Tag Archives: Londoners

They also served coffee

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)

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Past imperfect

At home in a north London suburb the only evidence that Britain was recovering from war was a broken fence panel. A stray German bomber had dropped its stick on nearby railway sidings, and a stray piece of shrapnel broke the top off a feather board.

In a road where one was expected to keep a pristine garden, my father resolutely left the broken tooth as evidence of our home’s sacrifice in the war effort.

[H]aving spent my youth at a first class school staring out of the window I left at 15 without a qualification to my name. So coming to Clerkenwell at that tender age proved a working and cultural shock. As the junior apprentice one would be expected to run errands – sandwiches, sundries and ciggies – while you endeavoured to spend as long out of the office as you could get away without your absence being noticed.

Walking to a supplier in Clerkenwell Green one day (the shop is now Dans Le Noir? where visually impaired waiters serve at table while you eat in absolute darkness) I passed a tenement building with damp running down the walls, washing hanging limply from balconies and children playing outside wearing ill-fitting clothes. It was a shock, for deprivation to me was one’s inability to purchase gob-stoppers.

The tenements have been demolished and the new flats have a Yo-Sushi restaurant beneath.

This was post-war London, not the Swinging-Sixties so beloved of writers, but a monochrome of dirty ramshackle buildings brought about by decades of neglect and pollution.

Another errand was to type founder Stevenson Blake on Aldersgate Street not far from where William Caslon set up London’s first type foundry

William Caslon

Their building had been occupied by them since 1871 selling to the newspaper industry and had survived seeming intact from the Blitz. Its neighbours had not, for behind the shop was a mass of rubble stretching seemingly for as far as the eye could see with only the fire station surviving giving some perspective of the wasteland’s vastness.

The Barbican complex now occupies this bombsite.

It was to be the coldest winter for 200 years, opposite our factory were Peabody Buildings with no efficient heating or insulation. Giant stalactites of ice some 100ft in length formed on the outside pipes. The poor residents of Clerkenwell having endured 6 years of war would have no water until Easter.

The area had a cosmopolitan persona. A thriving Italian community had established itself in Clerkenwell since 1850; St. Peter’s Catholic Church, continental delicatessens and even an Italian Driving School the Scuola Guida Italiana.

We didn’t realise it at the time but post-war Clerkenwell prosperity was declining. The engineering, printing, publishing and meat and food trades left as did many of the decedents of those enterprising Italians.

The good old days?  The past was certainly imperfect. Now residents live in new or refurbished buildings. The whole area has a feel of energy about it. A major train station is being constructed at Farringdon and it is claimed that the area has the highest concentration of architects and building professionals in the world.

A Cabbie’s Year

As another year draws remorsefully to a close I’ve taken the opportunity to draw inspiration from my journal.
I have extracted some of the strange behaviour that Londoners are prone to exhibit. Some of the public’s antics have amused or provoked and others just exasperated me.
These are a few as seen by me through windscreen while driving my cab.

[I] had a family of Germans in the cab tonight. Dad wanted to know what is Foxtons? He was quite surprised when I told him they are just estate agents. He couldn’t work out why an estate agent would have a plasma screen and a bar at the entrance.

[A]re they all mad? Driving down Marylebone Road with its 6 lane dual carriageway at 28mph (honest officer) having just passed Baker Street Station, some idiot runs across the road having to swerve to avoid me. There were at least 30 people by the pedestrian crossing waiting for the lights. He just couldn’t wait his turn, must have a death wish.

[I] have just seen a man riding a customised bike up Tottenham Court Road with two children on board, one in front sitting on the handlebars the other as a pillion passenger, none wearing head protection, and no rear lights in the dark.

[O]ccasionally, just occasionally a rather strange series of events play out in a working day. My first job was to pick up actor Ralph Fiennes and take him to an editing suite in Soho. Within yards from dropping him off I was hailed by a guy in a wheelchair. As I was lowering the ramp he told me, and you’ll just have to suspend disbelief here, he had just been asked by a beggar for £15. Whatever happened to “Got any spare change Gov’nr?” Half an hour later, in the back of the cab, I found a camera case with a digital camera memory card within, but no camera. I inserted the card into my own camera that I always carry for the blog. Returning to the rather swish restaurant (OXO Tower) where my fare was dining I proffered my phone showing the punters image to the Maître’d and got him to scour the darkened restaurant. Errant punter found I returned to my cab with a self satisfied smug look and little else.

