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In Search of Horace Warner

June 30, 2014
by the gentle author

Yesterday, I revealed the astonishing discovery of the unknown albums of more than a hundred of Horace Warner’s photographs of the Spitalfields Nippers dating from the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and today I trace a little of what is known about the photographer.

Horace Warner (1871-1939)

This is a self-portrait by Horace Warner taken when he was around thirty years old at the time he was photographing the Spitalfields Nippers, the pictures by which he is remembered and that establish his posthumous reputation as a photographer. If you look closely you can just see the bulb in his left hand to control the shutter, permitting him to capture this image of himself.

With his pale moon-like face, straggly moustache and shiny locks, Horace looks younger than his years and yet there is an intensity in his concentration matched by the poised energy of his right arm. This is how he chose to present himself – wielding a brush, indicative of his profession as a wallpaper designer in the family business of Jeffrey & Co, run by his father Metford Warner (1843-1930), where he and his brother Marcus worked. The company was established in 1836 and Metford was a junior partner who became proprietor by 1869 and, under his leadership, they became a leading manufacturer. He was committed to representing artists’ designs more accurately than had been done before and commissioned William Burges and Walter Crane, among other leading designers of the time – most famously, collaborating with William Morris.

Last week, I set out to visit three places that were familiar to Horace Warner in an attempt to better understand the connections between the different aspects of his life that found their expression in these locations. First, I took the train to Highbury and walked up the hill beside the long eighteenth century terrace bounding the fields, turning off into the quiet crescent of Aberdeen Park, a private estate laid out in the eighteen-fifties.

The turret of the former Warner family house stood out among the other comfortably-appointed villas, as testimony to the success of Jeffrey & Co, supplying wallpaper to the artistic classes in the growing capital at the end of the nineteenth century. A woman pushing a pram along the pavement in front of me turned out to be the nanny employed by the current residents and, when I explained the reason for my visit, she volunteered that there were a series of old photographs still hanging in an upper room, which also retains its turn of the century embossed wallpaper.

Leaving the ghosts of Aberdeen Park, I turned south, following Horace’s route to work by walking for half an hour down through Canonbury, past the Tower and along the route of the New River, to meet the Essex Rd where the Jeffrey & Co wallpaper factory stands. An elegant turn-of-the century utilitarian building with three well-lit floors above for manufacturing and a showroom on the ground floor, it is currently occupied by a wholefood chain. William Morris’ wallpaper designs were all printed here until the thirties when they were taken over by Sandersons and the factory closed in 1940 but, if you go round to the side street, the loading doors remain as if another delivery might arrive at any time.

From here, the East End is a couple of miles south. Now in her nineties, Horace Warner’s surviving daughter, Ruth Finken, still remembers accompanying her father on this journey as a small child to deliver Christmas presents in Quaker St, where he was Sunday School teacher.  She recalls how dark, dirty and frightening everything looked, and being told to hold her father’s hand and keep close. Ruth reports that her father was always one for getting the family to pose for his photos and that he spent ages getting everyone in exactly the right position. She also has a memory of one of his photographs of a pair of child’s boots upon the drawing room wall, along with a couple of his portraits of the Spitalfields Nippers, as reminders of those who were less fortunate.

Horace Warner’s participation as Superintendent at the Bedford Institute continued an involvement for his family in Spitalfields that stretched back to the seventeenth century when the Warner Bell Foundry was established. The Warner family were part of the Quaker movement too, almost since its inception, and the naming of Quaker St derives from the Friends Meeting House that opened there in 1656.

Yet the Quaker Mission at the Bedford Institute, that Horace Warner knew, owed its origin to a revival of Quakerism that happened a century later in Spitalfields – encouraged by Peter Bedford (1780-1864), a philanthropist silk merchant who devoted himself to alleviating poor social conditions. Rebuilt in 1893, the handsome red brick Bedford House that stands today would have been familiar to Warner.

