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Spitalfields Nippers

April 2, 2011
by the gentle author

Let me introduce you to the Spitalfields Nippers of 1912 as photographed by Horace Warner. Although the origin of these pictures is an enigma, these frisky nippers of a century ago require no introduction or explanation, because they assert themselves as the mettlesome inhabitants of their territory.

Geographically, they are creatures of the secret byways, alleys and yards that lace the neighbourhood. Imaginatively, theirs is a discrete society independent of adults, in which they are resourceful and sufficient, doing their own washing, chopping wood, nursing babies and even making money by cleaning windows and running errands.

A few nippers may be swaggering for the camera, but most are preoccupied with their own all-consuming world, and look askance at us without assuming the playful, clownish faces that adults expect today. These nippers have not been trained to fawn by innumerable snaps as contemporary children are, and consequently they have a presence and authority beyond our expectation of their years.

Little is known of Horace Warner and nothing is known of his relationship to the nippers. Only thirty of these pictures survive, out of two hundred and forty that he took, tantalising the viewer today as rare visions of the lost tribe of Spitalfields Nippers. They may look like paupers, and the original usage of them to accompany the annual reports of the charitable Bedford Institute, Quaker St, Spitalfields, may have been as illustrations of poverty – but that is not the sum total of these beguiling photographs, because they exist as spirited images of something much more subtle and compelling, the elusive drama of childhood itself.

Click here to order a copy of SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS by Horace Warner


62 Responses leave one →
  1. Ana permalink
    April 2, 2011

    The reality is far better than the fictive. I can see where Charles Dickens got his characters from, but the real images portray something that eludes writers. The expressions on their little faces, their clothes, the grime on their feet, it just makes you want to take them all in, give them a hearty meal and a hug.

  2. Jill permalink
    April 2, 2011

    Ditto Ana’s comment. We can only hope their lives improved in adulthood.

  3. Emma permalink
    April 2, 2011

    Incredible photographs. The children endured obvious hardship….and it’s amazing to think that they were from my Grandfather’s generation. I love the first photo of the boy in mid oration with his friend the cat happily by his side.

  4. April 2, 2011

    I have a very similar photo of my maternal grandmother barefoot and wearing a sackcloth dress standing with her siblings and her mother sitting on a stool in the backyard in Hackney Wick…it was probably 1925…
    Lovely poignant images

  5. Anne Forster permalink
    April 2, 2011

    Oh those little faces, how cheered they would have been to have the smallest scrap of what today’s children have.

  6. April 2, 2011

    My nan was born in Whitechapel in 1907 so would have been contemporary to these children. I don’t think we can even imagine how hard life was for the children (and indeed the adults) then.

    Were they unhappy? I like to think that as it was all they knew, probably not. They had no television to show them what everyone else had. Ah that it was the same today…

  7. BARBARA permalink
    April 2, 2011

    My heart goes out to those poor children – especially those without shoes! Barbara

  8. April 2, 2011

    Such hard times for such beautiful children. Life or mankind is cruel indeed.

  9. melbournegirl permalink
    April 3, 2011

    Despite the inner strength and resilience and defiance too in those little faces, these images made me unutterably sad.

  10. Margaret Lambert permalink
    April 4, 2011

    I hope that these children all found great happiness sometime in their lives, some comforts and enough to eat. They probably expected very little.

  11. Alan Gilbey permalink
    April 4, 2011

    Tragically the majority could expect very little, in life or in years. Just thirty years earlier (when Jack The Ripper was getting all the attention) 55% of Spitalfields children didn’t make it past the age of five. These nippers were the survivors and we can only hope that charities like the Bedford Institute were able to make a little difference to their monochrome lives.

  12. April 4, 2011

    For those hoping these kids found happiness as they became adults, we know for a fact that most of the boys had only World War I to look forward to.

  13. April 4, 2011

    Inasmuch as a number of the subjects are wearing shoes they probably were not all rock-bottom poor. Still, this is a very enlightening record and a nice introduction to Mr. Warner’s photographs. Thanks for posting the photos.