[L]ots of traffic as there often is in London after heavy rain. Trying to join a major road the brand new Ferrari next to me has stuck his shiny red nose across the major road’s bike lane. Lycra Man on his £2,000 bike spits on his bonnet as he passes – only in London eh?

[A]bsolutely pouring with rain today, so what do I get? I get an idiot crossing the road in front of me with a cardboard box over his head; he hadn’t even cut out some eyeholes so he could see me bearing down upon him.

[I]t is twenty minutes past midnight and just when you think you’ve seen every possible stupid trick a cyclist can make along comes one that leaves you agog. I’m joining Piccadilly from Bolton Street and a cyclist jumps the lights heading towards Hyde Park Corner. But unlike most of the kamikaze traffic light jumpers he has his mate sitting on the handlebars. Without lights – naturally – he peddles furiously around one of the world’s busiest intersections, wobbling as his 12 stone passenger is preventing him move the handlebars effectively.

[I] don’t think a day has gone by since the Romans arrived in London that Bishopsgate has been free of roadworks.

[W]alked through the Blakemore Hotel’s foyer as water started pouring from the ceiling the manager was booking a minicab at the time – poetic justice

[T]onight I was hailed as I drove through Eaton Square and shown a picture of a car park taken on an i-phone. Do I know where we have parked our car? The usual question and answer game ensured whereupon we were all agreed that it was under Kingston House opposite Hyde Park and we were proved right.

[A]fter re-opening Farringdon Road to vehicles after six months, so concerned were they that traffic would start to flow again, they have changed the sequence on the Blackfriars Bridge southbound lights to remain green for only 12 seconds.

[T]esco the ubiquitous retailer has its shops in almost every location. Take the one in Covent Garden it has because its loading bay in a road so small I defy most cabbies to be able to locate New Row. To stock their store Tesco despatch an articulated lorry the size of a small house, its driver just about managing to manoeuvre his vehicle into the tight space. If that wasn’t enough the geniuses in charge of logistics send their lorry at the height of the evening’s theatre going public arriving, so the driver has to contend with negotiating the vehicle as hundreds of people try to squeeze past and then try vainly to get into Strand past dozens of parked cars.

Cab cartoon: Walkabout Crafts – The online gift shop for buying and selling arts and crafts

Mustn’t grumble

1950s cabbie

[M]ustn’t grumble, which of course is what we Londoners are always doing – roadworks, litter, Boris – you name it we can moan for England. While maintaining an air of cheerful, if somewhat deferential, stoicism we go through life apologizing while at the same time keeping a stiff upper lip.

This air of permanent regret can seem bewildering and perverse to tourists. We apologize when bumping into you “Sorry old chap, didn’t see you there”. When you bump into us “So sorry” meaning do that again at your peril.

When we hold open a door for another with the greeting “Don’t mention it” which of course is shorthand for “Please continue to thank me”.

When we might seem to be having a perfectly amiable conversation while in fact disagreeing with every word you have uttered the appropriate interjection is “I’m not being funny, but . . . ” which is a prelude to a socially unacceptable remark.

Punctuality was once the trademark of an Englishman, but with transport in London slowly grinding to a halt you are more likely to get the apology “I’m running 10 minutes late . . .” roughly translated this means “Boris hasn’t fixed the delays yet and I will be there anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour after we agreed to meet”.

And watch out if at a social gathering you hear “I have half a mind to say something . . . ” that indicates

“I am adding to years’ worth of unspoken resentment that you can silence with a very dry white wine”.

Sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word as Elton John opined: When we walk into doors, when dropping anything, when we want to butt into a conversation, when flustered or when brushing past you in a pub, when we cannot hear or when hearing all too well as a reflex “Sorry” suffices for what we cannot think of what else to say.

But by no means does saying “sorry” mean the speaker is in fact, well, sorry.

“Probably my fault . . . ” is about as deferential as we get. Take that to mean “This is your fault.”

Frequent apology is one of an arsenal of clever tricks Londoners employ to obscure their true feelings. If the words “Mustn’t complain . . . ” are directed at you take notice, their true meaning is “I have just complained and if you don’t sort it out I will take the matter further”.

Eastenders greet one another with “Alright?” don’t enter into a conversation about your woes, it’s the law of the jungle to show that you are one of them and a friend.

And London cabbies are not immune to this verbal gymnastics, our greeting to another cab driver of “Be Lucky” roughly translates to “I hope you don’t get a job before me”.