In The Condition of The Working Class in England, Frederick Engels referred to the tragedy of a family living in the courtyards south of Quaker St as an example of the degradation of the poor in London and it was these people, living almost upon the doorstep of the Bedford Institute, that Horace Warner befriended and photographed. It was a small area, a narrow rectangle of shabby dwellings circumscribed by roads upon four sides, and no more than a hundred yards wide and five hundreds yards long. Today there is nothing left of it but Horace Warner’s photographs, yet since he annotated them with the names of his subjects we hope we can now discover more about the lives of these people through research into the records. Ultimately, what we can discover about Horace Warner exists in his response to others and their response to him, as manifest in his photographs.

“There isn’t a great deal of information we know about Horace,” his grandson Ian McGilvray admitted to me, “and, in any case, I imagine he would probably have been quite content to have it that way.”

Ruth Finken, Horace Warner’s daughter, is looking forward to seeing all of her father’s Spitalfields Nippers photographs in a book for the first time and – with your help – we mean to publish this on November 1st. As with our other titles, I need to gather a group of readers who are willing to invest £1000 each. Please email if you would like to help bring this exciting project to fruition and I will send you further information.

The Warner family home in Aberdeen Park, Highbury

Jeffrey & Co, Wallpaper Factory & Showroom, 64 Essex Rd – the family business run by Metford Warner, where Horace worked with his brother Marcus

Bedford Institute, Quaker St, Spitafields, where Horace Warner was Sunday School Superintendent

Horace Warner’s photograph of one of the yards off Quaker St

Horace Warner’s photograph of Union Place off Quaker St

Horace Warner’s photograph of the children who lived in the yards beside Quaker St in 1900

Washing Day, Horace Warner’s photograph of children boiling up hot water for laundry

Little Adelaide’s Best & Only Boots – a photograph by Horace Warner that Ruth Finken, his daughter, remembers upon the drawing room wall as a child – the Bedford Institute distributed boots to children

Friederike Huber’s cover design for the book to be published on November 1st

Publication Rights in these Photographs Reserved

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

You can see more of Horace Warner’s photographs here

An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

12 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    June 30, 2014

    not every one of the nippers looks clean or fat, but they all look strong, determined, and collegial.

  2. June 30, 2014

    The story about HORACE WARNER and his photographs of the little Nippers of London is very touching. I hope the book project will be progressing and come true!

    Love & Peace

  3. Hilary Barton permalink
    June 30, 2014

    I wonder if Horace Warner came from the same family as the Spitalfields silk weavers, Warner & Sons:

    who also produced William Morris designs:

  4. Linzi permalink
    June 30, 2014

    I think that might be little Adelaide boiling up the water for the laundry! She seems to be wearing that same pair of utterly worn out boots, poor thing.

  5. June 30, 2014

    Born & bred in Aberdeen Road, Highbury, The Warner history in the area is fascinating & ties in nicely with my family’s artisan background. Great to now know the history of the buildings. Thank you so much!

  6. June 30, 2014

    how can I get this Book … regards Keith x

  7. the gentle author permalink*
    June 30, 2014

    Published November 1st

  8. Jan Marsh permalink
    June 30, 2014

    connections and connections and interwoven webs

    The Peter Bedford Trust, which must be related, still operates in Highbury:

  9. Nilly Hall permalink
    June 30, 2014

    Another connection to this interesting, philanthropic family – Roger Warner, son of Horace’s brother Harold Metford Warner. Roger was antique dealer and collector of wonderful folk art. Christies sold some of his collection in 2009, here:

  10. July 1, 2014

    The Warner family lived in Stoke Newington (Sanford Place) before Highbury, and continued to be members of Stoke Newington Quaker meeting, which in the 19th century was the biggest meeting in London and rather grand. The Bedford Institute in Spitalfields was started by William Beck and some other Stoke Newington Quakers.

  11. Sila Collins-Walden permalink
    October 25, 2014

    This is truly a fascinating story! Being a Quaker myself I am very interested in their history. It’s amazing how much I have discovered about Quakers just recently and the work they have been involved in over the centuries. I really must have this book when it comes out.

  12. Shirley permalink
    October 24, 2016

    Linzi (I don’t know if you are still looking at this page, but in case you are)..the little girl cannot be wearing the shoes in the photograph. I used a magnifier that came with my computer and one was indeed a shoe (along with shoelaces), but the other was just a cloth wrapped around her poor little foot. I am not a Quaker, but I am a person who cares deeply about the plight of children then and now.

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