Londoners serving on the Western Front would have encountered there a familiar sight from home: coffee stalls. The number of these street vendors in London diminished, but they peddled their wares in France and Flanders instead.
As well as around a million Londoners, other features of pre-war London life appeared on the Western Front. Tradesmen’s horses were requisitioned, as were London buses and London cabs.
[S]ome of London’s previously disparaged coffee retailers also turned up in the areas behind the battlefields. Before the war, the coffee stall had been a prominent feature of London life, particularly at night. Their history is told in a very interesting post by Peter Jones on the blog London Fictions, in relation to a book called Arthur’s by A. Neil Lyons. The book is a series of vignettes bases around a south-London coffee called Arthur’s. Jones quotes a descriptive passage from the book that suggests the prevalence of coffee stalls in the London night:
Somewhere beyond William’s, which supports the [St George’s Circus] Obelisk, lies Kennington, famous for “Jim’s” and the “Original Pieman”; and beyond these again is Brixton; and between these two you shall find Arthur’s. This is an ambiguous direction, but then we night-seekers are jealous of our ill-fame, and the fear of the Oxford Movement is strong upon us. […] So I will leave the reader to identify Arthur’s for himself; and if he do not succeed, why, there are twenty other coffee-stalls between the Obelisk and Brixton, and the philosophers in charge of any one of them will answer to the name of Arthur.
The coffee stalls were denigrated by many at the time, particularly those stalls that were open through the night. It was felt that ‘night walkers’ and criminals were the only people who would frequent such places in the small hours. Lyons gives a more sympathetic depiction than many of the ‘state of London’ books that Jones quotes in his blog post.
Images of ‘old-time’ coffee stalls from a 1920s book – from London Fictions blogpost
When the war came, there were two big changes to the fortunes of the coffee stalls. The first is that they became something to be praised and provided rather than denigrated and driven out of business, at least those stalls that were serving soldiers. In December 1914, Messrs Burberrys donated £600 to the Red Cross fund “to provide One Motor Coffee Stall”; the next month, the Students’ Representative Council of London University were raising £600 for another coffee stall “for the wounded”. The reasoning for these stalls is provided by the Bishop of London in March 1915 when unveiling another stall, the first of 20 due to being provided by the Church Army:
He did not doubt [The Times reported] that the travelling coffee can would be of great assistance, among other things, in promoting temperance. He expressed regret that soldiers who were abstainers had so few facilities in an ordinary way for getting liquid refreshment except that of an intoxicating kind, supplied by the wet canteens.
In contrast to the coffee stalls of pre-war London, these providers of non-alcoholic beverages for soldiers were welcomed – and indeed run – by the nation’s elites. Lady Mabelle Egerton was reported in April 1915 to be “conducting a coffee-stall at the station” in Rouen.
Soldiers at a coffee stall at Aveluy, November 1916. © IWM Q 4488 – the Daily Mirror’s 1916 caption read “A coffee stall behind the lines. It gets as many customers as ever it did when it catered for the revellers and night workers of London”
The other development was the reduction in the number of coffee-stalls in London during the war.
Political journalist Michael MacDonagh found himself out on Kennington Road during a gap in an air raid in January 1918:
Emerging from Lambeth [North] Station, I found myself at the top of Kennington Road, that long and familiar thoroughfare which I have traversed hundreds of times going to and from the Houses of Parliament. Little did I ever think that I should see it under the disturbing conditions and with the sinister aspect it now wore to my agitated mind’s eye. It lay dead in a hush under the moon. I have been frequently abroad as a journalist at all hours of the night, but never before in such absolute silence and loneliness. In my night-walking hitherto the motion and noise of the streets had never ceased. There were always pedestrians about; always, at first, carriages and hansoms; and, at a later period, always taxis and motor-cars. A policeman on duty was always certain to become upon on turning a corner. “Nightbirds,” male and female, were to be encountered. To-night no one was abroad but myself. In the mile or so of Kennington Road, I met no policeman or special constable; no prowler or drab. Those benefactors of the London streets on winter nights, the hot-potato man and the roasted chestnut man, were gone with the glowing braziers of their trade. That other friend of the night-wayfarers, the coffee-stall, with its red lights, its tea and coffee urns, its cups and mugs, its loaves and cakes, and its packets of cigarettes, had also disappeared.
His experience was unusual of course, as people were sheltering from the air raid at the time. But given that many coffee stalls were semi-permanent, we might expect him to have seen a few closed-up stalls on his walk. Given the shortage (and price) of sugar, it would not be too surprising if many of the coffee stalls had closed up for the duration.
There were certainly a few still left out and about during the war. In November 1917, a Canadian soldier was murdered in central London and the accounts of the event begin around a coffee stall on the Strand.
The war brought a range of changes to the streets of London, particularly at night (with the black out). Among them was the migration of many of the coffee stalls from London’s streets to the area behind the lines in France and Flanders.
The Times, 4/12/1914, 19/1/1915, 4/3/1915, 20/3/1915, 13/4/1915
Michael MacDonagh In London During the Great War: the Diary of a Journalist (London, 1935)
Peter Jones, A. Neil Lyon’s Arthur’s, post on the London Fictions blog
Featured image: Troops outside a London coffee stall at Auchonvillers, November 1916. © IWM (Q 4545)