  14. rae aeberli permalink
    April 6, 2011

    It is very painful to look at these pictures and know what was in store for them, and to know that countless children, right now, are not even that well off. Lord, help us, to do what we can for them.

  15. Tony C permalink
    April 6, 2011

    It wasn’t much different when I was growing up in Spitalfields in the 60′s.
    My family lived in a 2 room flat for 10 years, we didin’t know any different
    and we were very happy. A lot of the responses here assumed these kids had nothing to live for
    which may have been the case in 1912. But if you are familiar with the culture of the East End you will know that because of their circumstance many went on to live very successful lives.
    I live in the US now and I know for certain that my success is a direct result of the skills I learned growing up on the streets of Spitalfields. I lived on Lolesworth St at 14 Keate House. They were part of the Flower and Dean St slums that were also includedThrawl St.

  16. Bobby Bee permalink
    April 7, 2011

    Let’s be honest. These kids had it good. They look kinda lazy and bored. They make today’s kids look like real go-getters. Today’s kids are much more well-behaved, pro-active, and hardworking than those young pests of yesteryear.

  17. April 8, 2011

    Spitalfields nippers were among to first to offer organized, competent, violent resistance to fascism. And it worked.

    Those Spitalfields nippers grew up to successfully fight the battle of Cable Street, breaking Moseley’s British Union of Fascists.

  18. April 11, 2011

    As an Australian these images conjure up photos shown to me by my father some time ago. Those photos were taken in Balmain, Sydney Australia and the children in them wore the same expressions. Their clothes differed only due to the different climate as may lived in poverty and had to make the most of what they had.

    Many of the boys in the photos above would have fought in WWI beside the boys from Balmain, Australia. Thank you for these photos.

  19. Maia permalink
    April 12, 2011

    They remind me of a comment an Edwardian Cockney apparently made about Oliver Twist and other Dickens characters, that they would never have survived in the East End (of those years), they were much too soft. You can see the hardness on their faces, and also the life….

  20. Uncle B permalink
    April 25, 2011

    Survival of the fittest, imposed by an unfeeling capitalism, mercantilism. Hardened, winnowed, refined, British stock as even Hitler’s fires could not do for Europe. America faces this now, as their dollar falls, unregulated capitalism surges, outrageous moral decline becomes apparent.

  21. June 2, 2011

    I love Tony C’s comment for he speaks the truth. It’s so easy to see poverty and social decline in these images but in truth, as hard as they worked, they must have also had such an interesting upbringing (and an intimate one for it would be hard to feel lonely in a slum). Rather you grow up, learning how to survive and knowing your true capabilities – with everything to look forward to than benefit from the privilage of someone elses toil and never know your true strength. Of course, life is never so black and white; there are indeed many shades of grey/circumstance. I think these images show such interesting little people just beginning their extraordinary and very ordinary lives.

  22. Sarah K permalink
    June 2, 2011

    Devastating photos. They offer a compelling counterpoint to the Traveller’s photos featured today. What strikes me most is the variability (almost lifelike plasticity) of these children’s expressions. For instance here, the girl clutching the cat (grinning broadly but almost certainly hurting the cat as she grabs tightly on to its right haunch). The next photo she looks wary and mistrustful in (what seems) a posed shot of her feeding the bunny. In the same way, the unsmiling, haunted traveller girl in the bauble dress looks uncannily like the other ponytailed girl who playfully poses in other photos. Is it the same girl, or her sister? You can almost feel their presence. Eery.

  23. June 2, 2011

    Shoes no shoes? A second look reveals open windows, the shoeless children are also sweater less so the pictures were taken in summer.

    I grew up poor in the early 50′s, none of my 6 siblings or I wore shoes in the summer (or any other time if we could possible help it.) Shoes were for school and “going to to town”. We did loads of chores including washing dishes, windows, cloths, floors, cooking and minding the little ones. Children are more capable than we choose to acknowledge.

