In Search of the Spitalfields Nippers
Portrait of Tommy Nail, Courtesy of The Religious Society of Friends
“Let me introduce you to the Spitalfields Nippers of 1901-2 as photographed by Horace Warner. Although the origin of these pictures is something of 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.”
Horace Warner’s breathtaking series of portraits known as the Spitalfields Nippers have long been one of the sets of photographs that have excited most interest in these pages, and so it is a great delight to be able to publish them in print courtesy of The Religious Society of Friends in my forthcoming book The Gentle Author’s London Album, alongside my other favourite pictures from Spitalfields Life.
I first came upon the Nippers in a pamphlet published to accompany an exhibition in 1975 and, even in primitive reproduction in one colour, it was apparent that they were a distinctive set of pictures of the highest quality. The pamphlet explained that the photographs were first published in 1911 in the annual report of the charitable Bedford Institute in Quaker St, Spitalfields, and were a selection from more than two hundred and forty that existed.
At that time, I tried to learn more about Horace Warner and the Nippers but my research led nowhere. Although the Bedford Institute still stands in Quaker St, it was closed long ago and I found that the archives had been passed from one organisation to another until no-one knew where they were.
Yet the photographs haunted me, and I was convinced that Warner’s prints still existed somewhere. His pictures demonstrate such a sympathetic sensibility towards his subjects that I wanted to know who he was, and there was also the tantalising possibility of the more than two hundred unseen photographs.
Aware that the Bedford Institute was a Quaker Mission, we contacted The Religious Society of Friends in the Euston Rd and asked them to look in their archive. Imagine my delight, when the message back came that, after a search, the original prints were discovered there preserved in good condition, just a mile from Spitalfields. At Friends House, Melissa Atkinson led me to a tiny desk in the corner of the basement and opened a box to reveal twenty-five of Warner’s own prints of his photographs, possessing a lustrous tone and sharp detail that imparted an extra quality of life to these extraordinary pictures. Thanks to the lucid vision of Horace Warner, the presence and gaze of these children remains vivid, more than a century after the photographs were taken.
Additionally, the archive contains unpublished pictures that show the yards of Spitalfields, between buildings with the characteristic long windows that indicate domestic weavers’ workshops. More than this, there was a letter from Gwen McGilvray, Horace Warner’s daughter, which dates the photographs to 1901-2, ten years earlier than was previously believed, and gives names for several of the children which permits me to publish a small selection of portraits here today with their names for the very first time.
I learnt that Horace Warner (1871-1939) was superintendent of the Sunday School at the Bedford Institute and knew many of the children he photographed personally, which accounts for playful relationship of photographer and subject exhibited in many of his pictures. A wallpaper printer and designer by trade, Warner taught himself photography at home in Highbury and worked at the family business of Jeffrey & Co in the Essex Rd where they printed wallpaper for William Morris.
You will be able to see a larger selection of the Spitalfields Nippers, reproduced from the original prints, in The Gentle Author’s London Album in October. But in the meantime, I could not resist introducing these Nippers to you by name, and enquiring if anyone knows how I can contact the descendants of Horace Warner and his daughter Gwen McGilvray – because I should dearly like to discover if the other two hundred and forty portraits exist?
Isaac Levy cleaning windows
Charlie Long and Dolly Green, dressed in a special frock.
Dominic & Dennis, two brothers
Lizzie Flynn & Dolly Green
This boy is wearing Horace Warner’s hat
Photographs copyright © The Religious Society of Friends in Britain
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