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In Search of the Spitalfields Nippers

August 19, 2013
by the gentle author

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

Lizzie Flynn

This boy is wearing Horace Warner’s hat

Photographs copyright © The Religious Society of Friends in Britain

You may also like to take a look at

Colin O’Brien’s Travellers’ Children in London Fields

Phil Maxwell’s Kids on the Street

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    August 19, 2013

    My signed copy of Colin O’Brien’s book arrived last night; my sisiter-in-law is the faithful postmistress. I look forward to studying each of the portraits. London Fields, Martello Street and Fortescue Avenue were home ground in the 50’s. It would be great if Colin could follow these youngsters. I hope life has treated them well.
    Thanks Colin and the Gentle Author
    Karkur Israel

  2. SBW permalink
    August 19, 2013

    Amazing, thank you so much.

  3. Paul Kelly permalink
    August 19, 2013

    Do you not find the picture of the brothers Dominic & Dennis quite haunting? The elder of the two looks aggrieved and the younger sharing the concern. Possibly wondering of their next ordeal or thinking of food? Who knows? Quite thought provoking. Amazing pictures.

  4. Greg Tingey permalink
    August 19, 2013

    Note the bare feet!

  5. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    August 19, 2013

    These photos are simply wonderful. I am particularly spellbound by the one of Lizzie Flynn and Dolly Green whose lives must have been extremely hard. Makes me want to treat them in some way………… perhaps a day off from the drudgery?

    Thanks for all the work tracking these pictures down, gentle author!

  6. August 19, 2013

    These photographs are amazing! Thanks for reviving them – can’t wait for the publication of the London album!

  7. Sally Baldwin permalink
    August 19, 2013

    Thank you once again, Gentle Author, for your discernment and caring and diligence. You are indeed one of my historian heroes.

  8. August 19, 2013

    These are marvelous pictures. They capture the whole life. Wonderful!

  9. Phyllis permalink
    August 20, 2013

    Their clothes also tell a story as each child is wearing adult garments that have been cut down and re-fashioned for them, this was a common practice well into the 20th century in poor communities.

  10. marianne isaacs permalink
    August 20, 2013

    Oh my goodness how very special. I wonder what happened to them , It would be wonderful to know . I hope that life wasnt as hard as these pictures predict . Brings tears to my eyes .Gentle Author you have a real gift for evoking empathy with the people past and present of the East End and probably with people in general just by what you write about and how you portray them .

  11. anon permalink
    December 1, 2014

    quoted comment:

    “This is the time of Downton Abbey, before the NHS, the time before universal education, the time of our great grandparents.

    It’s the time when taxation did not exist, instead it was philanthropic donation in the form of great town halls, made of marble to honour the very people who paid slave wages, who had us working for soup. Workfare as the Tories call it.

    We have had just 50 short years of a different society, and make no mistake, the Tories would take us back to 1913 in a heartbeat, and remove the welfare safety net.”

  12. KarlKwiatkowski permalink
    December 2, 2016

    I never had a better life. I lived and I was an orphan on the streets up to 13 years. I had no clothes, I wore a few years. I patch them. I had no shoes, walked barefoot. Throughout that period, to 13 years, I never washed. I have four sisters and three brothers. One working on the people to take our bread. Wash windows, swept, was cleaning the animals. I remember not being invited to someone in a bathroom. I was barefoot and unwashed. I slept on the streets, park bench, next to a block. After I found these pictures, I brought remember how it was when I was a kid. Now I am 37 years old.
    (Sorry for possible grammatical errors because I’m not English.)

  13. marc hopla permalink
    February 26, 2019

    I’ve just come across these photos. I often wonder what become of these young boys and girls. Amazingly, they may very well have been alive in the 1960s, or even into the 1970s. Their grandchildren may very well be still with us. I just hope their lives became better.

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