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.