he was undertaking for the RAF in the Middle East, in order to run the stall for the ARP wardens. It was a remarkable moment that revealed the essential nature of the service provided by Syd’s Coffee Stall to the war effort on the home front in East London, and I can only admire the Mayor’s clear-sighted sense of priority in using his authority to demand the return of Syd from a secret mission because he was required to serve tea in Shoreditch. As he wrote to May in January 1945, “I do sincerely hope that you are recovering from your injuries and that your son will remain with you for a long time.”

Syd junior was determined to show he was more responsible than his father and, after the war, he bravely expanded the business into catering weddings and events along with this wife Iris, adopting the name “Hillary Caterers” as a patriotic tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary who scaled Everest at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II. No doubt you will agree that as a caterer for a weddings, “Hillary Caterers” sounds preferable to “Syd’s Coffee Stall.” In fact, Syd junior’s ambition led him to become the youngest ever president of the Hotel & Caterer’s Federation and the only caterer ever to cater on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, topping it off by becoming a Freeman of the City of London.

Jane Tothill began working at the stall in 1987 with her brothers Stephen and Edward, and the redoubtable Clarrie who came for a week “to see if she liked it” and stayed thirty -two years. Jane manages the stall today with the loyal assistance of Francis, who has been serving behind the counter these last fifteen years. Nowadays the challenges are parking restrictions that make it problematic for customers to stop, hit and run drivers who frequently cause damage which requires costly repair to the mahogany structure and graffiti artists whose tags have to be constantly erased from the venerable stall. Yet after ninety years and three generations of Tothills, during which Syd’s Coffee Stall has survived against the odds to serve the working people of Shoreditch without interruption, it has become a symbol of the enduring human spirit of the populace here.

Syd’s Coffee Stall is a piece of our social history that does not draw attention to itself, yet deserves to be celebrated. Syd senior might not have survived the trenches in 1919, or he might have gambled away this stall as he did the others, or the bomb might have fallen differently in 1944. Any number of permutations of fate could have led to Syd’s Coffee Stall not being here today. Yet by a miracle of fortune, and thanks to the hard work of the Tothill family we can enjoy London’s oldest Coffee Stall here in our neighbourhood. We must cherish it now, because the story of Syd’s Coffee Stall teaches us that there is a point at which serving a humble cup of tea transcends catering and approaches heroism.

May Tothill, Syd’s wife, behind the counter in the nineteen thirties.

Jane Tothill, Syd and May’s granddaughter, behind the counter today.

Syd junior and his mother May, behind the counter in the nineteen fifties.

A still from the silent film “Ebb Tide” starring Chili Bouchier with Syd in a cameo as himself.

In 1937 with electricity hooked up to the lamppost.

Jane Tothill

colour photographs © Sarah Ainslie

19 Responses leave one →
  1. May 12, 2010

    What a lovely piece! Very happy to discover this blog too, I love Spitalfields.

  2. Alexis permalink
    May 12, 2010

    What a wonderful piece, it made me feel ashamed that in my 4 years living on Kingsland Road I only bought one cup of tea from Syd’s. I now live in west London, but I still feel really connected to Shoreditch, my first London home, and I love reading your blog. I used to live at 54-58 Kingsland Road which before it was turned into the obligatory ‘live-work space’ was a wholesale shoe warehouse. My father remembers going there with his parents to buy shoes for their shop on Upper Street. These sort of stories and shared histories are fascinating. Looking forward to reading them on your blog for a another 27 years!

  3. May 12, 2010

    Again, fantastic. I’ve passed it and noted it so many times but never known the story.

  4. 'liza permalink
    May 12, 2010

    It is great to learn of people and places such as these and that their stories are recorded. Congratulations to all concerned.

  5. May 12, 2010

    What a beautiful story. I love the picture where I can actually see the kerb stones around it…fantastic. It seems such a shame and so very sad that people (hit and run drivers, graffiti artists) don’t seem to care at all about the history and have no respect for how long it’s been there… Lovely writing, I don’t know where you find the time for all those stories. Carole x

  6. sam permalink
    May 12, 2010

    another great tale… your blog is like wandering round an old house an peeling off layers of wallpaper to find the remnants of the lives lived there… I trust you will keep finding layers!

