For three generations, Syd’s coffee stall has been serving up hot drinks and food in Shoreditch, but tomorrow it closes for the last time. However, while the coffee may not be served, the famous road stall has been donated by the family to the Museum of London to be preserved.
A bastion for the East End, the stall has sat on Calvert Avenue, just off Shoreditch High Street, since 1919 and has passed down through three generations from Syd Tothill to the current owner, Jane Tothill, Syd’s granddaughter, who has been running it for over thirty years.
The stall began in 1919 and was made by a coachbuilder on nearby Hackney Road and custom built out of mahogany with etched glass and brass fittings. Like most ‘coffee stalls’ of its time it did not actually sell coffee, but instead mostly ‘camp coffee’ (a brown liquid made of essence of coffee-beans, chicory and sugar), tea, cocoa and Bovex, or the ‘poor man’s Bovril.’ The most popular snack was ‘A Sav and a Slice at Syd’s’ – a Saveloy sausage supplied by Wilsons, the German butchers in Hoxton, alongside a slice of bread and English mustard.
Syd’s coffee stall has witnessed and survived some of the capital’s most defining moments.
During the Second World War, Syd and his wife May were given a special licence to ignore the blackouts during the Blitz and open the stall at night to cater for the ARP wardens. After May was injured by shrapnel from a nearby explosion the Mayor of Shoreditch successfully appealed to the War Office to have Syd Junior brought home from a secret RAF mission to keep the stall running as its service was so invaluable.
After the war, Syd Junior and his wife Iris expanded the business into catering weddings and events adopting the name ‘Hillary Caterers’ commemorating Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1953. This expansion led to Syd Junior became the youngest ever president of the Hotel & Caterer’s Federation, a Freeman of the City of London and the only caterer ever to trade on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Vyki Sparkes, Curator of Social & Working History at the Museum of London, said: “Syd’s is an invaluable piece of our shared history as Londoners, a quiet witness to the challenges and changes in the heart of the East End over the last 100 years. We look forward to sharing its fascinating story with our visitors in the New Museum.”
The stall will go in display in the new Museum of London site at Farringdon in a few years time.