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The Lives Of The Spitalfields Nippers

March 22, 2020
by the gentle author

This boy is wearing Horace Warner’s hat

I often think of the lives of the Spitalfields Nippers. Around 1900 Photographer and Sunday School Teacher Horace Warner took portraits of children in Quaker St, who were some of the poorest in London at that time. When his personal album of these astonishing photographs came to light five years ago, we researched the lives of his subjects and published a book of all his portraits accompanied by biographies of the children.

Although we were shocked to discover that as many as a third did not reach adulthood, we were also surprised and heartened by the wide range of outcomes among the others. In spite of the deprivation they endured in their early years, many of these children survived to have long and fulfilled lives.

Walter Seabrook was born on 23rd May 1890 to William and Elizabeth Seabrook of Custance St, Hoxton. In 1901, when Walter’s portrait was taken by Horace Warner, the family were living at 24 & 1/2 Great Pearl St, Spitalfields, and Walter’s father worked as a printer’s labourer. At twenty-four years old, Walter was conscripted and fought in World War One but survived to marry Alice Noon on Christmas Day 1918 at St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green. By occupation, Walter was an electrician and lived at 2 Princes Court, Gibraltar Walk. He and Alice had three children – Walter born in 1919, Alice born in 1922 and Gladys born in 1924. Walter senior died in Ware, Hertfordshire, in 1971, aged eighty-one.

Sisters Wakefield

Jessica & Rosalie Wakefield. Jessica was born in Camden on January 16th 1891 and Rosalie at 47 Hamilton Buildings, Great Eastern St, Shoreditch on July 4th 1895. They were the second and last of four children born to William, a printer’s assistant, and Alice, a housewife. It seems likely they were living in Great Eastern St at the time Horace Warner photographed them, when Jessica was ten or eleven and Rosalie was five or six.

Jessica married Stanley Taylor in 1915 and they lived in Wandsworth, where she died in 1985, aged ninety-four. On July 31st 1918 at the age of twenty-three, Rosalie married Ewart Osborne, a typewriter dealer, who was also twenty-three years old, at St Mary, Balham. After five years of marriage, they had a son named Robert, in 1923, but Ewart left her and she was reported as being deaf. Eventually the couple divorced in 1927 and both married again. Rosalie died aged eighty-four in 1979, six years before her elder sister Jessica, in Waltham Forest.

Jerry Donovan, or ‘Dick Whittington & His Cat’

Jeremiah Donovan was born in 1895 in the City of London. His parents Daniel, news vendor, and Katherine Donovan originated in Ireland. They came to England and settled in Spitalfields at 14 Little Pearl St, Spitalfields. By 1901, the family were resident at Elizabeth Buildings, Boleyn Rd. Jeremiah 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, looked after the horses for the gun carriages, but was gassed in France. In 1919, Jeremiah married Susan Nichols and they had one son, Bertram John Donovan, born in 1920. He died in Dalston in 1956 and is remembered by nine great grandchildren.

Adelaide Springett in all her best clothes

Adelaide Springett was born in February 1893 in the parish of St George-in-the-East, Wapping. Her father, William Springett came from Marylebone and her mother Margaret from St Lukes, Old St. Both parents were costermongers, although William was a dock labourer when he first married. Adelaide’s twin sisters, Ellen and Margaret, died at birth and another sister, Susannah, died aged four. Adelaide attended St Mary’s School and then St Joseph’s School. The addresses on her school admissions were 12 Miller’s Court, Dorset St, and then 26 Dorset St. In 1901, at eight years old, she was recorded as lodging with her mother at the Salvation Army Shelter in Hanbury St.

Adelaide Springett died in 1986 in Fulham aged ninety-three, without any traceable relatives, and the London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Social Services Department was her executor.

Celia Compton was born in 11 Johnson St, Mile End, on April 28th 1886, to Charles – a wood chopper – and Mary Compton. Celia was one of nine children but only six survived into adulthood. Two elder brothers Charles, born in 1883, and William, born in 1884, both died without reaching their first birthdays, leaving Celia as the eldest. On January 25th 1904, she married George Hayday, a chairmaker who was ten years older than her. They lived at 5 George St, Hoxton, and had no children. After he died in 1933, she married Henry Wood the next year and they lived in George Sq until it was demolished in 1949. In later years, Celia became a moneylender and she died in Poplar in 1966 aged eighty years old.