  7. Johnny Norfolk permalink
    May 14, 2010

    I thought the old stall looked the best, far better than todays versions.

    Great story.

  8. Naguere permalink
    May 17, 2010

    What a heartwarming history.

    After his experience in the First World War Syd could be forgiven for any weakness he had for a pint and a bet.

    The next time I visit London I will seek out a Sav and a slice at Syd’s along with a Bovex.

  9. D.E.Hubbard permalink
    November 28, 2010

    I worked about 100yds from this coffee stall in 1945 so remember the original stall….when i used to unload timber on a thursday and get 2/6 I used to got to it for a cup of tea and a bu …even then I realised that this was one of Londons landmarks

  10. February 2, 2012

    What a brilliant story!

  11. Sonia Murray permalink
    September 23, 2012

    Living history! Your articles are a daily delight, a window into the lives of the people of London, past and present. Thanks so much!

  12. Martin permalink
    December 8, 2012

    I FIRST STARTED GOING TO SYDS IN 1952 WHEN I WAS 15 AND WORKED AT ALEXANDER ELECTRICAL CO. IN CALVERT AVENUE. WHEN I FINISHED DOING MY NATIONAL SERVICE IN 1957 I THEN WENT BACK TO THE ELECTRICAL CO. FOR A FEW YEARS AND THEN DID THE KNOWLEDGE TO BE A LONDON TAXI DRIVER. CONSEQUENTLY I HAVE BEEN USING THE TEA STALL EVERY MORNING FOR THE PAST 50 YEARS. IT SUPPLIES THE BEST TEA AND THE BEST EGG AND TOMATO ROLL AT THE CHEAPEST PRICE IN LONDON. THEY HAVE EVEN GOT A PHOTO OF ME ON THE SIDE OF THE STALL WHEN I WAS ‘CLAMPED’ BY MY FELLOW TAXI DRIVERS AS A JOKE. LONG MAY THE STALL CONTINUE.

  13. Ronald permalink
    June 1, 2013

    It appears that somewhere along the way the cart lost it’s larger wheels for the smaller diameter ones in the later photos. Any idea what may have prompted that for a cart that never got around?

  14. March 3, 2014

    ONCE AGAIN FANTASTIC STORY , I ONLY HOPE YOU HAVE ENOUGH MATERIAL TO LAST MY LIFE TIME , YOU HAVE BECOME MY DAILY MEDICINE. THANKS THANKS THANKS.I LOVE SAMS VERSION OF THE STORIES , I.E.:- LIKE PEELING OFF THE WALLPAPER.

  15. Teresa Bergan permalink
    March 3, 2014

    I love this blog. I am an American living in Washington state and married to an Englishman. He is originally from Leeds and grew up in Devon, ended up in Surrey and moved to Naples, Italy to marry me while I served in the US Navy. I love these stories and I hope that you continue to document them to preserve the history of these wonderful characters!

  16. Norman Elliott permalink
    March 3, 2014

    My father worked at a factory called Clarke Hunt in Batemans Row and as a 12 year old in the late 1940′s I used to go to the factory on a Saturday morning and one job I was given was to go over to Syd’s and get the teas, coffees and goodies for my Dad and his mates. Just imagine my surprise last Saturday 1st March to discover the stall was still there 65 years later. It made my day and brought back many memories. Thank you.

  17. Victoria permalink
    May 1, 2014

    What a wonderful story and quite remarkable how Syd’s has survived so many possible fates. So glad I followed through to the link from today’s post!

  18. May 1, 2014

    My word! SL stories do gladden the heart… ‘daily medicine, wonderful story, it made my day, love this blog/these stories, living history, a daily delight, lovely writing’ etc – and love Sam’s comment too.
    What an inspiring accolade these responses are. GA finding his own well-deserved place in history. May the rewards long exceed the creatively sustained effort.
    The internet must be awash with others who silently feel the same fervent appreciation. Adding my thanks.

  19. November 21, 2014

    My Nan lived in Calvert Avenue and every Sunday morning I would go visit and stop by Syds for a cuppa. In the 50′s on a Sunday there was nothing open anywhere to get a drink but I think Syds was.

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