    The future of these children was indeed heartrendingly bleak. But for me and my kin no shoes in summer was fun. By the way I still enjoy washing windows, reminds me of my youth!

  24. patois permalink
    June 23, 2011

    Oh come on, they’re quite clearly fake. Look at the modern hairstyles!

  25. Annika permalink
    June 23, 2011

    @William Gibson: That sounds very interesting and I had never heard of it (I’m not English, so I’m not that well-informed about English history). Would you happen to have links or something where I could read more about that? Thanks!

  26. zach permalink
    June 23, 2011

    Stagey, idealised cameos of impoverished childhood – partially sanitised and recouped to pictorialism. I dislike these artefacts as photos, but can’t help look on the represented faces with a certain degree of pity and sadness.

    I had a 50s childhood much like that described by Peg. One pair of shoes, one pair of trousers. An outside toilet, no bathroom, and very few opportunities for a bath throughout a given year. Sunday to Monday would find us hungry, and often cold and in darkness, when the gas metre ran out, until my Nan, who raised me, could collect her meagre pension on Tuesdays. Yet the material deprivations were as nothing compared to the physical and emotional abuse I endured, both in the home and at school, where it was made plain that an unwashed, largely unloved child had no place or purpose.

    Fortunately, I was bright and dogged. I endured the seemingly endless humiliations and the terrible lack of motivation I sensed all around me. If I was ever seen to be trying to “better myself”, my family, my peers, and my teachers, took steps to subvert and restrain my initiatives. This is the truly wracking, numbing quality of social deprivation. One finds oneself surrounded by those with vested interests in keeping one from climbing out of the pit. Failure is purposefully, wilfully maintained. I still witness this deliberate hampering, even though I am, myself, mercifully free of it. The tendency is insidious, yet palpable.

    Unlike Peg, I can’t look back on my stifling experience of childhood with anything approaching nostalgia. My revenge is that I emerged with my good brain intact, and a determination never to be subject to externally imposed limitations of opportunity.
    I’ve managed to achieve a much happier, more purposeful life than anyone hoped for, or wanted for me. Over the years, I’ve tried to engage in a certain amount of “social engineering”, to offer younger generations an opportunity to escape early bonds, though with
    varying success. Opportunity is one thing that can be readily provided, but motivation, nouse, and determination have to come from the individual. It’s very hard to help ‘unlearn’ an engrained tendency to failure. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to facilitate such a project.

    I bless all those faces in the photos, and hope they survived their various trials and disappointments, without corroding themselves and those around them. Some of them may have made a life for themselves, free of their apparent trajectories. The thing that most saddens me, though, is that those faces, those seeming glimpses of deprivation and inertia, have their equivalents in the 21st century world I have lived to see.

  27. HKrinkle permalink
    June 23, 2011

    @patois

    I agree there’s something a bit “stage school” about these pictures. I half expect Dick van Dyke to make an appearance.

  28. Seika permalink
    June 23, 2011

    This was unfortunately a very common picture of life for children all around the world and still is in some places. My Grandmother was born within the Bow Bells of London in 1912 and often spoke of how difficult life was for her growing up one of 8 children being the oldest girl. She was lucky enough to attend school until 12 but then had to stay home and look after a new set of younger siblings her mother gave birth to while she was in her early 50′s. She talked about her cousins who lived in East London and the fact that London fog was really not fog at all but smog so thick it would choke a horse as she used to say. Many of these children suffered from asthma and tuberculosis as well as sulfur poisoning etc. I have some photos of my father’s family when they immigrated to England in 1852 as Roma Gypsy pushed out of Romania and found a life among the travelers in the English country side they are equally poignant and distressing. Very tough life indeed.

  29. Chris Donatelli permalink
    June 23, 2011

    It took me looking through these three times to notice the rags in the one picture have a baby in their midst.

