How Syd’s coffee stall has stood in the same spot in Shoreditch for 100 years - bar one day
- Credit: Tothill Family
Emma Bartholomew hears how Syd’s coffee stall was deemed so important during World War Two that a top-secret RAF mission was disrupted to bring Syd back to Hackney to run it. His daughter looks back as they celebrate 100 years of trading
“Oh, yeah, a cup of froth for four quid. How ridiculous,” Jane Tothill remarks scathingly.
“We just sell regular instant coffee because otherwise it’s not English and it’s not genuine old-fashioned. We don’t even mention the espressos and macchiatos or whatever they are. That doesn’t come into our language.”
Jane makes her horror at today’s trendy coffee shops quite clear.
While coffee shops are flying up 10 to the dozen nowadays in Hackney, and flogging the likes of flat whites and cold brews, Jane is proud her granddad Syd set up what was possibly Hackney’s first ever coffee stall.
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“We don’t like to be compared to the modern day coffee stalls. If there are any,” she said. “He was a shrewd man, my granddad. He was quite ahead of his time.”
First World War veteran Sydney Edward Tothill used his invalidity pension to start the tea, coffee and snack stand in Calvert Avenue, Shoreditch.
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“He was gassed in the war so he didn’t come back 100 per cent,” said Jane.
“He saw what was happening with food stalls and fashion stores, because at the turn of the century Shoreditch High Street was all stalls.
“He thought he’d like to do a coffee stall as they called them, which was a bit strange as they didn’t have coffee stalls in those days. We’ve never got to the bottom of it.”
He commissioned a shop in Hackney Road around the corner to build a mahogany-panelled shack, looking like a horse drawn carriage.
He launched in 1919, and Jane claims it’s the oldest food stall in London.
“Everything was top notch,” she said. “There was etched glass, brass fittings for the shelves, everything was in mahogany and it had the proper iron wheels, but instead of being pulled by a horse it was stationary.”
The wagon has stood on the same site next to Shoreditch Church every day for 100 years – except one. In 1931 It was put on the back of a low-loader lorry and taken to Elstree Studios to be in a film called Ebb Tide.
“My granddad sat up the front with the driver, and my dad sat at the back with his legs swinging and held onto the wheel so that he didn’t fall off,” said Jane.
During the war Jane’s grandmother ran the stall, which was given a special licence to ignore the blackouts during the Blitz and open at night to cater for the firemen, policemen and air raid wardens. But in 1942 shrapnel from a bomb blast hit her in the leg and she couldn’t stand to work.
“My dad Syd Junior had gone off to the Middle East on a secret mission with the RAF,” said Jane. “But the big wigs in Shoreditch got together, and got onto the military or the government or whoever it was to say we need Syd Junior home to run the stall for the war effort. It’s unbelievable. It was a different world.”
After the war, the business expanded into catering for weddings and events, and was called Hillary Caterers in tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Everest.
Jane took over the stall in 1987 when she was 35, and still runs it now.
“Shoreditch has changed so much,” she said. “It’s not the area it was in our heyday.
“We would have queues from the counter right round to the bank every lunch time.
“We’d sometimes have four people behind the counter and it was elbows in and everyone had to keep it going as smoothly and quickly as possible.”
Syd’s “very basic” 1919 menu was recreated on Friday for the centenary celebration. In the old days one of the favourites was “a sav and a slice at Syd’s” – as advertised in the Gazette – using saveloy sausages supplied by a German butcher in Hoxton,
They also dished up Bovril, cocoa, and sandwiches with spam, liver sausage, corned beef, boiled egg and cheese, using hand sliced bread, and cakes from the era like the old London coconut cheesecake, Tottenham cake, bread pudding and Eccles cakes.
“Obviously coffee as we know it wasn’t available in 1919,” said Jane.
“The only thing that was available was Camp coffee, and you can still buy it today. It’s a very sweet syrup and they used to have that with hot milk. Tea has been from day one our first class top quality loose leaf tea. We don’t even mention the word ‘teabags’.
“Of course it’s important to keep the tradition alive. That’s what we are all about.
“We are old fashioned English through and through. That’s why I don’t do computers because that’s not in my nature.”