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So Long, Syd’s Coffee Stall

December 21, 2019
by the gentle author

Yesterday, Syd’s Coffee Stall served the last cuppa and closed forever after a century of serving refreshments at the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High St. The stall will now be wheeled away to the Museum of London in January where it will reappear as an exhibit when the museum opens at its new home in Smithfield in a few years time.

This is Sydney Edward Tothill pictured in 1920, proprietor of the Coffee Stall that operated for a century, open for business five days a week at the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High St, where this photo survived, screwed to the counter of the East End landmark that carried 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 ninety-nine years later.

Jane Tothill, Syd’s granddaughter who upholds the proud family tradition, 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 was supplanted by a modern replacement, it stood 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 looked underneath the stall, the cobbles were 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 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. In recent years, Jane managed the stall with the loyal assistance of Francis, who serving behind the counter for the last thirty years. The challenges were parking restrictions that made it problematic for customers to stop, hit and run drivers who frequently caused damage which requiring costly repair to the mahogany structure and graffiti artists whose tags had to be constantly erased from the venerable stall. Yet after a hundred years and three generations of Tothills, during which Syd’s Coffee Stall survived against the odds to serve the working people of Shoreditch without interruption, it became 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 prevented the extraordinary survival of Syd’s Coffee Stall for an entire century. Yet by a miracle of fortune, and thanks to the hard work of the Tothill family we enjoyed London’s oldest Coffee Stall here in our neighbourhood for a hundred years. We 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 (photograph by Sarah Ainslie)

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

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. mlaiuppa permalink
    December 21, 2019

    But. But. What will take it’s place? And is Hillary Catering still around?

    Are they going to cover the cobbles after the car is moved?

    This is so happy and sad at the same time.

  2. December 21, 2019

    Very sad. Everything has its life, of course, and Syd’s went through some hard times to make it this far; but as I get older I feel things like this more keenly.

  3. December 21, 2019

    Great article. I had no idea such places existed.

  4. December 21, 2019

    Lovely Little Tea Stand!!?????

  5. December 21, 2019

    What a fascinating life story; and thank heavens for the invention of photography which has captured so many precious moments in time. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful piece of history.

  6. Jeanette Hollick permalink
    December 21, 2019

    Great Story! So glad the stall is being preserved.

  7. Akkers permalink
    December 21, 2019

    Sad to see another piece of our history disappear. It won’t be the same there without the stall.

  8. Dick Mathews permalink
    December 21, 2019

    ”Bovex’ was a fictional product named by George Orwell in his 1936 novel ‘Keep the aspidistra flying’. But there were other meat extract products on the market, so I wonder what was actually being sold?

  9. Ian Silverton permalink
    December 21, 2019

    Thanks GA great storey from East London again, been to Syds for coffee and a bacon sarnie in my youth in the East End in the 50 and 60s many times always was open what ever the day or time, great. Anybody remember the underground tunnel opposite Syds that housed the Electric Trolly Buses and Trams that serviced the Hackney and North London area, always on visits to that area have wondered what happened to it,or is it buried deep underground serviced over with Tarmac? Merry Christmas GA and to all your readers from afar.

  10. aubrey permalink
    December 21, 2019

    Growing up, I never looked twice; it was always there night and day – part of the cityscape. What a pity. At least it won’t be subjected to the horrible gentrification.

  11. Paul Loften permalink
    December 21, 2019

    Although I am still not that far away I don’t get down that way much nowadays, I can remember the stall as an ever present feature on my way to work from the top of a 149 bus to Liverpool Street . Always a hive of activity with cabs and motor bikes parked nearby and a cloud of steam rising from the stall. Alas, as a passer-by I cannot recall ever having the good fortune to stop and enjoy the fare on offer.
    Syd and family must have had a very busy life running the stall at all hours. Thank you for revealing the story behind the stall that has been there for so long. The GA adds another dimension to London by telling the story of the hidden corners and buildings which will disappear forever unless they are brought to our attention

  12. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 21, 2019

    A cup of tea may be humble but it absolutely essential, especially in times of stress!

    I’m sorry to hear that Syd’s has gone, but at least it will make a great exhibit for the Museum of London.

  13. Catherine Morris permalink
    December 21, 2019

    Another nail in the coffin. So sad to see that this will disappear

  14. December 21, 2019

    A family dynasty that anyone would be proud to be a part of. I have shared this story with my two “ex-barista” daughters to remind them where it all started! Thank you for yet another thought provoking tale.

  15. December 21, 2019

    I discovered Syds/Hillary’s for the first time on Friday through “Hidden Walks of London” – it was surrounded by film crew and I didn’t understand why – now I know! Henry

  16. August 5, 2020

    Hello there Me and my father Stephen Gayle are taking over the spot once occupied by Syd and family on Calvert avenue. We have been trading in London Since 2009 at various market events and corporate shows. It is with great honour we carry on the pitch as a hard working family business! We aim to modernise the offering to suit the new workers and general public serving from our vintage Airstream trailer. We intend to keep this rich part of London’s history going and would love to add a plaque or some sort of memerabilla in memory of the story. It would be great to also tell our story and what we have got planned for the future.

    Kind regards would love to hear form you

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