  30. wench permalink
    June 23, 2011

    These photos are just a single point of view on these kid’s lives. These kids might deserve pity, but not for the lack of shoes or the lack of money. They aren’t starving thin, they have clothes even if the clothes are torn and dirty by our standards, they have friends and chores and you don’t know enough about their lives to know what to pity them for. They were individuals living in a tough time, and I’m sure they had their problems and their delights – and their pride too, often the only thing you have when you have nothing else.

  31. Donald Kirkland permalink
    June 23, 2011

    You wonder how and why unions came to be? Look at these pixs. Think about the life and times of those people. And then remember we are only a heartbeat away from returning to those times if we continue to pander to the company line. Think about it! Oil companys are raking in huge profits and yet refuse to hire any workers. WAKE UP!

  32. June 23, 2011

    These photos are wonderful. I can’t even begin to choose a favourite.

  33. Steve permalink
    June 23, 2011

    These faces are universal, in this depiction they all happen to be white but none the less they capture the fleeting passage of that perpetual tribe called childhood. They pull at my heart. So much so that I have adopted and raised seven such creatures who now are strong men with healthy families. And still that is not enough. These faces always call me to do more. Bleeding heart? No, but a sweet memory of my time as a member of that tribe will always drive me. It is my responsibility to insure that I give what I can to each pair of young eyes that fixes me with their inquiry. They ask me to contribute the worth of my soul as they pass by. If my soul has worth at all I must give. If not how can I face myself? Once, a few years back I walked into an orphanage in the jungle city of Iquitos. Only one left with me physically but each set of those eyes are with me daily. I completely fail to understand how any society, any human can meet those eyes and still turn their back. These pictures staged or not, call to me and make me glad that I can offer a bit of myself for them.

  34. Bill permalink
    June 24, 2011

    I really love you skeptics, the pictures are real and not contrived. Get real.

  35. Aurora permalink
    June 24, 2011

    Those pictures touched my heart…..and Steve, you did, too.

  36. June 24, 2011

    These are wonderful, just wonderful.
    Many thanks, and well done.

  37. Priscilla Meyer permalink
    June 26, 2011

    They are so young, yet you can see their old souls in their eyes.
    Wonderful photographs.

  38. Liz permalink
    July 5, 2011

    My ancestors came from Spitlefields, these pohotos make me feel so sad.

  39. July 16, 2011

    I cant believe that so recently in the history of this country children went barefoot on the streets of London. Sometimes when we look at the poverty in Third World countries now, we forget how bad it was here once.

  40. Angela Allison permalink
    July 21, 2011

    And yet I couldn’t help but notice how neat the haircuts of these children were. Toe nails and finger nails were neatly trimmed. There was no evidence of scarred and calloused feet and hands. Warner wouldn’t be the first to stage such photographs.

  41. July 22, 2011

    Wow, in many ways they look just like today’s children, only they would all be about 110 years old by now! I can’t help but wonder what they were thinking at the time they had their photos taken? Surely, they would never have imagined in a 100 years, that a 100 years would come and go and people far removed in time would be gazing at their innocent little faces now but a ghost in time. It hurts, because as I look into each and every one of their little angelic faces I just want ever so much to pick them up an hug them all for dear life …… but, alas….. it’s impossible, their now long gone, but at least thanks to these photos they are no longer forgotten!

  42. Chris permalink
    July 22, 2011

    An era when poor families did not rely on the state hand outs to produce over nourished, over weight children who lost their motivation sitting in front of a TV with a sense of entitlement. I am sure times were hard but most of the photos suggest the kids had some sense of purpose and perhaps even lived in a strong cohesive community – or is that just a romantic view of the past?.

  43. July 26, 2011

    The poor little children never having a loving home. So young, and working so hard just to survive. I love the first photo. The cat sitting on what appears to be a piece of felt looks as if he and the boy are best friends, and they probably were. Striking images…

  44. rose permalink
    September 6, 2011

    These phots brought back memories, I didnt live in Spitalfields but was born in South London and saw sights like these as late as the 1940s. Maybe some children had shoes but certainly not bought for them. Because of a large family I did not have new shoes or dresses until I was 15 ! Posed? I do not believe that! Look at your family histories & look at the slums that were & poor work for the average man and then comment ! As late as the 1960s some parts of NZ still had children without shoes going to school !

