Site Unseen: Syd’s Coffee Stall

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

[N]OWHERE IN LONDON in the last 100 years has seen change so much as Shoreditch, this was once an area of poverty, social deprivation and prostitutes standing on street corners, no different from Jack-The-Ripper’s time. Today it is dubbed the Silicon Triangle with food and beverages sold to the hipsters at astronomical prices.

On the corner of Calvert Avenue and Shoreditch High Street is a survivor of those far off times, with a bill of fare at more modest prices.

It was 22nd March 1919, exactly 100 years ago, when Sydney Edward Tothill spent his modest invalidity pension, awarded to him due to his being gassed in the trenches in World War I, on a tea stall.

Top quality tea stall

For a costly £117, Syd purchased a bespoke top quality mahogany tea stall, about the size of a horse-drawn carriage, with fine etched glass and brass fittings. The workmanship of the build is evident in that 100 years later that same stall, unprotected from the elements, still offers tea and bacon sandwiches.

Evidence of its longevity can be found under Syd’s Stall, in the 1960’s Calvert Avenue was resurfaced with the literal ‘groundbreaking’ material tarmacadam. By then the churn of fresh water had been replaced with mains water, similarly the coal brazier had given way to a gas connection and electricity was supplied via the nearby lampost. It was decided to leave the stall in-situ and tarmac around, placing kerbstones on the stall’s boundary. Look underneath and the Victorian cobbles are still visible.

Royal visit

Prince Edward, no stranger to the ladies, stopped by one night for a cuppa. During World War II a bomb detonated in Calvert Avenue, shrapnel injuring Syd’s wife May, but the stall was saved by a couple of buses parked nearby.

Syd’s granddaughter, Jane Tothill, has been running the stall for the past 33 years, but the area is changing. Many of the local shops have gone, given way to the ubiquitous bars, restricted parking and even bus routes diverted have reduced the footfall. Hillary Caterers the outside catering enterprise started by Jane’s father, named after the first man to ascent Everest, is only remembered by a sign on the roof of the tea stall.

It is doubtful whether Syd’s Stall will last for another 100 years, but should it go, as a major contributor to life in the 20th century the Museum of London should display the vehicle complete with all the newspaper cuttings which adorn the walls.

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