East End bastion Syd’s coffee stall to be donated to the Museum of London

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The Museum of London is pleased to announce that it will be acquiring Syd’s coffee stall as part of its London Collection when the store closes for business for the last time on 20 December after over 100 years of service.

A bastion for the East End, the stall has sat on Calvert Avenue, just off Shoreditch High Street, since 1919 and has passed down through three generations from Syd Tothill to the current owner, Jane Tothill, Syd’s granddaughter, who has been running it for over thirty years serving fresh filled rolls, coffee, and loose leaf tea. When it closes for business, Jane will donate the coffee stall to the Museum of London for its story to be shared with Londoners and the stall will go on display as part of the new Museum of London when it opens in the coming years.

The stall began in 1919 when First World War veteran Sydney Edward Tothill used £117 of his invalidity pension to commission it. It was made by a coachbuilder on nearby Hackney Road and custom built out of mahogany with etched glass and brass fittings. Like most ‘coffee stalls’ of its time it did not actually sell coffee, but instead mostly ‘camp coffee’ (a brown liquid made of essence of coffee-beans, chicory and sugar), tea, cocoa and Bovex, or the ‘poor man’s Bovril.’ The most popular snack was ‘A Sav and a Slice at Syd’s’ – a Saveloy sausage supplied by Wilsons, the German butchers in Hoxton, alongside a slice of bread and English mustard.

Syd’s coffee stall has witnessed and survived some of the capital’s most defining moments. During the Second World War, Syd and his wife May were given a special licence to ignore the blackouts during the Blitz and open the stall at night to cater for the ARP wardens. After May was injured by shrapnel from a nearby explosion the Mayor of Shoreditch successfully appealed to the War Office to have Syd Junior brought home from a secret RAF mission to keep the stall running as its service was so invaluable. After the war, Syd Junior and his wife Iris expanded the business into catering weddings and events adopting the name ‘Hillary Caterers’ commemorating Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1953. This expansion led to Syd Junior became the youngest ever president of the Hotel & Caterer’s Federation, a Freeman of the City of London and the only caterer ever to trade on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Jane Tothill, Owner of Syd’s coffee stall, said: ‘Celebrating 100 years of service this past March was an incredible milestone and one that I know Grandad would have been proud to have reached. These celebrations led to my decision that it was time for the stall to move on to tell a new story at the Museum of London. I feel it is the best way for Syd’s to continue as part of London’s heritage and a great way to celebrate the place where you could get the best tea in London for over 100 years.’

Vyki Sparkes, Curator of Social & Working History at the Museum of London, said: ‘Syd’s is an invaluable piece of our shared history as Londoners, a quiet witness to the challenges and changes in the heart of the East End over the last 100 years. We look forward to sharing its fascinating story with our visitors in the New Museum.’

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