    Because the world has become more affluent does that mean that the ability to feel pity has been lost?

  45. November 28, 2011

    These phots brought back memories, I didnt live in Spitalfields but was born in South London and saw sights like these as late as the 1940s. Maybe some children had shoes but certainly not bought for them. Because of a large family I did not have new shoes or dresses until I was 15 ! Posed? I do not believe that! Look at your family histories & look at the slums that were & poor work for the average man and then comment ! As late as the 1960s some parts of NZ still had children without shoes going to school

  46. Sherri ( %= permalink
    December 9, 2011

    Wonderful pictures and stories, thank you so much, especially to “Steve” and “Zach;” you both moved me with your touchingly deep experiences. Good for you Zach that you’ve come so far from such mentally disturbing lifestyle…you are the spitting image of hardiness! And as for you Steve, well……you should be a writer, teacher, and the next leader of our new world, it is the humble persons we all need to learn from and be guided by; I believe they see the “whole” picture.

  47. Joanne Sheppard permalink
    December 16, 2011

    “An era when poor families did not rely on the state hand outs to produce over nourished, over weight children who lost their motivation sitting in front of a TV with a sense of entitlement. I am sure times were hard but most of the photos suggest the kids had some sense of purpose and perhaps even lived in a strong cohesive community – or is that just a romantic view of the past?.”

    Yes, it is a romantic view of the past.

    Three of my four grandparents started their lives as children just like these. They were poor, cold, miserable, overworked, often hungry, robbed of the chance of a decent education and watched their siblings die of preventable causes with little or no medical care. My grandmother’s family (two adults, one of which was a violent drunk, and 13 children) lived in one damp room in a tenement slum and suffered constantly from respiratory diseases, fungal infections, lice and numerous other unpleasant complaints.

    Yes, they had a ‘sense of purpose’… and that ‘purpose’ was doing everything they possibly could not to starve , not to end up sleeping on the streets and not to die of tuberculosis. If you think that’s in any way a positive thing, then you are seriously deluded.

  48. jeannette permalink
    December 17, 2011

    i don’t know how i missed these the first time around.
    i love the little washtub girl’s face, and then to see it again, loving the cat.
    the comments? caramba.

  49. Annie permalink
    December 17, 2011

    I agree with the caramba. I’m sure these are genuine and also heartrending. Perhaps they did grow up to survive their origins, perhaps the boys were destined for the Somme, perhaps the girls were to die young having babies. And I’m betting any of them would have preferred a more comfortable life than the one they had, loving and freedom notwithstanding. I’m not sure that grinding poverty teaches you much more than a desire never to return to it. And I wouldn’t have wanted my kids to have lived like that, no matter how authentic it might appear to our jaded eyes.
    But I’ll bet they were great kids to be around. As a teacher, I’d have any one of them in my class any day of the week.

  50. Peter Daniels permalink
    January 9, 2012

    “Although the origin of these pictures is an enigma” you say yourself they illustrated the reports of the Bedford Institute – who commissioned them. “Little is known of Horace Warner and nothing is known of his relationship to the nippers”. Horace Warner was a member of a Quaker family that was prominent in the wallpaper and textile trade (Deborah Warner the theatre director is a descendant of the family, though I can’t remember if it’s directly from Horace). His relationship to the nippers as far as I know is simply that they were there to be photographed. My former colleague the picture librarian at Friends House Library reckoned they were actually taken in Clerkenwell and not Spitalfields, but they had to be associated with the Bedford Institute on the corner of Wheler St and Quaker St in Spitalfields, so that’s what they were called. I don’t know now why she came up with the Clerkenwell idea but she was quite meticulous so there will have been a good reason.

  51. Alan ireland permalink
    February 7, 2012

    What these pictures suggest to me is how fortunate the kids of today are. The people that be today, bleat on about how the poor of our times are struggling to make ends meet. They haven’t a clue what’s real poverty’s about.

