Customers who stop off for refreshment at Syd’s coffee stall in Shoreditch are sampling a slice of genuine East End history.
First opened back in 1919, the small, mahogany-panelled shack claims to be the oldest food stall in London.
These days it is run by Jane Tothill, granddaughter of Sydney Edward Tothill, a World War I veteran who used his invalidity pension to open the small tea, coffee and snack stand so he could earn a living.
Built to look like a horse drawn carriage, the historic cafe has remained static while everything around it undergoes rapid gentrification. Still in its original location in Calvert Avenue, the stall now finds itself surrounded by graffiti-tagged streets populated by the increasingly trendy residents of Shoreditch.
However, as the business approaches its centenary, Syd’s shack now faces a struggle for survival against the growth of the City. What used to be a working- class area and part of the industrial East End has become a glitzy hotspot of galleries, coffee bars and quirky designer shops.
Jane says that as the City creeps closer, smaller outlets are being swallowed up and times are getting tougher. “Our business depends on regular customers but competition from bigger food chains and parking restrictions are making it difficult for us to get customers.”
She is determined to hang on, however, at least until 2019 when the business celebrates 100 years. Since the day it opened, Syd’s has been trading from 6am five days a week, serving what Jane describes as “good old English grub”.
Sydney Tothill’s original coffee stall quickly gained popularity. It is rumoured that one customer was the future King Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, after a nocturnal escapade in the East End.
Syd’s also featured in the silent film Ebb Tide shot in 1931. “The stall was transported to Elstree studios for the filming,” says Jane. “It was the only time it has ever moved from its place.”
The coffee stall was also the first to have mains electricity when it was connected to an adjoining lamppost in 1922. Although the original lamppost has been replaced by a modern one, it still provides the power supply to the stall.
Similarly, as the years have gone by, mains water substituted the old churn that once stood at the rear of the stall and coals were traded for mains gas.
In the Sixties when Calvert Avenue was resurfaced, the stall could not be moved because of the mains connections so kerbstones were placed around it instead. “The cobbles from the 19th century can still be found beneath the stall,” says Jane, who has proudly served in the cafe for 28 years.
When Syd was behind the counter the most popular snack was saveloy sausages supplied by a German butcher in Hoxton and promoted at the stall as ‘A sav and a slice at Syd’s’. “Now it’s the regular tea and ham and bacon sandwiches that are popular,” says Jane.
During World War II, Syd’s served the ambulance and fire services during the London Blitz. One day a bomb detonated in Calvert Avenue. Jane’s grandmother May was injured by shrapnel and the incident caused Syd to have a nervous breakdown. The stall was saved by a couple of buses parked beside it, however, Syd and May’s young daughter Peggy struggled to keep the business going.
The wartime crisis at the stall led the Mayor of Shoreditch and other dignitaries to appeal to the War Office to bring Syd Jnr home from a secret mission he was undertaking for the RAF so that he could run the stall for the ARP wardens.
It was Syd Jnr who then expanded the business into catering for weddings and events. He named that side of the business Hillary Caterers as a tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Everest.
Syd Jnr was also the youngest ever president of the Hotel and Caterer’s Federation and the only caterer ever to trade on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, says Jane.
“Granddad would say that the coffee store is an unique part of London’s heritage and the Tothill family is proud to have been serving our customers for almost 100 years,” says Jane. “We do not know what will happen in future but let us see.”