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A Photograph of Jeremiah Donovan

November 20, 2019
by the gentle author

Even five years after I published Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers, new stories continue to appear about the subjects of these astonishing portraits taken in Quaker St around 1900

Jerry Donovan or ‘Dick Whittington & His Cat’

JEREMIAH DONOVAN was born in 1895 in the City of London. His parents Daniel, a news vendor, and Katherine Donovan lived at 14 Little Pearl St, Spitalfields. By 1901, the family were resident at Elizabeth Buildings, Boleyn Rd. In 1919, Jeremiah married Susan Nichols and they had one son, Bertram John Donovan, born in 1920.

I have always admired Horace Warner’s portrait of Jeremiah Donovan, not least because I know how hard it is to get a cat to look into the lens and it must have been especially difficult with a long exposure.

When we researched the lives of the Spitalfields Nippers, we were surprised by the range of outcomes. In spite of their modest beginnings, you could not generalise about their adult lives. We could not help becoming emotionally invested in their stories and were overjoyed when new facts came to light or living relatives got in touch. The brief biography above is all that we managed to discover about Jeremiah Donovan at that time.

You can imagine my delight when his granddaughter, Irene, contacted me recently with fond memories of Jeremiah – who she remembered as a quiet man. She was only thirteen he died and had never seen Horace Warner’s photograph until now. Sometimes people speculate whether Jeremiah was blind but she was able to dispel this notion, both he and his cat were simply photographed wincing into the sun.

There is a poignant quality to an account of an adult life when read while studying a picture of the child. Horace Warner’s portrait is a precious photograph because it is a rare piece of historical evidence of the Irish in the East End.

My response to Irene’s story is one of relief that Jeremiah Donovan lived until 1956 and died at the age of sixty-one – since around a third of the children in Horace Warner’s photographs did not reach adulthood. How fortunate he was to survive World War I and return and have a family.

Once you know the biography, his photograph becomes curiously emblematic. Jeremiah’s affinity with animals and his weak chest were to stay with him throughout his life

What I love about the stories of the Spitalfields Nippers is that they bridge the remote world of nineteenth century Spitalfields with our own present day.

JEREMIAH DONOVAN, my grandfather, by Irene Dean (Donovan)

‘His parents Daniel and Kathleen originated in Ireland, they came to England and settled in Spitalfields. He had two sisters, Kathleen and Bridget, and a brother, James, known as ‘Jimmy.’ He could have had more siblings but I do not recall any others being mentioned.

Jerry volunteered for World War I in 1914 when he was nineteen and was stationed at first at City of London Barracks in Moorgate. He joined the Royal Artillery and was gassed in France. As I child, I remember he always suffered with his chest.

The only photograph I ever recall seeing of him was as a very young man in his pill box hat and uniform with braid across the front. He told me that he looked after the horses for the gun carriages. After the war, I believe he worked in a cigarette factory on Kingsland Rd.

In the twenties, he lived with my grandmother – who I never met until after he died – in Kenning Terrace near Hoxton Market. The reason I did not meet her – Susan but known to us as ‘Betty’ until later was that she left Jerry when my dad was six years old and he was fostered by another family during the week while Jerry was at work.

My dad did not like the name of Bertram and was always known as ‘Jack.’ He was  born in Kenning Terrace in 1920. My mum was also born in Hoxton in 1920 and they grew up together. She came from a family of eleven and my dad was best friends with her brother Joe, so he was always at her house.

My grandad was very good to my mum during World War II when my dad was away in the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy. He made sure that my mum and I had what we needed if he could, so I grew up very close to him in place of my father.

My first memories are from when I was five, staying with my grandfather for weekends when he lived in Cowper Rd, Stoke Newington. Later I visited him in Boleyn Rd with my mother and sister, but by then he was very sick man – almost bed-bound.

At this funeral in 1956, there was only my dad, mum and me, together with his partner of many years, Emma – who disappeared days after the funeral and was never heard of again.

I think Jerry would be proud to know, after only having one child, that he has nine great-grandchildren who all doing well and flourishing. Many of whom have graduated from university.”

Click here to buy a copy of Spitalfields Nippers for £20

You may also like to read about

An Astonishing Photographic Discovery

In Search of Horace Warner

Upon the Subject of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers

An Old Tin Badge

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    November 20, 2019

    You have warmed my heart, even though my toes still tingle with the November cold.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 20, 2019

    Yes – a lovely heart warming story – thank you GA and Irene!

  3. Lesley permalink
    November 20, 2019

    How lovely!

  4. November 20, 2019

    What an incredible picture. The cat sits on a small rug. The photographer Horace Warner focused on the cat more than on Jerry…

  5. Laura Williamson permalink
    November 20, 2019

    Wonderful pictures of little Jeremiah. It is amazing how you “root” for these kids, who Horace Warner captured as vibrant and full of life. The fact so many didn’t make it to adulthood is terrible.

    Thank you Irene for your memories.

  6. November 20, 2019

    A lovely, heartwarming story about Jeremiah, thank you Irene.
    So good to know that this Spitalfields Nipper survived and has great grandchildren who keep his memory alive.

  7. November 21, 2019

    So pleased to hear of his life. In many ways it echoed the lives of both my grandfathers, born about the same time. One gassed in the first world war and, like him, left with a weak chest for the rest of his life. The other also looked after the horses who pulled gun carriages. The fact that Jeremiah survived and thrived is a testament to a great spirit. And the cat is good too.

  8. November 21, 2019

    A lovely post. Am fascinated by the scarf, suggesting he had a bad cold or weak chest at the time. Or perhaps just being careful as scarlet fever or whooping cough may have been doing the rounds a the time.
    Or maybe a treasured gift he wanted to wear for the photograph

  9. May 2, 2022

    Just to clarify my Dad’s name, he was known by his second name, John, not Jack. Thank you for all the lovely comments.

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