  52. Janisobel permalink
    March 7, 2012

    My ancestors lived in Spitalfields from 1681 until 1887. They ‘escaped’ to Essex and a more comfortable life when my grandfather was 17, but he chose to stay behind and Bishopsgate was in his life and heart for the balance of his life. There is no doubt in my mind that these photos are representative of the conditions of the time. Yes, perhaps some of the children were asked to pose; however, they were not dressed in costumes or asked to remove their shoes. I recently read an archived newspaper article on-line that gave an account of the inquest into the death of one of my Spitalfields’ ancestors. It was ruled to be a suicide. The young lady of 17 threw herself into Regent’s Canal because of her despair that her parents could not afford to buy her a pair of boots. Family records also provide details of the dates and family members who did manage to receive a pair of boots or shoes from various charitable institutions in Spitalfields. Life was very hard and these photos underline that fact, but some of them show the grit and determination that fighting daily poverty can bring about in the smallest of souls.

  53. Lesley Diss permalink
    April 12, 2012

    The photos of the Nippers made me cry… especially the one of the little girl with what looks like a bundle of rags, but you can just see a baby’s hand poking out. My father was born around 10 years later into a very poor family in Limehouse. He told me of the squabbles over food, and being carried to school because he had no shoes. So sad… Even the very poorest families today will never experience such awful poverty.

  54. Robin permalink
    April 12, 2012

    Poor little ones! Tattered rags,bare feet and empty eyes.It pains me to think of what they endured;did mummy manage to feed them,was daddy an abusive drunk? Where ever did the term”good old days” origionate?Certainly not on the lowly streets populated by these young children.

  55. Justine permalink
    May 28, 2012

    My family are from the Bethnal Green area & I was born on Bethnal Green Road opposite Brick Lane & used to attend St Mathias Primary School which is also just of Brick Lane. We used to live in a Mobile home that was put up after the WWII on the bombed out land surrounding St Mathias School. We were poor & while we did not have to rely on rags as clothes etc like the pictures above portray as my mum used to make all our clothes. We as children tried to make the best off what we did have to survive as I am sure these children did. Yes it was hard but we used to roam around the empty factories & play on the streets in safety. Its good to look back to see how far we have come & I would like to think that many of the children in the pictures did make a life for themselves. To me there is no “good old days” as I look at my children today & they live a life that is comfortable & surrounded by love, the total opposite off what we had back then some 40 years ago. I can only imagine that these poor children had it a whole lot worse than we did, it would have been interesting to find out how their lives turned out for them.

  56. sarahc permalink
    July 23, 2012

    I grew up in America in the 1960′s and we never wore shoes in the summer in our own neighborhood except when roller skating. This has somehow become bad since.

  57. i johnson permalink
    November 18, 2012

    My father who was born in 1902 once said to me when confronted with a Dickens like picture That was ME, meaning a look a like.
    He and his siblings all managed to climb out of North London and had their own nice houses and cars. My brothers were both pilots. One a bomber pilot and then on airliners. The other a civil Pilot so . . The pictures are NOT fakes. There are worse scenes from those dreadful days

  58. April 4, 2013

    To Tony C living in USA.
    My grandparents lived at no 11 Keate House. I remember going there as a small child in the 1960′s. What year did you live there?

  59. carole mellor permalink
    July 3, 2014

    Although many of these children are barefoot and in ragged clothes, look at the boys haircuts, they are little different to present day.

  60. Nat permalink
    October 30, 2014

    Ho there what date are these photos? Some newsarticles say 1900-1, 1903 and 1912.

  61. Alan Racheter permalink
    November 17, 2014

    This article on the growth of the Salvation Army in the East End is worth reading.

    http://www.workhouses.org.uk/SA/

  62. Alan Racheter permalink
    November 18, 2014

    I think lack of education and in particular literacy were the underlying factors for some of the children’s parents having to take on very uncertain; unskilled and poorly paid types of work. Desperate people resort to doing desperate things.

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