The Last Bite

The Last Bite: Proper Tea at a London Coffee Stall that Survived the Blitz

Opened in 1919, Syd’s Coffee Stall in Shoreditch has survived the bombing of the East End in World War Two—as well as recent gentrification of the area—to continue proudly serving the “best tea in London.”

by Daisy Meager
26 May 2016, 4:49pm

Welcome back to The Last Bite, our new column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up?

Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. Today, it's the turn of 97-year-old tea and coffee stand, Syd's Coffee Stall in East London.

Syd's Coffee Stall opened its shutters onto Shoreditch, East London in 1919. Since then, it has seen a lot. From the bombing of the East End during World War Two to the more recent cereal cafe-spawning gentrification of the area, Syd's has borne witness to it all.

Founded by war-veteran-turned-entrepreneur Syd Tothill, the stall has been passed down through generations and is still run by the Tothill family, keeping locals satisfied with fresh filled rolls, coffee, and famed loose leaf tea. With its varnished, wooden panels and original wooden wheels, Syd's is one of the few Shoreditch establishments to retain some of its original character, staying defiantly old-school in an area that teems with pop-up shops and trendy bars.

It's also easy to miss. Tucked on a corner away from the busy circus of Shoreditch High Street, I spent months walking by Syd's without even realising it was there.

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Syd's Coffee Stall in Shoreditch, East London. All photos by the author.

But once you see Syd's, you won't miss it again. The stall sits on the side of the road, parked up like a horse-drawn carriage—except with stationary wheels and a serving hatch that opens onto the pavement.

Syd's is run by Jane Tothill—granddaughter of the eponymous Syd—with help from teamaker Cheryl.

"When I took over in 1986, we had queues right round the corner and sometimes we'd squeeze four people behind the counter," remembers Jane. "Everything is made fresh, you know? We couldn't serve people fast enough!"

This is probably the only place in Shoreditch where you'll be laughed at for requesting a latte or scanning the breakfast menu for avocado on toast. What you will find, though is old fashioned cheesecakes and local cabbies hoovering up sausage and bacon rolls before heading to work. The silver teapot will always be on, brewing away.

"I know we only do basic but our tea is the best in London," says Jane. "We only have fresh, loose leaf tea—the best you can buy and no teabags. When people say to leave the bag in, it's like they've sworn."

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Syd's Coffee Cart owner Jane Tothill with teamaker Cheryl.

Despite the rise of high-end coffee shops and bakeries in the area, Jane has no plans to change the food and drink offerings at Syd's.

"We just keep basic English grub because that's what it's always been. People tell me to get a coffee machine but that's not English," she says. "We have tried different things—even silly little things like croissants—but no, our customers know what they like."

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The original Syd bought the stall in 1919 using his war pension and over the following years, became a centrepiece of the Shoreditch community, running several cafes in the area and making connections with everyone from the mayor to the local vicar. At the start of World War Two, Syd became ill and his wife May was injured after a bomb blast went off at the end of their road. The stall, however, was unscathed, sheltered by a nearby bus stop.

But with both Syd and May unable to run the stall, Syd's son (Jane's father), Syd Junior, was called back from the RAF by the Mayor of Shoreditch himself to run the stall. The community agreed that Syd's was a necessity to the War effort.

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Inside Syd's Coffee Stall.

Jane remembers helping her father and mother with the family business as a child.

"My mother and father also had the outside catering business Hillary Caterers (my dad said the name "Syd's" wasn't upmarket enough), and they used to put on a dinner for the old people at Shoreditch Church every year," she says. "I don't know how they managed it. The kitchens were down in the basement and you had one of these dumb waits, or you had to drag it up the stairs. My brother and I were put to work with the potato rumbler."

The food served back at Syd's in the day doesn't sound half bad either.

"It was saveloys, slices of bread with a dollop of mustard, and pies," remembers Jane. "They used to carve a hock of ham on the front. It was different times."

Jane's face lights up as she shares these memories.

"Dad is the only one to have been granted a licence to sell on the steps of St. Paul's," she says proudly, pointing to one of the numerous newspaper clippings on the wall of the stall.

Sadly, things at Syd's are different now. While the original stall was tailor-made made on nearby Hackney Road with etched glass and brass rails, today Jane has vandals to contend with, and often comes to work to find the stall daubed with graffiti and the debris of weekend clubbers.

"I'm absolutely mortified," she says, showing me where the stall's varnish has started to bubble from the paint stripper used to clean away the vandals' scribbles.

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Customers at Syd's Coffee Stall.

Since the 1990s, the footfall around Syd's has also changed. Bus routes have been diverted, restricted parking has been implemented, and wider roads have changed the face of this corner of Shoreditch.

"It was a really busy corner: the bank, a sweet shop, toilets, bus stops," remembers Jane. "People would park up or get of the bus, pop into the shops or the bank then come and see us. You can't do that now."

And what about the social changes that have seen Shoreditch become a kind of hipster mecca? Jane sighs: "Most young people aren't into tradition and people have so much money nowadays that they don't think twice about spending £2 or £3 on a coffee."

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Jane's coffee, on the other hand, could never be described as artisan. But it costs 55p and it's freshly made.

With the odds seemingly stacked against Syd's survival, its future seems uncertain. Jane tells me, "I'd like it end up in a London museum after its 100 years but we'll see how it goes."

I hope Syd's makes its 100th birthday. The East End needs its dog rolls and proper brews.