Click here to order SPITALFIELDS NIPPERS by Horace Warner for £20

15 Responses leave one →
  1. March 22, 2020

    Another book from your press that I would like to buy. I am old enough to remember old folk calling children ‘nippers’ when I was a child.

  2. Regina McAlavey permalink
    March 22, 2020

    Wonderful pictures!

  3. March 22, 2020

    Adelaide was my great aunt.

  4. March 22, 2020

    A contrast to the staged portraits of yesterday’s blog.
    I would recommend the book which was bought for me as present, it’s one that I read and dip into over and over again.
    A poignant and timely reminder that even in dire circumstances, some folk can survive bleak adversities and setbacks in life……..sadly some don’t.

  5. March 22, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, Spitalfields Nippers is such a poignant album of children’s real lives at the turn of the century in East London. Obviously, they lacked soap and water to which most of our poorest have access in today’s world. To me the saddest is shoeless “Adelaide Springett in all her best clothes.”

    I was happy to read that so many of them survived and led productive lives. Great research.

  6. Richard Smith permalink
    March 22, 2020

    Hello GA, all of your posts are enjoyable and I look forward to them each day. Today however the post is exceptional and I have read and reread the lives of the children. These are difficult times and many people are worried and frightened. I think we can learn from the experience of these folk who endured hardship and setbacks to carve out a life for themselves. Take care and stay safe.

  7. Saba permalink
    March 22, 2020

    Hello John Curno, This is extraordinary! Would you be willing to share more about your relative?

    Why do I want to know? Just human interest, I suppose, and a desire for someone who grew up so poor to find comfort later in life.

  8. Linda Granfield permalink
    March 22, 2020

    Please, John Curno, let us know that Adelaide experienced some joy during her long life?
    Such intense sadness in her story here.

  9. Peter Metaxas permalink
    March 23, 2020

    These photos touch me deeply.
    The happy part is that some lived very long lives and had families and careers.
    I still, but not often, use the term ‘nipper’ .

  10. March 23, 2020

    These Pictures are So Wonderful!!! I hope the had Happy Lives!!!????✌??

  11. Jenny Moore permalink
    March 23, 2020

    Another here who’d like to know more about Adelaide – her picture made me well up (which admittedly doesn’t take much at the moment, but still…I’d like to feel she had some happiness in her life).

  12. March 23, 2020

    She was my mothers aunt, (fathers side). I think the best way to give you the story of her life, what’s known of it, is to refer you to the website ‘Rootschat’. It’s a free site to help people researching their family history. Just register and enter Adelaide Springett into the search window. It traces the story of how she became known and the efforts to trace her life. It contains much speculation and theorising but if you look at the contributor Ionicus – that’s me, you can read the few records that shed light on her early life. To attempt to write it up here would not be possible in the space available.
    Sad to say, she knew much grief in her long life. Her mother lost 3 children, 2 at birth and a 3 year old, all inside three months. Mother died of alcoholism aged 47, father vanished, (no record of him dying), her brother died aged 38, her ‘husband’ committed suicide aged 69. Only her brothers daughter survived,(my Mum). Her early life was spent in service and she lived as a ‘common law’ wife from about 40 onwards. Dying at age 96 in a nursing home and I never knew she existed at the time.

  13. Sol Fisher permalink
    March 24, 2020

    I love the photos and stories of these children!
    Every time I enter your neighborhood through your site I feel enriched!
    Spitalfields is at the top of my travel wish list!

    Thank you and…
    Kind regards from Wisconsin,

  14. Steve Shinners permalink
    January 5, 2021

    Fabulous stories and pictures . I read John Curno’s words on
    Adelaide Springett, his mothers aunt and his great aunt ( johns mothers father -his grandad , was the brother of Adelaide Springett) and found it so interesting and moving . It makes you think of what times she lived in and what harsh realities she faced every day.

  15. Johnny Doherty permalink
    June 2, 2023

    When will this fantastic book become available?

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